- The large number of mysterious “ghost ships” arriving on Japan’s shores raises questions about what to do with the bodies found on board.
- Thought to be North Korean fishermen, the bodies are often cremated and kept at shrines.
- However, some cities want to send the remains back to North Korea, which is made more difficult by the lack of diplomatic relations between the two countries.
Nearly 90 boats, suspected to have come from North Korea, have gone adrift this year and Japan is struggling with what to do with the bodies of those found on board.
The so called “ghost ships” are thought to be North Korean fishing boats and have been drifting ashore in Japan for years. This year, 89 boats washed ashore and, since 2013, 345 mysterious boats have found their way to Japan.
And while Japanese officials are not willing to confirm how many bodies have been discovered on the boats – because of unspecified “diplomatic repercussions” – there would easily be dozens of retrieved bodies that need to go somewhere.
In the past, boats have been dismantled and bodies cremated before being sent to shrines, but these processes bear significant costs.
The Japan Times reported this week that the local government in Oga, hopes to eventually be able to return the cremains of eight bodies it cremated to their families. The government kept fingernails and toenails from each of the bodies, that were all found on adrift boats since November, so as to be able to identify each of them by DNA in the future.
The bodies are being kept indefinitely in eight plain white boxes on a table at the back of a Zen temple, according to The New York Times. If they are never claimed they will eventually be buried in a “grave for unknown souls.”
Japan Times reported North Korea has lodged a request for several of the cremains in Oga.
Another government in Tsuruoka, south of Oga, has cremated five bodies found on its beaches in December. Cremains from two of those bodies have also been kept alongside badges of the late North Korean leader Kim Il Sung that were on the bodies when they were discovered.
The situation is made harder because Japan and North Korea don’t have diplomatic relations
Like many countries, Japan does not have diplomatic relations with North Korea. What they do have is a contentious history. North Korea previously admitted to kidnapping Japanese nationals from beachside towns decades ago, and many of North Korea’s recent missile tests have landed in the Sea of Japan.
Earlier this year, South Korea’s newspaper Chosun Ilbo reported many of the fishermen’s remains who arrive in Japan on ghost ships are not returned to North Korea because North Korea won’t pay for their repatriation.
Japan charges two to three million yen ($US17,000 to $US26,000) to cover the costs of destroying the boats and cremating bodies.
While the two countries don’t officially communicate, they both have local Red Cross organisations that have coordinated discussions on several occassions.
An official told Japan Times “all we can do is wait for contact from the Japanese Red Cross or others” because of the lack of diplomatic channels.
The North Korean Red Cross has requested the return of some fishermen in the past (Japanese officials reportedly don’t actually expect North Korea to pay the fees), and the Japanese Red Cross Society passed on a request from North Korea to return the cremains of the eight bodies in Oga on December 6.
It is not clear if the ashes have yet been sent back to North Korea. If they haven’t, they will still be under the care of temple priest Ryosen Kojima.
“They are humans just like us,” Kojima told The Times. “But they have no one to look after their ashes.”
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