CHATAN, Okinawa — They are long dead, but not forgotten.

The skulls and bones of several Japanese soldiers and civilians who died in the Battle of Saipan during World War II are stirring up memories and controversy on both sides of the Pacific.

After an Aug. 16 story in the San Francisco Chronicle revealed that the skeletal remains are housed in a vault at the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology on the University of California, Berkeley campus, descendants of Japanese families who lived on Saipan during the war are demanding the remains be returned and properly buried.

The bones, removed from Saipan by a Navy doctor after the battle and kept in his private collection until he donated them to the museum in 1974, were used in researching osteology — the study of bones.

University officials have sent letters to Japanese authorities offering to return the bones, and queried the Defense Department for legal advice on whether they were improperly obtained, the Chronicle reported Friday.

University spokesman Dan Mogulof told the newspaper the letters will not be made public until Japanese and U.S. military officials respond.

"We have just begun to review the issue to determine how the government should respond to the situation," a spokesman for the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare, which oversees war dead and war victims’ affairs, told Stars and Stripes on Friday.

A spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., told the Chronicle she has made inquiries to the Defense Department, which is researching the issue to determine whether the bones were taken illegally and what should be done with them.

Experts in international law claim the United States is violating the Geneva Conventions by allowing the museum to possess and perform scientific research on the skeletons, which should have been treated as war dead. International laws and U.S. military regulations call for the honorable treatment of war victims.

Meanwhile, the Japanese community on Saipan and battle survivors now living on Okinawa expressed shock at the situation.

"If they are remains of Japanese, they should be returned to Japan, where they rightfully belong," said Ayako Matsumoto during a telephone interview Wednesday from her office in Saipan. "Because the university has had them for such a long time, any research should have long [been] done."

Matsumoto, originally from Hyogo prefecture and a resident of Saipan for 20 years, owns a trading company with her husband. The couple also volunteers to care for war memorials scattered across the island.

She said that there are still many bones that remain uncollected on the island.

"It just breaks my heart when I think how much they must have longed to go back to their homeland," she said of the remains stored at the university.

Zenichi Taira, 79, chairman of the Okinawan Association of Returnees from Saipan, said he was amazed to learn that the WWII-era bones are in the U.S.

"After the war, when all Japanese survivors departed the island, there was a strict order by U.S. military that we could not take remains with us," he said during a phone interview Thursday. Some remains left behind were cremated a few years afterward when Japanese groups were allowed to return to the island.

"Ashes were taken back to Japan and they are now kept at Chidorigafuchi National Cemetery in Tokyo," he said.

The cemetery, established by the Japanese government, houses the remains of 352,297 unidentified Japanese who died overseas during World War II.

On Saipan, an estimated 40,000 Japanese soldiers and 12,000 civilians died in the battle, many of them by jumping off a cliff to avoid the humiliation of surrendering, said Taira, who was a 15-year-old student at the time. After the battle he spent a year and half in a refugee camp set up by the U.S. military in the northern part of the island, he said.

"I hope that the bones in Berkeley will be returned to Japan so that they can rest in peace, joining with their fellow victims at Chidorigafuchi," Taira said. "I do not understand why they have to have been humiliated like that as subject of research for such a long time. It certainly lacks respect to the dead."

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