Wednesday, August 26, 2009

U.S., Japanese governments investigate origins of museum bones - Inside Bay Area

A collection of human bones stored at UC Berkeley that could be those of Japanese soldiers who committed suicide on Saipan during the American invasion of 1944 is being investigated by U.S. and Japanese authorities, a university official said Wednesday.

The school is "engaged in careful and complicated discussions" to see if there is some way to get better information on the remains, the official said.

That information could solve legal questions over the bones and raise repatriation issues.The bones were donated 35 years ago to the Phoebe A. Hearst Museum of Anthropology by a U.S. Navy physician.

Dr. Max Childress, who was a lieutenant commander in the Navy on Saipan, collected the bones in 1945. He has since died.Issues surrounding the bones and whether their collection violated the Geneva Conventions on war mysteriously sprang to life about a year ago when someone sent letters to the U.S. Department of Defense, the Japanese government and the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo that commemorates Japanese war dead.The letters told of the existence of the remains and offered to give them back, UC Berkeley spokesman Dan Mogulof said."That was an unauthorized communication from a current or former employee of the museum to the shrine and other government agencies," he said.The school then received letters from the shrine saying "at this shrine, we pray to the spirits of the war dead. We therefore have no human The bones, including two skulls, four jaw bones, four ribs, one partial skull and others, were collected in hospitals on the island and other parts of Saipan, Mogulof said. Testing of DNA samples from descendants of those who were on Saipan during the American invasion is one way the university could find more information about them, but the official did not know if that is part of the discussions between the two governments.If the bones eventually are determined to be of those who were in the Japanese military, the university will have a better idea whether it has been in violation of any aspect of the Geneva Conventions, which establishes rules for the treatment of prisoners of war, the sick wounded or dead.Until now, lawyers for the school have said it is impossible to say whether the school has been in violation of the law because it is unknown if the bones are of military personnel or not. Mogulof said that since the bones have so little documentation with them, the school cannot be certain they are indeed those of Japanese soldiers who committed suicide there during the American invasion.

"In normal circumstances, what is written on the catalog card is substantiated by source documents, but we don't have those source documents," Mogulof said. "All we know is that they appear to be of East Asian origin."A U.S. Navy spokesman said there is too little information on the bones at the moment to make a determination of their origin."From our inquiries with Cal, we can't confirm that they are from Saipan or if they are Japanese military personnel," U.S. Navy Lt. Commander John Daniels said.Daniels said the Navy looked into the matter because the bones were donated by a Navy officer. Childress also lived in Vietnam and Indonesia following World War II.A spokesman at the Japanese Embassy in Washington said the Japanese government was aware of the situation, but it has not made any official response.

Documentation provided by UC Berkeley show that the bones were picked up by a museum staffer from Childress in San Francisco with the description stating that they were "1 box of assorted skulls and post-cranial bone, the unmarked specimens were collected on Saipan in 1945. The marked bones are from various hospitals Dr. Childress worked in." A letter from a staff member to Childress in 1974 said, "Thank you so much for your donation of the skeletal specimens you obtained on Saipan. The skulls will be very useful in the Physical Anthropology laboratory as teaching specimens."UC Berkeley stopped taking donations of bones 20 years ago, although the bones are still important in teaching, Mogulof said.

Bones at the museum are nothing new. It houses the remains of about 11,000 individuals, Mogulof said, from prehistoric California, Peru, Egypt and other areas.<"The answer to why we accepted the (Saipan) bones can be provided only by people who are dead or no longer work here," he said. "We can't simply box them up and send them some place absent knowledge of somebody or some entity that wants them, is ready to accept them and has a legitimate claim to repatriate them without the substantiating information required to return them and the circumstances as to why they died.

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