For the first time, the remains of a Japanese soldier who died while a prisoner of war in Australia have been recovered for repatriation.
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12 Sep 2015 - 1:37 PM  UPDATED 13 Sep 2015 - 10:04 AM

In the shade of gumtrees and cherry blossoms lies Cowra's Japanese War Cemetery. Meticulously kept, hundreds visit the site each year.

Yasuko Hayashi has flown from Tokyo to pay her respects to her uncle, Michiaki Wakaomi. Dressed in black and clutching Buddhist prayer beads, she along with her husband and nephew has come to recover her relative’s ashes.

As a soldier in the Imperial Japanese Army, Mr Wakaomi fought in New Guinea before he was captured. He became one of more than 2000 Japanese soldiers interned across Australia during World War II. He died a POW in 1945 after spending time in a Victorian camp.

In 1964, a decision was made to rebury the prisoners of war and other civilian prisoners from all across Australia in Cowra. The small country town is well known for the breakout, when hundreds of Japanese prisoners staged a deadly escape in August 1944.

Those soldiers are buried on the other side of the cemetery to Mr Wakaomi. His family were told two years ago his final resting place was in Cowra. Since then they’ve been engaged in high level diplomatic negotiations to try and repatriate him.

“Our faith plays quite an important role in this,” Mr Wakaomi’s grand-nephew Hiromichi Wakaomi told SBS.

“The Japanese feel the remains of the dead should come back to the family.”

Cowra City Council granted the request for an excavation to take place. 

But it proves a more difficult task than originally expected.

“We know that Mr Wakaomi’s ashes were buried in this location but we don’t know exactly where in the grave plot his ashes were put,” said archaeologist Tony Lowe.

“We assume they were placed in a container, hopefully an urn, but it’s not clear.”

The excavation starts in the early morning. Shovels are used to shift the layers of earth, a pick axe to grind through clay and another axe to shift tree roots. Mr Wakaomi’s family peer over the edge of the grave, as a translator explains each step of the dig. But after several hours hope seems to fade.

The family, still on their feet, looking desperately into the grave don’t give up. Whether it was instinct or luck, they insist the team keep digging, just slightly to the left. Shortly after a piece of plastic is discovered. Mr Lowe keeps digging until the outlines of a timber box become clearer, inside lie the ashes of Mr Wakaomi.

“Ashes, ashes, that’s amazing,” said Mr Lowe as he carefully passes them up to the family.

Overwhelmed the family weep and pray, clutching onto one another. Eventually they use chopsticks to move a small amount of ashes into an urn, before they rebury the rest.

“After 70 years he can finally return home,” said Mr Wakaomi.

“As a family member and his descendant I’m really happy about that.”

It's an exercise that has helped one family, but not everyone is convinced. There is concern this could set a precedent for the hundreds of other soldiers buried in Cowra. 

“Council view this as a one off and have serious concerns if there was a continual flow on effect,”said Cowra Mayor Bill West.

For Mr Wakaomi’s family though, the relief is palpable.

“It’s just amazing, it’s beyond my wildest expectations,” said Mr Lowe.

The family is planning a special ceremony in Mr Wakaomi's home town of Nagano, where he will finally rest in peace in the family grave.