IOTO, Japan - In a rare visit to Iwo Jima, Japan's prime minister offered prayers Tuesday at two recently discovered mass graves and vowed to find the more than 12,000 fallen soldiers whose bodies have yet to be recovered from the remote island where some of World War II's fiercest fighting took place.
Kneeling in a deep pit with dozens of remains spread out before him, Naoto Kan clasped his hands in prayer and then helped searchers exhume a badly decayed set of bones swathed in a faded green body bag. Workers said it was one of more than 20 found on Tuesday alone.
"We will examine every grain of sand," Kan said. "It is hard to imagine from the beauty of the island today what happened here 65 years ago."
Kan said that he had wanted to visit the island since the discovery in August of the mass graves.
Now known in Japan as Ioto - that was what the island was called by residents before the war - Iwo Jima was the site of one of the most fateful and iconic battles in the Pacific.
For many Americans, an Associated Press photo of U.S. Marines and a Navy corpsman raising the flag atop Mount Suribachi has become one of the enduring symbols of the war, and of American sacrifice and bravery. More Medals of Honor - 27, including nearly a third of all given to Marines during World War II - were awarded for valor on Iwo Jima than any other single campaign.
In Japan, however, Iwo Jima is seen by most as just one of many bloody defeats.
It has been generally ignored since the war, has been left largely untouched, and is now uninhabited except for a few hundred troops at a small Japanese military outpost. Kan is only the second prime minister to visit the island. Junichiro Koizumi was the first, five years ago.
But Kan's government, inspired in part by the success in Japan of the 2006 Clint Eastwood movie Letters From Iwo Jima and concerned that time is running out, has made a strong effort to bring closure on Iwo Jima by stepping up the civilian-run mission to recover all of the Japanese dead.
That project began in July and took a big step forward in October, when two mass graves that may hold the remains of more than 2,000 Japanese soldiers were discovered by search teams.
Working from documents provided by the U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, the Japanese teams found sites listed as "enemy cemeteries" near a runway at the military outpost and at the foot of Suribachi.
"Many troops will be returning home now that these mass graves have been found," said lawmaker Yoshitaka Shindo, whose grandfather was commanding officer of Japanese troops on Iwo Jima. "I prayed they will rest in peace. But Ioto's battle is not over until all of the bodies are recovered."
Yukihiko Akutsu, a special adviser to the prime minister who heads the search mission, said that the main site was estimated to have 2,000 bodies. Digging was completed this week at the Suribachi site, with 152 remains found. The full excavation effort was expected to take several more months, but Akutsu said that the teams had already found more than 300 remains in the two areas.
Akutsu said the government would notify Washington if any American remains were exhumed.