Group seeks Buddhist statues from 'Saipan' pilgrimage

The Yomiuri Shimbun, June 25, 2005

Saipan, Japan -- The hunt is on for 79 stone Buddhist statues taken by Japanese emigrants 70 years ago to Saipan, where the Emperor and Empress are scheduled to visit from Monday.

The South Pacific island was the scene of some of World War II's bloodiest fighting after U.S. forces landed on June 15, 1944, on the island, which was held by Japanese forces at the time. The statues went missing after the fighting erupted.

Eighty-eight stone Buddha statues and a statue of Kobo Daishi (744-835) were placed on the path up Mt. Tapochau on the island.

The statues, which were made in Japan, were taken to Saipan in 1935 at the request of about 130 Japanese emigrants, who came mainly from Shikoku. The statues were held in warm regard among the emigrants as "the 88 sacred places in Saipan," reminding them of the 88 sacred temples of the Shikoku pilgrimage.

Nine statues already have been recovered.

"To find the missing statues is a symbolic act of peace. I hope many of the statues will be found," one of the former emigrants to Saipan said.

Hiroshi Nakajima, 74, executive director of the Tokyo-based Pacific Society, heard about the missing statues and asked former Saipan residents in 2003 for any information that could provide clues on what happened to the statues.

Sachiko Adachi, 52, who teaches Japanese at a university and high school in Saipan, asked local residents for help after hearing about Nakajima's search. As a result, nine statues were found in private houses and museums.