FBI Repatriates Items Taken From Okinawa During the Second World War

Photo Credit: FBI / News Release
Photo Credit: FBI / News Release

The FBI, with help from the Smithsonian Institution and the Department of Defense, has returned several artifacts to Japan after they were discovered in the belongings of a deceased veteran. The items, dating back to between the 18th and 19th centuries, were reportedly looted from Okinawa in the final days of the Second World War.

Piece of historic pottery placed on a table with a measuring device
Photo Credit: FBI / News Release

The investigation into the artifacts began in January 2023, when Special Agent Geoffrey J. Kelly of the FBI‘s Boston Field Office received a tip from the family of a veteran who’d served in World War II. The man’s relatives, who requested that their identities remain private, were clearing out his belongings following his death when they came across “some unique items,” which piqued their interest. The reason: he’d never served in the Pacific Theater.

The investigation that followed resulted in 22 Japanese artifacts being recovered:

  • A hand-drawn map of Okinawa that dates back to the 19th century
  • Six painted scrolls from between the 18th and 19th centuries, three of which are believed to belong to the same piece
  • Various pieces of ceramics and pottery

A typewritten note was also recovered that confirmed the items were looted during the finals days of the Second World War. In 2001, the Prefectural Board of Education in Japan had registered them as missing with the National Stolen Art File, along with other valuables dating back to the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879).

In a statement issued by the FBI, Kelly explained, “They came across some what appeared to be very valuable Asian art. There were some scrolls, there were some pottery pieces, there was an ancient map. They looked old and valuable. And because of this, they did a little research and they determined that at least the scrolls had been entered about 20 years ago in the FBI’s National Stolen Art File.”

Scroll featuring an illustration of people dressed in historic Japanese clothing
Photo Credit: FBI / News Release

The artifacts were moved from Massachusetts to the National Museum of Asian Art at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, where they were examined and prepared for transport back to Japan.

The US Army Civil Affairs & Psychological Operations Command (Airborne) 38 G Monuments Men and Women and Col. Scott DeJesse then led the repatriation of the items, with the assistance of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the FBI’s legal attaché office in Tokyo.

A formal repatriation ceremony is slated to be held in Japan at a later date.

Hand-drawn map of Okinawa
Photo Credit: FBI / News Release

“A nation’s cultural identity is really summed up in the artifacts and the history,” Kelly explained. “This is what makes a culture. And without it, you’re taking away their history. And the surest way to eliminate a culture is to eliminate their past. And so, it’s really important for us as stewards of artifacts and cultural patrimony to make every effort that we can to see that these go back to the civilizations and the cultures in the countries where they belong.”

He added, “I think one of the biggest takeaways from this entire investigation is the fact that in this case, the family did the right thing. They had some questioned artifacts that they thought might not belong here in this country. They checked the National Stolen Art File. And when they realized that they may have been looted cultural property, they did what they should have done, which is call the FBI. And we’re very grateful for them for all the assistance they gave us.”

Gloved hand holding a bowl next to a measuring device
Photo Credit: FBI / News Release

More from us: Tom Hanks to Host World War II Docuseries for History Channel

According to the FBI, the Art Crime Program has aided in the recovery of over 20,000 items valued at more than $900 million since its inception.

Clare Fitzgerald

Clare Fitzgerald is a Writer and Editor with eight years of experience in the online content sphere. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts from King’s University College at Western University, her portfolio includes coverage of digital media, current affairs, history and true crime.

Among her accomplishments are being the Founder of the true crime blog, Stories of the Unsolved, which garners between 400,000 and 500,000 views annually, and a contributor for John Lordan’s Seriously Mysterious podcast. Prior to its hiatus, she also served as the Head of Content for UK YouTube publication, TenEighty Magazine.

In her spare time, Clare likes to play Pokemon GO and re-watch Heartland over and over (and over) again. She’ll also rave about her three Maltese dogs whenever she gets the chance.

Writing Portfolio
Stories of the Unsolved