Written by Burl on July 25th, 2011

A human skull was discovered in Pearl Harbor by dredgers in April. The Navy kept the discovery quiet until last week, passing on the find to the JPAC Central Identification Lab, which, by luck, is located at Hickam Air Force Base next door. Speculation has exploded that the skull belongs a Japanese casualty of the attack.
Skull finds are always interesting. Here in Hawaii, anything found to be human has increased sensitivity due to traditional Hawaiian concerns about the iwi, or bone remains. Japanese Shinto believers, such as many of the Imperial Navy’s pilots, also have a great deal of reverence for the remains of those fallen in battle. Those of European descent are much less bone-smitten, finding the bones to be primarily of scientific curiosity rather than religious value.
Skulls are relatively fragile items. We have no idea of the condition the skull is in, whether it included the mandible or other in situ items, or even where in Pearl Harbor it was discovered. Forensic anthropologists can age, race and sex bones in a matter of minutes. For example, the forehead boss on a skull — the thickness of the cranial shell in the forehead area — is a bit thicker on folks of Asian heritage. (This is why Asians are sometimes called “flat-faced,” as their foreheads don’t slope back as much as Europeans. Negroid peoples have a slightly thicker skull at the back of the head, in the occiput, giving the head a bit rounder look.) This is all very general, but it’s the second thing physical anthropologists or forensic pathologists look for. The first thing is dentition. Does the skull have any dental work? If so, that means it’s relatively modern, and the type of dental work will not only indicate the era, but likely the country of origin as well.
I’m going off on this because “journalist” Malia Zimmerman states flatly in one of her postings that the skull likely belongs to Japanese pilot Fusata Iida. She gives no reasoning behind this, except to refer to Iida as a “notorious kamikaze pilot.” (The headline has since been changed to call him simply a “Japanese pilot,” but the link wording remains.) This is conflative reasoning of the highest order.
For one thing, to become notorious, you need to build a rep by doing things more than once.
For two things, the kamikaze concept wasn’t hatched until the fall of 1944, three years after the Pearl Harbor attack. (A6M2 Zero pilots hitting Hawaii were ordered not to let their planes fall into enemy hands under any circumstances, which including deliberately crashing your plane and yourself with it if you were unable to recover from battle damage. But that’s not how kamikazes worked.)
For three things, of all the 55 Imperial Navy deaths recorded during the Pearl Harbor attack, none is better known than that of Fusata Iida. Hit while strafing Naval Air Station Kaneohe, he crashed on the ramp. He was given a burial with full military honors by the Americans, and after the war, his remains were returned to Japan. Presumably with his head attached.
NAS Kaneohe is more than 10 miles from Pearl Harbor. Pretty Good trick.
There ARE missing Japanese remains from the Dec. 7 attack. Some stricken planes were downed in the harbor. There’s also a missing “midget” submarine. But there are also hundreds of American casualties at the bottom of the harbor still. And there’s always the grim possibility that the skull, if it really is Japanese, was a souvenir from the horrific fighting in the Pacific War, and simply disposed of by dropping it into the harbor after the war.
Anything’s possible. Well, not anything. The skull is not Iida’s. For a writer to claim that it is is the height of historical irresponsibility. It’s called checking your sources. Facts are not slippery, nor subject to interpretation.


4 Comments so far ↓

  1. gigi-hawaii says:

    Your post is very interesting, Burl. Thanks for that. Asians’ flat foreheads, haoles’ slanted foreheads, and blacks’ rounded backheads — good observation. And, yet, how did this happen? After all, don’t we all have a common ancestor: the ape?

    What did the Italians do with the skeletons in the Catacombs? Were they revered, too?

  2. Burl says:

    No, apes evolved along with humans. That’s the way evolution works.

    It’s not an observation of mine about skull shape! I majored in forensic anthropology in college, and bone ID was critical.

    I have since talked to some folks out at Pearl, and they say that the skull was “obviously Asian” to the scientists at JPAC.

  3. John Martini says:

    Nice summary, Burl. When I first read the story about the skull’s discovery (not Zimmerman’s fantasy piece) I had the same suspicion — given the unrecovered war dead in Pearl Harbor, why would the skull have to be a Japanese pilot?

    I sensed some over-eager speculation going on.

    Still leaning towards the war trophy theory.

  4. Mutt says:

    As someone with a degree and a half in anthropology, specializing in physical anthro/primate evolution, let me just add this: We didn’t just evolve *from* apes — we *are* apes, in the Linnaean taxonomy, which is how people and critters are classified (mammalian, primate, etc.).
    And Malia Zimmerman is a nice woman, but she’s certainly no journalist, so thank you for putting it in quote marks, Burl. (“Citizen journalist” is equal to “leprechaun” in the real world.)

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