Bringing justice to the victims of Unit 731
Editor’s note: On Tuesday, the memorial day marking the Nanjing Massacre, which started in December 1937, China Daily looks at the work of Japanese lawyers, academics and journalists who are seeking redress for war crimes committed by their nation’s army during the occupation of China.
‘One hundred and one Chinese were used during the experiments, correct?” “No, no, not that many …” That was part of a conversation that took place in 1981 between Shiro Kasahara, a respected microbiologist from the Kitasato University Hospital and Research Unit in Japan, and Fuyuko Nishisato, a Japanese journalist acting as a translator for a reporter from Independent Television News in the United Kingdom.
The “experiments” involved human vivisection and were conducted more than seven decades ago when Kasahara was a member of Unit 731, the Japanese Imperial Army’s covert biological warfare research and development division. The unit was based at Pingfang on the outskirts of Harbin, Heilong jiang province, in Northeast China, which was part of a Japanese puppet state known as Manchukuo, in the area of Manchuria, between 1932 and 1945.
The number 101 was mentioned because it was the total number of subjects that appeared in several medical papers about epidemic hemorrhagic fever written by Kasahara and his colleagues in the 1940s. The disease, which is transmitted by ticks, was rampant among Japanese soldiers at the time, so they decided to use human guinea pigs in their attempts to find a remedy.
“In the late 1930s and early ’ 40s, an estimated 3,000 people, mostly men who had resisted the Japanese, were captured by the Kempeitai, the Japanese army’s version of the Gestapo. They were sent to Unit 731’s sprawling compound in Pingfang, where they became human guinea pigs in the research and development of biological weapons. Many were subjected to vivisection,” Nishisato said. “Reluctant to enter into any discussion about Manchuria, Kasahara was very defensive about the human experiments.”
Fuyuko Nishisato, the researcher, has often been confronted with wartime atrocities and those who committed them. “In 1981, we saw the publication of The Devil’s Gluttony by Japanese author Seiichi Morimura, a historical novel that exposed the crimes committed by Unit 731. The world was shocked and reacted by sending reporters to Japan. I was hired by a British television company to do research and coordination for their documentary film unit,” she recalled. “That was the beginning of three-and-half decades of research into Japan’s wartime crimes, during which I worked on a number of documentaries for major media outlets including the BBC, NBC and the History Channel.”
That research led her to Pingfang, where many people perished, and other parts of Harbin, Heilong jiang province, where victims’ families still live.
“Many families had no idea about the whereabouts of their loved ones until the 1990s, when crucial Kempeitai ‘special transfer’ files were disclosed by the provincial archives in Heilong jiang and Jilin— files that the defeated Japanese army had no time to destroy completely back in 1945,” said Nishisato, whose book Behind Bayonets and Barbed Wire: The Secrets of Japanese Army Unit 731 will be published in English and Chinese in March.
“During a trip in 2003, I met a woman called Zhu Yufen whose father and uncle were arrested by the Kempeitai and disappeared before she was born. Photos of her uncle were later discovered attached to the files. Since not one photo of Zhu’s father was left, she always carried her uncle’s photo because people who knew them as young men told her that they looked very much alike,” she said.
“Another woman I met, whose father was involved in the underground resistance and was later captured and killed in Pingfang, was very tense when she saw me and the other Japanese in our group. She cried as she told her story, and refused to have lunch with us.”
‘Doubt and distrust’
For Keiichiro Ichinose, a Japanese lawyer, “doubt and distrust” were the emotions he read in the eyes of the people who surrounded him during his first visit to Chongshan, a village in Zhejiang province, in 1997.
“In the early 1940s, the Japanese launched large-scale germ warfare in many parts of the provinces of Jiangxi and Zhejiang. Chongshan lost onethird of its population — about 400 people — to bubonic plague after the bacteria was spread by the Japanese,” he said. “The stories are painfully similar — people suddenly developed a high fever, struggled for hours or days, died miserably and then were buried, often hastily and secretly. Behind every tightly closed door was a suffering, helpless soul. The whole picture was hellish.”
As a teenager six decades ago, Ichinose listened to the stories recounted by his father, a Japanese army conscript who fought in China between 1942 and 1945. “He wanted me to know ‘the most impressive’ part of his life. And he did so while we were in the bath,” he said.
Ichinose has visited China nearly 100 times since 1995 to gather evidence and collect testimonies for court cases in which victims and their families sued the Japanese government for compensation for the use of germ warfare and indiscriminate bombing during the invasion of China.
Wang Xuan, a Chinese researcher and activist whose involvement in the lawsuits spans several decades, has stood beside Ichinose in court and in Chongshan. As a fluent speaker of Japanese she has translated for him during his meetings with victims.
“I have to say that at the beginning, Ichinose, like many of the Japanese lawyers who came to China to meet plaintiffs, was completely unaware of the mental impact his very presence had on the villagers. They (the Japanese) were just not always sensitive to the fact that they were ‘the descendants of the invaders’,” Wang said, making quote marks in the air.
“Consequently, they sometimes exuded a sense of selfrighteousness, coupled with the air of men who belonged to the highly educated social elite. All this was daunting for their interviewees; poor, bitter and illiterate, and victimized by the war all their lives,” she added. “A lot of communication and explanation was required before the layers of memory could be peeled away to reveal in detail what had happened more than seven decades ago.”
Wang, who often slept on the desk in Ichinose’s office while in Japan for court hearings, applauded her friend’s perseverance: “He is thorough and tireless in his research, and as a lawyer, he has set an example for Chinese academics who, regretfully, have never fully analyzed all the wartime records available to them.”
According to Wang, about 5,000 Japanese people are actively engaged in unearthing their country’s wartime history and seeking redress for victims across Asia. “They include lawyers, academics, journalists and teachers. Almost all of them are doing it free of charge,” she said. “Their commitment goaded me forward.”
As head of the plaintiffs’ group between 1997 and 2007, Wang was at the center of a compensation case that went all the way from a Tokyo district court to Japan’s Supreme Court. At its largest, the lawyers’ group for the plaintiffs numbered 224, all of them Japanese, with Ichinose as a core member. The group was led by Khoken Tsuchiya, a onetime chairman of the Japanese Bar Association.
“As far as I know, Tsuchiya was the first Japanese to say ‘No need to thank us’ to the victims,” Wang recalled. “His humility was deeply rooted.”
In December 1943, with defeat for Japan looming, 20-year-old Tsuchiya left high school and joined the Japanese Imperial Navy.
After receiving training in Lyushun, a port in Northeast China, he was dispatched to Chichijima, or “Father”, Island, 1,200 meters south of mainland Tokyo, where he endured hunger and constant US bombing until Aug 15, 1945, when Japan formally announced its surrender.
In his autobiography The Spirit of Lawyers, published in Japanese in 2008, the year before he died, Tsuchiya described the death of a fellow soldier. “A bullet shot through his mouth, punching holes in his head and helmet. His eyeballs popped out as blood spurted from his mouth … a chill rose from the bottom of my heart.”
Another incident that stayed with him was the execution of a US prisoner of war, 22-year-old Second Lieutenant Warren Earl Vaughn, by a fellow soldier and kendo practitioner. Days before the execution, Tsuchiya found time to talk with the marine, who was only a year older than himself, and on the night of Vaughn’s death, he intervened when two ravenous soldiers attempted to dig up the body and eat it. “I told them that he had died bravely, so they must let him rest in peace. The next day, I reported the incident to my superior, whose reaction was: ‘Why stop them?’ ” Tsuchiya recalled in his book.
“I grew up in an era when conscience was trampled. My own youth was wasted, while many more were cut short,” he wrote. “Looking back, I realize that silence in the face of evil is a sin.”
Between 1997 and his death at age 86, Tsuchiya, who was highly regarded by his peers, devoted himself to exposing Japan’s wartime crimes. His mission took him from Japan to China, where he interviewed witnesses, and to the US and Canada, where he spoke to audiences about the evils of war.
Wang frequently accompanied him. “He would offer to carry my heavy suitcases, something unusual among Japanese men. He was always a steady, fatherly figure,” she said. “While in China, he blended easily with the locals, eating and drinking at their homes. Yet he was always such a force in court; concise, powerful and irrefutable.”
According to Nishisato, Tsuchiya was not the only former Japanese combatant who came to hate the war they had once avidly fought for their country.
“In 1981, I interviewed Sueo Akimoto, a serologist who had worked at Unit 731 in Pingfang. He told me that Shiro Ishii — the unit’s commander and head of the Laboratory of Epidemic Prevention at the Army Medical College in Tokyo — convinced him that he could do ‘research’ in China. Akimoto later discovered the truth, but was unable to leave ‘the Factory of Death’,” she said.
“When he returned to Japan at the end of the war, he was so ashamed that he chose not to go back into medical service, but to teach X-ray scanning techniques until his retire- ment.”
Not everyone felt guilty, or would admit to feeling so. Kasahara, the microbiologist who performed experiments on humans and became a respected figure in his field after the war, remained unrepentant.
“Believe it or not, during wartime, many Japanese medical professionals felt privileged to be able to go to Pingfang and use human beings in the laboratory,” Nishisato said.
“They would fill in forms stating how many subjects they wanted to use the next day. The human guineas pigs were referred to as maruta, or “logs”, in Japanese.
“Between them, they produced a couple of dozen medical papers, in which the human guinea pigs were referred to as ‘Manchurian apes’. Postwar, many received doctorates based on their ‘findings’ in Pingfang,” she added. “I interviewed a few Chinese who did unskilled work in the vicinity of Unit 731’s facilities. They said they sensed that something unspeakable must be going on, but they didn’t know exactly what it was. Of course they didn’t know — it was beyond their wildest imaginings! However, the entire Japanese medical world, more or less, knew during the war.”
Looking back, I realize that silence in the face of evil is a sin. Khoken Tsuchiya, a Japanese lawyer. As a young man (left), Tsuchiya served in Japan’s Imperial Navy during World War II The human guineas pigs were referred to as maruta, or “logs”, in Japanese. Fuyuko Nishisato, Japanese reporter and germ warfare expert
A sense of denial
Ichinose is aware of how persistent that sense of denial can be. His late father’s right forearm and right hip carried scars from the war. “When I was little, I was mesmerized by them. Later, as I grew up, I asked my father: did you ever kill any Chinese?” he said. “Throughout his life, my father, who had studied medieval art history under a leading professor before he joined the army, never answered that question.”
Currently, Ichinose is representing 180 victims and their families who are demanding compensation from Japan for the indiscriminate bombing of Chongqing, China’s wartime capital.
“I don’t have unrealistic hopes,” the lawyer said candidly, pointing to favorable verdicts given in other cases and, most famously, the case he fought between 1997 and 2007, along with Wang and Tsuchiya. The demand for compensation was rejected, but the court accepted all the facts, from germ warfare to experiments conducted on humans.
“That was a triumph. People in peaceful times must be made fully aware of the cruelty of war,” Ichinose said.
In his autobiography, Tsuchiya admitted that he was just one step away from committing a war crime: “The job of beheading the US lieutenant was originally handed to me. Although I hated it, I was in no position to refuse. However, the day before the scheduled execution, I was informed by my superior, who was slightly apologetic, that another person had recommended himself.”
When the war ended, the executioner begged his peers not to give him away to US interrogators. Initially, he escaped detection and returned to his hometown, later enrolling at a university in Tokyo.
However, in the spring of 1946, news came that the US authorities had discovered the truth and were looking for him. He returned home from Tokyo that night and killed himself, according to Tsuchiya’s book.
“I was cheated into believing that I was fighting a war of honor, only to realize that there was no honor in being an aggressor — only shame and pain. I could have died a disgraceful and unworthy death; now, I will live for justice until I die,” the lawyer wrote.
Japanese lawyer Keiichiro Ichinose (right) at the Quzhou Germ Warfare Victims Memorial Museum in Zhejiang in October as he takes a photo of a list of those who died as a result of Japan’s biological weapons
The ruins of the site of Unit 731 in Pingfang, Harbin.
With Wang Xuan (right) as his interpreter, Ichinose (left) collects testimony from victims of germ warfare in Zhejiang province.