Spotlight: Documentary on atrocities of Japanese Unit 731 triggers public outrage, calls for reflection

Source: Xinhua| 2017-08-16 14:08:57|Editor: ying
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by Yan Lei, Yang Ting, Wang Kejia

TOKYO, Aug. 16 (Xinhua) -- A documentary recently released by Japan's public broadcaster NHK has triggered heated discussions and calls for reflection upon the war history in Japanese society.

The documentary, titled "The Truth of Harbin Unit 731," revealed the outrageous crimes committed by Unit 731, a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.


Unit 731, notorious for cold-blooded lethal human experimentation among other crimes, is a subject seldom touched in Japan, with the authorities eager to cover up and even deny that part of history.

The documentary, released on Aug. 13 by NHK, however, through testimonies of Unit 731 participants and authentic records of the Khabarovsk War Crimes Trials in 1949, presents vividly the cruel yet irrefutable historical truth to the unwitting public.

Unit 731 was based at the Pingfang district of Harbin, the largest city then in northeast China. The unit, set up around 1936, conducted experiments on live human beings to test germ-releasing bombs and chemical bombs among other atrocities.

The majority of the victims they experimented on were Chinese, while a small percentage were Soviet, Mongolian, Korean, and soldiers of the Allied Forces taken captive. Some of them were children.

"I have seen no one left the camp alive (after being experimented on)," testified Kiyoshi Kawashima, an officer of Unit 731, according to an audio record of the Khabarovsk War Crimes Trials in 1949.

Toshihide Nishi, a medical officer, testified at the trials that they had taken the captives outside where the temperature was below minus 20 degrees Celsius, and fanned the victims to cause frostbites.

Kurakazu, another officer, testified that he had seen fingers of three Chinese victims in such an frostbite experiment turn black and chip off in the freezing temperature.

Takeshi Misumi, only 14 years old when he joined the unit as a junior member, told NHK that he saw with his own eyes how the unit conducted lethal human experimentation.

He also testified that just before the war ended in 1945, in order to cover up their atrocities, the unit, under the order of Japanese military, killed all the people they were experimenting on and who were still alive.

Misumi was ordered to pour gasoline on the bodies and put them on fire. The horrible scenes have since haunted him for the rest of his life.

"The war is so cruel, so inhuman ... It is something that should never have happened," he said with tears in eyes in the documentary.


The documentary, while irritating the ultra-rightwing forces, exposed many Japanese people to the truth of the war, and many start to reflect upon history.

Nobuo Okimatsu, veteran at World War II and head of a civil group dedicated to promoting Sino-Japanese friendship, said that in Japan, the truth about Unit 731 is a part of the history that has been touchy to many, but it is also something that the people shall know about.

"The Japanese people shall know about the crimes that Japan has committed in the past," he said.

Tamaki Matsuoka, a former primary teacher who has devoted 30 years of her life conveying the historic truth about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre to the Japanese people, said it was great for the documentary to make public the audio records about Unit 731 and the Khabarovsk Trials.

But she also pointed out that the documentary failed to ask the question why most of the officers and researchers responsible for the crimes of Unit 731 went back to Japan untried and unblamed after the war, and even enjoyed academic fame afterwards.

Instead of being tried for war crimes, the researchers involved in Unit 731 were secretly given immunity by the United States in exchange for the data they gathered through human experimentation. Only those few that had been arrested by Soviet forces first were tried at the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials in 1949.

"Japan has been trying to cover up the history for over 70 years ... Whitewashing the war crimes and highlighting its own sufferings to pretend to be the victim instead of the victimizer, does no good to Japan if it wants to rebuild relationship with its neighbors in Asia," she added.


While calling for the war crimes of Unit 731 to be never forgotten, scholars in Japan are alarmed about the current situation that has some similarities to those before the end of the war, especially as the government is attempting to revise the pacifist Constitution, and is allocating more funds for military research programs in universities.

During the World War II, Japanese military and universities had rather close bonds, with the military providing research funds for the universities, while universities supplied the military with the so-called "research talents."

For instance, according to NHK, Kyoto University sent 37 medical researchers to help the invading Japanese army in China in 1936, and the yearly number rose to 75 in 1942. Other universities such as the University of Tokyo and Keio University were also sending an increasing number of researchers to the army.

"As the documentary showed, the best universities at that time in Japan all provided research personnel for the invading army and became accomplices to the war crimes," said Hiroshi Onishi, a professor of economics at Keio University in Tokyo.

He added that the documentary sounded the alarm bell for the present, as Japan's Defense Ministry started a research funding program called National Security Technology Research Promotion in the fiscal 2015, which assists and supports the research of technologies that could be used for military equipment.

"Budget for the program was 300 million yen (2.71 million U.S. dollars) in fiscal 2015, 600 million yen (5.42 million U.S. dollars) in fiscal 2016, and surged to 11 billion yen (100 million U.S. dollars) in fiscal 2017," said Onishi.

"While the government is cutting funds for fundamental research, the surge in budget for the funding program for military research could lead astray the research in universities and research institutions, especially public universities which rely on government support," said Onishi.

Satoru Ikeuchi, professor emeritus at Nagoya University, said the researchers, once in the government funding program, have to report their research results to the Defense Ministry, and even after the sponsorship ends, follow-up surveys on the researcher could still be conducted, and researchers involved could hardly get rid of the influence of the Defense Ministry.

Japanese academic circles have been stepping up their protests against this research funding program. Science Council of Japan (SCJ), an organization set up in 1949 to represent Japan's scientists both domestically and internationally, issued a statement in March, reiterating the commitment not to conduct research for military purposes, and calling for scientists not to join that program.

Takashi Okada, commentator from Japan's Kyodo News, said that stepping up support for military research was consistent with the Abe administration's previous policies including the attempts to revise pacifist Constitution, lifting the ban on collective self-defense rights, and allowing exports of military equipment by changing the "Three Principles on Arms Exports."

If this trend goes on unchecked, academic freedom and independence would be infringed upon and the past mistakes of scholars becoming accomplices of war crimes could be repeated in Japan, a number of Japanese scholars told Xinhua.

"In this sense, records about the atrocities committed by Unit 731 should also be listed on the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, just like the documents about the 1937 Nanjing Massacre, so that that historical lesson could never be forgotten," Okada said.