More than 50 years after the Japanese army attacked China with germ
weapons and conducted gruesome experiments on thousands of human
beings, Japan is resisting demands that it compensate the victims or
make records of the atrocities public.
The Japanese government has declined to cooperate with efforts by the
Justice Department to put the names of several hundred surviving
veterans of the germ warfare operations on a list of suspected war
criminals barred from entering the United States, U.S. officials say.
It has also rebuffed researchers seeking access to a vast archive of
military documents in Tokyo that detail the World War II activities
of the Japanese Imperial Army, including its chief biological warfare
arm, known as Unit 731.
The American authorities seized the archive after World War II but
returned it to Japan in 1958 after only a small number of documents
Japan's approach stands in contrast to that of Germany, which has
paid about $80 billion to war victims and their families. Private
industries and banks in Germany and Switzerland plan to pay billions
Despite the refusal of the Japanese government to release
information, new details are emerging about the scope of the
biological program. Research by scholars, campaigns by the Simon
Wiesenthal Center of Los Angeles and the Global Alliance for
Preserving the History of World War II in Asia, and a lawsuit in
Japan by Chinese plaintiffs have unleashed a flood of new accounts
that substantially expand the historical record.
The accounts have heightened tensions between Japan and its
neighbors. They suggest that Japan's World War II germ attacks were
even more widespread than first thought, stretching from Burma (now
Myanmar), Thailand, Singapore and the Dutch East Indies (now
Indonesia) to Russia and Chinese cities and hamlets.
The death toll from Japan's biological warfare remains in dispute.
Some scholars assert that several hundred thousand people died,
mostly in China. Others say the casualties were far lower. Scholars
estimate that an additional 10,000 prisoners were killed in
experiments, perhaps a dozen times the number who died at the hands
of Dr. Josef Mengele and other Nazi scientists.
Eli M. Rosenbaum, director of the Office of Special Investigations in
the Justice Department, said the dispute between Tokyo and Washington
over suspected war criminals has been quietly building for three
The Justice Department's worldwide list of war crimes suspects now
includes the names of about 60,000 Germans and other Europeans,
including Kurt Waldheim, the former U.N. secretary-general, president
of Austria and wartime intelligence officer in Hitler's army.
By contrast, Rosenbaum said the United States had dates of birth and
other identifying data on fewer than 100 suspected Japanese war
criminals. The Justice Department has hundreds of names to add to the
"watch list," but it cannot do so until Japan confirms basic
information like dates of birth.
"For a friendly government to deny us access is astonishing, beyond
the pale," Rosenbaum said. "Most outrageous of all is that the
Japanese government will not provide the dates of birth of war crimes
suspects identified by OSI so that they can be barred from the United
States. They won't even tell us if they will ever assist us."
A Japanese Embassy press spokesman in Washington, Tsuyoshi Yamamoto,
said his government would have no comment because the issue concerned
"the specifics of Japanese cooperation with the United States, which
are of a diplomatic nature."
Little was publicly known about Japan's germ operations until the
1980s, when scholars published their first accounts. More recently,
veterans of Unit 731 have been speaking publicly in Japan about their
misdeeds, seeking expiation.
According to participants, victims and records, the unit mounted
widespread germ attacks with anthrax, typhoid and other pathogens.
Among other experiments, its doctors infected prisoners with disease
germs, removed organs and blood and withheld water to collect data on
how the human body copes with illness and deprivation. Many victims
were then dissected alive.
Only one former member of the unit was ever turned away from entering
the United States: Yushio Shinozuka, who arrived last summer to join
a forum and publicly express anguish over having prepared victims for
Rather than fading with time, diplomats and scholars say,
sensitivities over the issue are becoming sharper as new generations
re-examine wartime events, as they have with the Holocaust in Europe.
Complicating the issue is the complicity of American officials in
shielding from prosecution top Japanese scientists who turned over
their data to the United States, which was developing its own germ
Among the questions that remain unresolved is whether doctors working
with Unit 731 experimented on American prisoners of war.
"The cover-up continues," said Sheldon H. Harris, emeritus professor
of history at California State University in Northridge and the
author of "Factories of Death" (Routledge, 1994), an account of the
Japanese germ warfare program and the American hunger for its
secrets. The book is scheduled for publication in Japan this spring.
Harris said in an interview that while he had unearthed American
translations of three Japanese autopsy reports comprising nearly
1,000 pages recounting wartime medical experiments on dead and living
prisoners, 17 other reports were missing, along with some 8,000
photographic slides documenting the experiments.
The origins of Unit 731 go back to 1930 and the Tokyo laboratory of
an ultranationalist surgeon and microbiologist, Shiro Ishii, who was
later made a general. Within two years, after Japanese troops overran
Manchuria in northeast China, Ishii, using the cover of a sanitation
unit, set up the first of several large biological warfare and human
research centers in Ping Fan and other areas around Harbin, a heavily
Russian city near the Soviet border.
Over the next decade, scholars and researchers say, the Japanese
attacked hundreds of heavily populated communities and remote regions
with germ bombs. Evidence of the attacks continues to emerge.
"There appears to have been a massive germ war campaign in Yunnan
Province bordering Burma," said Daniel Barenblatt, a graduate
psychologist and New York City researcher who has been assembling
material for five years for a documentary with the film director
David Irving, chairman of the undergraduate film and television
department at New York University.
"They seem to have been killing ethnic minorities in a jungle
campaign," Barenblatt said.
Many questions remain unanswered.
It is still not established, for example, whether American prisoners
of war were among those experimented on. Some Americans have said
they were sickened by contaminated feathers in their food, and
Japanese accounts tell of jars containing body parts labeled American
among other nationalities.
Frank James, 77, a survivor of the Bataan Death March, ended up in
1942 at a Japanese prison camp in Mukden, Manchuria, where, he said,
he became a 70-pound living skeleton.
"They gave us shots, sprays in the face," he recounted in a telephone
interview from his home in Redwood City, Calif., where he is confined
with diabetes and lung disease.
He said one of his jobs at Mukden was to retrieve for dissection
frozen corpses that he was certain were American. "They opened them
up so they could look into the lining of the stomach," he recalled.
"The light pink icicles in the stomach weren't thawed."
A new hourlong documentary to be broadcast on Sunday on the History
Channel, "Unit 731: Nightmare in Manchuria," features interviews with
several other surviving American war prisoners who say they were
victimized by Japanese experiments.
But records of their debriefings by American officials remain
unavailable. Harris, the author, said he applied for the records
under the Freedom of Information Act several years ago and was told
by the Veterans Administration that they had been destroyed in a fire
in St. Louis.
After the war, American interest in prosecuting members of Unit 731
for war crimes faded fast. While Germany was split in a four-power
occupation, the United States had a largely free hand in rebuilding
Japan and was forging close ties to the new government.
In addition, Harris said, American scientists were "salivating" over
the chance to obtain the forbidden secrets of Japan's human
experiments. The American authorities granted Ishii and his
associates immunity from prosecution and in exchange received
detailed information about the germ warfare program.
The Allies did prosecute 5,570 Japanese, none for biological warfare.
Nine Japanese medical school professionals were convicted, and some
executed, for vivisecting eight captured American fliers in 1945.
Toshimi Mizobuchi makes no secret of his years with Unit 731. A
vigorous 76-year-old real estate manager living outside the Japanese
city of Kobe, Mizobuchi is organizing this year's reunion for the
several hundred surviving veterans of Unit 731. He says he did not
take part in experiments on humans, though he knew of them and argues
that they were justifiable.
In a recent interview at home near Kobe with Rabbi Abraham Cooper of
the Simon Wiesenthal Center that was recorded and transcribed through
an interpreter, Mizobuchi said he still regarded the victims of the
experiments as "maruta," or logs.
"They were logs to me," said Mizobuchi, a training officer with the
unit. "Logs were not considered to be human. They were either spies
or conspirators." As such, he said, "they were already dead. So now
they die a second time. We just executed a death sentence."
He said about 30 other veterans of the unit were living near him and
that a reunion was held almost every year, drawing 40 or 50.
Mizobuchi said he had never visited the American mainland. But in
follow-up questions he said he had been to Hawaii twice for
"It's a stain on history," said Cooper, associate dean of the
Wiesenthal Center, founded in 1977 in the name of the Viennese
concentration camp survivor and Nazi-hunter to keep alive the memory
of the genocide of the Jews and to campaign for tolerance and human
Cooper said he had interviewed former germ war soldiers and others
last month in Japan and planned to present Congress and the White
House with evidence he had gathered.
"This blanket amnesty can't stand," he said.
Nearly 60 years later, Ada Pivo of Los Angeles is still looking for
the truth about Unit 731's operations.
During the war, she said in an interview, she lived with her family
in Harbin, where the unit made its headquarters. In 1940 her 17-year
old sister, Leah, was one of two members of a Jewish youth group who
contracted typhoid and died after an outing. Mrs. Pivo believes that
her sister was infected by a bottle of lemonade spiked with bacteria
by Japanese scientists.
It is known that food and drink and even children's sweets were
sometimes laced with pathogens. But without access to Japanese
wartime records, it may never be possible to establish the link to a
particular operation in Harbin.
Japan has long restricted access to military records, which were in
the hands of the American authorities for nine years after the war.
The documents, first screened by the CIA, include hundreds of
thousands of pages of War Ministry records from 1868 to 1942, Naval
Ministry records from 1868 to 1939 and operational records of many
units throughout the war.
In 1948 the CIA turned over the records to the National Archives,
with no indication of what, if anything, had been removed. In 1957
the collection was ordered returned to Japan.
Concerned over the potential loss, a group of scholars including
Edwin O. Reischauer of Harvard University and John Young of
Georgetown University, obtained a Ford Foundation grant to hurriedly
microfilm what they could.
In February 1958, after about 5 percent of the records were copied,
Young recalled in an interview, the documents were sent to Baltimore
and and loaded aboard a ship for Japan. "There was no way we could
read them all," said Young, who deplored the loss.
In any case, Young, who assisted Allied war crimes investigators in
China after the war, compiled a 144-page index to the pages that were
A microfilm set was presented to the National Diet Library in Tokyo,
an irony, Young said, considering that Japan has now closed off the
collection. "I can tell you frankly, the militarists felt relieved,"
Young said. "As a historian I couldn't stand it."