War Crimes


How odd that Japan’s two closest allies, the US and Australia, were once its dedicated opponents in a horrific Pacific war imbued with racist hatreds. Odder still that Japan’s direst victim in that conflict, China, now comes under suspicion by the three diplomatic chums as a potential warmonger.

Are memories so short? Does nobody in Canberra read any history? For it is a terrible history that now revisits a troubled Japan.

Since returning to Tokyo last August after 30 years, what astonishes me is that war crimes (some dating back to the 1930s) are still Japan’s most difficult foreign issue, the one occupying more space in my files than any other.

Their significance today is only emphasised by the alliances mentioned. Australia has embraced two of the most bellicose nations in the recent history of the world. The US still outstrips any rival in foreign aggression, and Japan’s unaccustomed peaceful period currently continues only at the insistence of its former occupier, the US. Now Japan seeks to remove those constraints.

Much fashionable modern thinking disregards Japan as an instigator of war horrors usually ignored in favour of Nazi Germany. Yet Japan’s grotesque record of savage and wanton massacres across a continent exceeded anything mounted by the Western powers it so eagerly imitated. That this is not better known again poses interesting questions.

Whether we find answers or not, Japan’s war crimes will, to its surprise and mortification, continue to loom larger. These old horrors, ghosts of an imperial fascist past, now cast ominous shadows over the Land of the Rising Sun. While its diplomats and politicians flounder, appearing unreasonably truculent, or just unable to grasp this new reality, other nations are acting to obtain justice for the arrogantly racist and frequently fatal, mistreatment of their people decades ago.

For example, from their initial invasion of China in 1931 through to 1945, Japan forced millions of Koreans, Chinese and other Asians (and some Allied prisoners of war) into cruel and degrading slave labour. Following repeated rejections by Japanese courts, the People’s Republic of China recently intervened and Beijing now supports domestic legal efforts to make Japan compensate China’s grievously wronged citizens. Similarly, South Korea has a government-supported ‘commission of truth’ inquiry into forced labour and Japan’s reparations failure.

Another Japanese mass violation of human rights was the nastily named ‘comfort women’ scandal. Up to 200,000 sex slaves mainly Korean and Chinese were compelled to ‘service’ the Japanese Imperial Army across Asia. This was not, as is sometimes said, enforced prostitution. The women were unpaid, and usually teenage virgins (less risk of venereal disease) when tricked or kidnapped into slavery.

Again, Japan’s courts have mainly declined to compensate survivors. This disgraceful indifference is worsened by public statements from politicians and others seeking to belittle, even doubt, the women’s stories. Like enforced labour, decades passed before details emerged, largely because of Japan’s systematic secrecy and, in the women’s case, their personal shame.

The next shame to become a public issue must surely be the harrowing outrage of its organised, scientifically designed and completely illegal germ warfare campaigns, perpetrated mainly on China. Even though details began emerging in the late 1980s, it remains relatively little known. We have all heard of Auschwitz, but Pingfan? This was Japan’s secret biological warfare headquarters and research laboratory, also known as Unit 731, in occupied Manchuria.

General Shiro Ishii

From 1932 to 1945, Pingfan’s medical staff conducted experiments into deadly diseases such as anthrax, smallpox, typhoid, cholera, bubonic plague, fatal frostbite and gangrene, using living prisoners. An estimated 3000 abducted men, women and children, mainly Chinese and some Russians, died hideous deaths from diseases and deliberately inflicted fatal traumas, including, in an excruciating irony, nuclear radiation. Finally and this goes beyond horror science fiction some were dissected on operating tables while alive, conscious, and without any anaesthetic.

No victim escaped to tell the story, but all was amply documented. Indeed, Japanese scientists handed over thousands of tissue-bearing slides, preserved organs removed from live bodies, and other physical evidence to American interrogators. The psychopathic physician who created and ran this torture chamber disguised as a lab was General Shiro Ishii, who died naturally, aged 67, at his home in Japan in 1959. Real evil not the George W Bush imitation resided at Pingfan, and Ishii personified it.

It is estimated that Japanese biological warfare killed up to half a million Chinese. Deadly plagues, refined from Unit 731’s research, were distributed across China via airplanes dropping ceramic bombs, infected animals, spraying, or simply by dumping deadly germs in wells, reservoirs, rivers and food storages. More than once, Pingfan staff amused themselves by handing contaminated sweets to children, who ran off and infected others before their own deaths.

Such organised biological warfare was outlawed in 1925 at the Geneva Convention, to which Japan, as a League of Nations member, was one of 128 signatories. Ishii read about the pact as a young army doctor, regarding it not as a prohibition, but rather an invaluable guide to areas of ‘research’ his nation should pursue in its rightful mission of world domination.

The plans Ishii pushed in official Tokyo were never rebuffed, but supported with increasing fervour. The scale of Japan’s germ warfare was a first in world history, and by the early 1940s, thousands of Japanese physicians, surgeons, and medical personnel were busy in Pingfan and associated units under a well-funded military program. It was approved by the nation’s most senior biologist the Emperor himself. (His scientific skills almost certainly means that he well understood Unit 731’s purpose.)

Remains of Unit 731

The Soviet Union tried and convicted several Japanese biological warfare scientists who fell into their hands in 1945 the trial transcript has been available for years. But those physicians captured by the Americans, including Ishii, were granted immunity from prosecution in return for full details of their research. Fort Detrick, the US germ warfare establishment in Maryland, keeps records of the precious pathogens and human samples handed over by Ishii and his staff back in 1946-7.

In terms of conventional warfare, the worst single wartime atrocity in history was Japan’s Rape of Nanking in 1937-8, in which imperial soldiers spent six weeks eagerly slaughtering the innocent in a depraved massacre of an estimated 300,000 Chinese men, women and children in China’s capital (we are talking about bayoneting babies here). Soldiers smiled for cameras as they beheaded captives. And Japan also has the dubious honour of having launched three continental wars in 40 years with surprise attacks: in Russia (Port Arthur, 1904), China (Mukden Incident, 1931), and America (Pearl Harbour, 1941).

It will be said that these events were long ago Japan has changed and apologised. Yet the very nature of its apologies, their lateness, non-specifics, lame language, insincerity, and above all, lack of compensation continues to anger the nation’s neighbours.

In February we received a classic example of Japan’s arrogance and ignorance about former victims. The Japanese Ambassador to the Philip
pines, Ryuichiro Yamazaki, offered the first apology for the Manila massacre of 100,000 Filipino civilians, mainly at Japanese hands over 28 days in 1945. It had taken Tokyo 61 years to say sorry.

In another example last week the Japanese Consul in Hong Kong, Takanori Kitamura, while expressing hopes of friendship, said it was ‘inappropriate’ that the ‘history issue’ should be a ‘precondition for addressing issues in other areas.’ But the ‘issue’ is only Tokyo’s. In other words, Kitamura told the Chinese that the uncompensated wanton slaughter of millions of their citizens should not interfere with (Japanese) business today.

Until the Government in Tokyo demonstrates that it understands world reality, it cannot be regarded as a real friend to anybody. Would you have a friend who could never say sincerely that he or she was sorry?

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.