Japan’s war crimes: excavated human bones, Japanese confessions, comfort women’s testimony

The first discovery of a mass grave near one of Dr. Shiro Ishii’s infamous laboratories was made in 1989. Then, in 2006, Toyo Ishii, a former military nurse came forward to reveal that she and colleagues had buried numerous corpses and body parts during the weeks following Japan’s surrender in August, 1945 before the American troops arrived in Tokyo. The nurse and her colleagues had worked at the army hospital that served Ishii’s ghoulish experiments.

Professor Keichi Tsuneishi, Japan’s premier expert on Japan’s biological warfare confirmed that the site used to be the research headquarters of Unit 731. “If bones are found there, they are most likely related to Unit 731.” The site is close to the site where dozens of fragmented thigh bones and skulls with holes drilled into them or sections cut out were found in 1989.

“From its wartime base in Japanese-controlled Harbin in northern China, Unit 731 and related units injected war prisoners with typhus, cholera and other diseases to research germ warfare, according to historians and former unit members. Unit 731 also is believed to have performed vivisections and to have frozen prisoners to death in endurance tests.” (Japan digs WWII site linked to human experiments, CBS News, February 20, 2011)

The digging was delayed until the scheduled relocation of residents and the demolition of apartments on the site last year.

2000: U.S. Japanese Imperial Government Disclosure Act is passed requiring declassification of records and documents in possession of the U.S. government:

“regarding chemical and biological experiments carried out by Japan during the course of the Second World War. This legislation is needed because although the Second World War ended over fifty years ago–and with it Japan’s chemical and biological weapons experimentation programs–many of the records and documents regarding Japan’s wartime activities remain classified and hidden in U.S. Government archives and repositories. Even worse, according to some scholars, some of these records are now being inadvertently destroyed… The world is entitled to a full and compel record of what did transpire.”

Three examples of document destruction were provided by Professor Sheldon Harris, author of the seminal book, Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45, and the American Cover-Up (1994; revised 2002):

  1. “Sensitive” documents relating to Japanese medical experiments at the Dugway Proving Grounds, Utah, were destroyed in 1991;
  2. Upon retiring in 1998, the Public Information Officer at Fort Detrick, was ordered to “get rid of” incriminating documents relating to Japanese medical war crimes.”
  3. In 1999, the Pentagon decided to rid itself of all biological warfare documents in its holdings prior to 1949 for “space reasons.” The date is important, because all war crimes trials against accused Japanese war criminals were terminated by 1949. (Diane Feinstein. Introduces the Japanese Imperial Government Disclosure Act, The Congressional RecordNov. 10, 1999, pp S14533-S14571)
    [The legislation was incorporated into the Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Records Disclosure Act.]

Aug. 2002: Japanese court acknowledges Japan’s Biological Warfare experimentation
After 27 court hearings since 1998, with former Unit 731 Japanese soldiers who came forward as witnesses, a Japanese court finally recognized for the for the first time that Japan had conducted Biological Warfare in China during WWII. The Japanese judge agreed that 180 Chinese victims and relatives from Hunan and Zhejiang provinces had been infected by plague-carrying fleas dropped by Unit 731 planes during the Pacific War. Nevertheless, the court rejected their demand of for an apology and compensation on legal technicalities.  On July 19, 2005, Tokyo Higher Court dismissed their suit again, as did the Japanese Supreme Court on May 9, 2007. (Tsuchiya, Oxford Textbook of Clinical Research Ethics)

2001: “Japanese Devils,” Japanese veterans confess in a 160-minute documentary film
The film by independent filmmaker, Minoru Matsui, presents the confessions of 14 Japanese veterans about their crimes in China, beginning with Japan’s invasion of Manchuria in 1931 to the end of the war 1945. The background of the ex-servicemen varies from farming to medicine; their military rank rages from private to lieutenant; and their crimes extend from rape and torture to bacteriological experiments and vivisection. They agreed to appear on camera so that the documentary would record the truth. (Japanese Devils Shed Light on a Dark Past, CNN, 2002)

Matsui received no support in Japan for his project; and few in Japan came to see it at community centers. But after its showing at the Berlin Film Festival, where it was praised, it sparked the interest of the Japanese media and ran for three months in Tokyo.

Even as many of the veterans express contrition, they also acknowledge experiencing sadistic glee while committing the atrocities.  One man says, “I lost my humanity. . . . The more I killed, the more I would enjoy it.” Others say peer pressure was a factor. The war veterans, who would often beat and humiliate new Japanese army recruits, called them cowardly if they did not participate in the crimes.

“At the start of the film, Yoshio Tsuchiya, a former 2nd lieutenant in Manchuria, tells how he murdered Chinese prisoners of war by shooting them in the back of the neck and kicking them into holes. We Japanese all thought about the Chinese the same way — as subhuman scum,”

Then, Yoshio Shinozuka, a corporal in the Infectious Diseases Unit, tells how he “murdered brutally,” then dissected, five Chinese while testing plague viruses on them.

Masao Shikada, a 2nd lieutenant in the army, recalls enjoying beheading a captive, in front of an audience, with a superior Kendo sword technique that left the head attached by a flap of skin at the front of the neck. He then kicked the head into a basket.

Others tell of women being raped and bayoneted in the genitals, or, in some cases, having their vaginas stuffed with rags soaked in petroleum and set alight. Children were routinely murdered in front of their parents.

If there can be a “worst” in such a litany of atrocities, it is the admission of Masayo Enomoto, a former sergeant major. Enomoto remembers raping a young woman, slicing her up with a meat cleaver, cooking her in a pot and distributing her as food to his troops, who were short of meat.” (Richard James Havis. War/ Japanese Soldiers Finally Tell Their Story / Hell in the Pacific – From Vivisection to Cannibalism, San Francisco Gate,  March 17, 2002)

2002: Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform
An ultra- conservative Society circulated a draft of The New History Textbook, eliciting widespread protests in Japan, China, and North and South Korea. An International Scholars’ Appeal declared The New History Textbook “unfit as a teaching tool because it negates both the truth about Japan’s record in colonialism and war and the values that will contribute to a just and peaceful Pacific and World community.”

In 2004, Yoshiaki Yoshimi and historian Yuki Tanaka discovered documents in the National Archives of Australia showing that cyanide gas was tested on Australian and Dutch prisoners in Nov. 1944 on the Kai Islands.

2005: Sixty years after the end of WW II, Japan’s version of its wartime history is in denial. Japan continues to offend the countries across Asia who were occupied by the Japanese and who suffered the brutality, murder and germ warfare experimentation of the Imperial Army.

“Until Japan demonstrates genuine sorrow for having killed millions of people in the war, until it compensates the aging “comfort women” and other victims, it will never recover its national self-confidence or gain acceptance by China and Korea as a trustworthy neighbor. Nicholas Kristoff. The Problem of Memory, Foreign Affairs, 1998

2005: A petition signed by 22 million Chinese successfully blocked Japan’s bid for a seat on the United Nation’s Security Council. (NYT, 2005; Why Japan Will Never Be a Permanent Member of the UN Security Council, National Interest, 2014)

2006: A former medic in Japan’s Imperial Navy confessed to having conducted human vivisection experiments in northern China when he was 22 years old. It was part of his medical training. In an interview with the Kyodo news agency, Akira Makino, now 84 years old stated that over the course of four months, before the defeat of the Japanese forces in March 1945, he had cut open the bodies of 10 Filipino prisoners, including two teenage girls.

He amputated their limbs, sutured blood vessels, and cut up and removed their healthy livers, kidneys, wombs and still beating hearts for no better reason than to improve his knowledge of anatomy.

“The first time it was one prisoner, a middle aged man. He’d already given up – there was no struggle. He was tied to the bed and anaesthetised with ether, so that he was completely unconscious. The Lieutenant showed me what to do. He cut him open, and pointed out, ‘Here’s the liver, here’s the kidneys, here’s the heart.’ The heart was still beating, then he cut the heart open and showed me the inside. That was when he died.”

“I didn’t want to do it, but it was an order, you see. At that time, if a commander gave you an order it was understood that it was the order of the Emperor, and the Emperor was a god. I had no choice – if I had disobeyed, I would have been killed.” The “operation” took about an hour; when it was over the body was sewn up and thrown into a hole in the earth. Eight more vivisections followed, Mr Makino said, up to three hours long.

“Over the course of time, I got used to it,” he said. “We removed some of the organs, and amputated legs and arms. Two of the victims were women, young women, 18 or 19 years old. I hesitate to say it, but we opened up their wombs to show the younger soldiers. They knew very little about women – it was sex education.” (Richard Lloyd Parry, Dissect Them Alive: Order not to be Disobeyed, Sunday Times Online, Feb. 25, 2007)

“It was educational… But if I’m really honest, the reason we did it was to take revenge on these people who were spying for the Americans. Now, of course I feel terrible about the cruel thing that I did, and I think of it so often. But at the time what I felt for these people was closer to hatred than to pity.” (London Times 2007)

According to Makino, the experiments he was ordered to perform resulted in the deaths of about 30 people, including women and children.

Makino, who lives in Osaka, is one of several former Japanese soldiers, now in their 80s and 90s, who decided to clear their conscience and reveal the truth about their country’s use of human guinea pigs before they die. He indicated that he was haunted by memories of the experiments and had ignored friends who urged him to take his secret to the grave. (Justin McCurry, The Guardian, Nov. 27, 2006)

Several veterans have admitted conducting human vivisection in northern China as part of Japan’s wartime chemical and biological weapons program, but Makino is the first to testify that similar atrocities took place in south-east Asia. Tsuneishi Kaiichi, Japan’s leading specialist on Japan’s wartime biological and chemical warfare experiments and Unit 731, said it is the first time anyone in the wartime military has admitted that such human experiments were conducted in the Philippines.

“We should not let this horrible thing happen again. I want to tell the truth about war to as many people as possible. If I’m given the opportunity, I’ll continue to testify in atonement.”

Apart from a few local papers, a second interview on the news agency, Kyodo, was largely ignored by the Japanese media, an indication perhaps of the reluctance to air the subject of wartime atrocities.

April 19, 2006: Reuters quotes Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman:

“The government is not in possession of materials that tell us about the activities of this unit. If we do find some materials, we would accept it as a solemn fact of history.” As Christopher Reed notes:

“The Japanese government, then, does not currently view Dr. Ishii Shiro’s atrocious programs as historical truth. The hypocrisy is striking: the Japanese state and military destroyed the very records it now says are necessary to prove Unit 731’s actions, while the issues were covered up with American complicity.” (Reed. Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 2006)