Remains found in Japan may be of victims of wartime experiments

December 27, 1992|By John E. Woodruff | John E. Woodruff,Tokyo Bureau

TOKYO -- On the second floor of a northwest Tokyo funera parlor, 35 skulls and hundreds of other human bones wait for bureaucrats to decide what to do with them. They have waited three years and five months, since construction workers discovered them by accident.

No one knows whose remains they are. Yet bureaucrats shun them as if they might rise to life and put a curse on all of Japan.

"The more we learn, the more probable it becomes that these were human body parts shipped back to Japan around the time of World War II, for study after people died in Imperial Army experiments on live human beings," said history Professor Keiichi Tsuneishi of Kanagawa University.

At least 2,000 and possibly 3,000 Asians, mostly Chinese, are known to have died in the experiments. Most of the experiments involved injecting healthy people with typhus, cholera and other deadly diseases.

Researchers studied the progress of the illnesses in order to develop germ warfare methods. Sometimes they took tissue samples from living humans. Sometimes they surgically examined internal organs while their victims were still alive.

The Shinjuku bones are thus a gruesome potential addition to a two-year string of confrontations Japan has had with long-suppressed horrors of its wartime past, from finally admitting to forcing tens of thousands of Asian women into sex slavery to serve its soldiers, to Emperor Akihito's almost-apology for the brutal occupation of parts of China.

New research shows that participation in the human-experimentation program went far beyond the army.

"What is striking in my own recent research," Mr. Tsuneishi said, "is that famous civilian physicians and professors of medicine actively sought data from the experiments, studied human tissue shipped back from overseas, and wrote up their conclusions for the army. Japan's medical community still won't admit this, but my research leaves no question."

After the war, he added, doctors involved in the secret projects went on to high positions and public honors, protected by continuing postwar secrecy about the experiments. U.S. Occupation authorities, eager to get the data, helped to protect most of the participants from exposure and granted them immunity from trial as war criminals.

One of the overseas labs, known as Unit 731, has long been known to historians as a center of experiments on humans for chemical and biological warfare research. It was in Harbin, in northeastern China's Manchuria, which Japanese forces occupied in the 1930s.

The Japanese government to this day acknowledges only that there was a Unit 731 in Harbin.

It has never acknowledged that Unit 731 experimented on live humans, or that Japanese forces repeatedly used germ warfare, though historians have long since abundantly documented both realities.

It is now clear that Unit 731 was only one of five units, said Mr. Tsuneishi, who specializes in Japan's World War II medical experiments. Three others were in other Chinese cities, Beijing, Nanjing and Canton. The fifth was in Singapore.

All reported to a top-secret laboratory at the army medical college, headed by Sgt. Col. Shiro Ishii, who conceived and carried out the system of experiments on live humans. Col. Ishii was one of those granted immunity by the American Occupation.

Earlier this year, a Singapore Chinese man said he believed a lab he worked in during World War II had been "part of Unit 731." The Japanese government responded only that "Unit 731 was not in Singapore at that time."

Of course not, Mr. Tsuneishi said. What the government left unsaid was that the Ishii organization's Singapore lab was Unit 9420, a number known to historians for a decade.

The Shinjuku bones were discovered in July 1989 by workers excavating for a new National Institute for Health.

The discovery immediately prompted suspicions, because the land had been the site of the Ishii organization's headquarters and laboratory.

The Ministry of Health, which was founded by a participant in the Ishii operations and took over the laboratory's site after the war, immediately proposed to cremate the bones without examining them.

Mr. Tsuneishi and a handful of other citizens banded together and got the Shinjuku ward government to take custody of the bones and try to find out whose they were.

No one wanted to do the study. The Health Ministry refused two requests from Shinjuku ward. The National Science Museum and two other research institutions refused.

Late last year, Shinjuku ward persuaded Hajime Sakura, a world-famous anthropologist, to do the study upon his retirement from the National Science Museum.

In April, Mr. Sakura reported that the bones were from non-Japanese Asians. Including the 35 readily recognizable skulls, there were 132 parts of skulls, 30 spines, six chest bones, 13 thighs and 17 neck bones.

Some skulls had marks of incisions, holes drilled in them, bullet holes, blows with sharp instruments, or sections neatly cut away.

"It is likely that the bones were sent from China," Mr. Sakura wrote, but he said he could not determine the individuals' nationality.

With that, it was the Shinjuku ward officials' turn to propose cremating the bones.

Mr. Tsuneishi's group went back to work to prevent cremation.

"We think the Health Ministry now agrees that there should be a further attempt to decide the nationality and see if that country wants the bones returned, but the ministry tells us they have no budget," he said.

"It takes time to decide what to do," explained Nobuhisa Inoue, assistant section chief of the ministry's public health bureau. "We would have to locate people who worked at the Military Medical College and ask them what happened during those years."

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