War Lives On at Museum of the Macabre

Curator Wang Peng describes plans for a $62.5 million restoration of the facility in Harbin, China, where Japan's notorious Unit 731 conducted biological warfare experiments on Chinese prisoners during World War II.
Curator Wang Peng describes plans for a $62.5 million restoration of the facility in Harbin, China, where Japan's notorious Unit 731 conducted biological warfare experiments on Chinese prisoners during World War II. (By Edward Cody -- The Washington Post)
By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, April 7, 2006

HARBIN, China -- More than 200,000 Chinese filed through the remains of Japan's notorious Unit 731 here last year, visiting the ghosts of World War II. In exhibits mounted throughout the bleak headquarters building, they saw wrenching descriptions of biological warfare experiments carried out on thousands of Chinese prisoners from 1939 to 1945.

The phrase "Do not forget us" has been inscribed on the wall of one room, where visitors can see the names and photos of some of those who received botulism injections, were made to suffer frostbite or had their internal organs removed by Japanese military doctors.

Heeding those words, authorities have drawn up plans for a $62.5 million expansion of the museum, condemning a middle school and an apartment complex to make way for restoring the once top-secret facility, where researchers estimate 3,000 Chinese were killed and 300,000 sickened by the hideous wartime experiments. The aim, said curator Wang Peng, is to make the story of Japan's atrocities at Unit 731 known to an ever-wider audience.

"Our goal is to build it into a world-class war memorial and educate people all over the world," Wang said in an interview. "This is not just a Chinese concern. It is a concern of humanity."

The intensifying interest in abuses at Unit 731, on the plains of Manchuria about 650 miles northeast of Beijing, is part of a rising tide of Chinese resentment over Japan's conduct during its extended occupation of China. The resentment, long simmering in the population, has been stoked in the past several years by what Chinese officials and people contend is a refusal by Japanese leaders to acknowledge clearly what happened and seek forgiveness from the victims and their relatives.

The popular anti-Japanese sentiment, mirrored in government-controlled media, has become a key ingredient in an increasingly tense relationship between China and Japan. Although they remain valuable trading partners, Asia's two major powers gradually have slipped into the role of adversaries, with officials regularly trading accusations of bad faith and Japanese leaders explicitly calling China a security threat.

The United States has watched the situation with consternation. The Bush administration has made it clear that it wants no role in the standoff. But senior U.S. defense officials acknowledge that U.S.-Japanese defense cooperation, soon to include a shared missile defense network, could make U.S. forces part of the equation if Japan and China were to escalate their confrontation.

President Hu Jintao, reading the mood of the Chinese public, has focused Beijing's concern on the regular visits by Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Tokyo's Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Japanese officers judged as Class-A war criminals are honored along with thousands of other Japanese war dead. Only when those visits stop, Hu said last week, will he meet with Koizumi for a fence-mending session as Japanese officials have suggested.

The visits to the shrine "hurt the feelings of the two peoples and undermine the political basis for bilateral relations," Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said Tuesday.

Wang Xiliang, 60, a historian at the Heilongjiang provincial Social Sciences Academy, said Koizumi's repeated gesture at the shrine has fanned ill feelings toward Japan among the Chinese public. "These visits have a great impact," he said. "They genuinely hurt many Chinese people."

Alongside the quarrel over history, China and Japan increasingly have clashed over economic and strategic interests. Although the disputes revolve around concrete issues -- and would exist even without the memory of World War II -- the bitterness over history has made them more difficult to resolve.

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