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.
China and Japan have fought over oil and gas drilling rights in the East China Sea. And they have quarreled over ownership of several tiny islands between Okinawa and Taiwan, called the Senkaku by Japan and the Diaoyu by China. That dispute is long-running, but as official relations sour and strategic wariness grows, the little atolls have acquired added importance.
One reason is Japan's declaration last spring that it shares with the United States a strategic interest in nearby Taiwan. Chinese officials responded that Japan has no role to play in the dispute over Taiwan's status. But with Japan tied to U.S. military defenses and Japanese ships passing through the Taiwan Strait, Japan and China have identified the area as strategically vital as well as a zone of nationalist rivalries.
Wang, the specialist on China-Japan relations, said that for years China and other Asian nations that suffered under Japanese occupation were too tied up in their own conflicts to focus on what happened during World War II. Now those conflicts have ended. In addition, he said, only in recent years has economic development, along with an expanded role for the mass media, provided the leisure and information to stir concern over Japanese abuses of more than 50 years ago.
In the case of Unit 731, moreover, much of the picture was blurred until the 1980s and 1990s, when documents uncovered in Japan, China and the United States gave scholars a better idea of what went on. Some Chinese prisoners were dissected live and without anesthetic, for instance, while others were cremated before they were dead. The long secrecy about such atrocities further fueled resentment among Chinese who have taken an interest in Unit 731.
Most of the Japanese soldiers stationed here escaped as imperial Japan surrendered in 1945, although a dozen were captured and tried by Chinese authorities, and another dozen by Soviet authorities. The unit commander, Shiro Ishii, was protected by U.S. occupation forces in Japan and, Chinese historians said, occasionally lectured U.S. officers on his germ warfare findings. He died of cancer at home in Japan in 1959.
"There are not two histories," said Jin Chengmin, director of the 731 Research Institute at the Social Sciences Academy, who discovered some of the key documents in local archives. "Japanese politicians should face this problem."
Correspondent Anthony Faiola in Tokyo contributed to this report.