The World: Revisiting World War II Atrocities; Comparing the Unspeakable to the Unthinkable
By RALPH BLUMENTHAL
Published: March 7, 1999
Published: March 7, 1999
AUSCHWITZ. Dachau. Ping Fan. Changchun. In the shorthand of World War II atrocities, some names are more recognizable than others.
But while Nazi scientists like Josef Mengele conducted hideous experiments on concentration camp prisoners, their lesser-known Japanese counterparts, led by Gen. Shiro Ishii, were waging full-scale biological warfare and subjecting human beings to ghastly experiments of their own -- and on a far greater scale than the Germans.
''Imagine hundreds of Mengeles,'' said Rabbi Abraham Cooper of the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, who has been calling on the Japanese to face up to their past as openly as the Germans have.
Ping Fan, built by General Ishii, the mastermind of Japanese germ warfare and its infamous Unit 731, was a camp of plague-bearing fleas, rat cages and warrens for human guinea pigs. Changchun, 150 miles south, was another huge installation for germ tests on plants, animals and people.
Though not approaching the systematic exterminations by the Nazis, the Japanese record of atrocities -- what victims call ''the Asian Holocaust'' -- is still producing revelations more than 50 years after the end of World War II. The delay illustrates the West's Eurocentric view of wartime suffering as well as striking differences in the willingness of the two former Axis allies to come to terms with their past. It has also thrown a harsh light on cold-war rivalries. As early as 1949, the Soviet Union convicted 12 Japanese for biological war crimes. Although the published transcript contained exhaustive details of Unit 731's crimes, the accounts were largely ignored or dismissed in the West as Communist propaganda. The Allies did, however, prosecute 5,570 Japanese, but none for biological warfare.
In the early 1980's, American and British scholars and journalists rediscovered the germ war issue, adding new details of American involvement in covering up the crimes. The story has since taken on a new momentum and questions of the guilt of Emperor Hirohito persist. Justice Department officials, unfettered by the State Department, are complaining that the Japanese are refusing to provide data on suspected war criminals, who would be barred from entering the country, just as 60,000 Germans and other Europeans are now.
At the same time, a 1997 Japanese lawsuit by Chinese seeks compensation for victims of Japan's germ warfare. Former members of Unit 731 have been confessing crimes. Chinese researchers say they keep uncovering new sites where anthrax, typhoid, plague and other diseases were spread, wiping out perhaps hundreds of thousands of Chinese. Another 10,000 or more Chinese, Russians and perhaps some American prisoners of war as well, researchers say, were killed in ghoulish experiments.
Japanese officials insist they lack proof, although by other accounts they have sealed wartime archives returned to them by the American authorities in the 1950's. With powerful right-wing and militaristic factions long opposed to confessions of wartime guilt, the Japanese publisher of a translation of ''The Rape of Nanking,'' the 1997 best-seller by Iris Chang (Basic Books), postponed its publication
It was only in 1992 that the Government officially acknowledged that the Japanese Army forced several hundred thousand Korean women into prostitution in World War II, and it was only last year that a Japanese court ordered the Government to pay $2,300 each to three plaintiffs. By contrast, Germany, in its schools and the press, has dealt unflinchingly with its past and paid victims reparations now amounting to about $80 billion, with private industry planning to pay billions more.
JAPANESE accountability for germ war atrocities got lost in the cold war. With the Japanese surrender in 1945, the Soviet Union and the United States competed to snare General Ishii's data. The Americans won out, promising immunity from war crimes prosecution.
Bob Dohini, a former lawyer on the United States prosecution team in Tokyo, said recently he had no idea that the crimes had included germ warfare. In December 1945, he said, he had carried a top-secret message to the American authorities in Tokyo. ''I assumed it had to do with the Emperor, because soon after I discovered we were not able to try him,'' he said.
He now calls the decision a big mistake, since revelations have pointed to the monarch's knowledge of germ warfare. ''I don't think there is any question of the Emperor's guilt,'' he said.