Japan began excavations today at a former army medical school to search for human remains linked to a notorious World War II program that is said to have conducted biological warfare in China and live experiments on foreign prisoners of war.
It is uncertain if the excavation will unearth anything, but the effort is a sign that the government is open to the possibility of facing its long-kept wartime secrets, including the experiments conducted by the military’s shadowy Unit 731, according to the Associated Press.
Unit 731 was responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes carried out by Japanese personnel.
Its activities, which included subjecting prisoners to vivisection without anesthesia, have never been officially acknowledged by the Japanese government even though historians and participants have documented them.
Monday’s excavation is the first government probe of the Tokyo site.
The plot once housed an army medical college and research centre of the unit and is near a location where the skulls and bones of some 100 people were dug up in 1989 during a construction project, according to an Agence France-Presse report.
Among the bones and skulls found more than 20 years ago were some with holes drilled in them or sections cut out. Police denied there was evidence of criminal activity, the Associated Press reported.
The current effort follows a former nurse’s revelation that she helped bury body parts there as American forces began occupying the capital at the end of the war, the Associated Press reported.
“If the bones or organs with traces of live medical experiments are found, the government would have to admit a wartime medical crime,” said Yasushi Torii, head of a civil group investigating the case for decades.
“This is a start, although we probably need more evidence to prove Unit 731’s role,” said Torii, as he watched a shovelling machine and workers using hand-held shovels carefully dig part of the plot.
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 that they mass-produced to research germ warfare, according to historians and former unit members.
In addition to vivisections, Unit 731 also is believed to have frozen prisoners to death in endurance tests.
Historians estimate the number of the unit’s victims from the thousands to as many as 250,000 – mostly Chinese and Koreans, but they also may have included other nationalities, including Allied prisoners of war.
They believe some bodily remains of victims were transferred from China to Tokyo for analysis.
A Japanese court in 2002 acknowledged the unit’s germ warfare in China but ruled that Japan had no obligation to its victims. After years of denial, Tokyo acknowledged Unit 731’s existence but refused to detail its activities.