Researchers who have been investigating Japan's germ warfare experiments on Chinese civilians during World War II visited Los Angeles on Monday to urge the U.S. to release documents that they say would shed light on that chapter in history.
Survivors of those experiments have endured six decades of suffering that continues today, said Ignatius Ding, a spokesman for the Alliance to Preserve the History of WWII. "It's real, it's ongoing," he said.
Ding's group is hosting a tour of six U.S. cities by researchers and activists from China and Japan to publicize the issue.
Groundbreaking work by Sheldon H. Harris, a Cal State Northridge historian, helped establish that Japan's infamous Unit 731 had conducted large-scale biological warfare experiments in northern China. Harris, who died last year, had filed hundreds of Freedom of Information Act requests to gather information for his 1994 book "Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-1945, and the American Cover-Up."
In it, Harris wrote that U.S. authorities protected high-level Japanese scientists from prosecution in exchange for their data. At the time, the United States was developing its own biological warfare program.
Activists charge that the U.S. government has reclassified some of the documents it had previously declassified. They also say the Japanese government has undisclosed records.
Harris said that as many as 12,000 people died in Japanese laboratories after they were infected with anthrax, cholera, typhoid and plague, and that more than 250,000 civilians were killed as a result of Japanese field tests in the Chinese countryside.
Last year, a Japanese court, ending decades of denial, acknowledged for the first time that Unit 731 "used bacteriological weapons under the order of the imperial Japanese Army's headquarters" in occupied China in the 1930s and 1940s.
But the court rejected compensation for the 180 plaintiffs, saying that the compensation issues had been settled under postwar treaties between Japan and China. Each plaintiff sought about $85,000.
Despite the court finding, the Japanese government denies that its Army ever used biological agents in China.
Yang Wanzhu, director of the Institute of Germ Warfare Research in Chengde, China, and a member of the visiting group, said he believed that the toll of Japan's biological warfare was much higher than previously thought. Thus far, in Chengde Prefecture alone, 7,643 deaths have been confirmed, he said.
But the full extent of the deaths is not known, he said, because so many people fled the town and escaped to the countryside after Unit 731's aircraft allegedly dropped "36 kilos of plague germ-carrying fleas to Chengde on Nov. 4, 1941."
Yang, former deputy mayor of Chengde, said lack of education made victims fearful of injections. Many avoided hospitals because they feared being put into isolation wards, he said.
"So, they ran away to the countryside and carried the disease with them," Yang said.
Wang Xuan, a plaintiff in the court case, said researchers cannot get records of the biological warfare from the Japanese government.