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Prying Open WWII Secrets

September 06, 2003

Japanese Defense Minister Shigeru Ishiba traveled to China this week in a high-level response to the recent poisoning of dozens of Chinese by mustard gas left behind by the Japanese army after World War II. How sharply that visit contrasts with Japan's refusal to own up to its germ warfare experiments on Chinese civilians more than half a century ago.

Cao Gangchuan, China's defense chief, told Ishiba on Wednesday that Japan must also clean up hundreds of thousands of other weapons Japanese invaders abandoned.

Now if only the appropriate words could be spoken so that Chinese researchers, investigating Japan's germ warfare experiments, could pry loose the secrets they are seeking from the American and Japanese governments.

Last month, a group of researchers visited Los Angeles as part of its campaign to get the United States to release documents that it says relate to the Japanese tests. That's a reasonable request that should be heeded.

The late Sheldon H. Harris, a Cal State Northridge history professor, wrote a detailed account of the experiments in his 1994 book "Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-1945, and the American Cover-Up." He also told of the difficulty of wrenching documents out of U.S. vaults decades after the war's end.

Harris, who died last year, said that for years "official American sources continued to cover up" what they learned from interviewing the Japanese who conducted the experiments. He was told that documents did not exist, but then got them when he filed one of his many Freedom of Information requests. The U.S. should open as many files as it can.

Japan is no better. Last year, a Japanese court finally found that the infamous Unit 731 used bacteriological weapons in occupied China in the 1930s and '40s. Despite the court ruling, the Japanese government denies those weapons were ever used and bars access to its records.

Japan's Education Ministry also has been appropriately criticized for ordering the scrubbing of World War II atrocities from high school texts. The author of one textbook, historian Saburo Ienaga, sued the government in 1983. Fourteen years later, the Japanese Supreme Court ruled that the ministry had unconstitutionally blocked mention of Japanese wartime crimes in Ienaga's high school text. That sort of obstruction has typified the ministry.

The recalcitrance to admit past wrongdoing gives onetime enemies more ammunition to use against Japan. The leaking mustard gas canisters killed one man and sickened 42 people in northeastern China last month. Chinese protests over the incident reverberated more loudly because of Tokyo's silence.

Japan's success in building a strong postwar democracy would not be diminished by opening records of its past.

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