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Japanese Soldier Faces the Poison of His Past

September 19, 2004|Eric Talmadge | Associated Press Writer

YOKAICHIBA, Japan — Yoshio Shinozuka sits on the wooden steps of an old Buddhist temple just down the road from his home and the place where he will be buried. Surrounded by pine trees and rice paddies, the temple is quiet save for the incessant buzzing of cicadas.

Frail and fast approaching his 83rd birthday, he points to a small cemetery guarded by a statue of the Goddess of Mercy that will be his final resting place. "I've already chosen the plot," he says.

Shinozuka has had a lot of time to reflect on his youth, and his memories of those days are crystal clear.

But they are poison.

A member of Japan's Unit 731 in northeast China in the 1930s and '40s, Shinozuka belonged to perhaps the most advanced biological weapons operation of its time. As a teenager, he participated in atrocities -- vivisections and other experiments on humans -- that for millions of Chinese epitomize Japan's imperial rampage through Asia.

Conservative estimates place the number of the unit's victims in the thousands -- as many as 250,000, some historians say.

For many years, Japan's government denied Unit 731 existed.

In a landmark ruling in 2002, a Japanese court finally acknowledged the unit's operations caused "immense" suffering and were "clearly inhumane." But, like previous courts, it said the government had no legal obligation to atone for harm done to the victims.

As far as many Asians are concerned, Japan has never faced up to its past. World War II remains an open wound affecting its relations with neighbors.

Shinozuka, however, has devoted himself to making amends. He has testified on behalf of his Chinese victims. He has written a book for schoolchildren. In 1998, he tried to speak at peace conferences in the United States and Canada -- but immigration inspectors turned him away as a war criminal.

He accepts that label.

"It took me a long time to get beyond the excuse that I was just following orders," he said. "I was doing what I was told. And I might very well have been killed had I disobeyed. But what we did was so terrible that I should have refused, even if that meant my own death.

"But I didn't do that. And I will never be forgiven."


In February 1939, as Japan's war machine was devouring China, a recruiter came to Shinozuka's rural high school, dressed in an army aviator's uniform and promising a bright future for those who volunteered. There would be college scholarships, possible careers in medicine or aviation, travel, and the satisfaction of serving the emperor.

"We were all impressed," Shinozuka recalls. "It seemed like quite an opportunity."

Shinozuka aced the examination. "I think everybody passed that test," he said. "It was very easy."

He was 15 years old.

Two months later, he was ordered to join Unit 731 of the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army and was shipped off to its sprawling headquarters in the city of Pingfan, just outside Harbin in Japanese-controlled northeast China.

"The idea was that we would be responsible for providing our soldiers with safe drinking water," he said.

As a civilian with the unit's youth corps, Shinozuka spent most of his time in a classroom learning about basic medicine, sanitation and the spread of germs.

In spring 1940, he was given a more hands-on mission.

"Our unit was raising fleas and infecting them with the plague," he said. "My job was to see that they had live rats to grow on."

It was a simple operation -- the rats and their fleas, along with grains of wheat, were kept in small cages in a dark room. When a rat died, the fleas would naturally move away from its corpse and were then corralled by carefully placed red lights through a bathtub into a glass cylinder attached to the drain.

"What happened to the fleas next wasn't our concern," he said. But soon after Shinozuka got his new assignment, Chinese began dying of the plague.

According to documents filed by a group of Chinese victims with the Tokyo District Court in the 2002 compensation suit, Japanese military planes dropped wheat with plague-infected fleas over the city of Quxian on Oct. 4, 1940.

Despite intense efforts by townspeople to burn the infected materials, at least two dozen deaths from bubonic plague were reported there by year's end. A rail worker infected by the Quxian strain spread the disease to Yiwu, where more than 300 died. Hundreds more plague deaths followed in nearby areas.

In November 1941, Unit 731 aircraft also dropped cotton, grains and other flea-infested materials on the town of Changde, causing two outbreaks -- the second beginning in the spring when infected rats became active after surviving the winter. Overall, as many as 7,643 Chinese died.

"I never asked why we did what we did," Shinozuka said. "Nobody did. We weren't given any time to think about what we were doing. And there was an unspoken rule to hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. But there is no doubt in my mind that what the Chinese say is true."


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