The fleas scattered over Hunan by Japanese warplanes were perhaps the world's most pampered vermin, raised by the imperial army's Epidemic Prevention and Water-Supply Unit, better known as Unit 731. Today the ruins of its headquarters, located outside the Manchurian city of Harbin, stand next to a village schoolyard. Chatter from the nearby basketball court wafts past an unpainted wooden shed with a shabby metal roof that covers 96 cement pits, each a meter square. Here, 60 years ago, Japanese doctors infected yellow rats with the plague and dropped them into flea-filled oil drums. Workers then loaded the weaponized fleas into ceramic shells designed to burst open a hundred meters above parts of Hunan and Zhejiang provinces. Japanese generals hoped to spread the plague so widely that China's grain harvest would collapse and its army would starve into submission.
The horrors of Unit 731 came into sharp focus on Aug. 27. That day, Tokyo judge Koji Iwata issued a landmark decision on a case brought by 180 Chinese victims of the 1940-41 plague. They were seeking compensation of about $84,000 each for damages inflicted by Unit 731. The government has long denied evidence of such crimes. But the judge declared that "The deployment of biological weapons was a strategic part of Japan's war plans and was carried out under orders from the central army." Unit 731 lay at the heart of these atrocities: Iwata said its "main objective was to research, develop and manufacture biological weapons." He stopped short of ordering compensation, though, ruling that there is no international law that enables individuals to sue for war damages.
The victims disagreed. About 300 mostly gray-haired Chinese protested the decision outside a government building in Changde, where they raised banners reading, "Admit the Crime and Compensate!" Meanwhile, a subtle, long-awaited change seems finally to be under way in Japan. After decades of denial, ordinary Japanese are displaying a creeping contrition that is reflected in the courtroom, if not yet by the government. In April, a district court in Fukuoka ordered the Mitsui Mining Co., a subsidiary of one of Japan's biggest conglomerates, to pay $1.4 million apiece to 15 Chinese forced to work in the company's mines during the war. (Japan transported an estimated 40,000 Chinese conscripts to its islands to work on construction sites and mines.) In August 2001 a Kyoto court awarded compensation to 15 Korean workers forced aboard a naval ship that subsequently exploded and sank in 1945. And last year, a Tokyo court ordered the government to pay $170,000 to the son of the late Liu Lien-yen, a slave worker from China who escaped in July 1945 and spent the next 13 years living in the mountains of northern Hokkaido, unaware that Emperor Hirohito had surrendered.
These verdicts are a striking departure for a country led by conservatives who would rather deny, revise or bury the past. Tokyo hard-liners still capture headlines by declaring, as former defense chief Hosei Norota did last year, that Japan invaded most of Asia only because it "had fallen prey to a scheme of the United States." Publishers of middle school textbooks, who in the past few years finally began calling the 1937 murder of up to 300,000 civilians in Nanjing a "massacre," recently succumbed to right-wing pressure and changed most editions back to calling the slaughter an "incident." Aging politicians often insist that civilians in occupied nations were actually grateful for Japan's presence, and that women dragooned into sexual servitude for imperial soldiers were willing prostitutes—assertions that make even a loonocracy like North Korea sound thoughtful when its leaders call Japan a nation of "political dwarves."
The furors created by Japanese double-talk obscure a simple fact: increasingly, ordinary Japanese want to know what happened, even if their government doesn't want them to. The Kinokuniya Bookstore in central Tokyo stocks dozens of books on Japan's war guilt; a few years ago it sold only a handful. Confessional memoirs of veterans (What We Did in China; Nanking Massacre and the Imperial Army; and Comfort Women from the Eyes of a Korean Female) sit side by side with revisionist histories and studies that flatly deny such massacres ever took place (How the Nanking Massacre Was Concocted; Korean Colonization: No Reason to Apologize; and The Nonexistence of Sexual Slavery). An annual poll of first-year history students at Meiji University in Tokyo consistently shows that more than two-thirds of students believe Japan has done too little to atone for its wartime past. Others point more proudly to the tangible efforts the country has made to pay for its sins. For a start, the Japanese government in 1999 gave $414 million in development aid directly to China—far more than China receives from any other country. And in 1995, Japan set up the Asian Women's Fund, a semi-private charity to collect money for women forced into sexual slavery by the military. Still, even the fund's director, Mizuho Matsuda, remains unimpressed. "Japan has not done enough," she complains, "although it's incorrect to say Japan has done nothing."
The resurrection of the ghosts of Unit 731 in court last week reminds Japan how much there is to regret. Supervised by Dr. Shiro Ishii, a renowned Tokyo scientist, the center's staff performed experiments on what research documents refer to as maruta, literally "wooden logs." The lumber was in fact live subjects, mostly Chinese soldiers and civilians but also captured Russians, British and Americans. They were frozen alive to research frostbite. Burned alive to research human combustion. Loaded into vacuum chambers until their bellies ruptured. Hung by their ankles to see how long a person can live upside-down. They were infected with plague, anthrax and cholera and subjected to vivisection without anesthesia. For 13 years the experiments continued, ending with Japan's surrender in 1945. Between 3,000 and 12,000 maruta died. None survived Unit 731.
Zhu Yunfen's father was one of its many victims. In 1941, the 25-year-old soldier from Heilongjiang province vanished after falling into Japanese hands. A Japanese officer told Zhu's family that prison guards had fed him alive to their German shepherd dogs. It seemed plausible, but the lack of proof weighed on the family for decades. Last year, a long-overlooked cache of half-burned Japanese documents discovered in Changchun, Jilin province, revealed that her father had been captured while delivering intelligence on Japanese troop positions to Russian officers. He died at Unit 731. Now 62 years old, Zhu balances her relief at knowing what happened against the surety of her father's suffering. The simple apology she longs for has not been forthcoming. "Soon all of us who are affected will be dead and it will be too late to bring us peace," says Zhu.
One reason for the official silence is that Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), in power almost continuously since 1955, is beholden to nationalistic groups such as the million-strong Shrine Association, which represents Japan's 80,000 Shinto shrines. This staunchly conservative organization, which opposes compensating sex slaves and other victims of Japan's aggression, continues to insist that Japan fought on foreign soil to liberate its neighbors from Western colonialism. Nearly half of the LDP members in Japan's parliament routinely attend Shrine Association events or accept its donations, according to Nobunao Tanaka, author of two books critical of the far-right's influence on mainstream Japan. Jeff Kingston, author of a forthcoming book on Japanese war guilt and a history professor at Temple University in Tokyo, argues, "Diminishing Japan's war responsibility is aimed at maintaining core constituencies of the LDP." An unapologetic stance has become "a litmus test for conservative leaders," he adds.
As for China's leaders, they don't make it any easier for the Japanese to apologize. Dwelling on memories of wartime atrocities wins the Communist Party more public support than they might hope for by reconciling differences with Tokyo. Shopworn black-and-white propaganda movies featuring evil Japanese heavies still get prime-time slots on state-run TV; variety shows produced for state media commonly offer renditions of a wartime ditty, Broadsword March, with its famous opening line: "The broadsword is chopping off the heads of the Japanese devils."
The U.S. played its own role in preventing a reckoning at Unit 731. Neither camp director Ishii nor any senior doctors were arraigned at war crimes trials that took place in Tokyo from 1946-48 under U.S. supervision. In one of the darker moments of American medical history, U.S. officials offered to exempt Unit 731's leaders from prosecution in exchange for their test results. Many of Unit 731's top officials went on to become prominent in Japan's pharmaceutical industry.
Some individuals, however, have come forward with the truth and confessed their shame. The day before the Tokyo court decision, a former official in charge of raising bacteria for biological warfare, Yoshio Shinozuka, visited the unit's site—one of 10,000 Japanese who do so every year. The retreating Japanese army had destroyed all buildings except the main office, which now houses a small, tasteful exhibition explaining what happened and showing items such as scalpels and poison gas canisters. Curator Wang Peng says Shinozuka told him how sorry he was for what he had done and had laid a wreath at a memorial to 86 of the known victims. "If the Japanese government could do that, the Chinese people could forgive," says Wang.
There are more practical ways to make amends too. In addition to biological weapons, Japan developed a huge stock of chemical weapons, mostly mustard gas. The army left behind as many as 2 million chemical bombs, many of them dumped in rivers. The Chinese government compounded the problem by burying those it discovered. Japan has promised to clean them up, but hasn't yet figured out how to dispose of the corroding metal shells. Meanwhile, the Chinese peasantry figures out its own uses for these historical relics. "I found one guy who had a chemical weapon sticking out of the ground by his front door," says Bu Ping, vice president of the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences and an expert on Japan's chemical weapons program in China. "He was using it as a doorstop." A lawsuit has been brought by Chinese who have been injured by discarded chemical weapons decades after the war ended; the case is expected to be heard in a Tokyo court next year.
Back in Hunan, where the plague was delivered by air-dropped fleas, villagers still await an apology, let alone compensation. Only then, they say, will they be able to move on. In the meantime, they continue to pass their angry distrust down to their children. "We have a tradition," says Huang, who caught the plague from his dead friend's socks. "We scare naughty kids by warning, 'The Japanese planes are coming!'"