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Why the past still separates China and Japan

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / August 20, 2001


When Sun Chuan Ben fixed roofs at a Japanese base in the waning days of World War II, he was told not to ask questions. But he wondered why so many buildings were stacked with cages of yellow rats.

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Only later did he, and other Chinese, begin to learn what went on at Unit 731, a huge complex in northeast China. As both Chinese and surviving Japanese soldiers now allege, most recently in testimony before a Tokyo court, between 1938 and 1945 the germ-warfare research unit conducted experiments on Chinese people and worked on methods to spread disease, using animals from rats to camels. Japan has never officially acknowledged any wrongdoing at Unit 731.

That is one reason why, when Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi paid homage to Japan's war dead at a shrine last week, and when Japan's Education Ministry this summer approved history textbooks that whitewash or deny mass crimes by Japanese troops in Korea and China - those acts echo loudly in Asia in a way that is unpredictable, largely negative, and easily exploitable by right-wing factions.

"I am not against the Japanese people, I do not hate them," says Mr. Sun. "But I will not be friends with those Japanese who wish to deny what happened."

Such vocal disagreements also symbolize why, while Japan is China's top trading partner - ahead of the US - the China-Japan relationship remains the thickest and most complex Gordian Knot in Pacific relations.

These latest echoes also illustrate the complex psychological legacy of the war in Asia - something never reconciled in this part of the world, or examined in the way that Nazi crimes in Europe have been over time. Experts say it's a main reason why the security and diplomatic relationships that took hold in Europe after World War II have not taken place in this part of the world.

"As the 21st century begins, Asia's security environment seems likely to be shaped by the distrust, if not rivalry, between China and Japan that is the legacy of the past century," says Richard Solomon, director of the US Institute of Peace in Washington and a former China specialist at the US State Department.

The Unit 731 museum - which opened in June with 12 rooms of exhibits of rusty equipment, gas masks, photo documentaries, and acres of preserved ruins - is just one of many highly produced permanent exhibitions built in China during the 1990's, under an official campaign to highlight and educate about "the Anti-Japanese War of Aggression," the term given to Japan's 13-year occupation of China.

"When we see Koizumi walk to the shrine, we want to invite him to come here," says Wang Peng, manager of the exhibit. "The Japanese deny this germ-warfare center ever existed."

Koizumi, in his statement at the Yasukuni shrine last week, offered "profound remorse ... to all the victims of the war" and said due to a "mistaken policy ... Japan imposed ... immeasurable ravages and suffering ... to the people of ... Asia."

Precise knowledge about Unit 731 is sketchy by Western standards. The Japanese blew up the laboratories before they left, and China spent four more years in a civil war that brought in Communist rule. Most of the substantial evidence about the complex has come from former Japanese workers who broke their silence late in life.

One such worker, Yoshio Shinozuka, testified last year that he cultivated fleas that were exposed to rats with bubonic plague. Other accounts compiled in recent years suggest that Chinese prisoners were subjected to bubonic plague, frostbite, extreme heat, toxic gas, amputation, vivisection, and electric shocks. Some 3,000 people are estimated to have died inside the complex - though Chinese officials say the number is higher.