The timing couldn't have been worse.
Just weeks before Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's Sept. 4-8 visit to China, where memories of Japan's wartime atrocities still rankle, a group of Chinese launched a preemptive strike against Tokyo.
More than 100 Chinese sued the Japanese government last week for damage the Japanese Imperial Army caused with a germ-warfare program from 1940 to 1945. Seeking both an apology and $9.4 million, 108 plaintiffs filed the first case against Japan for its alleged germ-warfare program, known as Unit 731, which is said to have killed tens of thousands of people.
A half-century after the end of World War II and Japan's ignominious defeat, Tokyo continues to pay the price for its imperialistic past. Memories of its wartime occupation of many Asian countries linger throughout the region and shape relationships with neighbors-turned-trade partners.
But some Japanese hope the prime minister's trip will open the way for Tokyo to admit past wrongs, just as it expressed remorse four years ago to Korean "comfort women," who were used as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II.
"With the world paying attention, it is a great opportunity that a Japanese court tries its own country's germ-warfare case," says Keiichiro Ichinose, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs.
Four representatives of the plaintiffs, who say their family members were victims of the induced plague, were present at the court.
They have also been invited to town meetings to tell the Japanese audiences of their vivid recollections of what they lived through.
He Qisui, one of the plaintiffs, says he witnessed the peaceful life he had built in the port city of Ningbo tumble down after Japanese planes dropped plague-infested wheat grain on Oct. 27, 1940.
To eradicate the plague, everything, including 137 houses, was burned down. No house has been built in the area since. Both Japanese and Chinese researchers say the attack claimed more than 100 lives in Ningbo alone.
Wang Jingdi, another plaintiff from Chongshan village in Zhejiang Province, says the plague also killed his family members. Mr. Wang started his own investigation in 1966 about what happened in his village in 1942. By talking to older people he learned that Japanese soldiers came to his village and spread plague-infested grain from the air and put germs in water supplies. They also conducted gruesome human experiments on some of the villagers, he said.
Researchers say that just before Japan's surrender, Unit 731 unleashed its last experiment in northeastern China, claiming tens of thousands of lives by spreading fleas carrying bubonic plague and setting free thousands of infected rats in 32 villages.
Masataka Mori, a Japanese junior high school teacher who has researched the Japanese Army's human experiments and germ warfare extensively since 1985, says the total number of Chinese victims of the plague could be more than 100,000.
"Such a notorious crime has not been brought justice all these years," Mr. Mori says. He is now a leader of a Japanese civic group supporting the plaintiffs. He has been threatened by right-wing fanatics who believe Japan has nothing to apologize for.
The Japanese government has admitted the existence of Unit 731, but not its germ warfare, which was banned by the 1925 Geneva Convention. Many Japanese are still unaware of the activities of the unit even after some researchers started exposing them in the early 1980s.
"The government has refused to admit this historical fact for a long period. That is almost the same crime as germ warfare," says Mr. Ichinose. "Unless Japan takes full responsibility and acknowledges the historical fact, we will not be able to establish a trusted relationship with neighboring countries."
Prime Minister Hashimoto's China trip is to commemorate the 25th anniversary of normalized ties between China and Japan. But the trip will also take up more contemporary issues, including Chinese concerns about Japan's growing security role in the region under its defense pact with the United States.
The trip's timing may have been one reason Mr. Hashimoto decided not to visit the Shinto shrine in Tokyo dedicated to honoring Japanese soldiers killed in war. Many government ministers have visited the Yasukuni shrine every Aug. 15 for nearly half a century to mark the anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II. Their annual visits spark bitter criticism from China and many other Asian countries.
Instead of joining the pilgrimage to the controversial war shrine, Hashimoto is to visit a war museum in the northeastern city of Shenyang during his trip to China. He would be the first postwar Japanese premier to visit northeastern China, which bore the brunt of Japan's 1931-45 occupation.
"If the prime minister said 'sorry' in tears at the museum, Chinese people would know that's another political performance," Mori says. "That could make them more skeptical about Japan."
The plaintiffs of germ warfare, however, are more optimistic about the premier's visit to the exhibition.
"I'm sure that is going to be a great education for him," emphasizes Mr. He, who has visited the museum before. "Probably he will change his mind and opinion."