Rotten Leg Villages
Even today in just one small village of Caojie, near Jinhua in the province of Zhejiang in China, there are hundreds of victims of biological warfare still suffering from painful wounds originated more than 60 years ago when their village was decimated in 1942 by Japan with glanders, anthrax, and other biological weapon agents. Ruan Shufeng, shown below with his wife, is one such victim who suffers with a festering, open, ulcerous and extremely painful wound in his right leg, That is why Caojie and several other similar villages are called “rotten leg villages”
Unprecedented Scale of Biological/Chemical Warfare
The biological weapon attack in Zhejiang province is just one of many thousands of biological and chemical warfare attacks by the Japanese army in many parts of China during the Sino-Japanese War of 1931-1945. These included places in the provinces of Hunan, Jiangsu, Jilin, Kwangtung, Yunnan, and Heilongjiang.
The largest Japanese biological/chemical warfare laboratory was in Ping Fan, a small village near the city of Harbin, Heilongjiang Province in northeast China, known as Unit 731. Unit 731 was a gigantic complex covering six square kilometers and consisted of more than 150 buildings, with living quarters and amenities for up to 3,000 Japanese staff members, 300-500 of whom were medical doctors and scientists. The complex contained various factories. It had 4,500 containers for raising fleas, six giant cauldrons to produce various chemicals, and around 1,800 containers to produce biological agents. Approximately 30 kg of bubonic plague bacteria could be produced there in several days. Especially in the area of biological weapons, Unit 731 could be considered to be the largest such laboratory ever in the world. Not only that it was state of the art, it significantly extended the state of the art, partially because the Japanese had no reluctance at all to experiment with live patients, including doing autopsies while the victims were still alive.
An example of biological (or germ) warfare occurred on October 4, 1940 when a Japanese airplane dropped plague-infected fleas (causing bubonic and other plagues) over Quzhou, a small town in western Zhejiang Province. The first victims died within a few days, and more than 2,000 people in Quzhou died within one year from this plague. In addition, in September 1941 a railway worker brought the plague from Quzhou to the city of Yiwu (about 90 miles east of Quzhou), and within a year, more than 1,000 people in the Yiwu region died from this plague. Another example of germ warfare was a series of anthrax and glanders attacks starting in 1942 on many villages in the Jinhua area of Zhejiang Province (including the one mentioned at the beginning of this article), when at least 6,000 of the 30,000 inhabitants of Jinhua were infected by bacteria caused by biological weapons, and at least 3,000 of them died soon after the infection while suffering extremely painful and miserable lives before they died. Below is a photo of the legs of a victim of the glanders attack.
As to chemical warfare, such as using poisonous gases, it has been estimated that during the 14 years of the Sino-Japanese War, Japan used poisonous gases more than 2,000 times in 77 counties of 14 provinces in direct violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol on prohibition on the use of chemical weapons, which Japan had also signed. These attacks killed tens of thousands of Chinese, including many civilians.
Furthermore, when WWII came to a close, Japan abandoned a myriad of chemical weapons in China (as many as hundreds of thousands of poison gas weapons) by burying them underground or dumping them in rivers. Many have started to leak and led to civilian deaths and injuries. The United Nations’ Chemical Weapons Convention, which came into force in 1997, requires Japan to retrieve and dispose of these weapons. Major efforts for the toxic cleanup have been negotiated by the Chinese and Japanese governments. The Japanese consulting company Pacific Consultants International (PCI) won the exclusive contract from the Japanese government to retrieve these weapons, but unfortunately this company apparently resorted to fraudulent means to milk the contract. The former president and four others of PCI were arrested in May 2008 on suspicion of fraud. According to the contract, all the remaining poisonous shells and canisters were supposed to have been recovered and disposed of by spring 2007. After spending nearly 50 billion yen (or about U.S. $500 million), only 40,000 shells had been retrieved, and the completion deadline has been extended to 2012 (from the May 16, 2008 article “Chemical Weapons” in The Asahi Shimbun). Therefore, this continues to pose a major, serious health hazard for the Chinese population.
The use of biological and chemical weapons, as well as the commitment of other horrific atrocities by the Japanese during the Sino-Japanese War was driven by the lust of the Japanese imperial empire to expand and colonize. Apparently achieving that objective overrode normal moral principles and humanitarian concerns. Facing China with its large population, one way of leveling the playing field was to reduce the population of China via weapons of mass destruction. To help its soldiers and citizens not to hold back on such destruction, on the one hand it relied on the modern bushido code of unquestioned loyalty to their emperor, who was considered to be divine within their then State Shinto religion. On the other hand it adopted a superiority complex in the sense that the Japanese was a superior race, and the Chinese and other Asians were inferior, like animals. So in spite of being a signer of the Geneva Protocol of 1925 that prohibits the use of poisonous gases, Japan ignored the Geneva Protocol and extensively used poisonous gases, as well as other chemical and biological weapons, in its war in China.
Denial by Japanese Government
There are overwhelming evidences of the existence and use of biological weapons in China by the Japanese. These evidences include eyewitness/survivor accounts, investigations and findings by many Japanese researchers and Japanese civilian delegations, testimonies of former UN weapons inspectors, diaries of Japanese soldiers, and many other Japanese documents in the Japanese government’s possession. In spite of this large quantity of evidence, the Japanese government still on many occasions claims that “We do not have sufficient documentary evidence for the biological attacks in China.” This is plainly wrong and similar to the denials by the Japanese government on other atrocities committed by the Japanese during WWII, such as the Nanking Massacre, sex slaves (or euphemistically called “comfort women” by the Japanese), and slave labor.
The U.S. government is fully aware of the use of biological and chemical weapons in China by the Japanese during WWII. We mention two documents to illustrate this point. One was a top-secret report on bacteriological warfare dated July 17, 1947 for the chief of staff of the Far Eastern Commission that was compiled by Brigadier General Charles Willoughby, head of the “G2” intelligence unit of the US-led postwar occupation forces in Japan. The second was a July 22, 1947 letter from the same Brigadier General Willoughby to Major General S. J. Chamberlin, director of intelligence of the US War Department General Staff. These documents mentioned the need for continued use of confidential funds without restrictions to obtain such intelligence, and that the information so procured and the data on human experiments may prove invaluable and will have the greatest value in future development of the US biological weapons program. Brigadier General Willoughby also wrote that the information obtained by the Japanese was only obtainable through the skillful, psychological approach of top-flight pathologists involved in Unit 731 experiments.
Recognizing the breakthrough knowledge and techniques of the Japanese in the area of biological weapons and the moral constraints in the U.S., the U.S. government realized that it could not duplicate the human experiments of the Japanese and also wanted to keep that kind of knowledge from the Russians. So the US cut a deal with many Japanese officers and scientists: Immunity from prosecution for war crimes in return for their experimental data and knowledge
Probably because of the U.S.’s close alliance with Japan and the U.S.’s hostile attitude toward Communist China, the U.S. has not done very much to press Japan to own up to its responsibility. And because for at least the first 20-30 years of its existence, the People’s Republic of China wanted recognition by the world as the legitimate representative of China in the U.N., the Chinese government was also reluctant to press Japan on owning up to its responsibility for the atrocities Japan committed in China.
Movement to Seek Justice
When neither the Japanese government nor the U.S. seemed prepared to admit to either the crimes or the cover-up, in 1995 a small group of appalled Japanese reached out to the Chinese, and formed an unusual alliance. They were determined to use the system to change the system, and decided a lawsuit was the best way. However, without the testimonies of survivors and eyewitnesses, they would not be able to build a case. So a Japanese delegation planned to visit Chongshan in Zhejiang Province to gather evidence from survivors and eyewitnesses.
Wang Xuan, a Chinese woman who was working in Japan at that time, read in the Japan Times about this plan and lawsuit. Since she was originally from that area and is fluent in Japanese and the local Chinese dialect, she volunteered to be the bridge between the Japanese and the Chinese. Her contributions have been invaluable. She convinced the at-first reluctant villagers to provide evidence and testified, she collected detailed evidence, she held political rallies and organized conferences, she lobbied officials of both governments, and forged international links between academics in Asia and the U.S. Finally on August 27, 2002, the Tokyo District Court admitted for the first time that the Japanese army had used biological warfare in China during WWII. However, the court threw out a compensation claim (about 10 million yens, or about $100K U.S. for each victim) from 180 people who lost relatives due to the actions of Unit 731. The Tokyo High Court and the Japan Supreme Court threw out the appeal, respectively, on July 19, 2005 and May 9, 2007.
In spite of the unprecedented scale of Japan’s development and use of biological and chemical weapons in China and their horrific effects, people in the West know very little about this part of WWII history.
In March 2009, under the leadership of the previously mentioned Wang Xuan, a Society of Victims of Japanese Germ Warfare was established in the city of Yiwu, Zhejiang Province, and was approved by the Yiwu municipal civil administration. The purpose of the society is to make sure that this part of history is not forgotten, and to provide a support system for the victims, including possibly filing additional lawsuits in Japan.
It is important to keep in mind the following two quotes:
- “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” – Great American/Spanish philosopher George Satayana
- “All that is needed for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” – 18th century Anglo-Irish statesman and philosopher Edmund Burke
I want to end this article with another quote, from Ying-Ying Chang, mother of Iris Chang, the award-winning author of the best seller The Rape of Nanking: The Forgotten Holocaust of World War II. The quote is from her ending statement in her article “Reflections on the Nanking Massacre after 70 years of Denial” published in the Spring 2008 issue of “The Harvard Asia Pacific Review.” It said “I wrote this article with Maya Angelou’s words in mind, ‘History, despite its wrenching pain, cannot be unlived, but if faced with courage, need not be lived again.’”