TOKYO — In mid-August, as Japan commemorated the 72nd anniversary of the end of World War II, the Japanese broadcasting corporation NHK scheduled a series of new documentary films about the troubled chapter in the country's history. The episodes were titled “The Truth of Harbin Unit 731,” “Testimonies on the Battle of Sakhalin,” and “The Battle of Imphal.” The three documentaries took an entirely different perspective on events than Japan was used to and, set off a vigorous public debate.
Since its unconditional surrender after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, claiming more than 200,000 lives, Japan has often presented itself as the victim of the war.
This viewpoint is drastically different from that of other Asian countries, such as South Korea and China. Though I am Japanese myself, I have always felt uneasy with Japan's narrative of the war. But I do understand what it stems from: On one hand, the Japanese soldiers who invaded other countries were outside Japan’s territory and most of them died. On the other hand, some of the victims of America’s intensive air raids and atomic bombings on Japanese territory, as well as their family members, are still alive.
Sharply diverging from Japan's traditional depiction of the War, the three recent NHK documentaries hold the Imperial Japanese Army accountable and ask why it committed such inhumane crimes.
Unit 731: Scientific Experimentation On Humans
Located on the outskirts of China’s northeastern city of Harbin, Unit 731 was originally responsible for epidemic prevention and water supply for the Kwantung Army. But later it would begin to develop chemical and biological weapons after experimenting on humans.
I once visited the chilling site and was deeply impressed by the documents displayed there, mostly written in Japanese. The perpetrators of the crimes there, Imperial Japanese Army doctors, handed over their experiment results to the Allies after the War, and in return were exempt from charges and allowed to continue living as ordinary civilians.
Harbin bioweapon facility — Photo: Markus Källander
The United States classified this chapter of history as top secret and never disclosed any of the archives.
When Japan announced its unconditional surrender, Unit 731 troops secretly executed all of the 3,000-odd Chinese experimentation victims, to eliminate the evidence. The majority of Harbin’s inhabitants never knew what had happened around them. The truth gradually surfaced as some of the unit's veterans revealed parts of the story before they died, or wrote about them in their diaries. The bombed-out base was eventually taken over by the Soviet Army, and the NHK traveled to Russia to carry out in-depth interviews for its documentary.
To this day, nobody in Japan has been held responsible for the unit's actions.
Most of the material for the documentary comes from 20 hours of recorded archives from the testimonies of core members of Unit 731 at the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials held Dec. 25-31, 1949. In the recordings, the servicemen openly describe the barbaric acts undertaken in the laboratory. What can clearly be asserted is that it was not just the work of a small Japanese unit, but part of a huge national enterprise headed by the medical elites of the universities of Tokyo and Kyoto. Though at first some young doctors strongly condemned the experimentation on humans imposed by the armed forces, they were ultimately silenced. To this day, nobody in Japan has been held responsible for the unit's actions.
Sakhalin: Seven Days After The Truce
The island of Sakhalin is located just north of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. At the end of the war, 400,000 people lived there. Worried that the Soviet Army would take over Hokkaido after Japan's surrender, the Imperial Army ordered the inhabitants of Sakhalin to resist the Soviets at any cost. The war had already ended, but the civilians of Sakhalin fought the Soviet troops for seven days using such crude weapons as bamboo spears.
For decades, the survivors remained silent about the horrific battle. Some of them, over 90 years old today, spoke out in the NHK documentary for the first time. At the end of the war, the Americans had guaranteed that Soviet Army would not invade Hokkaido. But the Imperial Army used Sakhalin’s inhabitants as shields, ordering them to defend Hokkaido to the last survivor. No one in Japan was ever held responsible for the many who died.
The Battle Of Imphal
The Battle of Imphal took place at the border of India and Burma between March and July 1944. For the first time, the NHK documentary followed the route taken by Japanese soldiers and reported on “the most insane battle of Japanese army history.”
Renya Mutaguchi, the lieutenant general and commander of the 15th Army led the advance into the British base in northern India. Within three weeks, the Japanese soldiers marched 400 kilometers at altitudes of up to 3,000 meters in the mountains of modern-day Myanmar. All of the subordinate officers thought the plan was reckless, but Mutaguchi insisted and eventually sent nearly 75,000 Japanese soldiers into the failed, deadly offensive.
It’s the last chance to record this.
Most of the soldiers perished of starvation or disease. Later the road became known as “the road of bones." But Mutaguchi never accepted responsibility for the deaths, and lived another 20 years after the war. The NHK documentary pointed to a total lack of accountability for the commanding headquarters of the Japanese army.
RAF plane attacking a Japanese position during the Battle of Imphal — Photo: Ryley R
The editor of the three NHK documentaries, Hosaka Masayasu, 77, is a renowned researcher of the Showa period (1926–1989) and an old friend of mine. “The program was originally the idea of some young journalists who thought the Japanese people didn't really know what the Japanese military forces did during World War II," he told me recently. "They wondered whether the Japanese press has responsibly transmitted the historical truth. Very few people of the generation who knew the truth are still alive, so it’s the last chance to record this.”
Masayasu notes that more than three million Japanese people were victims of the war, yet the senior officers implicated didn’t bear any responsibility. "On the contrary, they got generous pensions after the war and lived comfortable lives,” he says.
The questions stretch from the war's first to last days. “Why on earth did Japan become an enemy of the Americans and hastily rush into the war?" he asks. "The Japanese people today shouldn’t ignore or feel indifferent about what the Imperial Japanese forces did. We ought to look deeply into this part of history, remember it, and pass the truth on to our descendants.”
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