Authorities in Japan have begun excavating the former site of a medical school that may contain the remains of victims of the country’s World War II biological warfare program.
The school has links to Unit 731, a branch of the imperial Japanese army that conducted lethal experiments on prisoners as part of efforts to develop weapons of mass destruction.
Japan has previously acknowledged the unit’s existence, but refused to discuss its activities, despite testimony from former members and growing documentary evidence. In 2002 a Japanese court said Tokyo was under no obligation to compensate victims.
The government agreed to launch a ￥100 million (US$1.2 million) investigation after Toyo Ishii, a former nurse, said she had helped bury body parts on the site as the US forces moved into Tokyo at the end of World War II. Officials said so far there was no evidence the site had been used for experiments.
“We are not certain if the survey will find anything,” Kazuhiko Kawauchi, a health ministry official, said. “If anything is dug up, it may not be related to Unit 731.”
Experts believe that if the excavation yields physical evidence that Japan conducted experiments on live humans, the government would face pressure to discuss the country’s wartime conduct.
“If bones or organs with traces of live medical experiments are found, the government would have to admit a wartime medical crime,” said Yasushi Torii, head of a group that has been investigating the case for decades. “This is a start, although we will probably need more evidence to prove Unit 731’s involvement.”
Ishii, 88, broke her silence in 2006, saying that she and colleagues had been ordered to bury numerous corpses, bones and body parts following Japan’s surrender.