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Human bones could reveal truth of Japan's 'Unit 731' experiments
More than 60 years after the end of the Second World War, the name "Unit 731" still has the power to generate shock, revulsion and denial in Japan. (http://is.gd/CJqGpP)
By Julian Ryall in Tokyo
15 Feb 2010
The Imperial Japanese Army's notorious medical research team carried out secret human experiments regarded as some of the worst war crimes in history.
Its scientists subjected more than 10,000 people per year to grotesque Josef Mengele-style torture in the name of science, including captured Russian soldiers and downed American aircrews.
The experiments included hanging people upside down until they choked, burying them alive, injecting air into their veins and placing them in high-pressure chambers.
Now new detail about their victims' suffering could be revealed after the authorities in Tokyo announced plans to open an investigation into human bones thought to have come from the unit.
A new search is also due to be carried out for mass graves that may contain more victims of human experiments.
The bones are thought to be from up to 100 people and were discovered in a mass grave in 1989 during construction work.
They bore the marks of saws and some of the skulls had drill holes and portions of the bone cut out. But the issue is so controversial in Japan that they have since been stored in a repository.
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Acting on information from a former nurse, the authorities have announced they will re-examine the remains to determine whether they were used in some of the barbaric experiments carried out by Unit 731 in the dying days of the Second World War.
Toyo Ishii came forward to say that during the weeks after Japan's surrender in August 1945, she and her colleagues at the army hospital were ordered to bury corpses, bones and body parts – she said it was impossible to determine how many people they came from – before the Allies arrived.
In an interview, she claimed that the hospital had three mortuaries where bodies with numbered tags around their necks were stored in a pool of formalin to preserve them before they were dissected. Organs and other body parts were preserved in glass jars. The sites that Ishii pinpointed as the mass graves will now be excavated.
The remains were found on the site of an apartment complex in the Shinjuku district of the city which is scheduled for redevelopment. It means the search is likely to be the last effort to identify the victims and determine their fate.
An investigation after the remains were found in 1989 concluded they were mostly non-Japanese Asians and had probably been used in "medial education" or taken to the medical school from battlefields overseas for analysis. The health ministry has repeatedly denied requests from relatives of several Chinese whose relatives are believed to have died in Unit 731 experiments to have DNA tests carried out on the bones.
Unit 731 was mostly active in China, where it carried out biological, bacteriological and chemical weapons tests on civilians and prisoners of war, including Russian soldiers and Americans.
Others were subject to vivisections, exposed to extreme cold or killed in tests in pressure chambers.
The extreme right wing in Japan refuses to accept that the unit was anything more than a sanitation team that operated behind the front-line troops while virtually nothing on its activities is mentioned in school history books. Many of the scientists involved in Unit 731 went on to have careers in politics, academia, business, and medicine.
"Most people do not believe it even happened; the rest just want to cover it up and forget about what Japan did during the war," said Tsuyoshi Amemiya, a retired military historian. "Young people don't know and they don't want to know."