Angry States: Chinese views of Japan as seen through the Unit 731 War Museum 1949-2013

Tony Brooks (Cambridge)

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Part II
Hu Qiaomu, Unit 731 and war memory

Mao’s former secretary Hu Qiaomu was frequently involved in behind the scenes decision making on how to portray the history of China’s war with Japan. During the Cultural Revolution Chen Boda (who like Hu was one of the party’s top theoreticians) attacked the history profession with the famous jibe that “history is basically completely useless,” which led to historians being persecuted to such an extent that their subject was “smashed to pieces by the Gang of Four,” an ultra-left clique which included Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. [44] From 1980 onwards, Comrade Hu rehabilitated China’s beleaguered historians and gave them the green light for using history as a means of solving intractable problems—such as how to “correctly” remember wartime Japanese atrocities committed at Unit 731. Hu Qiaomu offered reconciliation with historians, by accepting that “in order to solve current real, practical problems, you can’t ignore history…it does not matter how complex the problem, if you use history’s vision to analyse [problems], everything can be understood.” [45] These remarks, coming from one of China’s most prominent Marxist theorists, removed at a stroke the ideological stigma that had so recently been attached to historians and their work. From the early 1980s onwards then, remembering these atrocities allowed the CCP to blot out memory of the Cultural Revolution. This plan was executed in two stages. During the first stage Deng Xiaoping quickly sought to draw a line under the excesses of the Mao era, by apportioning blame for the party inspired catastrophes of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, coupled with a reappraisal of post-1949 party policies. Deng achieved this by asking Hu Qiaomu to draft the historical questions resolution discussed in the last chapter.” [46] In this respect the publication of the resolution in June 1981 was spectacularly successful, since it was structured in such a way that any future criticism of the CCP elite over its own past could be neatly deflected, by always referring back to the party’s own criticism of itself in the text of the resolution.

This process also seems to have had a cathartic function, allowing party leaders to get on with their day-to-day job of running the country, whilst at the same time avoiding recriminations for such egregious mistakes as the Great Leap Forward man-made famine. Furthermore, the very fact that the historical questions resolution was published at all, demonstrated that Deng Xiaoping wanted to differentiate himself from the secretive style and personality cult associated with his predecessor Mao Zedong. However, formally drawing a line under the party’s Mao era mistakes was emphatically not the same as forgetting those mistakes. After all, at the time of publication of the historical questions resolution (in 1981) the Cultural Revolution was still fresh in everyone’s memory, since it had ended only five years previously (in 1976), with Mao’s death and the arrest of the Gang of Four. This left something of a vacuum in CCP debates on all sorts of recent historical issues, because the resolution, revelatory as it was, still papered over many uncomfortable truths which could not be talked about. Put differently, although by CCP standards the June 1981 historical questions resolution had been unusually open, the CCP still needed to find an effective means of forgetting incidents and political campaigns that now, in the post-Mao era, might call into question its right to rule. For example, was the CCP fit to rule if its Great Leap Forward policies caused a man-made famine which had killed more Chinese people than the Japanese during the war? [47] Was the CCP fit to rule if it had launched political campaigns which killed Chinese “rightists” and landlords in ways just as violent as any invading Kwantung Army soldier? The second stage of Deng Xiaoping’s master plan, to erase public collective memory of policy mistakes committed during the Mao era, involved downplaying post-1949 history by highlighting war memory. Before we can assess the evidence for this though, it is necessary to contextualise Deng’s thinking in terms of the global rise of wartime commemoration from the 1980s onwards. This is required because if the Chinese increase in remembrance of World War Two mirrored the rise taking place globally, then downplaying memory of Mao-era excesses would not explain the 1980s rise in prominence of Chinese wartime commemoration at Unit 731 and elsewhere.

Unit 731 and the explosion of war memory in the 1980s and ‘90s

Entrance to 731 Museum

Entrance to 731 Museum

As noted in chapter one the first textbook crisis erupted in July 1982, following the publication in Japan of revised history textbooks which downplayed the wartime invasion of mainland China by Japanese forces. [48] It is well documented that this crisis provided the initial momentum for the building of a small number of high profile Anti-Japanese War museums around the country, such as the Nanjing Massacre Museum noted above. [49] However, it is not clear whether this burst of war museum construction was influenced by purely domestic considerations. This doubt exists because Barbara Misztal notes that during the 1980s and 90s there was a global explosion of “commemorative fever,” in the form of an astonishing burst of interest in collective memory as a historical phenomenon. [50] It is therefore important to ascertain to what extent these global trends influenced the Chinese decision to start building museums commemorating the Anti-Japanese War. The historian Michael Kammen provides a comprehensive list of causal factors for the 1980s and 90s burst of interest in sites of memory, which forms a useful framework for analysing the Chinese case. Firstly, during the 1980s and 90s there was a worldwide surge of well-organised, well-funded civic commemorations, such as the bicentenary of the 1776 revolution in the United States (1975–76) and the quincentennial anniversary of Columbus’s first voyage to the New World (1992). Kammen argues that events such as these acted as a catalyst for other major global commemorations. [51] Certainly, after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and China’s reforms got underway, the country was much more open to the influences of foreign diplomacy, culture and trade. To illustrate with just one example, between the years 1980–2000 the number of Chinese students studying abroad increased from 2,124 to 38,989. Returnees also increased, from just 162 in 1980 to 9,121 in 2000. [52] However, during the early 1980s, China had only just commenced its reform and opening up to the outside world, and it is unlikely that commemoration events such as those mentioned above would have influenced the Chinese leadership’s decision to start their own large-scale commemorative activities at Unit 731 and elsewhere. Secondly, Kammen talks of “delayed memory syndrome,” which he defines as “a period of 15 years of relative neglect or repression following some major historical trauma.” [53] This line of reasoning plausibly explains the lack of interest in the Holocaust and the Vietnam War until the 1960s and 80s respectively. However, the delayed memory syndrome model does not fit the Chinese situation very well either, since the post-1982 surge in state-led remembrance at Unit 731 did not commence until 50 years after the first Japanese biological warfare unit was set up in Manchuria (in 1932 at Beiyinhe), and almost 30 years after the retreating Japanese abandoned Unit 731 in 1945.

The 15 year rule might have held were it not for the intervening revolutionary upheaval of the Chinese Civil War, the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution. At the very least, this suggests that the production of war memory was delayed by domestic political events. Another possibility here is that the sheer scale of the suffering during the Japanese occupation meant that after the war the CCP found it exceptionally difficult to deal with this humiliation (as did the GMD on Taiwan), and it therefore shunned detailed analysis of specific incidents (e.g. biological warfare attacks) or sites (e.g. Unit 731) by peremptorily blaming feudalism or fascism instead.[/ref]Lary and MacKinnon, The Scars of War, 2.[/ref] These “scars of war” remained buried for so long because they were overlain by the fresh pain of Chinese-versus- Chinese conflict following the foundation of the PRC, such as the anti-landlord campaigns of the early 1950s. [54] Thirdly, Kammen briefly details a number of other possible causal factors that could account for the 1980s and 90s commemoration fever. These include a rise of state-sponsored tourism, which packages the past as heritage, and of memory “as an act of consciousness,” where war veterans feel the need to confess as their lives draw to a close. [55] He also talks of the role that increasingly “authoritative” war films play in stimulating war memory because they “tell it like it really was.” [56] Taking each of these points in turn, it is unlikely that state-sponsored mass tourism would have been a driving force for reviving memory of Unit 731 during the early 1980s, as there was nothing for tour groups to see—in 1982 the Pingfang site was not much more than a pile of rubble. Even today, the local Harbin government prefers to promote the city as a tourist or investment destination, rather than as the scene of grisly biological war crimes. [57] Kammen’s idea of remembering “as an act of consciousness” applies to former Japanese soldiers posted to Unit 731 rather than to Chinese prisoners who were sent there, because not a single Chinese inmate came out alive. [58] However, during the 1980s and 90s a number of inmates’ relatives and forced labourers still survived. These individuals were interviewed in order to elicit more information about Unit 731. [59] However, it is implausible that their testimony provided the initial impetus for opening the Unit 731 museum, since the process of interviewing them only gathered momentum after the decision to open the museum was taken. What is clear though, is that after the 1982 textbook crisis erupted in July, staff at Unit 731 moved with considerable alacrity to provide “proof” of the atrocities committed there. For example, Mr Zhao Guanxing, a Chinese forced labourer at Unit 731 who was 18 years old at the time of the Japanese surrender, was interviewed by three newly-hired curators from the virgin Unit 731 research centre, just weeks after the textbook crisis imbroglio. [60] These staff must have been recruited with great speed, as prior to 1982 Unit 731 neither existed as a separate work unit, nor did it employ any staff. Finally, with respect to mainland Chinese war movies, as I discuss in chapter four, from 1949 to the present day hundreds of feature films and countless television dramas have been made about the Anti-Japanese War, but films which “told the war it as it really was” did not start appearing until after the release of The Bloody Battle for Taierzhuang in 1985.

This film thus post-dated the initial surge in commemorative activity at Unit 731. It is interesting to note that since 1949 whilst mainland Chinese films have been made on many aspects of the 1931–45 war, not a single film or entertainment drama has been made about Unit 731, which suggests that the CCP wanted to forget rather than remember its history. However, numerous educational documentaries have been made about Pingfang, implying that there is a “correct” or at least an “approved” way of interpreting Unit 731 history, focusing on the atrocities committed by the Japanese militarists, and the idea of a “museum as ‘proof’ of war crimes.” [61] The commentary above suggests that the global explosion of war memory during the 1980s shares few similarities with the Chinese case, except for the timing. We therefore turn to other possible reasons for the explosion, which brings us back to the question of whether the Chinese leadership used memory of World War Two to downplay party mistakes committed during the Mao era. Here the evidence shows that there was indeed a battle for ownership of the past waged on several fronts, fought against the ruling LDP partly in the form of a patriotic education campaign. The analysis below adds depth to the arguments provided in the previous chapter, that the way memory of the war was presented in mainland China showcased CCP achievements whilst at the same time attacking other views on the conflict.

A battle for ownership of the past

Within a few weeks of the first textbook crisis, retired Japanese Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke stirred controversy afresh by proposing to construct a memorial to the Japanese “Manchurian colony” in Shizuoka Prefecture, Japan. [62] The proposed construction of this monument had a bearing on the fate of Unit 731 (which was located in Manchuria) for two reasons. Firstly, Kishi emphatically stated that the founding of a Japanese Manchurian state was “in order to found an ideal country, there was absolutely no intention of setting up a colony.” [63] The implication here is that if the aim of the Japanese was to build a “Manchurian paradise,” then the intentions of the Japanese settlers there must have been honourable too. A logical corollary of this statement is that the occupiers never committed war crimes such as those perpetrated at Unit 731. Yet if the Japanese never colonised Manchuria, then why was a retired Japanese prime minister now proposing to build a “Manchurian colony” monument in the first place? It is rather like the Germans offering to build a monument to commemorate their “advance” into Poland during the Second World War, whilst conveniently forgetting that they had built the Auschwitz concentration camps. The second reason that the proposed “Manchurian colony” monument has a bearing on Unit 731 relates to official Chinese antipathy towards the monument’s sponsor, Kishi Nobusuke. Not only had he served in the Japanese colonial administration in Manchuria (after which he was held as a class A war crimes suspect but never indicted), but worse, as far as the Chinese were concerned, during his tenure as prime minister (1957–60) he denied that the PRC was the legitimate government of China. [64] Seen in this light, by averring that the Japanese never had colonial designs on north-east China, Kishi Nobusuke was simply reopening wounds that had never fully healed in the first place, which led Deng Xiaoping to retort:

If Kishi Nobusuke wants to build a memorial to the founding of Manchuria, then we have to build our own monuments to the invading Japanese militarists. In this way we can educate our people, our youth, and our descendants about this very important truth. [65]

The Unit 731 museum director gives this August 1982 statement by Deng as one of the main reasons for the establishment of the Unit 731 museum, which shows that during this period the emergence of the history problem was not solely related to disputes over textbook content. [66] The main thrust of Deng Xiaoping’s reasoning here, is that if Japanese right-wing politicians such as Kishi tried to deny their wartime history, then the PRC leadership needed to educate the Chinese masses about Japanese atrocities committed in the name of colonialism. In this way, memorials and monuments relating to the war, such as Unit 731, would form part of what I term an “education toolkit,” for teaching Chinese people about the contested nature of war memory (e.g. Japanese right-wing politicians denying the colonisation of Manchuria). This toolkit was predicated on the tradition that “history can serve as a mirror” (yishiweijian), which means that correctly interpreted, history can act as a guide to future conduct. [67] The first textbook crisis and the “Manchurian colony” monument dispute had repercussions well beyond China and Japan. For example, politicians in South Korea also protested vigorously against these 1982 attempts to re-write history, since they had been colonised by the Japanese too. [68] As a result of the renewed controversy over wartime memory, in September 1982 the head of the Propaganda Department in Beijing, Deng Liqun (no relation of Deng Xiaoping), decided to commission a fresh report into Unit 731 and the war crimes committed there during the war. A month later, on seeing the completed paper, minister Deng instructed that:

We need to turn this [unmarked] grave for 10,000 [Chinese people], that [unmarked] grave for 10,000 [Chinese people], the site of the Nanjing massacre and the Japanese militarists’ biological warfare factory in Harbin, etc., into national cultural heritage sites. [69]

The alacrity with which Deng Liqun commissioned the report suggests that the central government had not forgotten Zhou Enlai’s 1957 dictum that: “the Unit 731 ruins must be preserved in case the state of Sino-Japanese relations requires it,” even as the issue’s dormancy for 25 years raises the question of why it should have been resurrected then. [70] Zhou Enlai presciently foresaw that this discursive site of war memory might, in a potential future dispute with Japan, become a metaphorical stick with which to beat it. Minister Deng’s attitude towards the Suzuki Zenko administration could be summed up as “do not try to deny your invasion and occupation of China, as we have proof in the form of the ruins at Unit 731.”

The germ of an idea for a patriotic education campaign

It is therefore unsurprising that in October 1982, Deng Liqun forwarded the completed report on Unit 731 to Hu Qiaomu, who in response cleverly reasoned that this general neglect in preserving relics of the Japanese invasion was detrimental to both the Chinese and Japanese peoples. As will be shown in the unfolding argument below, in order to drive this argument home, nine months later on June 21, 1983 Hu was building a case for linking Unit 731 to the Chinese education system:

Recently a Japanese author wrote a book about Unit 731 called Devil’s Gluttony, which became a…best-seller in Japan because most…people in Japan did not know the truth about the invasion of China by Japanese militarism [sic], let alone the facts about using Chinese people for live biological warfare experiments. Not long ago, this author visited the southern outskirts of Harbin to inspect the ruins of that period’s Japanese biological warfare factories, and found that most of the ruins did not even exist anymore…Of course, we cannot preserve all of the ruins, but preserving such a small proportion of such an important [historical site] is a total lack of responsibility on the part of our generation. [71]

Hu Qiaomu was making two important points, namely that it was the responsibility of the older generation to preserve ruins of the conflict with Japan before they passed away, and also that by abnegating this responsibility they were partly responsible for the lack of Japanese awareness about the war. Hu’s implication here was that if there was collective war amnesia in Japan, then the Japanese education ministry could freely doctor domestic textbooks in any way they wished, because there was no proof (in the form of museums or monuments) with which to refute such allegations. Crucially, China would be partly to blame for this Japanese amnesia, because the older generation had missed the opportunity to convert important mainland Chinese sites of war history into sites of war memory. Hu Qiaomu was firing the opening salvoes in a battle between China and Japan for contemporary ownership of wartime memory, as originally played out during the 1930s and 40s at Unit 731, Nanjing and elsewhere. Put differently, during the 1980s Hu Qiaomu saw Japanese revisionism over war memory as a pretext for jump-starting the process of remembering the war in China, by moving history (e.g. in the form of Unit 731 atrocities) into the short-term memory of the Chinese masses. Comrade Hu brilliantly argued that this “memory deficit” on the part of both the Chinese and Japanese people, could be remedied by means of building museums and monuments as discursive sites of memory with which to remember the war:

‘Even though the masses have received a comprehensive historical education, there are many historical truths about which they are not too clear. The war took place very recently, but today we do not have a single commemoration museum to it. Actually, the eight year War of Resistance against Japan was an extremely important turning point in China’s history, which ultimately led to victory in the revolutionary [civil] war. [72]

Hu Qiaomu also realised that there was no point in building museums or monuments to commemorate past atrocities or battles if no one visited them. He therefore suggested that the most important sites of remembrance should become patriotic education bases (aiguozhuyi jiaoyu jidi), which young people would then visit whilst at school, as part of a state-led patriotic education campaign. Interestingly, this speech was made just a few weeks after the promulgation of the “Call for comments on strengthening the dissemination of a patriotic education” discussed in the last chapter, indicating that museums were very much a central plank of the proposed legislation:

Setting up war museums will provide a patriotic education for the masses and our young people, in order to let [them] know what sort of country we are, what sort of development and struggle we have gone through, and the foundations laid for development in [our] varied undertakings. [73]

Hu Qiaomu does not directly state why young people needed to focus on refashioning memory of the war. However, he hints at a possible reason in his assumption that the older generation should reconstruct the past as museums and monuments, because they were the ones who actually fought the war. This would imply that the younger generation, who did not experience the war, were in greatest danger of forgetting it. If young Chinese people were not continually reminded of Japanese atrocities committed at Unit 731, Nanjing and elsewhere, then in future they would be in no position to protest if any right-wing Japanese politician or bureaucrat attempted to whitewash history by denying their invasion of China. What better way to ensure that every Chinese citizen is armed with the appropriate “tools” with which to rebut any interpretation of the past which obfuscates the Japanese invasion, than by ensuring that as schoolchildren they compulsorily attend wartime commemoration sites? In some ways this plan mirrored the idea of Jewish interest groups in the United States and elsewhere, who focused on memory of their race’s persecution by the Nazis during the 1930s and 40s, because of concerns that “as those survivors of the Holocaust pass away Holocaust deniers will gain traction.” [74] However, the Chinese case differs in that it was the state (as opposed to interest groups) which acted as the main driver in refashioning memory of the war as an ideological weapon, which would in future allow China “to cast itself as a ‘victim state.’” [75] Naturally, these sites of contested memory would present the war from the Communist Party’s perspective. This would explain why Hu proposed that the reconstruction of these sites be funded mainly by the public purse, rather than by private donations, as they had been in much of Western Europe after World War One. [76] Only by using government funding to pay for the reconstruction, would the Chinese state have the final say in this early 1980s bilateral dispute over whether Japanese forces advanced into or invaded China.

Remembering in order to forget?

As discussed above, the second stage of Deng Xiaoping’s plan to blot out memory of the Cultural Revolution and other “party-versus-Chinese” campaigns was to divert attention towards atrocities committed by the Japanese during the war. The Soviet historian Peter Kenez argues that propaganda states “overwhelm citizens…with official interpretations of reality. Initiating political challenges to these states becomes virtually unthinkable—which is precisely the goal.” [77] His hypothesis neatly fits the evidence required to build a prima facie case for Deng Xiaoping’s post-Cultural Revolution administration needing to “reinterpret reality,” by forgetting party mistakes and remembering Japanese atrocities. This was achieved by apportioning blame for previous CCP errors in the form of the historical questions resolution (released in June 1981); forgetting recent historical events which would cast doubt on the party’s fitness to rule (ongoing); and initiating a patriotic education campaign so as to remind today’s youth of crimes committed by Japanese and other foreigners in China (February 1982 onwards). The missing link needed to make this new official reinterpretation of reality binding, was a version of history which would allow the Chinese people to remember the achievements of the party, even as they were required to purposely forget its mistakes. The first textbook crisis and the Kishi Manchurian monument debacle helped to forge that missing link, by acting as catalysts for an explosion of war memory from 1982 onwards, through which the CCP could refashion its own wartime role. Thus, remembering the war allowed the CCP to construct a new comprehensive version of reality, based on its role in beating those very same Japanese militarists in its quest to found the PRC. The brilliance of this strategy was that for as long as certain factions of Japanese society (Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) politicians, right-wing groups, senior generals from the Japan Self-Defence Forces (JSDF)) denied their country’s former activities at Unit 731 and elsewhere, Chinese politicians would have an excuse par excellence for diverting attention away from party mistakes towards party achievements, such as the war. Once the political decision was made to move ahead with this strategy for re-interpreting history, it was fleshed out in the form of administrative instructions. At the end of 1982, a few months before Hu Qiaomu’s musings on the need for war museums, the Ministry of Culture issued Order No. [82] 1289 “Instructions on the work required to properly protect criminal evidence of the Japanese invasion of China.” [78] This order instructed that from now on (late 1982) all activities relating to the museum’s work should stem from the premise that the ruins should be preserved and that young people should be educated about Unit 731’s history. [79] To that end, on December 1, 1982, Unit 731 was assured continued national attention, by being classed as one of the first Chinese patriotic education bases. [80] This decision has led to the restoration of Unit 731 as a criminal evidence museum, such that it currently receives 200,000 visitors a year. [81] During this period, over two million characters of evidence have been examined and more than 1,000 exhibits have been catalogued. To this day, work continues on interviewing ethnic Japanese formerly employed at Unit 731, as well as surviving conscripts and close relatives of those killed at the Unit.

Atonement for Japanese Crimes' Memorial at Unit 731

Atonement for Japanese Crimes' Memorial at Unit 731

Compensation claims using evidence from Unit 731

In 1982, after the impetus of the first textbook crisis and the Manchurian monument incident, all surviving Unit 731 documentary evidence seems to have been transferred from the police to provincial archives for analysis. [82] The provincial archivist’s mandate was to provide proof of Japanese crimes, which could then be neatly folded into broader state-directed narratives relating to memory of the Anti-Japanese War. Of course, during the 1980s and 90s leaders in Beijing could have chosen to reconstruct the Japanese invasion of China in any number of ways, by authorising research on Kwantung military strategy, economic policy in areas occupied by the Japanese, or even attitudes of Japanese settlers living in China. However, none of these avenues for research were pursued, because focusing on “Japan as enemy” was the most efficacious means of showcasing CCP achievements, forgetting the party’s own mistakes, and criticising the Japanese. Seen in this light, research undertaken by state employed archivists and scholars after 1982 was not so much “objective representation” as “subjective interpretation” of the Unit 731 archives. [83] By subjective interpretation, I mean choosing or filtering material, and then releasing it in stages to a mass audience in order to achieve central government aims. By following the train of events which led to the two stage release of Unit 731 documentary evidence, it is possible to map out these objectives, which I posit were (and remain): fostering a strong sense of Chinese victimhood, proving specific acts of Japanese barbarity, demonstrating the complicity of contemporary Japanese politicians in covering up criminal acts committed in China before 1945 and finally, embarrassing individuals or factions within the LDP who deny the war. This leads us to the problem of what caused the evidence to be released into the public domain at certain times.

The first major release of Unit 731 records in 1999

After Emperor Akihito’s visit to China in 1992, Sino-Japanese relations improved considerably, with China making only muted, infrequent criticisms about Japan. This short post-Tiananmen rapprochement between the two powers came to an abrupt end in 1995, when Prime Minister Murayama Tomichii failed to pass a “No war” resolution in the Japanese Diet. [84] This failure sparked a blaze of Chinese criticism, signalling that a re-emergence of Japanese militarism would not be tolerated. [85] Interestingly, this criticism erupted on the very day that representatives of the world’s seven largest industrialised economies (the G7) were meeting in Canada, and was quite possibly designed to embarrass Japan in front of other world leaders. Within weeks of this spat, in August 1995 one Mrs Gou Lanzhi—the widow of a Mr Zhu Zhiying—launched a civil compensation claim in Tokyo, for damages relating to the abduction of her husband in Mudanjiang in 1941 and his subsequent murder at Unit 731. [86] Technically the plaintiff could have lodged a war crimes suit, as there is currently no statute of limitation for such cases. [87] However, as the time since a putative war crime occurred increases it becomes ever harder to secure a conviction, as evidence is lost to posterity, and potential witnesses or suspects die of old age. This problem is particularly relevant here, since the case was filed over half a century after Zhu Zhiying disappeared. Mrs Jing’s case was quickly followed by an avalanche of similar civil compensation claims lodged by “history activists” with no connection to the Chinese state, in many cases launched with the support of Japanese lawyers who wished to highlight Japan’s wartime conduct. [88] The historian James Reilly analyses the reasons why Chinese state organs kept themselves at arm’s length from the court proceedings, for example because the CCP did not want to lose lucrative trade deals with Japan. [89] What concerns us here though, is not so much the courtroom battles, but Chinese official involvement, regardless of whether that involvement was made public at the time. Monographs published by Unit 731 admit that the elderly Mrs Jing did not bring the above-mentioned lawsuit herself, rather she was invited to lodge a claim by the “National executive committee on evidence collection of the Asia-Pacific War victims,” which is quite possibly a euphemism for the Chinese government. [90] If this statement is true (and there is no reason to think that the Unit 731 museum would fabricate state involvement in the case), then it is highly suggestive that the CCP wished to force the Japanese courts to admit war crimes committed by the Kwantung Army as a punishment for the failure of the “No war” resolution in 1995. [91] This assertion is lent credence by the fact that, four years later in August 1999, several weeks before the Tokyo District Court pronounced on a number of compensation cases (including the one brought by Mrs Jing), the Chinese government authorised the public release of records relating to Japanese CBW crimes committed at Pingfang, because “these archives expose Unit 731 crimes and provide strong legal proof for relatives seeking to sue and seek compensation for crimes committed on their kin.” [92]

To demonstrate its empathy with potential or current plaintiffs, the CCP provided blanket Chinese media coverage for the release of these exhibits, which it saw as proving Japanese war guilt. [93] Intriguingly, none of the articles specifically mentioned which lawsuits this newly released evidence was directed at, instead preferring vague generalisations about corroborating Japanese war crimes. The archives could, in fact, have been released at any time following their discovery in Changchun in 1953. Instead, the authorities ultimately gauged that maximum impact would be gained by offering these papers as proof in court cases being heard in Japan, which would explain why the Chinese side argued that “we” need to prove the names, the date of birth, the ages and the hometowns of those Chinese liquidated at Unit 731. [94] This strongly suggests political influence in the timing of the documents’ release, because the disclosure of archives in China is rarely dictated by the pace of contemporary events. Moreover, it is even less common for such a release to be accompanied by a press conference. Newspaper and journal articles printed accompanying the publication of these papers admitted that the decision to publish was taken nationally, although they declined to elaborate further. As it turned out, the release of this material failed to achieve a positive outcome for the Chinese plaintiffs. The courts in Tokyo argued that neither a case for compensation nor a formal apology had been be made, since too much time had elapsed since the alleged crimes were committed, the plaintiffs had provided insufficient proof, and the court was not a suitable forum for deciding on matters such as apologies or compensation. [95] The Chinese authorities were evidently dealing with a potentially explosive situation, in that encouraging Mrs Jing (and maybe others) to lodge claims in Tokyo might cause common Chinese people to roundly condemn the party if those cases then failed. [96] My basic argument here is that in order to forestall such criticism, the party then produced its most conclusive documentary evidence of Japanese war guilt, that is, a second batch of Unit 731 records, so as to prove the cases in its own domestic court of public opinion.

The second major release of Unit 731 records in 2001

Just as in the early 1950s Zhou Enlai authorised the repatriation of Japanese POWs in batches for maximum publicity, documentary evidence from Unit 731 was also released in tranches for PR purposes. Here the similarity ends, however, because whereas in 1953 each group of POWs was released in pursuit of one overriding goal, namely normalisation of bilateral relations, in 1999 and 2001 the Chinese government publicised Unit 731 records for different reasons on each occasion. In 1999 Unit 731 archives were published to coincide with the compensation trials held in Tokyo described above, whereas the second release of documents two years later was primarily designed to berate Prime Minister Koizumi.

On September 6, 2001, the director of the Jilin Province provincial archive held a press conference, detailing the work that his organisation had carried out on records relating to Unit 731. [97] This batch of military papers in Japanese provided proof of CBW experiments carried out on 277 people, as well as evidence that high-ranking Manchurian officials and military officers knew of Unit 731 and its activities. [98] A quote from the Jilin press conference helps to pinpoint the reason for choosing September 2001 as the publication date for this second and final tranche of Unit 731 exhibits:

Our country’s government has approved [the release of these archives] on the seventieth anniversary of the 9.18 incident, so as better to expose the Japanese imperialists “invasionary” crimes, to expose the insufferable arrogance of the Japanese extreme right, and to oppose the Japanese governmentʼs “oppositionary” attitude and ambivalence to [Unit] 731. [99]

One point to note from this statement is that, as in the past, it was the central rather than local government which took the initiative over Unit 731. This demonstrates that party leaders in Beijing saw Unit 731—and documentary proof relating to it—as tools to be used in pursuit of national objectives. Were this not the case, then local cadres would have been allowed to manage the Unit 731 ruins, archives and exhibits as they saw fit, for example by trying to build over the unit after the denouement of the 1956 Shenyang war crimes trials. A second point to note is that the CCP seems to have been trying to use Unit 731 records, in order to fix the past in a certain way. Their method here was to portray the Japanese extreme right-wing as Other, not only by roundly condemning them, but also by using new archival finds to prove that their “extreme right-wing” forbearers had committed atrocities at Unit 731. Of course, as the papers released in 2001 had not been publicly scrutinised (they had spent most of the past 50 years in the custody of Chinese public security organs), it is impossible to know for sure whether or not other Unit 731 papers are still being withheld from release, perhaps because they do not fit the arguments that the Chinese side is trying to make. My intention here is not to suggest that the authorities were being economical with the truth, as the Jilin Province archivists had evidently used much badly damaged, fragmentary evidence to painstakingly reconstruct the activities of one of Japan’s most secretive and heinous wartime military establishments. Rather, my meaning here is that just because officials in Beijing authorised the release of Unit 731 papers in 2001, this does not indicate that they did not withhold or destroy other papers which told, perhaps, a different story. Scant but tantalising evidence for this assertion exists in the form of a discussion with a Unit 731 curator, who stated that in post-1982 interviews conducted by museum staff, elderly Chinese averred that during the 1930s and 40s many locals thought that the Japanese invaders behaved better towards them than their own military forces!” [100]

Such an assertion emphatically does not fit with the picture that the CCP was trying to build over 50 years later, namely that the invading Japanese had been incorrigibly evil. Evidence pointing to such a conclusion would never be allowed to see the light of day. Although the seventieth anniversary of the 9.18 incident was given as the official reason for publishing the second batch of Unit 731 evidence, this statement should not necessarily be taken at face value. If the anniversary of 9.18 was so important, then why did cadres wait until 2001 to release the papers? Could they not have released them on some earlier 9.18 commemoration? On the one hand it could be argued that the papers had only recently been catalogued and analysed, and it was therefore not possible to present them as evidence at earlier commemorations. On the other hand, as noted above, these papers bear Chinese date stamps from the 1960s, which implies that the Chinese had catalogued them at that time and therefore knew how important they potentially were. A second quote from the press conference offers a possible explanation for the decision to wait until September 2001 before releasing the papers, in that it would “expose the ridiculous historical perspective of the Japanese extreme right [emphasis mine], as well as being of great positive benefit for those investigating the responsibility for the Japanese imperialists’ war.” In light of this last statement, it is plausible that the real reason for this angry Chinese outpour was that the Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro, made his first visit to the Yasukuni shrine less than two weeks before the 2001 press conference. [101] Worse, unlike previous prime ministerial visits to the shrine made by Nakasone Yasuhiro (1985), Miyazawa Kiichi (1992) and Hashimoto Ryutaro (1996), Koizumi’s informal visits were made very publicly. As if to bait those who opposed trips to this Shinto shrine in Tokyo, Koizumi taunted them with the slogan “I visit the Yasukuni shrine regardless of what happens.” [102] There is no conclusive proof that the Unit 731 archives were released as a riposte to Prime Minister Koizumi’s visit, but the timing is significant. The decision to proceed with the release of the archives so soon afterwards can be construed as a either a warning from the Chinese, or a signal that they had detailed records of what really happened at Unit 731. In this way, the release of the archives so long after they were discovered, shows that in Chinese eyes Japanese prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni were completely unacceptable. This would explain why the Jilin Province archive press conference made such concerted attempts to portray the Koizumi administration as extremist, and the views of the Japanese government as ridiculous. Finally, it is worth noting that at this stage of Koizumi’s tenure in office, sources of friction with China such as renewed Japanese attempts to gain a UNSC seat (2005) and repeated visits to Yasukuni lay in the future, removing them as possible causes of the Chinese anger directed at the Japanese government. [103] Yet politically-charged law suits and the rancour associated with them can only tell us so much about the museum itself, and in order to gain a more holistic idea of the way Unit 731 is presented and perceived we now turn to its physical structure.