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

Tony Brooks (Cambridge)

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This paper explores the dialectic of remembering and forgetting in Chinese war museums, as it relates to the memory of Japanese actions in World War Two. In particular, I chronicle the chain of events which led to the opening in 1985 of an important but understudied war museum, the “Japanese Invading China Army Chemical and Biological Warfare Unit 731 Criminal Evidence Museum” at Pingfang near Harbin, or Unit 731 for short. From its construction during the late 1930s until August 1945, this top secret Japanese military establishment conducted Chemical and Biological Warfare (hereafter CBW) experiments on thousands of live human guinea pigs, mostly captured Chinese citizens. [1] To date the scholarly literature in both English and Chinese has generally neglected Unit 731 in favour of three more prominent wartime commemoration halls: the Nanjing Massacre Museum (Nanjing, opened 1985), the Museum of the Chinese People’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression (Beijing, opened 1987) and the September 18 History Museum (Shenyang, opened 1991). Domestic research on these three sites in particular, has tended to concentrate on the suffering inflicted on Chinese people as a result of Japanese aggression, rather than the museums themselves. [2] This neglect is unwarranted, since Unit 731 is anything but a passive repository of war memory awaiting visiting tourists. On the contrary, archives relating to the site offer a fascinating glimpse of internal party debates on how China’s erstwhile adversary (Japan) should be portrayed. For example, during the 1950s and 60s the provincial authorities in Harbin endeavoured to demolish the entire Pingfang site, in order to erase memory of the war there. However, in attempting to raze this former Japanese base to the ground, the Heilongjiang Chinese Communist Party (CCP) People’s Committee encountered fierce opposition from leaders in Beijing. Twenty years later, shortly after the start of the reform era, the changing fortunes of Unit 731 caused it to be reclassified as a national patriotic education base (1982), and several years after that parts of the site were opened to the public (1985). The centrepiece of the Unit 731 site now became a criminal evidence museum. Subsequently, memory of the site, as well the information presented within its walls, has been continually contested by both foreign and domestic political actors. [3] This verbal warfare occurred precisely because commemorative structures form “political arenas in which definitions of identity and culture are asserted,” and because the selection of knowledge there, as well as the presentation of ideas and images is “enacted within a power system…This is the power to represent: to reproduce structures of belief and experience.” [4] The changing ways in which these forces act upon Unit 731 make it ideally suited as a lens with which to study how Chinese political actors have sought to conceptualise the Anti-Japanese War. The competing narratives analysed in this paper—local versus national government, elite People’s Republic of China (PRC) versus leading Japanese politicians (such as Koizumi Junichiro), and so on—can be thought of as threads, which can be woven together in order to create a tapestry showing the relationship between history and memory as they relate to the Unit 731 site. Such insights are important, because sociologists still do not know how societies remember, or even why the past is of relevance. [5] However, in recent decades scholars attempting to answer these two questions have started to theorise memory, and to conceptualise it in relation to history and collective identity. For example, Eric Hobsbawm argues that the way in which people form collective memory is linked to the notion of the “invention of a tradition.” [6] Jens Bartelson comes to a similar conclusion, in that he posits collective memory is a key attribute in the process of state formation, because it practically “remembers [a nation] into existence.” [7] The French sociologist Pierre Nora also provides a useful distinction between memory and history, by arguing that “memory attaches itself to sites, whereas history attaches itself to events.” [8] In this way, memory becomes distorted and unpredictable, not only by censorship and propaganda, but because it is “capable of lying dormant for long periods only to be suddenly reawakened.” [9] In this paper I will track the political processes involved in constructing Unit 731 as a site of Chinese war memory. I have chosen this methodology because taking a holistic approach to theoretically deconstructing a single PRC commemoration museum allows us to unpack the complex relationship between war history, war memory and identity. This paper is divided into three parts. Part one shows how after the war Unit 731 became subject to history itself, in that at various stages after 1949 its function and even its right to exist was challenged by different political actors. Part two then demonstrates how Unit 731 exhibits were used to selectively remember the past, in order to achieve sharply-defined political objectives. Finally, part three examines the physical structure of the museum.

Part 1
Unit 731 becomes subject to history

  Former Japanese Barracks at PingFang

Former Japanese Barracks at PingFang

After the First World War the Japanese military looked for “cheap but highly destructive” munitions which could assist them in their plans for territorial expansion across East Asia. [10] Chemical and Biological Warfare was seen by the Japanese as just another means of helping them achieve this objective. In order to design and produce CBW munitions, within months of the Japanese occupation of Harbin in February 1932, the “Research Centre for Epidemic Prevention” (a euphemism for the Japanese military CBW research centre) moved there from Tokyo. [11] After changing location several times, from 1938 onwards Japanese CBW research was masterminded at Pingfang, a five square kilometre cantonment just beyond the southern outskirts of Harbin. [12] Shortly after the move to Pingfang, the complex was renamed Unit 731, and testing of chemical and biological agents on live prisoners continued there right up until August 1945. [13] Early in that month (August 1945) the retreating Japanese took great pains to destroy evidence of their CBW activities, which meant killing and disposing of all remaining Unit 731 prisoners, detonating experimental laboratories and destroying documents. [14] Documentary evidence relating to Unit 731 at the Kwantung Army headquarters in Xinjing, the one-time capital of Manchukuo (present day Changchun) was also destroyed, but as we will see the destruction was not completed thoroughly. [15] During the war Unit 731’s real purpose seems to have been kept from the CCP, and it was not until after the Chinese Communists took control of Harbin in April 1946 that they suspected the original function of the site. [16] However by the time the Communists came to power in 1949, the Soviets had already amassed sufficient evidence relating to Japanese CBW activities with which to conduct war crimes trials at Khabarovsk. [17] Evidently, some of this material was shared with the Chinese, following which they aligned themselves with the Soviet position. After the founding of the PRC, one of the first documents to be published on Unit 731 was a pamphlet written by the Harbin People’s Government Hygiene Bureau. [18] It might seem rather odd that a hygiene bureau would publish such an overtly political tract criticising the Japanese. However, since the end of the war hygiene department cadres had had to deal with a number of serious plague outbreaks in Harbin, which were probably caused by rats set free from Unit 731 in the closing days of World War Two. These officials therefore had the most detailed knowledge of Unit 731, which is why they were chosen to write about it. [19] The main argument of the pamphlet bore the imprimatur of the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee (CCPCC), as its focus was on matters of national rather than local importance, such as arguing that the Soviets should place more Japanese militarists on trial and punish them with the utmost severity. This was because the Chinese people “want revenge on the biological warfare criminals who killed our compatriots.” [20] Even harsher opprobrium was reserved for the United States though, as America had allegedly assisted in covering up the crimes of the putative war criminals (and Unit 731 commanders) Lieutenant General Ishii Shiro and Major General Kitano Masaji

We…denounce this [act] to all the peoples of the world, we insist that the Japanese biological warfare criminals repay their blood debt! We fiercely oppose each and every action by the American imperialists in covering up [the crimes of these] Japanese war criminals. [21]

Such denunciations indicate that the new Chinese administration was intent on using Unit 731 as a means of pillorying both the Japanese militarists and the American imperialists. The pamphlet, which was published on the eve of the outbreak of the Korean War, can be viewed in terms of Cold War narratives, which signified that American forces occupying Japan were seen as an even bigger threat than the Japanese, because of their attempt to encircle the PRC. Interestingly, the publication was released just two weeks after American Secretary of State Dean Acheson’s famous January 1950 press club speech, in which he outlined a policy for containing Communist powers in East Asia (e.g. China) by means of erecting a defensive perimeter around them. [22] Viewed in this light, the pamphlet’s contents seem more like a riposte to the concept of American encirclement than a critique of Japanese war criminals.

Unit 731 papers are unearthed in Changchun (1953)

Three years later documents relating to Unit 731 were unearthed during building work at the site of the former Kwantung Army headquarters in Changchun. [23] These Japanese military papers proved that the Japanese had conducted vivisection experiments at Unit 731 on captured Chinese Communists, Russian spies and common criminals, to name but a few. Immediately publicising these records would have reinforced the case, outlined above, for criticising the United States. Similarly, sharing the dug-up files with the Soviet authorities would have given the Russians additional documentary evidence with which to place more Japanese suspects on trial. China’s new Soviet allies would have certainly been most interested in the files, since they proved beyond reasonable doubt that during the 1930s and 40s captured Russian agents had been the subject of vivisection experiments at Unit 731. [24] In fact none of the excavated papers were released, instead they were placed in the hands of the Manchurian Puppet Archive Office, a branch of the Public Security Bureau (PSB). The records then sat untouched until the 1960s, when they were slowly catalogued. [25] There are several possible reasons as to why these reports and fragments were not placed in the public domain. Firstly, in 1950s China there was a relative paucity of Chinese scholars of Japan, which meant that China lacked the institutional capacity with which to properly analyse the documents found in Changchun. [26] However were this true, then as the number of trained Japan scholars rose through the 1950s and 60s, the files would have been quickly analysed and released, which was patently not the case. [27] Moreover, right from the start the authorities seem to have had a reasonable grasp of the contents of this find, since over 40 officials were seconded from other bureaus and ministries to scrutinise the unearthed documents. [28] A second and more plausible reason for the non-release of the Unit 731 papers was that at the time the files were found, diplomatic relations with Japan were rapidly improving, as evinced by the mass repatriation of 29,000 Japanese expatriates in early 1953 and a rapid increase in the number of visiting semi-official Japanese delegations. As a result, it was now no longer politic to harangue the Japanese over their wartime activities, because to have done so would have wrecked Chinese attempts to improve bilateral ties. [29] Even if the Unit 731 papers were dug up in 1955 as opposed to 1953, as some archival sources contend, this reasoning would still hold true, since Sino-Japanese relations gradually strengthened between the years 1953–55. In summary, during the early years of the new People’s Republic, the fate of Unit 731 and unearthed evidence relating to it mirrored the state of Sino-Japanese relations. Different branches of the party apparatus sought to present memory of the war with Japan in different ways. We know this because during the late 1950s officials from the provincial CCP committee in Heilongjiang and the State Council in Beijing sharply disagreed over the future role that Unit 731 should play in the nation’s consciousness. Throughout the second half of the 1950s, after plague outbreaks emanating from Unit 731 had been brought under control, the Heilongjiang authorities made repeated requests to the authorities in Beijing for permission to redevelop the former Unit 731 site. [30]

  Former Japanese Barracks at PingFang

Former Japanese Barracks at PingFang

Their rationale was that in order to meet centrally imposed production quotas, the municipal government was urgently in need of flat land for new factory space. To provide that space, it was proposed to build on the ruins of Unit 731. [31] Heilongjiang cadres evidently did not consider the ruins worth preserving, and besides, much salvageable building material from the Unit 731 ruins (such as bricks) had already been taken by local residents, making what remained even less worth keeping. This argument is rather disingenuous, considering that Pingfang lies over 20 kilometres from the centre of Harbin. Furthermore, both Harbin and Pingfang lie on the Songhua River floodplain, all of which is eminently suitable for building factories on. In other words, had it so wished, the Harbin city government could have easily chosen somewhere closer to Harbin to expand production facilities. To be fair, by 1950 aviation factory No. 122 had already been established immediately adjacent to the ruins of the Unit 731 headquarters, and it was now looking to expand. This work unit had in fact been given responsibility for protecting the former 731 site, which it did in a most perfunctory manner, by erecting a barbed wire fence around part of the ruins and building over the rest! [32] I contend that the authorities in Harbin knew that this former research centre was in some way “different” and more important as a site of war memory, not least because in 1950 the local hygiene bureau had published a treatise excoriating Japanese CBW criminals and their activities at Unit 731. [33] Moreover, in north-east China generally, ruins and physical reminders (administrative buildings, barracks and so on) of the Japanese occupation abounded, so in this case the local government must have sensed the importance of the Unit 731 ruins, otherwise they would simply have ignored or demolished them without seeking higher guidance. This raises the intriguing possibility that the real reason for the haste with which the Harbin authorities wanted to redevelop Unit 731, was that the ruins were an embarrassment or a slur on the entire region. In this sense Heilongjiang cadres saw the ruins as signifying a “site of forgetting” (that embarrassment) and not one of remembering it. [34] Another possibility is that at the time of the first request in 1957, the PRC had just concluded its own war crimes trials in Shenyang which, in the eyes of the Harbin authorities, obviated any need to preserve Unit 731 as proof of Japanese war crimes. Meanwhile, in Beijing, the subject of preserving the Unit 731 ruins was considered so important that Premier Zhou Enlai was asked for his comments on the issue. Writing on behalf of Zhou, the State Council’s 1957 official response was that it was necessary to preserve the ruins, because “[Unit] 731 forms extremely important proof, not just for [the PRC] but also for Soviet war crimes trials of Japanese…all your actions are to proceed from this principle.” [35] Taken at face value, this statement could be taken to mean that prior to the Sino-Soviet split in 1960, all relations with foreign powers were interpreted in Beijing through the lens of perceived Soviet Union foreign policy requirements. This is another way of saying that the Chinese leadership thought that the Soviets might want them to preserve the ruins, so preserved they should be. [36] Zhou Enlai also reasoned that it was necessary to preserve the ruins for the following four reasons: “one, the international situation; two, the state of Sino-Japanese relations; three, in order to preserve proof of enemy crimes; and four, so as to expose and attack Japanese militarists.” [37] As will be shown, in later decades these four guiding principles were repeatedly invoked, using “the past [in order to] continuously recreat[e] and reformulate…[it] into different pasts from the standpoint of [an] emergent present.” [38] In other words, even during the 1950s Unit 731 was becoming part of history itself, by evolving into an important potential reservoir of memory for gaining leverage over Japan, should the state of Sino-Japanese relations deteriorate to such an extent as to require it. Not content with the 1957 decision from the State Council, the Heilongjiang CCP People’s Committee made further requests to demolish the Unit 731 ruins in 1958, following which it noted that:

In 1957 and 1958 my province asked for guidance from the State Council, who gave instructions that in order to preserve evidence of the enemy’s crimes [emphasis mine], it is necessary to preserve a part of the [former Unit 731] ruins…If it is necessary to further demolish the preserved part of the ruins, because to do otherwise would [negatively] influence the development of production,…then written comments from higher authorities should be sought…The State Council does not agree that it is crucial to demolish the ruins. [39]

So despite the best efforts of the local authorities to efface the memory of Pingfang, Zhou Enlai himself decreed that the ruins should remain as proof of atrocities committed by the Kwantung Army in north-east China. The lack of further archival correspondence on the matter suggests that the Heilongjiang government accepted the State Council’s ruling, and thereafter made no further requests to build over the ruins. However, this does not mean that officials in Harbin sought to implement the guidance from Beijing by carefully preserving the ruins, or even that they agreed with the judgement. In fact the opposite seems to have happened, as during the Great Leap Forward local Pingfang residents were allowed to cart off hundreds of tonnes of bricks from the ruins for building purposes, and steel retrieved from the site was melted down in local blast furnaces. [40] Further desecration of the former Japanese CBW facility then took place during the late 1960s and early 70s, when an estimated 3,000 People’s Volunteers (minbing) and middle school students completely levelled many of the remaining structures. [41] Actually, during the Cultural Revolution buildings and cultural relics across the nation were vandalised or damaged, so in this respect Unit 731 was not unusual. For example, the Nanjing Aviation Martyrs’ Museum on the northern outskirts of Nanjing was desecrated a second time by Red Guards in 1966, having already been vandalised in late 1937 by invading Japanese troops. [42] Moreover, across much of the country government had virtually stopped functioning, so it is quite possible that the authorities could not have stopped the destruction at Pingfang, even had they wanted to. This insouciance by the local authorities over the fate of Unit 731 is worth highlighting for two reasons. It shows that no matter how passionately central government cared about the issue, foot-dragging and a blithe lack of interest by local government conspired to create an altogether different reality on the ground. [43] The wilful destruction of the Unit 731 site also implies that at various stages of China’s recent history domestic politics has overridden all other considerations. In this case, allowing Red Guards and People’s Volunteers to wantonly destroy a vital piece of the nation’s collective memory in defiance of State Council instructions, shows that China has not always accorded top priority to preserving proof of Japanese crimes. During the early decades of the People’s Republic the overall picture we have is one of the Unit 731 ruins being acted upon by competing domestic political forces (the State Council, Red Guards and so on), which affected both its physical structure and the way in which it was represented. At the close of the Mao era (1976) the former Unit 731 site was virtually destroyed, with its loss seemingly unlamented.