Chinese survivors of germ warfare are still suffering six decades later

The Japanese army's Unit 731 killed an estimated 250,000 people and left others diseased for life, GEOFFREY YORK reports


Tuesday, August 9, 2005 Page A12

ZHONGZHU, CHINA -- Swarms of flies buzz around Wang Juhua's rotting legs as she slowly shuffles across the yard of her village home.

She carefully removes a cheap tissue from one of the festering wounds, exposing a chunk of raw, decaying flesh. After cleaning it with a crude tea-water solution and disinfectant powder, she covers it with another sheet of toilet paper.

Her twice-daily cleaning ritual is small relief from the constant torment of her swollen and blackened legs. At the age of 71, the elderly peasant has endured the agony of her wounds for more than six decades -- since the day when she fell victim to Japanese germ warfare.

"It's always so itchy and painful, as if some insects or small animals are biting me," she says. "It feels even worse when I'm working in the fields, but I have to work if I want to survive."


Sixty years after the end of the Second World War, hundreds of Chinese villagers are still suffering the long-term effects of Japan's horrific wartime tactics. They were the targets of the world's first use of large-scale biological terrorism.

An estimated 250,000 people were killed when Japan launched its germ-warfare experiments in the early 1940s during its military occupation of eastern and northern China.

The experiments were masterminded by military scientists at the notorious Unit 731, a secret Japanese lab in the city of Harbin in northern China. The laboratory conducted Nazi-style medical experiments on thousands of Chinese prisoners, who were seen as subhuman "logs."

Unit 731 organized the most extensive campaign of biological warfare ever attempted in human history. They created lethal packages of fleas, wheat grain, rice, beans and cotton rags -- all infected with deadly pathogens, including anthrax, cholera, typhoid, dysentery, bubonic plague and glanders (a disease primarily of horses and donkeys).

Then they dropped the bags from airplanes over Chinese villages, scattering their deadly products over a wide area.

Mrs. Wang was just eight years old at the time. "I went out to feed the cattle, and I walked through the grassland," she remembers. "When I came back, I felt my legs itching, and I scratched them. Small red dots appeared on my legs and then became blisters."

All over Zhejiang province in eastern China, peasants began dying of mysterious illnesses, many within 48 hours of falling ill. Hundreds of villages were devastated, becoming ghost villages where the majority of people were dead or sick.

Mrs. Wang's legs continued to rot as she grew older. As an adult, she was bedridden for three years, unable to walk.

She has never received assistance or compensation from the Chinese or Japanese authorities. Too poor to afford proper bandages, she is forced to use toilet paper to dress her wounds.

No one has properly diagnosed her wounds, either. Local experts believe she is suffering from anthrax or glanders -- or a combination of the two.

Just as painful as her wounds was the ostracism she suffered. Because of the horrible appearance of her wounds, she was a social outcast; even some of her relatives were unwilling to live with her and she still spends most of her time at home. "I can't visit other people because my wounds and the flies around me would sicken them," she says. "In the past, other people in this village had similar wounds, and we would visit each other, but now there are hardly any of us still alive."

In a neighbouring village, one of the few survivors is Wu Chahua, a 72-year-old woman whose face is twisted and distorted by scars that began as small holes and blisters when the germ-warfare attacks began.

One day in 1943, she saw pieces of paper falling from a Japanese airplane. Then she became ill and her skin began to rot. She doesn't know the name of her illness, although doctors believe it is a typhoid fungus. "All I know is that many people caught the same disease," she says. "My head keeps feeling dizzy, and I can't walk properly and I fall."

Until the 1980s, the victims were baffled by their illnesses. Japan covered up the activities of Unit 731, the scientists were never punished, and the U.S. military helped conceal the lab's activities in exchange for access to the files from its experiments. China was reluctant to investigate the diseases because it was accepting billions of dollars of economic aid from Japan.

Only in the 1980s did human-rights activists finally dig up proof of the germ-warfare campaign. In recent years, the victims have repeatedly gone to court to seek compensation from Japan, supported by testimony from Japanese veterans of Unit 731.

In 2002, a Tokyo court acknowledged for the first time that Japanese soldiers at Unit 731 had killed many Chinese civilians with "bacteriological weapons." But the court rejected the compensation demands, noting that Beijing had accepted Japanese economic assistance in exchange for giving up its war-reparations claims. The ruling was upheld by a higher court in Tokyo this spring.

Mrs. Wang still believes Japan should compensate its germ-warfare victims. "Those Japanese devils have brought me lifelong misery and pain," she says. "I hate them very much."

The germ-warfare victims are just a small fraction of the Chinese civilians who suffered horrible abuses during the Japanese occupation. Many were "comfort women" -- a term used for sex slaves -- or forced labourers. An estimated 40,000 Chinese were captured in the early 1940s and shipped to Japan to work as slave labourers under miserable conditions in coal mines, ports and other workplaces. Many were beaten and tortured.

"We were enslaved and treated worse than beasts of burden," said Zhao Zongren, a 75-year-old forced-labour survivor who now lives in a village near Beijing.

In 1944, during the Japanese occupation, police in Beijing forced him onto a train and took him to a Chinese port. From there he boarded a ship to Japan, where he worked for several months. He saw many workers savagely beaten by their Japanese captors, while many others died of illness, hunger and injury.

"After two months, several labourers couldn't bear it any more, and they escaped," Mr. Zhao recalled. "When they were caught, they were tied up with ropes and beaten until they were bleeding everywhere."

Another forced-labour victim, 84-year-old Liu Qian, remembers the lice and vermin in the sleeping quarters of the coal mine where he was obliged to work. "Sometimes we caught rats and ate them," he said.

"We worked for more than 10 hours a day, and it was very cold at night. We were hungry and tired. One night, after midnight, we were still working. My waist was painful, so I wanted to stand straight. When I tried to stand up, the supervisor hit my leg with his stick and broke my leg. If we were a little slow in doing anything, they would beat us with sticks. There were beatings almost every day. If anyone died, they didn't care at all."

Remembering: The Pacific War

As we approach the 60th anniversary of V-J Day, marking Japan's surrender and the end of the Second World War, this daily series prepared by The Globe and Mail in conjunction with the Dominion Institute and its Memory Project will present an array of stories that illustrate how the conflict changed so many lives forever.