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Historians Suspect Bones Are Remnants of Grisly War Experiments

August 13, 1991

TOKYO (AP) _ Dozens of fragmented skulls and thigh bones unearthed at a construction site are locked at an undertaker’s storage area. Mysteriously, the government just wants to dispose of, not identify, the human remains.

Historians think they know the reason: The bones were uncovered where Japan’s military medical school stood during World War II and could be the remains of prisoners who died in germ warfare experiments by the shadowy Unit 731 in northern China.

″Considering the cooperation between the medical school and Unit 731, the bones are highly likely to be the remains of Chinese and Russian war prisoners killed and shipped from China after the germ experiments,″ said Keiichi Tsuneishi, a history professor at Kanagawa University.

Asian nations have accused Japan of playing down or denying atrocities that Japanese soldiers committed during World War II. The government has never denied the existence of the unit, but has never acknowledged the nature of its experiments.

The bones of 35 bodies were dug up in July 1989 in the busy Shinjuku district, where the Health and Welfare Ministry is building a new National Institute for Health.

The military medical school that used to stand there is believed to have worked as a control center of Unit 731, a secret regiment headed by Lt. Shiro Ishii.

Based in Harbin, China, the notorious unit injected war prisoners with typhus, cholera and other diseases as part of its grisly research into germ warfare, say historians and former members of the unit.

It also reportedly induced gangrene, performed vivisections and froze prisoners to death in endurance tests.

Tsuneishi and other researchers believe the medical school’s Laboratory of Preventive Medicine was used to store documents and specimens from the unit’s human victims.

Police investigator Kenichi Eguchi told Parliament earlier this year that the uncovered bones were of men and women who died at least 20 years ago. The remains were only checked to determine if they belonged to victims of violent crime, and he said no such evidence was found.

The Health and Welfare Ministry has twice refused requests from Shinjuku ward to conduct tests to identify the remains by sex, age and race, said ward official Koichi Negishi. Three research institutions, including the National Science Museum, also have refused.

″We thought it was only appropriate for (the ministry) to investigate and react more seriously″ because the bones may be related to the unit, Negishi said.

″We have no obligation to investigate just because we own the land,″ said ministry official Nobuhisa Inoue. ″Police have already said there is no crime involved, ... so at this point, the bones should just be buried.″

Little was known about Unit 731 until recently because the wartime government ordered most documents and other evidence of experiments destroyed.

Some historians, including Tsuneishi, believe the United States refrained from prosecuting Ishii and other unit officers as war criminals in exchange for information on the germ warfare experiments.

Kazuyuki Kawamura, a socialist ward assemblyman from Shinjuku, will visit Harbin and Beijing this month with a citizen group demanding the government gather more evidence about Unit 731 and identify the bones.

Some group members visited China in June and returned with letters written by Chinese families who believe Unit 731 killed their relatives. The letters, handed to the Foreign Ministry, demand compensation and an investigation into the Shinjuku remains.

The group also brought back a research paper by Han Xiao, head of the Unit 731 museum in Harbin, that cites similarities in the Shinjuku bones and remains uncovered on the site of the unit’s headquarters in the northern Chinese city.

The Chinese believe the bones discovered in Harbin are the remains of ″maruta″ - a derogatory Japanese word for prisoners of war - Unit 731 killed at the war’s end in an attempt to wipe out evidence of the experiments, the Japanese quote Han as saying.

″These bones are just the beginning,″ said Tsuneishi. ″We will continue to try to find families of victims of the germ experiments who can help reveal the dark history that Japan has concealed.″

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