“Balloon bombs aimed at North America were released by the thousands,” says Meiji University professor Akira Yamada, running his hand in an up-and-down motion across a diagram of the Pacific Ocean. He first points to the spots on the coast of Honshu from where these explosive devices were launched, and then traces their eastward flight with a rightward sweep of his arm.

We’re in Room 2, one of five exhibit rooms at the Noborito Institute for Peace Education in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture, a museum that opened to the public on April 7, and Yamada, who also acts as curator, is giving me a guided tour.

While the damage wreaked by these fusen bakudan (balloon bombs) on the enemy was negligible compared to the B-29 raids over Japan, they were, perhaps, the best-known product of this once-secret army laboratory tucked away on a low plateau across the Tama River from Tokyo. Five years after the war’s end, the land and its buildings, in Tama Ward, Kawasaki, became the Ikuta Campus of Meiji University.

The balloons that carried the bombs were produced not far from the spot where we’re now standing, in a secret factory that operated until April 1945.

After walking me over to an impressive, one-tenth scale model of these airborne weapons, which look a bit like what Phileas Fogg might have ridden in Jules Verne’s “Around the World in Eighty Days,” Yamada escorts me across the room to a granite washbasin, beside which is a wooden rack that was utilized for the production of washi, fibrous handmade paper. Hundreds of teenage girls with deft fingers were dispatched here to construct the balloons from the paper.

The making of balloon bombs, however, was just one of many activities conducted here. The former Imperial Army’s Number Nine Research Laboratory, more commonly referred to as the Noborito laboratory, was a top center for the research and development of a wide variety of clandestine activities and unconventional warfare, and its existence was kept secret even from other army units.

The Japanese Army commenced scientific research in 1919. In 1937, it procured around 364,000 sq. meters of former farmland in Kawasaki for the testing of exotic new weaponry. At its start, the camp boasted a staff of 60, and worked on development of the kwairiki dempa, a directed energy weapon not unlike the “ray gun” of 1930s boys’ science-fiction comics.

As the war expanded to Southeast Asia and across the Pacific, the facility added new functions, and under the command of Lt. Gen. Ryo Shinoda it employed nearly 1,000 scientists, engineers and laborers, working in over two dozen buildings.

Operating under a veil of heavy secrecy, the facility’s departments developed and produced miniature cameras, invisible inks and other equipment for intelligence gathering; researched chemical and biological weapons, and developed new and deadly poisons. Another section functioned as an enormous counterfeiting operation, printing bank notes aimed at undermining the Chinese economy.

“The laboratory was not only kept secret from outsiders, but was so compartmentalized that even the people who worked inside had no idea of what was being done in other sections,” says Yamada. “Those involved in balloon bomb production didn’t know about the counterfeiting, and so on.”

Despite enforcement of tight secrecy, the laboratory’s contribution to the war effort nevertheless earned it an official citation from Prime Minister Hideki Tojo in April 1943, and was even visited in 1944 by Prince Mikasa, who posed for a commemorative photograph.

The survival of the artifacts and data is a remarkable story in itself. On Aug. 15, 1945, the day Japan announced acceptance of the terms of the Potsdam Declaration demanding the unconditional surrender of its armed forces, Imperial Army headquarters sent out an urgent order to all of its units that read: “All evidence of special research that would be disadvantageous to fall into enemy hands must be destroyed at once.”

Shigeo Ban, a former army captain assigned to the unit, retained some data, and from 1988 began to research and compile a detailed memoir. Ban passed away in November 1993 at the age of 83, before his work could be completed. But his widow, Kazuko, and other individuals collaborated to finish the manuscript, and in 2001, “Rikugun Noborito Kenkyujo no Shinjitsu” (“The Truth of the Army’s Noborito Laboratory”) was published. A new revised edition, with photos and charts, was released by Fuyo Shobo in 2010.

The peace institute also owes its existence to grass-roots support from a local citizens group. The brochure issued by the museum credits “enthusiastic activities by high school students that succeeded in touching the hearts of former workers at the laboratory, who worked to collect the testimony of those who had been involved.”

Curator Yamada credits Kenji Watanabe, a high school instructor and activist, for collecting many artifacts from the laboratory.

“The total number of items, including those we have on display and those in storage number about 800. Of these, about 100 are from before the war. Nearly all of them were in private hands. About half were obtained by Mr. Watanabe before the museum opened.”

While the interior of Building No. 36 has been renovated and air conditioning installed, visitors can view the actual rooms where research was conducted and see the sinks, old tables, test tubes and beakers from the 1940s. Exiting one room requires a series of convoluted turns, designed to ensure decontamination before exiting.

Immediately to the left of the main entrance is Exhibit Room 1, which goes into the historical background of the Noborito laboratory. Exhibit Room 2 introduces the balloon bombs, some 10,000 of which were manufactured and released, mostly to North America.

While ingenious in their design, the bombs could not be aimed and thus had little effectiveness as a weapon.

In addition to research on biological and chemical weapons and sinister poisons, the Noborito laboratory also played a role analogous to “Q,” the dour armorer to MI6 who appears at the start of James Bond films to fit out Agent 007 with exotic weaponry. One trick device that stands out was an umbrella that could be used as flame thrower.

During World War II, both Japan and Nazi Germany engaged in large-scale counterfeiting of enemy countries’ currency. When the Japanese Army occupied Hong Kong in December 1941, it captured printing plates from the Bank of China. These were shipped to Noborito and used to produce bank notes virtually indistinguishable from the real thing. Transported into the country by agents, including third-country nationals, some 3 billion Chinese yuan in counterfeit currency was used to procure supplies while gnawing away at the country’s economic underpinnings.

The museum has also made space in its 350-sq.-meter area for a theater in which visitors can watch a 20-minute DVD (in Japanese) about the laboratory’s wartime activities and its ties to Unit 731. While a few members of Unit 731 were prosecuted for war crimes by the Soviet Union following Japan’s surrender, most of its staff, including its commander, Gen. Ishii, and those in affiliated units, evaded prosecution by agreeing to provide data from their research to the United States and the Soviet Union.

Since its opening, Yamada informed me, the museum has received more than 6,300 visitors, and some schools are making a trip to the museum a part of their curriculum.

“There are people who knew nothing about the existence of the Noborito laboratory, and are seeing it for the first time,” he says. “For some, it’s the first time to learn that the war was pursued to this degree, and it comes as quite a surprise.”

“I’d heard about the Noborito Laboratory by name, but had no idea some buildings were still standing on the Meiji University campus,” says Kawasaki resident Motoi Hayashi, 66.

Having widely read works on contemporary history, Hayashi admits to being perplexed over historians’ disparate viewpoints, and for that reason he is wary of those whose views of the past might carry political baggage.

“Still, I think it’s a good thing for Meiji University and the citizens group to have teamed up on this, in a way that presents history not only from the perspective of the war’s victims, but of its perpetrators.

“I myself belong to the generation too young to remember the war. So being able to visit an actual site and listen to those directly involved is a precious opportunity,” he said.

In “The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan” (1994), Dutch author Ian Buruma observed that in Japan, war museums are often caught up in political debates over the righteousness, or wrongfulness, of Japan’s cause.

Buruma pointed out it was not until the late 1980s that many Japanese war veterans began relating their memories in public, and new museums that stressed Japan’s wartime aggression were opened. Timing may have been due to the aging veterans’ desire to set the record straight, especially after the death of Emperor Showa in 1989.

As Buruma writes, “The basic arguments had remained the same. On the one side was a vision of Japan that had learned from its crimes and would never fight in another war again. On the other was a Japan that should be free once more to be a ‘normal’ military power. As long as one side used historical sins to support its vision of peace, the other would deny them.”

Speaking at the museum’s dedication ceremony on March 29, Meiji University President Hiromi Naya echoed German President Richard von Weizsacker’s assertion that “Whoever closes their eyes to the past, becomes blind to the present.” The exhibits in this museum are certain to open the eyes of anyone who visits.

The Noborito Institute for Peace Education is on the Ikuta Campus of Meiji University, about 15 minutes walk from Ikuta Station, which is about 20 minutes from Shinjuku on the Odakyu Line. It is open from 10:30 a.m. till 4 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. Admission is free. For more details and tour reservations, call (044) 934-7993.

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