The Tokyo District Court on Tuesday acknowledged that Japan waged germ warfare in China during World War II and caused harm to residents, but dismissed a claim by Chinese plaintiffs suing the government for compensation over the atrocities.
It is the first time for a court to recognize that the wartime army waged germ warfare, carried out by the infamous Unit 731 and other units of the Imperial army, during the 1937-1945 war Japan waged in China.
While acknowledging the germ attacks were “cruel and inhumane,” Presiding Judge Koji Iwata rejected the damages sought, saying, “No international law that enables individuals to sue for war damages had been established at the time or has been now.”
The plaintiffs said they intend to appeal the case.
The existence of Unit 731 — infamous for vivisecting living Chinese and other prisoners to conduct biological experiments on their organs — has been acknowledged in other lawsuits.
The lawsuit was filed with the Tokyo District Court in 1997 and 1999 by 180 people — survivors and relatives of deceased victims of the Imperial Japanese Army’s germ warfare — demanding 10 million yen each in damages and an apology from the government.
Judge Iwata said in handing down the ruling, “The evidence shows that Japanese troops, including those from Unit 731, used bacteriologic weapons under the order of the Imperial Japanese Army’s headquarters and that many local residents died.”
Koken Tsuchiya, the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs, said Tuesday’s ruling is significant in that the court has acknowledged the unit’s culpability in an official judgment.
He expressed hope that the plaintiffs can counter the ruling in the appeals process, noting that the decision was simply grounded on a precedent.
The Justice Ministry said it views the ruling as verifying the validity of the government’s position.
The plaintiffs claimed that the unit released fleas infected with bubonic plague and delivered food laced with cholera bacteria in Zhejiang and Hunan provinces between 1940 and 1942, killing many civilians.
The plaintiffs asserted that the actions of the troops violated international laws on the safety of occupied peoples and civil codes.
They also accused the government of trying to hide the facts about the germ warfare experiments and of not taking any steps to redress the victims.
During litigation, the government avoided arguing whether the Japanese army waged germ warfare in China and instead simply argued that individuals have no right to seek compensation under international laws.
The government also said it has no responsibility to compensate for acts conducted before the State Redress Law was enacted after the war, and has no legal responsibility to reveal the facts about germ warfare to the plaintiffs.
Some plaintiffs expressed outrage at the ruling, calling a decision that denies damages unfair and unacceptable.
Others saw a more encouraging sign in the ruling, however.
“The presiding judge has done what he can do as a human being,” said Wang Xuan, 50, leader of the plaintiffs group and resident of Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture. “Japanese society will have to deal with this contradiction from now on.”
But Xu Wanzhi, 61, of China’s Hunan Province, said, “It was a shock because we had anticipated a fair judgment. There is no room for accepting the ruling.”
Chen Zhifa, 69, of Zhejiang Province, said, “It’s unfair. The ruling is simply a pronouncement of ambiguous statements.”
Xu said he will fight the case to the end.
Although an international treaty banned germ warfare at that time, army headquarters ordered it to be carried out in China. At the end of the war, the army tried to destroy evidence by demolishing Unit 731 facilities in northeastern China, according to military sources.
Details of Unit 731’s activities came to light as a result of the disclosure of U.S. government wartime records and testimony by former unit members. It is said that some 3,000 Chinese and Russians, dubbed “maruta,” or logs, by the army unit led by Shiro Ishii, were subjected to experiments.
China waived its claims for compensation when it established diplomatic relations with Japan in 1972, in exchange for the Japanese government’s expression of “deep remorse and full realization of its responsibility,” in the China-Japan Joint Communique.