The government on Monday began excavating a site in Tokyo where a medical school once stood that may hold grisly secrets from the war’s infamous Unit 731, which was believed to have carried out atrocities on prisoners.
The probe in Shinjuku Ward’s Toyama district began in the afternoon at the former school linked to the germ and biological warfare outfit, whose experiments on war prisoners have never been officially acknowledged by the government but have been documented by historians and participants.
It is the first government probe of the Shinjuku site, where an army medical school once stood and later a health ministry facility for researching infectious diseases, and follows a former nurse’s revelation that she helped bury body parts there as American forces began occupying Tokyo.
Health ministry official Kazuhiko Kawauchi said the excavation is aimed at finding out if anything is buried in the plot. “We are not certain if the survey will find anything,” he said. “If anything is dug up, it may not be related to Unit 731.”
Former nurse Toyo Ishii, 88, broke 60 years of silence in 2006, saying she and colleagues at an army hospital at the site were ordered to bury numerous corpses, bones and body parts during the weeks following Japan’s Aug. 15, 1945, surrender before Allied troops arrived in the capital.
Her disclosure led to a face-to-face meeting with the health minister and a government pledge to investigate. The digging had to wait until the relocation of residents and the demolition of apartments around the site last year.
The site is near another area where a mass grave of dozens of possible war-experiment victims was uncovered in 1989 during construction of a health ministry research institute.
Any remains found in the latest dig would have a stronger connection to Unit 731, said Keiichi Tsuneishi, a Kanagawa University history professor and expert on biological warfare.
“The site used to be the research headquarters of Unit 731,” Tsuneishi said. “If bones are found there, they are most likely related to Unit 731.”
From its wartime base in Japanese-controlled Harbin in northern China, Unit 731 and related units injected war prisoners with typhus, cholera and other diseases to research germ warfare, historians and former unit members said. Unit 731 also is believed to have performed vivisections and to have frozen prisoners to death in endurance tests.
The 1989 find revealed dozens of fragmented thigh bones and skulls, some with holes drilled in them or sections cut out. Police denied there was evidence of criminal activity.