At the end of World War II, the Imperial Japanese Army left a number of unexploded shells filled with poison gas used as munitions. In the 2000s, when such artillery shells were discovered and retrieved from the seabed off the coastal town of Kanda, Fukuoka Prefecture, the central government issued an order to detoxify more than 3,000 such chemical agents. About three years ago, government officials announced they had completed the operation.
But reports and records that came to light in recent years show the government has hidden the fact that another unexploded ordnance with a chemical agent was later found under the sea. Moreover, unbeknownst to residents, a new facility has been constructed in Kanda where the disposal of unexploded poison gas shells is still taking place.
The Nishinippon Shimbun learned of the ongoing detoxification work from a 60-year-old independent researcher of abandoned artillery from Kitakyushu, who contacted the newspaper’s investigative team.
According to the researcher, an official report issued by a local branch of the Japan Coast Guard says that in November 2017 the prefectural government retrieved a metal dud, roughly 25 centimeters by 120 centimeters, from the seabed when dredging the area near the port of Kanda, which is adjacent to Kitakyushu.
The coast guard officers identified the dud as a poison gas shell abandoned by the Imperial Japanese Army.
However, the researcher said he had no information on what happened to the unexploded ordnance.
When poison gas shells were discovered in 2000, the now-defunct Defense Agency, the predecessor of today’s Defense Ministry, established a facility at Kanda port and tasked it with detoxifying the munitions. By fiscal 2013, the authorities detoxified a total of 2,968 shells. But a year later, the land ministry took over the agency’s responsibilities for handling wartime weapons and closed the facility. According to the ministry’s reports, the unit was closed around 2016 because there were no further discoveries of abandoned chemical munitions on the coast.
So what happened to the poison gas shell retrieved in 2017?
According to the land ministry section overseeing the development of the Kyushu region and policy planning for Kanda port, ministry officials concluded there was no risk the shell would explode and decided to temporarily store it on the seafloor in an iron canister. The officials claim the shell was pulled up and destroyed in July 2018.
But the ministry’s explanation contradicts the defense agency’s claims the facility had been closed a few years back.
The ministry revealed that it had negotiated a contract with a major steel company and invested some ¥1.15 billion to establish a new facility to demolish wartime weapons. The officials, however, did not disclose the location of the facility, out of concern the site could become a target for terrorist attacks or criminal offenses.
When the Nishinippon Shimbun requested that the land ministry disclose official files with information concerning the detoxification of poison gas shells, officials provided copies of the requested documents but concealed information on where the facility is located. Some government documents suggest the facility may be located near Kitakyushu Airport, but details of the location have been blacked out.
In 2000, when the coast guard discovered the toxic gas shells near Kanda port, the officials held explanatory meetings to inform local residents about their plan to destroy them.
The Environment Ministry and other sources familiar with the matter said that in Chiba and Hokkaido prefectures, where similar weapons have been discovered, local authorities held several explanatory sessions for residents and shared with them detailed information on the operation and the site where the operation was to be conducted. An Environment Ministry official said the decision to inform the Chiba and Hokkaido residents about the disposal of chemical bombs was aimed at allaying some of the residents’ fears, despite the odds of a major accident being considerably low.
Why have the authorities decided to keep the operations in Kanda a secret?
Officials overseeing operations in the port of Kanda said they had prioritized speedy and secure shell disposal and set up an emergency response system with 24/7 monitoring.
“We confirmed that even if an accident occurred at the facility, it would not affect residents,” the official said. “We have concluded there was no need to explain the situation because there was just one shell we had to take care of.”
A source familiar with the case claims the officials were concerned that the process of getting local residents’ approval would be time-consuming and would push up the cost of monitoring the weapon while it was stored under the sea.
The Kanda Municipal Government learned about the disposal of the unexploded ordnance in the area from the prefectural government.
“The central government says (the weapon) won’t be harmful to local residents and I respect the government’s decision not to disclose the details,” said Mayor Koichi Toda.
But the government’s handling of the wartime munitions has been met with skepticism by experts.
Wataru Oshiro, a constitutional law professor at Meio University in Nago, Okinawa Prefecture, who studies bomb disposal methods, believes government officials have concluded that the disposal of poison gas shells was secure in hindsight, knowing that no accident has yet occurred during the work.
“But what would they do if the disposal operations didn’t go as planned?” he asked.
Oshiro stressed that decisions on the selection of a site for a facility handling unexploded ordnance require a thorough study of the effects of such operations on the local area and the people living there, as well as a plan for emergency evacuation routes.
“Sharing such information with people residing in the neighborhood is crucial for building trust,” he said. “If the (government) conceals information that was previously disclosed to the public, I suspect the reason why they don’t want people to find out is because it would lead them to an inconvenient truth the government wants to hide.”
Officials overseeing operations at the port of Kanda maintained, nonetheless, that if another bomb is discovered, they will destroy it without letting the local residents know.
Takeo Otani, who heads a Tokyo-based civic group raising awareness of and calling for the government to address damage associated with abandoned chemical weapons, believes that many other unexploded weapons may be lying on the seafloor.
“The problem is more serious than just one unexploded shell,” he said. “(The government) should be more clear about their costly deal to build the facility and the way they are going to handle unexploded bombs.”
This section features topics and issues from the Kyushu region covered by the Nishinippon Shimbun, the largest daily newspaper in Kyushu. The original article was published on Dec. 1.