Unit 731: Korean Victims and World Heritage

As anyone who has read Sheldon Harris’ essential book Factories of Death can tell you, the actions of the Japanese Kwantung Army’s “Water Purification Unit” 731 based outside of Harbin were ghastly and inhumane in the extreme.  And although Unit 731’s mastermind, that European traveller and student of WWI, Ishii Shiro, tried to have the whole immense facility razed before the Soviet Red Army arrived in August 1945, parts of the site remain intact.

As I reported earlier on this site, the Chinese government is trying to have the old Japanese bacteriological warfare research facility outside of Harbin listed as an UNESCO world heritage site.  The Choson Ilbo reports on the progress here.  Thus, I find it interesting that these local efforts to have anti-Japanese sites enshrined and validated by international organizations — much like films about the Nanking massacre screened in the West serve a similar purpose — work so slightly at cross-purposes with the CCP’s ongoing efforts to dampen resentment toward Japan and move tentatively toward a kind of reconciliation.  Unless, of course, this last move is geared toward securing a visit by P.M. Hatoyama to Harbin, which I think is not in the cards.  (Recall what happened to Ito Hirobumi at the Harbin train station in 1909…)  In other words, the local memories overtake the grand national narrative.

Anti-Japanese sentiment is very different in Harbin (where plague outbreaks are still possible) than it is in Shenyang (which was better developed by Japan) than it is in North Hamgyong than it is Nanjing.

In some ways, the following story from Chosun Ilbo, describing how 318 names of Unit 731 victims were recently found in the Jilin archives, points to the transnational nature of remembering Japanese atrocities in the 1930s and 40s:

Jin Chengmin, an expert on Unit 731 from the Harbin Academy of Social Sciences, discovered…details in Japanese military documents kept at Central Archives and the archives of Heilongjiang and Jilin provinces, Chinese media reported Tuesday, [including the names of 318 victims of whom four were Koreans].

The four Koreans were Lee Gi-su, 28, from Shinheung, North Hamgyeong Province, Han Seong-jin, 30, from Gyeongseong, North Hamgyeong Province, Kim Seong-seo from Gilju, North Hamgyeong Province and Ko Chang-nyul, 42, from Hoeyang, Gangwon Province. When and where they were arrested was also noted. Chinese media published a photo of Lee Gi-su alongside the original instructions by a Japanese military policeman.

The Heilongjiang Province news site Northeast.cn said the documents Jin obtained, dispatched with the signature of the commander of military police with Japan’s Kwantung Army, were marked “special transfer” and “top secret.” Jin said “special transfer” was code for the use of human subjects in germ warfare experiments.

In total 1,463 individuals were sent to Unit 731 by Kwantung Army military police, mostly Chinese, Korean, Soviet and Mongolian underground agents, soldiers with the Chinese Communist Eighth Route Army or anti-Japanese fighters. Northeast.cn said after Kwantung Army MPs arrested them, they were categorized as “highly anti-Japanese individuals,” “likely repeat offenders” and “useless individuals” and deported to Unit 731 as subjects for experiments. Jin said Unit 731’s human experiments were based on Special Transfer Order No. 58 of Jan. 26, 1938 by Kwantung Army Command and was the Japanese military’s most closely guarded secret.

From a scholarly standpoint, it is going to be interesting to watch how war memories of Unit 731 are parsed out hereafter.  Do we see emerging a kind of common victimhood, or a discrete form of remembering which rests exclusively upon the old bones of the nation-state?  Or, to put it more bluntly, do Chinese netizens call this some kind of a plot by South Korea to co-opt China’s unique victim status in Manchuria?  As ever, the Koreans in Manchuria, ubiquitous flotsam of empire, remain a steady variable in the of contested memories of the wartime era.

Lee Gi-su, victim of Unit 731 experiements -- photo courtesy Jin Chengmin, via Chosun Ilbo

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