Ben Hills

First, they killed the smallest children, those aged under 10. Their complaints and their crying might give away the troops’ position, so their parents were ordered to poison them. A few weeks later, it was the turn of the older kids, anyone under 12. They refused to take the poison, so the soldiers seized them and bayoneted them to death.

Then the adults were alone. The bodies of the 25 children, some of them babies only a few months old, were hidden in the bushes as the column of Japanese trudged through the jungle-clad mountains of Cebu Island.

It was the spring of 1945 and General Douglas MacArthur’s armies had returned, as he had vowed, to drive the Japanese occupation forces from the Philippines. The column was a unit of the Imperial Army fleeing that counter-attack.

As well as the 300 troops, about 40 civilian men, women and children were with the unit – all of them Japanese, apart from two Filipinas married to Japanese. The adults were eventually taken prisoner, but the fate of the children was kept secret for nearly 50 years. Secret from the Japanese postwar public, at any rate.

There was, in 1946, an investigation into the atrocity by the Pacific War Crimes Branch of the US Armed Forces General Headquarters which took evidence, including the confession of the commander of the unit, Captain Kunichika Aoki.

Captain Aoki confessed that he gave the order to kill the children because: “While our forces were deploying for defence against attack from (Filipino)guerilla forces, the small children – by crying and moving around – were giving away our position to the enemy.” The Americans also took evidence from one of the bereaved Japanese mothers, Yoshi Asada, whose four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son were among those executed when she was forced to hand them over. “There was no time to hide (them),” she testified. “I wanted Aoki to be killed.”

Although the killings were condemned by the US investigators as “a heinous act, repugnant to the senses of all civilised nations”, the case was not dealt with by a war crimes tribunal. They said that atrocities by a country against its own citizens could not be classified as war crimes – and referred the case to the Japanese authorities.

Nothing was ever done, and the report has been hidden until now in Japan’s military archives – although its authors expressed the hope that it would become public “to open the eyes of the Japanese people to the brutality of its own wartime army”. In fact, if it were not for records held overseas – in this case, a cache of 17,000 frames of microfilm made available by the US National Archives to Japanese historians – this grim episode, like much of the aggression and the atrocities committed by the Japanese military, would officially never have happened.

At his inauguration speech last month, Japan’s new reformist Prime Minister, Morihiro Hosokawa – himself the grandson of a wartime prime minister- promised to make a fresh start by owning up to the past. The Pacific war, he said bluntly, was “a war of aggression, a mistaken war”.

Although this was hardly news to Japan’s enemies – particularly China, Korea, the Philippines and South-East Asia which lost more than 20 million civilians and soldiers during Japan’s occupation of their countries – it came as something of a shock to the current generation of Japanese.

Thanks largely to the indoctrination of school texts, surveys show that most Japanese believe the war to have been fought in self-defence, and Japan(supported by the evidence of the radioactive ruins of Hiroshima and Nagasaki)to have been the victim.

Just last month, as Japan honoured its own war dead at the Yasukuni Shinto shrine in Tokyo, a priest denounced Mr Hosokawa’s declaration, and tried to explain to me that the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour was an act of self-defence.

Horror stories like the massacre of the infants in the Philippines are only now coming to light thanks to the efforts of a few dozen revisionist historians and lawyers.

One is Shinichi Arai, a 67-year-old professor at Surugadai University north of Tokyo; a self-styled Marxist historian who is the author of four books of war history which challenge the official Japanese version of the war.

Professor Arai is a prominent member of the cumbersomely-named Japan’s War Responsibility Data Centre. Operating from a cramped office opposite Tokyo’s Yoyogi Park, the recently-formed group hopes to become an international repository of evidence about Japan’s aggression and war crimes, a Japanese version of Simon Wiesenthal’s Jewish Documentation Centre in Vienna.

“Some people do say ‘The war was 50 years ago, why don’t you just let it be’, but we cannot do that. Japan must learn the truth about its past before it can justify its place in the present,” he says with quiet authority.

Professor Arai believes the main reason that Japan – unlike Germany – has refused to face up to its history, is that many thousands of war criminals went unpunished, including such notables as the Emperor Hirohito and Nobusuke Kishi, who went on to become prime minister.

“This was seen by the Japanese people as an endorsement of what they had done, an exoneration if you like. They should have been prosecuted.”

It is a narrow, broken seam which he and his teams of researchers -operating on a shoestring and funded by public donations – have begun to mine, over the obstruction of officialdom, and in the face of attempts to hide and destroy the shreds of evidence that remain.

“As the war ended, the troops were told to destroy all documents, no matter how harmless,” says Professor Arai. But that was just the beginning of official Japan’s attempt to obliterate anything that challenged its version of the history of the war: a massive work of 100 volumes, compiled by the armed forces themselves, which is the basis of the approved texts, the only history permitted to be taught in schools.

However, earlier this year, the team stumbled onto a gold mine while researching the euphemistically-named “comfort women”: the 200,000 mainly Korean women who were kidnapped and forced to work in military brothels during the war. Using guesswork and deduction, the researchers managed to retrieve from the archives the official diaries of three important figures during the war: Kinbara Setsuzo, chief of the army medical division; Kumao Imoto, who was chief-of-staff of wartime chief General Hideki Tojo; and Shinichi Tanaka, who was deputy chief of the armed forces general staff.

These three volumes, guarded for decades by the Government on the spurious grounds that their release would be an invasion of the dead men’s privacy, revealed in their faded, spidery script, a chamber of horrors that shocked even Professor Arai.

The most significant revelations were on the operations of the Imperial Army’s infamous Unit 731, which operated a biological warfare research concentration camp near the Chinese city of Harbin. To this day, in the face of overwhelming evidence, the Japanese Government denies that this “Asian Auschwitz” ever existed.

The diaries reinforced evidence obtained from military archives in Russia, China and the United States that the unit killed about 3,000 Chinese and Korean civilians by infecting them with diseases such as plague in an attempt to build a “germ bomb” which was to be Japan’s answer to nuclear weapons.

The diaries also revealed, for the first time, that the military command planned to attack the United States, the Philippines, and Australia with rats carrying fleas infected with the plague bacillus, causing an epidemic such as the “black death” that devastated medieval Europe.

ANOTHER team of researchers, this time working with the mili tary archives in Manila, has discov ered evidence of further ghastly crimes by the Japanese military during occupation – this time cannibalism.

After the war ended, many thousands of Japanese soldiers fought on in the jungles of the Philippines, either ignorant of or refusing to obey the Emperor’s call for surrender. One such group, the 15th Debarkation Unit, was based at Mt Kitanglad, some 700 kilometres south of Manila, and held out for nearly two years in appalling conditions.

Archival records, based on the testimony of survivors among the local tribespeople, show that during those two years the starving Japanese killed and ate 45 men and 32 women. In one particularly grisly statement, two sisters- who are still alive – describe how they watched as their father was beheaded by a Japanese officer, had the flesh stripped from his bones, and were then forced to eat portions of their dead parent.

Documents have also come to light detailing the appalling conditions under which two million civilians – mainly from China and Korea – were kidnapped and brought to Japan and forced to work as slave labour.

One of the darkest mysteries solved was the fate of hundreds of Chinese who rebelled against conditions in a copper mine at Hanauka, in Akita prefecture. Every June 30 for 48 years, local citizens have held a memorial service for these slaves, but the bureaucrats in Tokyo refused to release any information about what really went on during the “Hanauka incident” – not even the date. Researchers this month stumbled on the truth, in United States archives. The prisoners had rebelled on July 1, 1945, breaking out of the compound where they were starving on one piece of bread a day. They were mown down with swords and gunfire by the guards; 409 were massacred.

However, Professor Arai believes that today’s Japanese – shocked as they have been by revelations about Unit 731 and other atrocities against foreigners – will be even more appalled by the information his team is digging up about the infamous deeds committed by the Japanese military against their own people.

Already, there is compelling evidence that many thousands of civilians were murdered in cold blood – or forced to commit suicide – by the army during the holocaust of Okinawa, the only part of Japan that saw a land battle, and where more people were killed than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki put together.

Last April, when the new Emperor Akihito paid his first official visit to apologise to the Okinawans, survivors began coming forward to tell of incidents such as that in the Chibichirigama cave in which a tiny shrine marks the spot where 84 people died: women, terrorised by tales of what the invading Americans would do, cut their children’s throats, then committed suicide.

Near Okunoshi Island, in Japan’s Inland Sea, relatives and survivors of about 2,000 civilians who were killed working at a poison gas factory are gathering evidence before launching a lawsuit for compensation. They are also pressing for a clean-up of the bay, where thousands of shells containing mustard gas and other toxic chemicals were dumped.

Professor Arai’s group is appealing for evidence of Japanese atrocities towards Australian prisoners – particularly on the notorious Burma railroad and the Sandakan “death march” – which are not mentioned in any Japanese textbook. A colleague is now researching in Australia.

And there are still many secrets remaining, guarded by the bureaucrats. Did General Tojo keep a diary? Would the Emperor have surrendered if the atomic bomb had not been dropped? Perhaps most intriguing of all: was Japan’s army aviation wing planning to develop its own nuclear weapons, as recent tantalising hints suggest?

“The new moon has just come out, to illuminate a little of Japan’s wartime past,” says Professor Arai. “I commend Mr Hosokawa for what he has done so far- but we are still a long way from seeing the light of the full moon.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 2 October 1993
Edition: Late
Section: Spectrum
Sub section:
Page: 7
Word count: 2088
Keywords: WWII
1. Skeletons of Chinese massacred by Japanese soldiers in 1932.
2. Shinichi Arai Horror stories …
3. Chinese orphans, their parents were murdered by Japanese soldiers.