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Photos reveal Japanese military's biological experiments during WWII

2014-07-07 09:19 Global Times Web Editor: Li Yan
Photo of Unit 1855 in their offices at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing during WWII Photo: Courtesy of Huachen Auctions

Photo of Unit 1855 in their offices at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing during WWII Photo: Courtesy of Huachen Auctions

Marking the anniversary of the Lugouqiao Incident (also known as the Marco Polo Bridge Incident), July 7 is a day that can awake painful memories in many people in both China and Japan. Occurring 77 years ago on the night of July 7, the shooting of soldiers belonging to China's 29th Route Army as well as the later bombardment against the town of Wanping by the Japanese military marked the beginning of Japan's full-on invasion of the country, a war that took the Chinese people eight years to conclude.

Unlike other countries that have apologized for atrocities carried out during WWII (1939-45), today's Japanese government still holds an ambiguous attitude towards its actions during that period of history. Despite the Japanese government's lack of sincerity over the matter, the appearance of an increasing amount of historic documents and photographs is helping people in both countries better understand and face that period of history.

Rare germ warfare photo

"According to our discussions with history experts, 20 minutes after the Japanese government surrendered, they began destroying important files and photos that recorded the war," said Li Xin, Image Department manager for Huachen Auctions in Beijing, a company which started auctioning historic photographs in 2006. Long engaged in the collection and auctioning of historic photographs, especially those recording important events in the country over the last century, Li is well aware how difficult it is to find photos stemming from the war.

Each year, photos recording the history of Japan's invasion into China between 1937-45 that Li and her team have collected always end up triggering enormous interest among collectors and historians. This year, interest is even higher than normal, as a group of photos documenting the Japanese military's germ warfare program in Beijing (known as Beiping at the time) have come to light for the first time.

These photos have become very well known since they appeared in March as part of a serial exhibition organized by Huachen that contains the company's collection of photos regarding the wars on Chinese soil between Japan and China, and Japan and other countries such as Germany since the breakout of the First Sino-Japanese War back in 1894.

Containing a total of 165 photographs, the collection records the biological experiments carried out by Japanese Unit 1855 in Beijing.

"All these experiments were done in a highly secretive manner. They were designated as Unit 1855, but were disguised under the name of a hospital to the outside world," Li told the Global Times.

Showing images such as gasoline tanks converted into bacteria incubators, the group of photos offer people today a direct visual look into this period of history that is hard to come by, as many similar files were destroyed soon after the war ended.

According to a report by the Xinhua News Agency, documents show that in 1939 this troop was stationed at Beiping's Temple of Heaven, where its members conducted human experiments using bacillus pestis, cholera and salmonella typhosa similar to those conducted by the notorious Japanese Unit 731.

"These photos came back from Japan and have passed through several different people's hands," said Li, explaining that all the photos were auctioned by a domestic private fund for historic research that prefers to remain anonymous.

"Unit 1855 actually had many branches in the northern part of China," said Xie Zhonghou, a professor at the Hebei Academy of Social Sciences who has studied Unit 1855's biological experiments for nearly 20 years.

"Their branches in Shanxi Province and Jinan [capital of Shandong Province] have left some scattered materials, it's mainly just Beijing that has been a total blank. Those photos are significant when it comes to studying the history of that period," said Xie.

Peeling back the veil

These photos are not just some hot auction items. Considering this special commemorative day and in light of the Japanese government's vague and dodgy attitude, documents such as these, released either by the Chinese government or private organizations, provide young people in both China and Japan a chance to learn more about history.

It's clear that education is needed. Street interviews conducted by China Central TV reporters in Tokyo in July of last year reveal that most young people, including middle-school students, have absolutely no idea of events such as the Nanjing Massacre, nor do they have any concept of the suffering victims of WWII endured.

On Thursday the State Archives Administration of China (SAAC) began publishing a series of handwritten confessions by Japanese war criminals detailing their actions during Japan's invasion into China. Beginning with the written confession of Suzuki Keiku (1890-1982), commander of several Japanese military divisions during the war, SAAC plans on publishing the confessions of a total of 45 war criminals one confession per day.

"Actually many old Japanese soldiers who experienced this tragic war that brought huge disasters to people in both countries have started to reflect on their actions as well as this period of history," said Fang Jun, the writer behind the widely-known The Japanese Soldiers I Know. Having studied in Japan for six years and once working for the Beijing branch of the Japanese paper Yomiuri Shimbun, he is very familiar with the history of the country.

Fang has collected four photos that, according to him, were shot by photographers accompanying the Japanese military. The photos show the confrontations between Chinese and Japanese soldiers during the Lugouqiao Incident.

"The vague and ambiguous attitude of Japanese government officials towards that period of history actually makes these historic photos even more precious," said Gan Xuejun, president of Huachen Auctions.

"Many of these pictures were actually collected from overseas, including Japan and Southeast Asian countries. These images restore history and remind us in a straightforward way what actually happened," Gan told the Global Times.

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