Japan Facing World War II Truth Before Last Witnesses Die

A recent series of documentaries unveil untold chapters of ugly Japanese history.

WWII memorial in Okinawa, Japan
WWII memorial in Okinawa, Japan
Kondo Daisuke


TOKYO — In mid-August, as Japan commemorated the 72nd anniversary of the end of World War II, the Japanese broadcasting corporation NHK scheduled a series of new documentary films about the troubled chapter in the country's history. The episodes were titled "The Truth of Harbin Unit 731," "Testimonies on the Battle of Sakhalin," and "The Battle of Imphal." The three documentaries took an entirely different perspective on events than Japan was used to and, set off a vigorous public debate.

Since its unconditional surrender after the U.S. dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, claiming more than 200,000 lives, Japan has often presented itself as the victim of the war.

This viewpoint is drastically different from that of other Asian countries, such as South Korea and China. Though I am Japanese myself, I have always felt uneasy with Japan's narrative of the war. But I do understand what it stems from: On one hand, the Japanese soldiers who invaded other countries were outside Japan's territory and most of them died. On the other hand, some of the victims of America's intensive air raids and atomic bombings on Japanese territory, as well as their family members, are still alive.

Sharply diverging from Japan's traditional depiction of the War, the three recent NHK documentaries hold the Imperial Japanese Army accountable and ask why it committed such inhumane crimes.

Unit 731: Scientific Experimentation On Humans

Located on the outskirts of China's northeastern city of Harbin, Unit 731 was originally responsible for epidemic prevention and water supply for the Kwantung Army. But later it would begin to develop chemical and biological weapons after experimenting on humans.

I once visited the chilling site and was deeply impressed by the documents displayed there, mostly written in Japanese. The perpetrators of the crimes there, Imperial Japanese Army doctors, handed over their experiment results to the Allies after the War, and in return were exempt from charges and allowed to continue living as ordinary civilians.

Harbin bioweapon facility — Photo: Markus Källander

The United States classified this chapter of history as top secret and never disclosed any of the archives.

When Japan announced its unconditional surrender, Unit 731 troops secretly executed all of the 3,000-odd Chinese experimentation victims, to eliminate the evidence. The majority of Harbin's inhabitants never knew what had happened around them. The truth gradually surfaced as some of the unit's veterans revealed parts of the story before they died, or wrote about them in their diaries. The bombed-out base was eventually taken over by the Soviet Army, and the NHK traveled to Russia to carry out in-depth interviews for its documentary.

To this day, nobody in Japan has been held responsible for the unit's actions.

Most of the material for the documentary comes from 20 hours of recorded archives from the testimonies of core members of Unit 731 at the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials held Dec. 25-31, 1949. In the recordings, the servicemen openly describe the barbaric acts undertaken in the laboratory. What can clearly be asserted is that it was not just the work of a small Japanese unit, but part of a huge national enterprise headed by the medical elites of the universities of Tokyo and Kyoto. Though at first some young doctors strongly condemned the experimentation on humans imposed by the armed forces, they were ultimately silenced. To this day, nobody in Japan has been held responsible for the unit's actions.

Sakhalin: Seven Days After The Truce

The island of Sakhalin is located just north of the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. At the end of the war, 400,000 people lived there. Worried that the Soviet Army would take over Hokkaido after Japan's surrender, the Imperial Army ordered the inhabitants of Sakhalin to resist the Soviets at any cost. The war had already ended, but the civilians of Sakhalin fought the Soviet troops for seven days using such crude weapons as bamboo spears.

For decades, the survivors remained silent about the horrific battle. Some of them, over 90 years old today, spoke out in the NHK documentary for the first time. At the end of the war, the Americans had guaranteed that Soviet Army would not invade Hokkaido. But the Imperial Army used Sakhalin's inhabitants as shields, ordering them to defend Hokkaido to the last survivor. No one in Japan was ever held responsible for the many who died.

The Battle Of Imphal

The Battle of Imphal took place at the border of India and Burma between March and July 1944. For the first time, the NHK documentary followed the route taken by Japanese soldiers and reported on "the most insane battle of Japanese army history."

Renya Mutaguchi, the lieutenant general and commander of the 15th Army led the advance into the British base in northern India. Within three weeks, the Japanese soldiers marched 400 kilometers at altitudes of up to 3,000 meters in the mountains of modern-day Myanmar. All of the subordinate officers thought the plan was reckless, but Mutaguchi insisted and eventually sent nearly 75,000 Japanese soldiers into the failed, deadly offensive.

It's the last chance to record this.

Most of the soldiers perished of starvation or disease. Later the road became known as "the road of bones." But Mutaguchi never accepted responsibility for the deaths, and lived another 20 years after the war. The NHK documentary pointed to a total lack of accountability for the commanding headquarters of the Japanese army.

RAF plane attacking a Japanese position during the Battle of Imphal — Photo: Ryley R

The editor of the three NHK documentaries, Hosaka Masayasu, 77, is a renowned researcher of the Showa period (1926–1989) and an old friend of mine. "The program was originally the idea of some young journalists who thought the Japanese people didn't really know what the Japanese military forces did during World War II," he told me recently. "They wondered whether the Japanese press has responsibly transmitted the historical truth. Very few people of the generation who knew the truth are still alive, so it's the last chance to record this."

Masayasu notes that more than three million Japanese people were victims of the war, yet the senior officers implicated didn't bear any responsibility. "On the contrary, they got generous pensions after the war and lived comfortable lives," he says.

The questions stretch from the war's first to last days. "Why on earth did Japan become an enemy of the Americans and hastily rush into the war?" he asks. "The Japanese people today shouldn't ignore or feel indifferent about what the Imperial Japanese forces did. We ought to look deeply into this part of history, remember it, and pass the truth on to our descendants."

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Feed The Future

COP26 Should Mark A Turning Point In Solving The Climate Crisis

Slow Food calls for an action plan to significantly reduce and improve the production and consumption of meat, dairy, and eggs by 2050.

A new dawn?

If, as the saying goes, we are what we eat, the same also goes for the animals that end up on our plate. How we feed our own food can have knock-on effects, not just for our own health but also for the planet. We are now aware of the meat and dairy industry's significant carbon footprint, responsible for more than a third of global anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions.

Large-scale cattle productions that favor pure profit over more sustainable practices also add to environmental woes through biodiversity loss, deforestation and pesticide use — with some of the world's richest countries contributing disproportionately: The five biggest meat and milk producers emit the same amount of greenhouse gases as the oil giant Exxon.

The good news is that we could meet — if we would — some of these challenges with an array of innovative solutions, as the fields of farming, breeding and nutrition look at ways to shift from centralized intensive agro industry toward a more localized, smaller-scale and more organic approach to production.

Cows fed corn and grain-based diets may grow larger and are ready to be processed at a younger age — but this requires significant energy, as well as land and water resources; in contrast, grass and hay-fed cows support a regenerative farming model in which grazing can contribute to restoring the health of soil through increased microbial diversity. Compared to highly processed GM crops, natural-grass diets with minimal cereals also lead to more nutrient-rich livestock, producing better quality meat, milk and cheese. Farmers have started focusing on breeding native animal species that are best adapted to local environmental contexts.

This new approach to agricultural practices is closely linked to the concept of agroecology, where farming works in tandem with the environment instead of exploiting it. If mowed a few times a year, for instance, natural meadows produce hay that is rich in grasses, legumes and flowers of the sunflower family, like daisies, dandelions, thistles and cornflowers. These biomes become reservoirs of biodiversity for our countryside, hosting countless species of vegetables, insects and birds, many of which are at risk of extinction. Until recently, these were common habitats in meadows that were not plugged or tilled and only required light fertilization. Today, however, they are becoming increasingly threatened: in the plains, where the terrain is used for monocultures like corn; or in hills and mountains, where fields are facing gradual abandonment.

It is worth noting that extensive agriculture, which requires smaller amounts of capital and labor in relation to the size of farmed land, can actually help curb climate change effects through carbon dioxide absorption. Researchers at the University of California, Davis determined that in their state, grasslands and rangelands have actually acted as more resilient carbon sinks than forests in recent years. Through a system of carbon uptake, these lands provide a form of natural compensation, going as far as canceling the farms' impact on the planet, rendering them carbon "creditors."

In the meantime, grasslands and pastures allow animals to live in accordance with their natural behavioral needs, spending most of the year outside being raised by bonafide farmers who care about animal welfare. A recent study by Nature found that allowing cows to graze out of doors has both psychological and physical health benefits, as they seem to enjoy the open space and ability to lie on the soft ground.

Some might worry about the economic losses that come with this slower and smaller business model, but there are also opportunities for creativity in diversifying activities, like agro-tourism and direct sales that can actually increase a farm's profit margin. This form of sustainable production goes hand-in-hand with the Slow Meat campaign, which encourages people to reduce their meat consumption while buying better quality, sustainable meat.

Others may assume that the only environmentally-conscious diet is entirely plant-based. That is indeed a valuable and viable option, but there are also thoughtful ways to consume meat in moderation — and more sustainably. It also should be noted that many fruits and vegetables have surprisingly large carbon footprints: The industrial-scale cultivation of avocados, for example, requires massive amounts of water and causes great hardship to farming communities in Latin America.

But forging a broad shift toward more "biodiversity-friendly" pastoralism requires action by both those producing and eating meat, and those with the legislative power to enact industry-wide change. It is urgent that policies be put into place to support a return to long-established agricultural practices that can sustainably feed future generations. Although no country in the world today has a defined strategy to decrease consumption while transforming production, governments are bound to play a key role in the green transition, present and future.

In Europe, Slow Food recommends that the Fit for 55 package include reducing emissions from agriculture activities by 65% (based on 2005 levels) by 2050. Agriculture-related land use emissions should also reach net-zero by 2040 and become a sink of -150 Mt CO2eq by 2050. But these targets can only be met if the EU farming sector adopts agroecological practices at a regional scale, and if consumers shift to more sustainable diets. If we are indeed what we eat, we should also care deeply about how the choices we make impact the planet that feeds us.

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