Is Russia stirring memories of Japanese war crimes to get close to China?
- A Moscow-sponsored international conference to re-examine the 1949 war crime trials of 12 men from Japan’s notorious biowarfare Unit 731 has angered Japanese conservatives
- They accuse Moscow of playing up the atrocities to forge a stronger alliance with Beijing and enhance Russia’s claim to the disputed Northern Territories/Southern Kuril Islands
“That tribunal was an expression of our country’s principled position on that gross violation of international law, including the ban on the use of chemical and biological weapons,” he said, adding that the convictions paved the way for the 1972 UN Convention that outlawed such weapons.
News of the conference has irritated Japan’s conservatives, who say Moscow has political reasons for playing up war crimes committed by the Imperial Japanese Army in the Far East during World War II.
While Japan has apologised for causing suffering during World War II, it has not publicly acknowledged the activities of Unit 731. Chinese state media say at least 3,000 people, mostly Chinese civilians along with some Russians, Mongolians and Koreans, were experimented on and died between 1939 and 1945.
Shortly before the conference, Russia’s FSB released what it said were newly discovered documents on the activities of Unit 731, triggering headlines in domestic media such as “Japan’s biological experiments on Soviet citizens”.
Hiromichi Moteki, the acting secretary general of the Tokyo-based Society for the Dissemination of Historical Fact, insists the Khabarovsk hearings were based on Soviet propaganda.
Russia was again using these claims to criticise modern Japan, he said, as many people “have never heard of Unit 731, largely because it took place so long ago, so when Russia announces a conference on war crimes and allegations of biological warfare, it will today attract global attention”.
“And, not by coincidence, that also serves to increase international support for the islands that the Soviets seized after they declared war on what was effectively an already defeated Japan,” Moteki said.
“This is another manifestation of the fact that Russia and China are moving much closer together,” he said, pointing out that Moscow recently moved the date that Russia celebrates as marking the end of the war against Japan to September 3, coinciding with China’s official date of victory.
“For Japan, it is very alarming that the two countries are aligning themselves so closely in many ways, but it would appear that Russia is intent on forcing Japan to engage more closely and offer more economic assistance in the Russian Far East,” he said.
“But we must remember that the Russia-China relationship is one of pragmatism, an alignment of convenience,” he said.
Brown added that the Khabarovsk conference was also calculated to save some Russian face, given that the then-Soviet Union contravened the Soviet-Japanese Neutrality Pact by attacking and holding tens of thousands of prisoners of war in Siberia for many years after Tokyo’s surrender. Of the estimated 700,000 men captured at Japan’s capitulation, as many as 340,000 died in captivity before the last group was repatriated in 1950.
“Russia is probably a bit worried about the negative image surrounding the Soviets’ unjustified attack on Japan and is using the Khabarovsk trials to deflect attention from its actions,” he said.