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Uncovering the bones of old sins

Japan's post-war history cannot obscure the fact that there were appalling atrocities.

William Grimm William Grimm
  • William Grimm, Tokyo
  • Japan
  • March 9, 2011
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Though the Japanese government has never officially admitted it, during the military occupation of China and up to the end of the Pacific War, the Imperial Army conducted vicious medical experiments upon living people.

The infamous Unit 731 and similar groups deliberately infected prisoners with cholera and other diseases in the course of germ warfare research. Other experiments involved vivisection to see the effects of wounds, and freezing people to test endurance. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of people (including infants) nicknamed "lumber" were reportedly tortured to death. Most of the victims were Chinese and Korean, but reports indicate that other prisoners of war were subjected to the same mistreatment. Though Unit 731 operated in Harbin, northeastern China, its research headquarters were at a school and military hospital in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.

In 2006, a former nurse who had worked there broke more than half a century of silence to claim that in the period between Japan’s August 15, 1945, surrender and the arrival of American troops two weeks later to begin military occupation, she and other members of the staff were ordered to bury corpses and body parts on the grounds of the center.

Since last month, the site is being excavated to discover if there are human remains there and if they belong to victims of inhumane experimentation. By undertaking the excavations, the Japanese government seems to be admitting that there is merit to the claim that atrocities were committed by imperial forces. It remains to be seen if the discovery of such evidence will result in some sort of official admission after more than six decades that human experiments were carried out, or if there will be rationalizations and cover-ups. And, if confession and an expression of regret were forthcoming, what would be the reaction in China and elsewhere?

As we enter the season of Lent, this news item with its subtext of confession and contrition as well as the possibility of forgiveness becomes a parable of what we are about to do for the next 40 days.

Lent, of course, is primarily the season of preparation for catechumens who will be baptized at the Easter Vigil. But, it is also a season in which those of us who are already baptized prepare to worthily accept the declaration of faith by those new sisters and brothers, and get ourselves ready to renew our own baptismal promises at Easter.

That celebration of new life comes through a Lenten process of reflection on and acceptance of guilt for what I have done and what I have failed to do, repentant sorrow for sin, and acceptance of forgiveness. That is the reason that Lenten practice often culminates in a celebration of the sacrament of penance just before the Sacred Triduum.

Faith entails the conviction that God’s love for me is stronger than my sin. The joy of that knowledge should be my dominant orientation in dealing with sin. But, it must not overcome the realization that I am indeed a sinner, just as the history of Japan since 1945 must not obscure the fact that people acting on behalf of the country and under orders perpetrated vicious atrocities.

Because I am grateful for God’s forgiving love, I can find the courage to dig up the bones of my past, look at them honestly, express my sorrow to God and others, and accept the verdict they deserve: guilty, but forgiven.

Father William Grimm is a Tokyo-based priest and publisher of UCA News, and former editor-in-chief of “Katorikku Shimbun,” Japan’s Catholic weekly.

JA13526.1643
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