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Seiichi Morimura, who exposed Japanese atrocities in WWII, dies at 90

Seiichi Morimura, a Japanese writer who helped force a reckoning upon his country with his 1981 exposé of Unit 731, a secret biological warfare branch of the Imperial Army that subjected thousands of people in occupied China to sadistic medical experiments during World War II, died July 24 at a hospital in Tokyo. He was 90.

His death, from pneumonia, was confirmed by his publisher, Kadokawa.

Mr. Morimura was well-known in Japan as the award-winning author of hundreds of mystery novels. But it was his nonfiction work, published in the 1980s, that brought him to international attention and altered the way World War II is studied and remembered in Japan.

The war in the Pacific ended with the formal surrender of the Japanese on Sept. 2, 1945, following the atomic attacks by the United States on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In the ensuing decades, Mr. Morimura told the Guardian Weekly in 1982, “almost all Japanese war themes are from the standpoint of Japan as a victim.”

“Mine,” he added, “is from the point of view of Japan the transgressor doing violence against other nations.”

Mr. Morimura’s reportage first appeared in the Japanese newspaper Akahata, a Communist daily, and was published in book form in 1981 as “Akuma no Hoshoku” (“The Devil’s Gluttony”). Although the book was not the first account of biological warfare research conducted by Japan during the war, it was the first one made broadly available to the Japanese public. It became a bestseller and eventually a trilogy, with millions of copies in print in Japanese today.

Reached by email, Yang Yan-jun and Tam Yue-Him, co-authors of the book “Unit 731: Laboratory of the Devil, Auschwitz of the East” (2018), both described Mr. Morimura as a “hero” for his efforts to address his country’s wartime past.

At a time when Japanese textbooks often minimized atrocities committed by Japan during the war, Mr. Morimura interviewed dozens of veterans of Unit 731 and documented in harrowing detail the conduct of the operation, which was established in 1938 near the Chinese city of Harbin by Japanese medical officer Shiro Ishii.

Disguised as an epidemic prevention and water purification department, the unit functioned through the end of the war as a testing ground for agents of biological warfare. Mr. Morimura’s work helped prompt more investigations in the 1980s and 1990s, which in turn led to a court case that further revealed the extent of the atrocities.

The perpetrators included many respected Japanese physicians. Thousands of people — mainly Chinese, but also Koreans, Russians and prisoners of eight total nationalities, according to Mr. Morimura — endured medical experiments that have been compared to those of Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.

Victims, referred to in Japanese as “marutas,” or wooden logs, were infected with typhus, typhoid, cholera, anthrax and the plague with the goal of perfecting biological weapons. Some prisoners were then vivisected without anesthetic so that researchers could observe the effects of the disease on the human body.

“I cut him open from the chest to the stomach, and he screamed terribly, and his face was all twisted in agony. He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped,” one unnamed member of the unit told the New York Times in 1995, recalling a victim who had been infected with the plague. “This was all in a day’s work for the surgeons, but it really left an impression on me because it was my first time.”

Precise numbers are difficult to obtain, but many accounts of Unit 731 operations report that 3,000 or more people were killed in the medical experiments. Unit 731 field tested germ bombs on Chinese cities, according to published accounts, or in other ways precipitated outbreaks of disease. Some estimates of the death toll, although difficult to verify, reach or exceed 200,000.

“Witnesses recall watching Japanese airplanes release small birds on flyovers around their village. These birds had been coated with the anthrax organism, and as they flew their feathers brought the germs to people. The previously unknown disease of anthrax soon followed, bringing death to many,” the scholar Daniel I. Barenblatt wrote in The Washington Post in 2001.

“Even today, one hard-hit village in Zhejiang still bears the nickname ‘rotten-leg village’ because so many older residents are scarred with the lesion marks of skin anthrax from the 1942 attacks.”

In other experiments, researchers locked victims in pressure chambers until their eyes popped from the sockets, froze and then thawed their limbs, or subjected them to transfusions of horse blood.

The same year that Mr. Morimura’s book was released, an American journalist, John W. Powell, wrote in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists that the U.S. government had granted immunity to members of Unit 731 in exchange for the laboratory records from their research. Mr. Morimura alleged the same. For years, the United States dismissed reports of the unit’s experiments as Cold War propaganda.

In the wake of the publication of Mr. Morimura’s book, the Japanese government publicly acknowledged the activities of Unit 731, with one official telling the Japanese parliament that the experiments had taken place “during the most extraordinary wartime conditions” and were “most regrettable from the viewpoint of humanity.”

However, according to U.S. officials, the Japanese government continued to decline to assist American efforts to place perpetrators on a list of war criminals prohibited from entering the United States. Ishii lived in freedom until he died of throat cancer in 1959. The Times reported that other Unit 731 veterans became governor of Tokyo, president of the Japan Medical Association and chief of the Japanese Olympic Committee.

A long-running lawsuit brought by the surviving family members of victims of Unit 731 led a Tokyo court to confirm in 2002 that Japan had engaged in germ warfare during World War II, dismissing government claims to the country. But the court awarded no compensation to the Chinese plaintiffs.

Mr. Morimura was born in Saitama, Japan, on Jan. 2, 1933. Few details of his early life were available, but the Associated Press reported that he experienced the massive U.S. bombing of the Tokyo region during World War II, an experience that led him to become a pacifist.

According to his publisher, he graduated from Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo and worked for a decade in hotels, while also contributing to magazines, before he became a novelist.

“From my experience as a hotel employee observing people from every business, I was able to see a broad spectrum of society,” he once said.

Mr. Morimura wrote more than 300 novels, with many of them “peering into the darker recesses of organizations and human nature,” a reporter for the Japanese newspaper the Daily Yomiuri wrote in 2003. His 1976 mystery novel “Ningen no Shomei” (“Proof of the Man”) centered on the murder of a Black man in postwar Japan and was one of a number of his works adapted for film.

A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.

“This story should be told to all Japanese, to every generation,” Mr. Morimura once said to the Times, reflecting on his writing about Unit 731. “Japanese aggression should be written about to prevent another war.”

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