The timing couldn't have been worse.
Just weeks before Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto's Sept. 4-8 visit to China, where memories of Japan's wartime atrocities still rankle, a group of Chinese launched a preemptive strike against Tokyo.
More than 100 Chinese sued the Japanese government last week for damage the Japanese Imperial Army caused with a germ-warfare program from 1940 to 1945. Seeking both an apology and $9.4 million, 108 plaintiffs filed the first case against Japan for its alleged germ-warfare program, known as Unit 731, which is said to have killed tens of thousands of people. A half-century after the end of World War II and Japan's ignominious defeat, Tokyo continues to pay the price for its imperialistic past. Memories of its wartime occupation of many Asian countries linger throughout the region and shape relationships with neighbors-turned-trade partners. But some Japanese hope the prime minister's trip will open the way for Tokyo to admit past wrongs, just as it expressed remorse four years ago to Korean "comfort women," who were used as sex slaves by Japanese soldiers during World War II. "With the world paying attention, it is a great opportunity that a Japanese court tries its own country's germ-warfare case," says Keiichiro Ichinose, a lawyer representing the plaintiffs. Four representatives of the plaintiffs, who say their family members were victims of the induced plague, were present at the court. They have also been invited to town meetings to tell the Japanese audiences of their vivid recollections of what they lived through. He Qisui, one of the plaintiffs, says he witnessed the peaceful life he had built in the port city of Ningbo tumble down after Japanese planes dropped plague-infested wheat grain on Oct. 27, 1940. To eradicate the plague, everything, including 137 houses, was burned down. No house has been built in the area since. Both Japanese and Chinese researchers say the attack claimed more than 100 lives in Ningbo alone. Wang Jingdi, another plaintiff from Chongshan village in Zhejiang Province, says the plague also killed his family members. Mr. Wang started his own investigation in 1966 about what happened in his village in 1942. By talking to older people he learned that Japanese soldiers came to his village and spread plague-infested grain from the air and put germs in water supplies. They also conducted gruesome human experiments on some of the villagers, he said. Researchers say that just before Japan's surrender, Unit 731 unleashed its last experiment in northeastern China, claiming tens of thousands of lives by spreading fleas carrying bubonic plague and setting free thousands of infected rats in 32 villages. …