Why has the United States decided to crack down on suspected Japanese war criminals 50 years after granting them immunity from prosecution?
Japanese scratched their heads last week at the unexpected announcement that the U.S. Justice Department had included former members of an infamous bacterial warfare research unit on a "watch list" of 16 suspected Japanese World War II war criminals prohibited from entering the United States.
"I don't understand why it's happening now; they're all in their 80s," Japan Women's University professor Ikuo Takagi said.
The United States has been aware of the identities of the Unit 731 leaders and of their gruesome experiments on human subjects since the end of the war. Details of Unit 731 atrocities have appeared in the Western and Japanese media for more than a decade.
In secret laboratories in occupied China, Unit 731 researchers tested poison gas and biological weapons on prisoners; froze and defrosted victims' limbs to study frostbite; and vivisected humans without anesthetic.
After the war, the United States concluded that the results of these experiments were "of the highest intelligence value."
Fearful that those results would fall into Soviet hands, the U.S. occupation authorities gave the head of Japan's bacterial warfare program, Dr. Shiro Ishii, and his colleagues immunity from prosecution at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials in exchange for their secret data.
"I can't defend the decision not to prosecute them," said Eli Rosenbaum, chief of the U.S. Justice Department unit charged with identifying Axis war criminals.
It was apparently the first public admission by a U.S. official that the U.S. erred when it granted immunity to Ishii, who has been compared to Nazi doctor Josef Mengele.
Many of Ishii's colleagues went on to distinguished careers in postwar Japan, holding posts in the National Institute of Health, serving as medical school deans and laboratory heads. One key Ishii disciple, Ryoichi Naito, founded Green Cross, a leading pharmaceutical company, bought a Los Angeles company as a subsidiary and traveled to the United States often until his death in 1982.
Takagi and other Japanese intellectuals said they agree in principle with the Justice Department action.
But many consider it pointless to target offenders now--particularly since Japan, unlike Germany, never adopted a war crimes law with which to prosecute them. The Tokyo War Crimes Trials were held under U.S. auspices.
But activists said they hope that the U.S. move will increase pressure on the Japanese government, which has yet to offer an apology for its World War II crimes that Asian neighbors find convincing. They are also demanding that Japan launch a thorough investigation of the 16 alleged war criminals and set the historical record straight.
The Justice Department announcement was reported in the Japanese media but seems to have attracted little attention. A senior Japanese official said Japan would not protest the existence of the watch list.
Washington has given Tokyo the 16 names, but the Japanese Foreign Ministry said it will not release them in deference to Justice Department policy, which aims to keep the guilty guessing by never revealing who is--and is not--blacklisted from entering the United States.
Several Japanese intellectuals expressed concern that the legal move against the alleged war criminals could have a chilling effect on octogenarian culprits who have begun to unburden themselves about their wartime activities before they die.
Times staff writer Norman Kempster in Washington and Chiaki Kitada of The Times' Tokyo Bureau contributed to this report.