TOKYO — Japan began excavations Monday at a former medical school to search for human remains that experts link to a notorious World War II program that allegedly conducted experiments in biological warfare on foreign prisoners of war.
Shadowy experiments conducted by Japan's Unit 731 have never been officially acknowledged by the government, but have been documented by historians and participants.
It is the first government probe of the Tokyo site, and follows a former nurse's revelation that she helped bury body parts there as American forces began occupying the capital at the end of the war.
There is no certainty the excavation will unearth anything. But Yasushi Torii, head of a civil group investigating the case for decades, welcomed the dig as a sign that the government is open to the possibility of having to face its long-kept secrets.
"If the bones or organs with traces of live medical experiments are found, the government would have to admit a wartime medical crime," he said as he watched a shovel car carefully dig part of the plot.
"This is a start, although we probably need more evidence to prove Unit 731's role," he said.
From its wartime base in Japanese-controlled Harbin in northern China, Unit 731 and related units injected war prisoners with typhus, cholera and other diseases to research germ warfare, according to historians and former unit members. Unit 731 also is believed to have performed vivisections and to have frozen prisoners to death in endurance tests. The victims are believed to have been mostly Chinese, but also may have included other nationalities.
The dig reflects a greater willingness by the Japanese government to confront Japan's wartime past, experts say.