“What I do is deeply meaningful. The small people, the little people, hand in hand, pooling our efforts – we changed history!”
Wang Xuan began her career as an English teacher and linguist, but her life’s work has been the heroic crusade that exposed a World War II war crime forgotten by almost everyone. From 1938-45, Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army ran the world’s largest biological warfare program, spreading infection of plague, typhoid, and cholera among Chinese civilians. This program, never publicly acknowledged by the Japanese government and largely unknown in the West, killed hundreds of thousands of Chinese, and left others to suffer for decades. In the mid-1990s, a group of Japanese peace activists began investigating and visited the Chinese village of Chongshan in Yiwu City, where a third the population had died of plague. Enraged to learn the true cause of what had been called “rat disease,” the villagers decided to sue the Japanese government – and reached out to Xuan with a plea: Help us.
Xuan lived and worked in Japan, but to the villagers, she was one of them. Chongshan was her father’s hometown, and as a child, he had lost his own brother to plague. It also was where Xuan had spent four grueling years as a teenager, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution banished the intelligentsia to the countryside to live and work as peasants.
Over a decade, often using her own money, Xuan assembled 180 village victims and relatives of victims as plaintiffs, and gathered evidence of what had happened. Her documentation, from old records and testimony from Japanese soldiers and military doctors, was damning. Though the villagers’ demand for compensation was rejected – in 1972 China had given up its right to demand war reparations as a condition of establishing diplomatic ties with Japan – they won a moral triumph: For the first time ever a Japanese court admitted that the country had used biological weapons against civilians.
What made you take on such a difficult quest?
The villager who asked for help said, “You’re the only one from the village who speaks Japanese and knows Japan. This is something you must do.” This man was someone who’d always been close to my family and meant a lot to me. And the people of Chongshan cared for me when I lived there during the Cultural Revolution. We were very poor, but I felt protected there. If they asked me to do something, I would never refuse.
I first heard about the plague from my father when I was five. He told me, “You used to have an uncle. He died. So many people died...” Even so many years later, he looked frightened. When I learned about Unit 731, it was like my mind was struck by thunder. My face went red. What happened was a crime against humanity!
I set three goals for this work: That we find out the historical truth about the biological warfare campaign; that based on what we found, the Japanese government would admit what they’d done; and that the government would then take responsibility. They had to apologize. They had to put it in the history textbooks.
Although you couldn’t get compensation for victims, do you feel you got justice?
Monetary compensation isn’t everything. We couldn’t bring lives back, but we now have the record of history. It took a lot of courage for the Japanese judge to admit the truth. I appreciate it greatly.
Yet more than 10 years later, you are still pursuing an element of the case?
Before we filed our lawsuit and submitted papers to the court, we collected evidence and interviewed many victims. During that time we met a lot of people who had suffered for decades from what they called “rotten leg disease.”
It’s a terrible thing. Itchy blisters form on the skin, then become ulcers. The skin rots so badly sometimes you can see bone. The wounds are very painful and you can smell them 100 meters away.
We brought in three US specialists who confirmed that this was subcutaneous anthrax, and the result of biological warfare. It was not a disease included in the original lawsuit.
How have you helped those who suffer from rotten leg?
In 2014, we were stunned to discover that it was curable. I’ve worked to raise money for victims to receive medical treatment, which involves a skilled cleaning of the wounds followed by a series of skin grafts, and is very expensive. We’ve been able to send 120 people for treatment at four hospitals, with some of China’s leading experts. People’s lives have changed. One old man said, “For the first time in my life, I have socks.” Another told me, “For the first time in my life I can put on leather shoes and visit my relatives.”\
What is your future work?
I’m seeking to confirm the existence of a cholera campaign in 1943 in northern China. We’ve recorded interviews with 3,000 old people in the countryside. I’ve also done 1,000 interviews that include medical details with villagers suffering from rotten leg disease, along with a thousand of their neighbours and friends One thing we can do for these people is create a data bank for scientists to use.
This whole project sounds very difficult emotionally.
For a period of time I lost my ability to feel happiness.
Do you feel you’ve given up your life for it?
After the Cultural Revolution, I dreamed of studying in the US or England and I still haven’t done that. But what I do is deeply meaningful. The small people, the little people, hand in hand, pooling our efforts – we changed history!
Read this insightful profile at Al Jazeera of Xuan and her work.
The Washington Post on the landmark lawsuit, organized by Xuan, which confirmed Japan's use of biological weapons against civilians in World War II in 2002.