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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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A Toxic Legacy

Makoto Oda

Aug. 31, 2015

A dark chapter from World War Two has left people in China with a toxic legacy. Large quantities of chemical weapons abandoned by Imperial Japanese forces at the war’s end continue to cause suffering. The weapons were manufactured secretly, and used illegally. After Japan's surrender, troops discarded the bombs around China, dumping them in rivers or burying them.

The weapons are still leaking gases, and causing serious health problems for victims who say they have received little official help. Private groups in Japan and China have launched a support program on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war.

The plight of some of the estimated 300 victims was the subject of a Tokyo photo exhibition last month. Images included a woman lying at home, breathing with an oxygen inhaler, and a man with vicious scars across his thighs.

"These inhumane weapons caused suffering even after the war. I want people to know about this fact," says Japanese lawyer Norio Minami, who helped organize the exhibition.

Minami visited the city of Qiqihar, in China's northeastern province of Heilongjiang, early this year to see how victims there were faring. Japan's chemical warfare unit was based in Qiqihar and after the war, many residents began reporting health problems believed to be caused by the toxic armaments left behind.

In 2003, five drums leaking mustard gas were found at a Qiqihar construction site. The dangerous chemical is known to cause skin sores and neurological disorders. Workers unknowingly moved contaminated soil from the site to various parts of the city, spreading the problem, and 43 people later reported symptoms of poisoning. One person died from contamination.

The Japanese government has previously donated about $2.5 million dollars in relation to the problem. Authorities in China distributed the money to victims, but those affected say it only helped their medical bills for a short time.

Some of the victims filed a lawsuit in 2007 against the Japanese government. Japan's courts admitted their plight was considerable, but ultimately rejected the claim, saying it was extremely difficult for the Japanese government to examine all the regions where chemical weapons may have been abandoned.

Minami represented the victims and has stayed in touch. They include 19-year-old Gao Ming, who suffers from exposure to mustard gas when she was seven years old. Gao was playing outside when she felt something was wrong with her body. She had no idea that dirt brought to the neighborhood was contaminated with mustard gas.

“I was playing, burying my legs in the sand. The next day, I had blisters on my body,” she recalls. Gao says since then she has struggled with memory loss and a deteriorating immune system. She catches colds several times a month, and even slight activity makes her feel sluggish.

Since graduating from school, Gao mostly stays at home. She had dreamed of becoming a model but now, that seems impossible. "My dream has vanished since the accident. I can no longer move my body as I want to,” she says.

Because her insurance does not cover all of her medical bills, Gao is left about $170 out-of-pocket each month...a heavy burden on her family's budget. To help people like her, Minami has established a support fund with a private Chinese organization. They are seeking donations in Japan and China to help victims receive ongoing treatment.

The fund was launched on August 14th at a ceremony in Tokyo and Gao flew in to give a speech representing the victims. "Many victims are too poor to receive care in a hospital,” she said. “I truly appreciate your support."

Minami says victims’ symptoms are not improving. “In fact, they're getting worse. We must not forget those who are losing their health even as we speak. Supporting them is of utmost importance,” he explains.

NHK World's Makoto Oda has been following the story. He joined NEWSROOM TOKYO presenters Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio to discuss the problem.

Beppu: Makoto, can the victims ever recover completely?

Oda: Researchers still have a lot to learn, and since there's no cure, patients can only receive treatment for specific symptoms. Mustard gas was used in World War One and in the 1980 Iran-Iraq War. In both instances, it caused serious health problems for civilians. In the short term, contact with the gas can cause skin sores, respiratory problems, and problems with the mucous membranes. But the long-term effects are even worse. Researchers have only recently begun to comprehensively research the problem.

Shibuya: What is the Japanese government doing about this?

Oda: The Japanese Cabinet Office says most of the military's war-time documents have been lost. This makes it hard to know how many weapons are left, and where. The Japanese government has been excavating and collecting chemical weapons abandoned in China. This is part of their obligations under international treaties. So far, officials have spent more than $1.3 billion to dispose of 39,000 bombs. Last December, Workers began disposing of weapons in Haerba-ling in Jilin Province. That's where an estimated 300- to 400-thousand chemical munitions are buried, the largest amount anywhere in China. Officials aim to finish the work by 2022.

Sho: We saw Minami start a fund to support the victims. How is the response so far?

Oda: Minami's fund has raised nearly $83,000 from Chinese companies and other donors. He's calling for donations in Japan as well. He also plans to ask the Chinese government for support in providing victims with continuous medical care. It may be difficult to solve the problem. But I think it's important to understand that the legacy of the war is still affecting people of all ages.