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WWII Japanese Chemical Weapons in China Explained: An Interview

Chinese and Japanese working teams have recently completed sealing up 724 pieces of chemical weapons along with five barrels of mustard gas that had killed one person and injured 43 others after workers began excavating a construction site on August 4. The weapons were left by Japanese troops at the end of the World War II (WWII) in Qiqihar City of Heilongjiang Province, northeast China. The Shanghai-based Oriental Outlook magazine interviewed the head of the Japanese working team, here referred to as "S".

Japan left behind a large number of bombs with chemical warheads in China at the end of the World War II (WWII) and is now helping China with the cleanup. But in August, drums of mustard gas ruptured at a construction site in Qiqihar, northeast China, killed one and damaged the health of 43 others.

Responding to the Qiqihar poison incident, the Japanese government dispatched a working team for chemical weapons disposal headed by a counselor from the office for the disposal of abandoned chemical weapons under the Japanese Cabinet early last month to help handle the chemical weapons stored in a warehouse in the city.

It was reported that UN officials joined the Chinese and Japanese personnel to monitor operations at the scene.

Here follows an interview between a correspondent from Shanghai-based Oriental Outlook magazine and a Japanese government official, the first interview conducted on the issue of Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons in China between the Chinese media and a Japan official representative.

Oriental Outlook: What progress has been made in the disposal of chemical weapons left over in China by Japanese troops?

S: As everybody knows, our work of destroying Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons in China is being carried out under international and Japan-Chinese bilateral instruments, namely, the Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC, 1997) and the Memorandum on the Destruction of Japanese Discarded Chemical Weapons in China signed on July 30, 1999 between the governments of the People's Republic of China and Japan.

To promote the work of destroying Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons in China, the Japanese government established an office exclusively for the disposal of Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons in China in the Cabinet directly under the jurisdiction of the prime minister. In addition, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and its Defense Agency also assigned coordinating personnel for the issue of Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons. The Chinese government also set up a special office for the issue under the Asian Department of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs as the counterpart of the Japanese office.

The foreign ministries of both countries annually convene a Japanese-Chinese joint working group meeting, which decides major jobs of the year. Because the disposal of Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons in China is an unprecedented undertaking in history, it was not until one and a half years after the establishment of the special Japanese office that we began our investigations with the assistance of China. And more substantial work started in September 2000 when we embarked on the mass excavation of chemical bombs dumped in Bei'an City, Heilongjiang Province.

From then on we carried out a series of excavations on a pretty large scale in different parts of China, such as Nanjing, Songwu County of Heihe City in Heilongjiang Province and Luquan City in Hebei Province, just to name a few of them.

A total of 36,000 chemical weapons including bombs, poisonous fume pipes and iron barrels containing chemical preparations have been retrieved and put under temporary safekeeping. To be specific, the weapons were first dug up from the soil and then, as some of them had aged, rusted or been leaking chemical reparations, and some others had explosive attachments or engines with them, they were washed, detoxified of outer covering or had their engines removed. Following safety treatment they were examined with X-rays to see whether they were left over by Japanese troops or not. The identified Japanese chemical weapons were to be sealed up and placed in temporary storage.

The retrieval I just mentioned refers to the whole process from safety treatment through to storage.

Oriental Outlook: How many Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons did the Japanese government retrieve and dispose of in the past number of years?

S: 360,000. Actually, the retrieved chemical weapons haven't yet been destroyed because decisions haven't been made on what technologies should be adopted for their destruction. What we have done are preparations for detoxification. The Japanese and Chinese sides meet monthly to discuss how to dispose of these chemical weapons and what environmental standards should be complied with.

Why does the conferring between Japan and China take so much time? It's because the work has no precedent in human history. So many chemical weapons were dumped in the soil for such a long time. Nothing similar has happened in any other countries in the world. If there were precedents we could acquire some experience. Furthermore, the components of Japanese chemical weapons are different from those of American and Russian ones. In view of this, pioneering work has to be done in the research of technologies for destruction.

What have been done include: cremation has been decided as the approach to destroy "red bombs" and "yellow bombs," which account for the major part of Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons in China and meanwhile both parties are studying what technologies should be used for the destruction of other abandoned chemical weapons; moreover, both parties have agreed to build a center for the destruction of the retrieved chemical weapons in the area of Ha'erba Ridge in Dunhua City, Jilin Province. Strictly speaking, the area is not mountainous but hilly. Some 670,000 chemical weapons were dumped in the area, which is the place with the most Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons in China. Up to now both parties have been talking over what equipment should be used for excavation and storage of the chemical weapons in the area and a rough consensus has been reached on the issue.

The State Environmental Protection Administration of China, with help from Japan, is now working on environmental standards for the destruction of Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons in China.

Oriental Outlook: Opinions vary on the exact number of Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons in China. Chinese scholars say there are at least 2 million pieces, whereas Japan says the number should be about 700,000. How do you view the disagreement?

S: Now Japan believes that the number of the abandoned Japanese chemical weapons is about 700,000. The result of investigations in the Ha'erba Ridge area tells that 670,000 chemical weapons were dumped there. And we, in light of various information offered by China, made a summing-up that another 30,000 chemical weapons were dumped in other places in China.

The number of the chemical weapons dumped in the Ha'erba Ridge area, 670,000, was worked out in 1996. We first used metal detector to detect the gross volume of the dumped chemical weapons and after that we did trial excavations, which gave the number per unit volume of them. The figure of 670,000 was obtained by multiplying the number per unit volume and the gross volume together. 

Japan also knows that China, according to historical records, acknowledges the number of Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons in China to be 2 million. I wouldn't comment on the figure and I've never spoken about its trustworthiness. The exact figure cannot be obtained until real field excavations are done. To avoid misunderstandings I need to make it clear that no matter what the number is, 700,000 or 2 million or a figure in between, Japan will take the responsibility to destroy the last chemical weapon identified as abandoned by Japanese troops.

Oriental Outlook: Can you complete your mission by the year 2007? If you cannot, will you apply for extending the time limit?

S: Now we are working in earnest for the complete destruction of Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons in China by 2007 as specified in the Chemical Weapons Convention and the Memorandum on the Destruction of Japanese Discarded Chemical Weapons in China. As for the issue of a delay, we think now it's too early to consider it because we are making sincere efforts.

Previous excavations and retrievals were basically done by humans. Considering that there are as many as 670,000 chemical bombs in the Ha'erba Ridge area, we are thinking of using automatic excavators to do excavations because manual operations will take a longer time. We are now developing those machines.

Oriental Outlook: Are you certain of finishing the job by 2007?

S: We hope so. And we know we don't have much time left before 2007.

Oriental Outlook: What plans has the Japanese government got for chemical weapons disposal in the near future? How much money will it budget for the disposal program?

S: To be brief, we'll first prepare facilities for the early excavation and retrieval of 670,000 chemical weapons in the Ha'erba Ridge area. In the meantime, we'll build the destruction center. The center will experience a trial operation before mass destruction operations.

Now it's hard to estimate the budget but it must be enormous. By the way, we have applied 21.1 billion yen (US$192.395 million) for the next accounting year from April 1, 2003 to March 31, 2004 and the total budget for the past five years was 60 billion yen (US$547.096 million).

We have become deeply conscious that it costs much more time and money to destroy them than to have produced them.

Oriental Outlook: When will the destruction center begin to be built?

S: Research hasn't finished on some technology to be adopted at the center and the design will begin as soon as the research is finished. I've said that as we will dispose of an unprecedented number of chemical weapons in world history we are doing relative experiments for the sake of the safety of both personnel and the environment.

Oriental Outlook: Now the Chinese people are very dissatisfied with the apparent tardy manner of Japan in disposing of its chemical weapons. What do you think about this?

S: Just now I said the disposal of Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons in China is an unprecedented job in history and work can only be set after full consideration has been taken of the affects on the safety of personnel as well as the environment. For these reasons the Japanese and Chinese sides have always explored their way carefully. I cannot deny what we've already done. And we still need some time. The Japanese side knows this very well.

It can well be imagined what kind of feelings the Chinese people harbor toward the issue of Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons in China following the August 4 poisoning incident in Qiqihar this summer. To prevent a recurrence of such an accident in the future we need to quicken our pace.

Oriental Outlook: So far the Japanese government hasn't yet disclosed the detailed conditions of the Japanese-abandoned chemical weapons in China and this is one reason for the occurrence of the August 4 poisoning accident in Qiqihar.

S: Japan would be very pleased to offer relative information to China if it had it. But such information is not available just now. All of the several previous information gatherings failed. Now we have to depend on the Chinese government to provide information to us for the disposal of the chemical weapons.

Oriental Outlook: The Japanese troops invading China in WWII should be very clear about the locations of the stashes of their abandoned chemical weapons upon their retreat in defeat from China at the end of the WWII.

S: Everything was in chaos in WWII. I'm afraid there was no data arranged at that time and even if, would have been lost by now.

Oriental Outlook: I'd like to ask again: can it be reported that the Japanese side pledges to complete its mission of destroying chemical weapons it abandoned in China by 2007?

S: Please say it this way: The Japanese side is making conscientious efforts to accomplish its mission by 2007.

(China.org.cn by Chen Chao and Daragh Moller, December 4, 2003)

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