Japan's special horror recalled on toxic isle

Richard Lloyd Parry reports from Okunojima on a deadly war secret

In the misty Inland Sea, a boat-ride away from Hiroshima, is the haunted island of Okunojima. It doesn't look at first glance like a ghostly place but, beyond nature trails and open-air swimming pools, are relics of one of the most sinister of all Japan's wartime secrets - a toxic gas factory.

Hidden among palms and bracken are concrete caves built into the hillside, containing circular cradles of crumbling cement; on the far side of the island is the gaping hulk of an old power station, populated by a colony of albino rabbits.

"The A-bomb victims talk about how terrible their experiences were, but when people pray for peace, and try to understand the nature of the war, there are two places which they should visit," said Hatsuichi Murakami, the curator of Okunojima's museum.

"The first is the Peace Museum in Hiroshima. The second is here. Hiroshima represents Japan's position as victim. Okunojima shows us about Japan the aggressor."

The shocked Japanese military used the euphemism "special bomb" for the device which destroyed Hiroshima, and which is being exhaustively commemorated in rallies, exhibitions and this Sunday's climactic ceremony in the city's famous Peace Park.

But the Japanese are seldom reminded of their country's own "special" weapons. Between 1929 and 1945, a huge military complex on Okunojima produced 1,200 tons of half a dozen different toxic gases every year. They were used more than 2,000 times in Japan's 14-year war in China, and killed or injured as many as 80,000 enemy soldiers and civilians, not counting the many Japanese workers killed or maimed by the poison, sometimes decades later. Those concrete cradles once bore huge metal tanks of mustard gas; the rabbits in the power station are the descendants of laboratory animals used to test its lethal properties.

Mr Murakami, curator of the Okunojima Toxic Gas Museum, first came here in 1939, at the age of 14. When he was a boy on the mainland, the military drills at school were enlivened by the use of smoke bombs. These, he was told, came from the island, a few miles off shore. "My image of Okunojima," he said, "was of a very inspiring, mysterious, heroic place."

Japan had been experimenting with toxic gas since soon after the First World War. After the great Tokyo earthquake in 1923, production was transferred to the island.

As well as mustard gases, it produced phosgene, chlorine, cyanide and tear gas. The museum displays the tanks and filtration columns, and the all-over suits and gas masks, worn by horses as well as workers.

"The most impressive thing about the place," said Mr Murakami, "was what we were told about the purpose of the gas. It wasn't intended to kill the enemy, but just to paralyse him and sap his fighting spirit. It was a just and moral undertaking. But very soon I realised that something was wrong."

The mustard gas leaked through the rubber uniforms and gas masks, and it was common to see workers with blistered skin and lung diseases. The hydrochloric acid used as a reagent caused eye injuries, and years later workers suffered conjunctivitis, pleurisy, bronchitis and pneumonia.

Okunojima was not marked on Japanese maps and, even after the war, its secret was little known or talked about. In 1945 the complex was demolished and detoxified by the United States military.

Hundreds of tons of gas were loaded onto a freighter which was sunk far out in the Pac- ific. Until the Seventies, the Japanese government refused to acknowledge the plant's existence, but eventually pen- sions were paid to surviving workers.

The island's grimmest legacy is only now being tackled. In China, 2 million poison gas shells remain in underground dumps; earlier this year Japanese officials visited the sites and agreed to pay for their disposal.

Further burial sites have been identified a few hundred yards from Mr Murakami's museum, and even below a residential area in Hiroshima itself.

"We remember the atom bomb, and the agony the Americans caused," he said. "But on Okunojima many people suffered because of their own country. Do we remember that we suffered, or that we caused suffering ourselves?"

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Part Time Male Support Worker / Full Time Driver

£9464 - £12995 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful applicant will ne...

Recruitment Genius: Graphic Designer - Product Development

£26000 - £29000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Product Development departm...

Recruitment Genius: Marketing and Business Development Officer

£19000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This hull based charity providing except...

Recruitment Genius: Part Time Female Support Worker

£9464 - £10396 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The successful applicant will ne...

Day In a Page

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future