HARBIN, China -- On a cold morning in the fall of 1939, Japanese soldiers prepared to tie Huang Heyuan to a wooden cross and cut his heart out.
Huang, then a 26-year-old Chinese construction worker, had been brought to a biological warfare testing center in Manchuria by Japanese soldiers who promised to help him. Instead, they injected Huang and other prisoners with bubonic plague and dissected them alive without anesthesia to study the bacteria's effects.
Huang had seen the results: iron containers filled with human hearts.
"I was terrified," Huang, now 85, recalled recently as he sat with family members in his tiny home in the northeastern industrial city of Shenyang. "It was so cold, I couldn't scream."
When the surgeon arrived, though, he recognized Huang from a nearby Japanese clinic which the Chinese laborer had helped build three years earlier. "He is my friend," the surgeon declared and told assistants to take Huang away.
"Without a word from him, I would have died," said Huang, as tears formed in eyes buried beneath folds of skin.
Huang's deliverance was a rare act of mercy during an extraordinarily savage military occupation in which Japanese soldiers slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Chinese civilians.
On Wednesday, President Jiang Zemin will become the first postwar Chinese leader to visit Japan. During the six-day stay, Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi is expected to issue a full apology for the atrocities committed during World War II.
The apology comes on the heels of one Obuchi made last month to Korean Prime Minister Kim Dae Jung in which the Japanese leader admitted that "colonial rule inflicted unbearable damage and pain on Korean people." Obuchi is expected to use similar wording with China.
If the Chinese people accept the apology -- the nation has viewed past expressions of remorse as half-hearted -- it could help improve relations between Asia's two most powerful nations and heal wounds that have festered for more than half a century.
The Japanese have much to account for.
During some six weeks in 1937, Japanese soldiers murdered 260,000 to 350,000 Chinese in an explosion of violence in Nanking, then the capital. The mass murder, known as the "Rape of Nanking," included decapitation contests, castration, live burial and the rape of tens of thousands of women.
In Manchuria, China's northeastern region, biological warfare units killed an estimated 3,000 Chinese, Koreans, Mongolians and Russians. Some were subjected to bombs filled with germ-laden shrapnel. Others underwent horrific medical experiments that included filling prisoners' veins with horse blood to see if it could be used as a substitute.
As the war's final days approached and Japan faced defeat, soldiers at the infamous Japanese army medical Unit 731 outside the city of Harbin unleashed countless plague-infected rats on local villages.
Jing Fuhe was a 12-year-old boy at the time and lived nearby. In one month, more than half of his extended family of 19 succumbed to the "Black Death."
Before his uncle died, his glands swelled so much that his neck disappeared. Jing's father, sister and little brother died in one day.
"I wanted to kill any Japanese I could see," said Jing, now 64 and retired from his job in an aircraft-parts factory. "And I wanted my children to remember this."
If the Japanese want forgiveness, Jing says, it will take more than words.
"They should take the initiative to apologize and compensate the people," Jing says. "Otherwise, the image of the Japanese ghost can never be erased among the Chinese."
Details of Japanese biological weapons experiments remained shrouded in mystery after the war, due in large part to the United States.
In what amounted to a cover-up, U.S. officials gave immunity from war crimes prosecution to the men who ran Unit 731 in exchange for their experimental data, which was later stored at Fort Detrick in Frederick.
"Such information could not be obtained in our own laboratories because of scruples attached to human experimentation," wrote Edwin V. Hill, chief of basic sciences at then-Camp Detrick in 1947.
Japan's planned apology comes at a time of changing fortunes for the two nations. The world's second-largest economy and Asia's dominant regional power, Japan is mired in recession and political uncertainty. After weathering foreign occupation, civil war and the tumultuous leadership of Mao Tse-tung, China has ridden spectacular economic growth in the 1990s to a role as a regional leader and rival to Japan.
By issuing a formal apology, Japan continues to acknowledge China's status as a rising world power. It also hopes to blunt Chinese criticism of its militarist past designed to keep Japan from taking on a stronger role in international affairs.
"The Japanese would like to conduct foreign policy without being second-guessed," said Akihiko Tanaka, a professor of international politics at Tokyo University.
China, though, may have little incentive to forgive, let alone forget. In the past, Beijing has used the issue of wartime atrocities as a moral club to beat investment and loans out of Japan while whipping up nationalism at home.
"We cannot afford the luxury of expecting the apology to settle historical accounts once and for all," the state-run China Daily warned in an editorial last month.
While Japanese atrocities may unify China in collective hatred, they have often divided Japan. Tokyo has issued apologies in the past only to have them undermined by politicians and right-wing activists who say that wartime offenses have been exaggerated or invented.
In one camp stand people such as Nobukatsu Fujioka, a professor at Tokyo University, who claims the death toll during the "Rape of Nanking" -- now called Nanjing -- was far lower than Chinese estimates, and that most victims were soldiers, not civilians.
In the other camp are those such as writer Saburo Ienaga, who has spent more than three decades battling government officials who forced him to soften his depiction of Japan's wartime behavior in high school history texts.
The ones who have perhaps done the most to reconcile with China, though, are those who inflicted the damage: the soldiers. Racked with guilt, some have publicly apologized to their victims' family members.
Huang Yibing was 12 years old in 1943 when Japanese soldiers arrested his father -- an underground Communist organizer -- and sent him to his death at army Unit 731.
Fifty years later, while poring through provincial archives, he discovered the identity of the man who arrested and tortured his father: Yutaka Mio.
By that time, Mio was a well-known activist and lecturer on Japanese wartime atrocities. When Huang met him at a Sino-Japanese conference in a Harbin hotel in 1995, Mio fell to his knees.
"In my short life, I can never get rid of the guilt," he told Huang in a 90-minute confession. "Every day, every minute, I redeem myself and ask for forgiveness."
Huang had trouble accepting Mio's apology. "In the beginning, I hated him," Huang recalled.
The more he talked to Mio, though, the more he came to see him as a man who had lost his humanity in war, but regained it in peace. A month later, at a meeting in Tokyo, he shook Mio's hand.
Like many family members of victims, Huang has sued the Japanese government, seeking compensation for his father's death. So far, most lawsuits have been unsuccessful.
Huang expects a verdict in his case this spring. He said he thinks he will win.
Pub Date: 11/23/98