Why Were the Japanese Interested in Peking Man and Did They Find the Fossils

On December 8, 1941, Pearl Harbor Day, most staff and employees at Peking Union Medical College were paid their salaries and dismissed. The next day, the Japanese occupied and took over Peking Union Medical College, posting guards at the gates.36 Shortly thereafter, according to an interview with Wenzhong Pei,37 Dr. Kotondo Hasebe, an anthropologist at Tokyo Imperial University, accompanied by his assistant Mr. Fuyugi Takai, "hurried to find the Peking Man fossils." Pei claimed that Hasebe had come to China "long before the Pearl Harbor attack," a reference to Hasebe's likely being one of the civilians who went with three truckloads of soldiers to the Longgushan site in 1937. In 1941 at Peking Union Medical College he came with soldiers of the Japanese army, and according to Pei's report, "when they ordered the safe opened and saw that there was a copy of the skull-cap, they left without a word." A few days later Pei was interrogated by a captain in the Japanese army who confiscated his resident identification card, essentially confining him to the Beijing city limits. Pei professed ignorance of the fossils' movements and current whereabouts, citing the distance of his office from the medical school. The captain told him that Americans at the medical school were suspected of smuggling the fossils out of China. Dr. Houghton, the president, and Mr. Bowen, the controller, had both been arrested and were in Japanese custody. The captain told Pei that he could continue working as usual unless the army authorities decided to press the search for the fossils. He added the threat, "If they do, you can't get away by pleading ignorance."

Kotondo Hasebe played an important, and as yet unappreciated role, in the continuing Japanese efforts to locate the Peking Man fossils. According to Pei, when soldiers first occupied the medical school in Beijing, Japanese authorities were primarily aware of its importance in the field of medicine, paying "only incidental attention to the problem of the Peking Man fossils." However, when Hasebe sent a report to the Ministry of Education in Tokyo, his information was forwarded to the emperor.38 It was widely believed that it was Emperor Hirohito himself who then ordered the North China Expeditionary Force of Japan to reinitiate the search for the missing fossils. In April or May 1942, five to six months after Pearl Harbor, Pei was summoned by Japanese authorities to the Hotel Beijing for further questioning. He gave the same answers as before and was released. But on returning home he was questioned again and then placed under house arrest for two weeks by a Japanese military detective. Dr. Hasebe then reappeared, this time in the company of several Japanese army officers. They took Pei to Zhoukoudian and visited the site.

Hasebe told Pei that they were contemplating resuming excavation at Dragon Bone Hill.

Dr. Kotondo Hasebe appears from his publications to have been primarily an ethnologist, specializing in Micronesia. He wrote papers on customs of the Marshall Islands in 191539 and on body ornamentation, especially tattooing, in various Micronesian cultures between 1917 and 1943. All of these papers were published in one journal, the Journal of the Anthropological Society of Tokyo. With his background, why Hasebe doggedly pursued Peking Man from 1937 to 1943 is mysterious. Perhaps it was a wartime duty assigned to him, or perhaps it was an abiding personal interest and he was able to gain the ears of influential persons in Tokyo to assist him. Perhaps he was acting on behalf of a powerful patron or patrons in Japan, close to the emperor, who had an interest in the Peking Man fossils. Whatever the source of his apparent interest in the fossils of Peking Man, it is highly unlikely that Kotondo Hasebe would have possessed the expertise for as formidable a task as excavating Longgushan. He would have required the cooperation and assistance of Pei, Jia, and other skilled Chinese workers, and it must have been apparent to all that such cooperation would not have been forthcoming. After World War II Hasebe did apparently work at physical anthropology, naming in 1947 a new species Nippo-anthropus akashiensis on the basis of a pelvic bone found in 1931 in Akashi, Japan, that was destroyed during the firebombing of Tokyo. As evidence of his eclecticism, he also worked on determining the supposed racial affinities of some Japanese mummies, and collected and studied the bony remains of Japanese dogs.

Dr. A. B. D. Fortuyn had been a professor in the anatomy department of Peking Union Medical College with both Davidson Black and Franz Weidenreich. He last visited the medical school in July 1942, before leaving Beijing for London. At that time he had been summoned by a Dr. Matsuhashi, a Japanese epidemiologist who had taken over one of the physiology laboratories of the medical school. Dr. Matsuhashi wanted to know the whereabouts of the original Sinanthropus fossils. Fortuyn reports that he believed that the Peking Man fossils had made it out of Beijing and to the port city of Qinhuangdao. He relates that "this is known for certain, because the marine who personally was in charge of the boxes developed appendicitis after his temporary return to Peking. He was operated in the PUMC and then had a chance to pass this information to the attending doctor."40 Fortuyn had believed until then that the Japanese had captured the fossils in Qinhuangdao and that they had been sent to Japan as a national treasure. He concluded after being interrogated by Matsuhashi that "the location of these fossils was at least not known to all Japanese who were interested in them."

Between July and August 1942, Pei wrote that "news suddenly came that the fossil was found in Tianjin (Tientsin) and the Japanese authorities were looking for someone to identify the authenticity of the object."41 Claire Taschdjian was summoned by the Japanese to help, but when she arrived she was told to return home, as the fossil had been determined to have nothing to do with Peking Man. To this day the Chinese remain suspicious that the Japanese really did discover some or all of the Peking Man fossils.42 Some believe that the fossils were sent to Japan. No further explanation was ever offered as to what object or objects had been mistaken for the Peking Man fossils.

Pei notes that at this point, August 1942, the Japanese suddenly dropped their investigation of Peking Man, and Hasebe, pleading lack of funds, abandoned plans to excavate at Zhoukoudian. He returned to Japan, taking with him some of the Zhoukoudian records and late Pleistocene fossil and archaeological collections. They were recovered in the Imperial Museum at the end of the war and sent back to China. But if the Peking Man fossils were among the relics, Kotondo Hasebe never had the opportunity to study or publish anything about them. A further curious fact is that on August 23, 1942, the Peking Daily, an English-language, pro-Japanese newspaper, published an article reporting that Hasebe and his assistant Takai had arrived in Beijing on August 19 and discovered that the Peking Man fossils had been removed from the safe at Peking Union Medical College.43 Strangely, this fact had been discovered by Hasebe the day after Pearl Harbor, more than eight months earlier, as noted by Pei. Was this old news intentional "disinformation," disseminated to quell an unintended leak that the Peking Man fossils had been found? If the Peking Man fossils did get shipped to Japan, could they have been destroyed, like Nippoanthropus, in the massive bombing of Tokyo? If they were, they were not housed in the Imperial Museum, which escaped damage. Many other scenarios are possible, but it is clear that further historical research is needed to resolve outstanding questions on the Japanese side of the Peking Man fossil question.

The unfortunate fate of a large number of other, non-primate fossils captured by the Japanese at Peking Union Medical College is much clearer. Jia and Huang record and list the contents of 67 boxes of Zhoukoudian fossils and stone artifacts, 10 boxes of fossil reptiles from another site, and 30 boxes of publications that had been crated up and stored in Lockhart Hall when the Japanese took over the medical school in 1941.44 In May 1942 the Japanese military police, at the height of the investigation into the Peking Man fossils, decided to move their headquarters into Peking Union Medical College. They ordered the fossils and books, which had up to then been undisturbed, thrown out. An eyewitness and former medical school employee, Deshan Han, recounted that "there were great numbers of bones on the ground, scattered and smashed," and that many books being thrown out and burned were retrieved by local residents and later sold to used booksellers in Beijing. He himself picked up four pieces of fossil bone from the street that he later (in 1950) sent back to Dr. Yang.45 Some fossils and casts were tossed into a storeroom at the medical school by the military police but were badly broken in the process. This type of treatment unfortunately would most likely have been the fate of the Peking Man fossils had they fallen into the hands of military personnel in wartime Beijing, even if those personnel were looking for them.

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