Chen Yi-pian was one of many Chinese women used as sex slaves by Japanese armed forces during World War II. Pic: AP.

Judging from the pictures published by Xinhua, China’s National News Agency, you would think that they are just stained, dusty records of some past administration. But don’t be fooled, the 89 documents which were disclosed to the public on Friday are historical thorns ready to sting the government in Tokyo, as they reportedly offer further proof of atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War Two.

Chinese media reported that the documents – 90 per cent, says Xinhua, in Japanese – originally belonged to the archives of the military police corps of Japan’s Kwantung Army and the national bank of the Manchurian regime, the puppet government installed by Tokyo in northeastern China. They include phone calls, letters and reports which the Japanese army failed to destroy when it retreated from Manchuria. Rather than being burned – which, it seems, would have taken longer – they were only buried.

Other discoveries may follow. According to the Global Times, the documents “represent only a small portion of the nearly 100,000 wartime Japanese files in 1931-1945 period retrieved underground during construction work in 1953.”

The People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s mouthpiece, reported that the files provide “details of the Nanjing Massacre, sex slaves used by the Japanese military and activities of Japanese Army Unit 731.” Besides, “three of the 89 documents showed that British and American prisoners were sent to Shenyang, Liaoning Province from 1942 to 1945, where they were used as forced labor in Japanese factories and maltreated.”

Particularly relevant are those referring to so-called ‘comfort women’ – a euphemism used to describe the women forced into prostitution to satisfy the troops. According to local media, the documents show that from February 1 to 10 in 1938, “there were six ‘comfort women’ for 1,200 soldiers, a ratio of 1:200, in Xiaguan district of east China’s Nanjing.” Also, a telephone record shows that “in five months since November 1944, the invading Japanese army paid 532,000 Japanese yen on setting up ‘comfort stations’.”

The issue of comfort women is extremely controversial. In 1994, the then Japanese Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, apologized for the behavior of the Imperial Army. “As Prime Minister of Japan, I thus extend anew my most sincere apologies and remorse to all the women who underwent immeasurable and painful experiences and suffered incurable physical and psychological wounds as comfort women,” he said. But many, particularly in China and Korea, feel that Japan still has mixed feelings about the past. Certainly Chinese media – which constantly remind everyone about how terrifying the invasion was – play a role. But in their work they receive help from part of the Japanese establishment, including the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In 2007, Mr. Abe went so far as to say that there was no evidence that the Imperial Government had kept any sex slave.

One interesting detail is the timing of the disclosure. According to Chinese media, the 89 documents were originally discovered during a construction work in 1953 in Changchun, Jilin Province, but, for some reason, the translation began only in 2013. This, coupled with the fact that the news emerged as US President Obama was conducting his Asian tour – much touted as a second ‘pivot to Asia’ – reinforce suspicions that politics could be playing a significant role. In Japan, the USpPresident reiterated that the military alliance between the Washington and Tokyo covers the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, a bitter message for the government in Beijing. Should the disclosure then be interpreted as a sign that China has no intention of softening her stance in East Asian politics? After all, strange things happen when Mr. Obama is around. The first war reparation ordered – albeit without recognizing it as such – by a Chinese court and the first military deployment in over 40 years by Japanese forces both took place as the American President was approaching the Asian continent.