JAPANESE MEDICAL ATROCITIES IN WORLD WAR II:
UNIT 731 WAS NOT AN ISOLATED ABERRATION
A PAPER READ AT THE INTERNATIONAL CITIZENS
FORUM ON WAR CRIMES & REDRESS
TOKYO, JAPAN, DECEMBER 11, 1999
SHELDON H. HARRIS
PROFESSOR OF HISTORY EMERITUS
CALIFORNIA STATE UNIVERSITY, NORTHRIDGE
UPDATED: FEBRUARY 25, 2000
Of all the belligerents in World War II, Japan was the only nation that used both chemical and biological weapons in battle. The other major combatants possessed stores of chemical weapons, (cw) but did not commit any on the battle field. Some countries either possessed the means for producing biological weapons (bw), or had crash programs seeking to develop such unconventional tools of war. However, none were employed against the enemy before Japan surrendered in mid-August 1945.
Japan, under the growing influence of ultra-nationalist militarists, began research on both bw and cw weapons in the late 1920s. Although many of the ultra-nationalists who were in a position of influence within the Military endorsed investigation of the possibilities of utilizing germ and chemical warfare in future conflicts, the man most responsible for launching Japan’s bw and cw
programs was a young Army doctor, Shiro Ishii. A charismatic, charming, unscrupulous, amoral, but brilliant researcher, Ishii held both medical and Ph.D. degrees from Kyoto Imperial University, one of Japan’s premier institutions of higher learning. Ishii achieved a meteoric rise in the Army, gaining promotion to higher rank every three years during his military career. At the time of Japan’s surrender, he held the rank of Lt. General, the highest rank achievable in the Medical Corps. From the beginning of his military career, Ishii enjoyed the patronage of key figures within the Japanese High Command. As such, he avoided virtually any supervision of his activities, and was free of any restraint in conducting the most sordid investigations in pursuit of the development of bw and cw weapons.
From the start, Ishii engaged in involuntary human experiments. There is clear evidence that he experimented on humans at the Medical Military College in the Shinjuku district in Tokyo. In the mid-1980s, a construction site on the grounds of the former headquarters of the Japanese Military High Command, unearthed human bones, including several skulls with bullet holes. The bones were discovered on the very spot where the Medical Military College was formerly located. Forensic experts identified the bones as of mongoloid origin, but they definitely were not of Japanese background. Further investigation was prohibited by the Japanese Government.
Ishii came into his own in Manchuria shortly after the Japanese seized control of the region in 1931-32. With the protection of the Kwantung Army High Command (also known as the Kanto Army), the Kampeitei (secret Japanese police), and local police collaborators, Ishii engaged freely in extensive research on innocent victims in his laboratories in the city of Harbin, later in Beiyinhe, and still later in an extraordinary facility in Harbin’s suburb known as Ping Fan (g). It was in the last facility that Ishii began construction in 1936 of the world’s premier bw research center. It was completed in 1939, contained more than one hundred fifty buildings, including two secret prisons and three crematoria, and was the largest bw research center in the world.
Each year hundreds of prisoners were fodder for fiendish experiments. They were exposed to every known disease. These ranged from anthrax to yellow fever. Some were used for hyperthermia experiments. Others were forced to endure gangrene experiments; and still others
were forced to engage in sexual intercourse with individuals known to be infected with venereal .
diseases. They were then monitored as the disease took its toll on the victims.
Who were the victims of these heinous experiments? They were captured communist partisans, ordinary criminals, political dissidents, those who were mentally handicapped but physically fit, and, when candidates among these groups were scarce, the secret police would pick up the poor, the homeless, off the streets in cities throughout occupied China and Manchuria. The police would be given orders to send prisoners to Harbin/Ping Fan by “Special Delivery.” Everyone engaged in this sordid business understood that “Special Delivery” was the code words for new human experimental prey. Prisoners to be tested were of various nationalities. The overwhelming majority were Han Chinese. However, Koreans, Soviet prisoners of varying ethnic backgrounds, and, occasionally, Europeans and Americans were used.
Victims were frequently vivisected while still living. They were not given an anesthesia since Ishii and his colleagues wanted to be certain that their tests were not influenced by an outside source. Those individuals whose experiments required a course of study usually lasted about six weeks. Then, of no longer any value to the researchers, they were “sacrificed”, the euphemism used instead of “killed.” The bodies, men, women, and children, would then be dissected by pathologists, and, eventually, deposited in either large burial pits or burned in the three crematoria housed at Ping Fan.
Ishii was given enormous resources in men, material, and money to conduct his work in Manchuria. He also was given permission to use various subterfuges in order to conceal secretly his real activities. Ishii originally named his research unit, the Togo Unit, after one of his heroes of the Russo-Japanese War. Later, the unit’s name was changed to the Ishii Unit. It was also known as a Water Purification Unit. And, finally, it was given the name by which it is known today, the infamous Unit 731.
Once research in laboratories showed promising results, Ishii, his superiors, and his collaborators agreed that more extensive tests were needed in order to prove the viability of bw and cw weapons being developed. Consequently, field tests were ordered beginning in 1939, if not earlier. Bw and cw artillery shells, bombs, canisters and barrels filled with deadly pathogens were used in border skirmishes with the Soviet Union in the summer of 1939. Later, from 1940-1942, extensive field tests were conducted throughout Manchuria (Manchukuo, as the puppet state was known), and in Eastern and Central China. Many cities and towns were saturated with pathogens disseminated by aerosol spraying from airplanes, by lacing water wells with germs, and by providing innocents with food, scraps of cloth, and sweepings of wheat, rice and assorted fruits and vegetables that were filled with a host of different germs.
There is no firm data on the toll of victims killed in laboratory experiments, and in those field tests that can be certified by independent observers who lived in the affected communities at the time of the attacks. However, one can deduce some conservative figures based on an assortment of
documents still extant, statements made to Occupation investigators in Japan by some individuals
who were former members of bw and cw Units, and by a recent flurry of memoirs and
“confessions of guilt” by aging ex-members of the Imperial Japanese Armed Forces. It can be postulated with a degree of certainty that somewhere between ten and twelve thousand men, women and children were “sacrificed” in laboratory experiments conducted at Ping Fan and elsewhere. Perhaps as many as two hundred fifty thousand others were killed in the field tests, and in post-war outbreaks of epidemics that can be attributed directly to the activities of the bw and cw human experiment researchers. These figures exceed greatly the number of victims of the Nazi doctors experiments with their hapless victims. Some of the Nazi doctors were held accountable for their crimes in the famous 1947 Nuremberg Doctors Trials. There were no comparable Japanese Doctors Trials.
Unquestionably, Shiro Ishii was Japan’s leading exponent of bw and cw research. However, he did not act alone. His was not a renegade operation. Instead, he was aided by many thousands of skilled physicians, scientists, veterinarians, dentists, and others with some scientific or medical technical expertise. Many of Japan’s premier doctors and scientists volunteered to serve in the various Units that ultimately would engage in the practices outlined above. Few in Japan refused to serve, rejecting either the blandishments or threats should they decline the call to duty
Unit 731 was not the only bw/cw Unit commissioned to aid Japan’s military efforts. Dozens of Units similar to Ishii’s were established under High Command orders, or, on several occasions, by Emperor Hirohito’s fiat. The Units were to be found in virtually every area Japan conquered in the period 1931-1945. Some of the major Units that are known (others remain to be discovered) were located in Changchun (Unit 100, specializing in plant and animal bw ), Beijing (Unit 1855 which specialized in cholera epidemics), Canton /Guangzhou (Unit 8604, which operated also in Hong Kong), Nanking/Nanjing (Unit Ei-1644), Hailar in Inner Mongolia (Unit 2646, also known as Unit 80 when engaged in secret human experiments), Shanghai (I have been unable to identify the Unit, but human experiments took place in Shanghai under the command of Lt. General Kitano Masaji, one of the most notorious bw killers), Singapore (Unit 9420), Jilin Province in Manchuria (Unit 516, its specialty was cw, and it operated in conjunction with Ishii’s Unit 731).
Each of the principal Units had somewhere between five and twelve support Units. The support Units were housed in small cities and villages throughout occupied territories. Dairen (Dalian), Anda, and Sunyu were three of the many locales used by Ishii and his confederates. These smaller units were used to manufacture huge quantities of pathogens for use in the experimental laboratories or in the field tests. Others manufactured the laboratory equipment required for conducting tests. Still others produced bomb casings, shell casings and canisters which would be
filled with either pathogens or chemicals at the larger facilities. The clear conclusion must be that
bw and cw required a tremendous expenditure of men, material and money by the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces at a time, World War II, when the governments’ limited resources were
extended to their maximum ability.
Beginning in 1945, and extending to the present, the rotating governments in power in Japan either denied any knowledge of the bw and cw activities of the Japanese Imperial Armed Forces during World War II, or, tended to minimize the extent of such activities. As late as August 13, 1996, a Foreign Ministry spokesperson declared that, “The Japanese Government has not found any official documents confirming evidence that germ warfare was employed in China.” The statement was a patent lie. The Japanese Government is aware that thousands of documents in its archival holdings confirm the widespread activities of Unit 731 and its allied Units. It is aware also of the culpability by the highest authorities in power at the time, including members of the Royal Family, in the crimes of Unit 731 and the other Units. For whatever reasons, the governments in power in Japan over the past half century have refused to acknowledge these crimes. Those in power today, continue the pattern of denial or obfuscation of the events of the past.
But Japan is not alone in bearing responsibility for the covering up the truth of these heinous crimes. The United States Government, through its Occupation Authorities, was aware of the crimes against humanity committed by the bw and cw Units. It, too, aided in creating a sense of collective amnesia concerning human experiment bw and cw research. American scientists were eager to acquire the data the war criminals had developed on humans and bw and cw. These scientists were anxious to deny the information to the United States’ erstwhile ally, The Soviet Union. To achieve both goals, the scientists, with the collusion of Occupation authorities and members of the highest echelons in the United States Government, negotiated with their former enemies for this information. Although the negotiations were long and difficult, eventually a Faustian bargain was struck between Japanese and American scientists. The Japanese shared some of their secrets with the Americans. The Americans in return granted the Japanese immunity from prosecution for war crimes.
The result of this bargain in the long run has been catastrophic. War criminals, free to resume their pre-war careers, dominated Japanese medicine and scientific research for a generation. These killers of innocent humans rose to be Presidents of Universities, Deans of Medical Schools, outstanding research professors whose scholarly research attracted world attention and praise in the scientific community. Many of the graduates of Unit 731 and the other Units controlled the Ministry of Health and its agencies such as the National Institute of Health (NIH). Former members of Unit 731 dominated the Board of The Japan Medical Society (the JMA) for many years. Other war criminals, such as Naito Ryoichi and Kitano Masaji, formed important pharmaceutical companies. The Green Cross Company, headed by Naito is perhaps the most
important of these companies.
The traditions and moral outlook of the men who served in the bw and cw Units continued even beyond the first post-war generation of doctors and scientists. Involuntary human experiments continued to be standard procedure for all too many researchers. Some of the studies were sponsored by the National Institute of Health. Others, were conducted under different agencies concerned with the problems encountered by the Hiroshima survivors. Still others used humans without their knowledge to test unproven vaccines and drugs.
The callousness shown by these scholars and physicians is best illustrated by what is known as The Green Cross scandal. Nearly 1500 Japanese, principally hemophiliacs, were given unsterilized blood that contained the HIV virus in the mid-1980s. Much of this contaminated blood was supplied by the Green Cross Company, although it had been warned of the danger of using unsterilized blood. Putting profits ahead of safety and concern for the ill, Green Cross officials, in collusion with members of the Ministry of Health, continued to provide patients with contaminated blood. Nearly 500 individuals thus far have died of HIV complications due to having received infected blood. In February 2000, in a landmark decision in Japan, several Green Cross officials were sentenced to prison for their crimes. The company has since been absorbed by another Japanese pharmaceutical company. However, hundreds of lawsuits are pending in Japanese courts against the late Green Cross Company and its successor.
The silence of the Japanese Government concerning this crime and other notorious medical crimes is deafening.