UNIT 731

Unit 731 Victim

Japanese scientists used human guinea pigs to perform grotesque experiments at 26 secret laboratories in China, Japan and other occupied countries. Between 3,000 and 12,000 prisoners are believed to have died from these experiments. No survivors have been located. Another 250,000 were killed with biological weapons throughout China, most from the plague.

The most infamous of the secret laboratories was Unit 731, also known as Division 731, a laboratory located in the village of Pingfan, 16 miles south of Harbin in Manchuria. Established in 1939 by a decree signed by Emperor Hirohito and run by General Shiro Ishii, it was a Japanese version of Belsen or Auschwitz. Unit 731 was a massive complex. It had a staff of 3,000 people and its own airport and railway station. Many of the doctors were from Japan's top medical schools.

Major participants included: Masaji Kitano, director of the Green Cross Corporation (Tokyo); Masao Kusami, Showa Pharmaceutical University; Miho Masuda, National Defense Academy of Japan; Tachiomaru Ishikawa, Kanazawa University Medical Department; Nobuo Nakano, Kamo Hospital; and Kenjiro Ozuka, No. 1 Tokyo National Hospital.

The pioneering research that uncovered Unit 731's activities was done by Japanese social scientists and historians, part of a group of Japanese who came to deeply regret what happened and wished to memorialize it as a warning for humanity.

Remnants of Unit 731 now sit in an industrial park in the suburbs of Harbin. There are no monuments to the people who died at the site but there is one that the commander of the facility made for the rats that died. Most of the Unit 731 building are gone and have been replaced by factories. As of teh early 2000s a wall remained from the boiler house. The incinerator that disposed of 3,000 men, women and children ws still operating as part of of local factory. A small museum at the site contained mannequins tied to poles and doused in water. A mannequin dressed like a doctor was shown cutting into another mannequin. A new museum opened in the mid 2010s (See Below).

Good Websites and Sources on China during the World War II Period: Wikipedia article on Second Sino-Japanese War Wikipedia ; Nanking Incident (Rape of Nanking) : Nanjing Massacre ; Wikipedia Nanking Massacre article Wikipedia Nanjing Memorial Hall ; CHINA AND WORLD WAR II ; Good Websites and Sources on World War II and China : ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; U.S. Army Account; Burma Road book ; Burma Road Video

Human Guinea Pigs (Logs) at Unit 731

Led by Dr. Shiro Ishii, Unit 731 bred plague microbes and deliberately infected thousands of men, women and children. It conducted vivisection and frostbite and air pressure experiments, transfused prisoners with horse blood and studied the effect of weapons on the body, among many things. [Source: Didi Kirsten Tatlow The Asia-Pacific Journal vol. 13, Issue. 44, No. 3 (November 16, 2015]

The Japanese killed an estimated 10,000 people at Unit 731. Most of the victims were Chinese, Mongolians and Koreans. They included children who wandered to close to the facility and a teenage girl found carrying a gun. Experiments were also performed on captured Soviets and British.

Human guinea pigs at Unit 731 were referred to as "logs." They were brought to the laboratory in black vans known as voronki, or ravens. Residents of Harbin remember the vans racing through streets as the prisoners inside pounded and shouted for help. Once in the prison they were often fattened up to ensure "good results."

One elderly resident of Harbin told the Japan Times, "They would catch people surreptitiously and bring them to their laboratory. Local residents were afraid every day that they might be kidnaped by the Japanese. Before going outside, I had to stop and think: Are there Japanese around?

Human Experiments at Unit 731

Picture said to be of Unit 731 victims, but actually Manchurian plague victims in 1910

Prisoners at Unit 731 were frozen to death, burned alive, dissected alive without anesthetic, shot, electrocuted, injected with animal blood, boiled and hung upside down until the died. Some were sealed inside pressure chambers that caused their eyes to pop out of their heads. Operations were performed on perfectly heathy prisoners accused of being spies to teach young doctors surgical techniques.

Describing his work, one scientist in the plague unit at Unit 731 later said, "I inserted the scalpel directly into the log's neck and opened the chest. At first there was a terrible scream, but the voice soon fell silent." One employee at Unit 731 not directly involved in. the experiments told Newsweek, "From the start, we were taught not to see, not to inquire, not to speak." Explaining why he cut out the eyes of victims one Japanese worker said, "I received an order."

There were reports of three-year-old children being jabbed with needles and submerged in icy water and screaming women cut open so their reproductive organs could be examined. Some victims had their stomachs removed and their esophagus connected to intestines. Others who had their arms amputated and reattached on opposite sides.

In one experiment a victim was taken outside when the temperatures were -40?C and tied to a post. Water was poured on the lower arm until it froze solid. The doctors then tested their frostbite treatment and the lower arm was amputated. The same process was repeated on the upper arms and then the legs. When victim was reduced to a head and torso he was then turned over to disease divisions for experiments there.

Germ Experiments at Unit 731

building on the site of the Harbin bioweapon facility

Prisoners at Unit 731 were and infected with the bubonic plague, syphilis, cholera, typhoid, anthrax and a variety of other viruses, bacteria and diseases. An estimated 10,000 prisoners died from these experiments.

Similar experiments were conducted at Unit 8604 at Zhongshan University near Canton where perhaps 20,000 people, previously thought to have died from starvation, may have actually died from infections diseases planted on them by scientists. Few details are known, but bodies buried in earthen jars have been discovered and local residents say they saw large numbers of bodies dumped in pits and destroyed in vats of chemicals.

As many as 250,000 people died in field tests of germ agents and biological weapons produced at Unit 731 and other laboratories in at least a dozen cities, including Beijing, Dalien and Nanjing. More than 300 people died when cholera germs were sprayed on Beijing. People also died from ingesting food purposely infected with cholera.

Plague Bombs in China

Display of gas and chemicals in Unit 731 Museum

Various experiments were conducted with fleas, rats and the plague. In one experiment plague-carrying fleas were raised in a bathtub and then mixed with wheat to attract disease-carrying rats. These rats were air dropped over China’s eastern province of Zhejiang and central Hunan province from 1940 to 1942. People who lived in these areas described how people dropped like flies in hours or days, their bodies swollen and black. Those who came for the funerals spread the disease when they returned home. The Chinese government claims that 270,000 were killed but there is little evidence to support the claim that so many were killed.

In another experiment plague-carrying fleas were raised on the bodies of rats in special incubators that could produce about 40 pounds of infected fleas a month. One man working on the plague project told U.S. News and World Report, "We would inject the most powerful bacteria into the rats. On a 500-gram rat we would attach 3,000 fleas. When the rats were released, the fleas would transmit the disease."

The plague was also dispensed via air drops and placed into the drinking water at the end of the war, killing thousands of local Chinese. The scientists also worked on developing balloons that could carry disease agents to the United States.

There were plans to place plague-carrying rats into plane-released porcelains bombs that kept the creatures alive until were released in the air and floated to the ground on parachutes. The surrender on August 1945 scuttled a plan for kamikaze pilots to attack San Diego in planes filled with plague-infected fleas.

Unit 731 After World War II

As the Nazis did at Auschwitz, the Japanese burned Unit 731 facilities in an effort to destroy evidence of the atrocities committed there. Unit 731 remained a secret until the 1980s when it was uncovered by a Japanese journalist.

The scientists who performed the experiments were given salaries and immunity from war crimes by the Americans in a "Faustian bargain" for the results of their experiments. Ishii, sometimes regarded as the Japanese Doctor Mengele, lived until 1959 when he died of cancer.

After World War II, many of the doctors who worked at Unit 731 took on positions at hospitals, medical schools and pharmaceutical companies in Japan. One Japanese historian said the doctors have little remorse and many were disappointed when the war ended because they could not continue their research. The U.S. recruited Japanese germ warfare scientist for programs to the U.S. One even became a member of the New York Academy of Sciences.

According to one Japanese scholar the U.S. still possesses 600 pages of documents and possibly human tissue samples for Unit 731. Medical schools in Japan still have slides of "fresh human brains" made from victims at Unit 731.

A group of Chinese tried to win compensation for the atrocities at Unit 731 and the germ experiments in the Japanese courts. In 2002, the courts ruled that germ warfare experiments were indeed conducted but rejected claims for compensation.

In February 2011, Associated Press reported: “Japan began excavations at a former army medical school to search for human remains linked to a notorious World War II program that allegedly conducted biological warfare in China and live experiments on foreign prisoners of war. The government has never acknowledged the activities of the military’s shadowy Unit 731, although they have been documented by historians and participants. The excavation follows revelations by a former nurse that she helped bury body parts at the Tokyo site as American forces began occupying the capital at the end of the war. [Source: Associated Press, New York Times, February 21, 2011]

U.S. Culpability in Unit 731

Unit 731 Complex

Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in The Asia-Pacific Journal: “After the war, the United States covered up Japan’s biological warfare research on humans, allowing the perpetrators to escape punishment and to prosper.” The audio guide at the Unit 731 Museum Pingfang near Harbin says: “Out of considerations of its national security, the U.S. decided not to prosecute the leader of Unit 731 and the criminals under him. They all escaped trial for war crimes.” [Source: “Didi Kirsten Tatlow The Asia-Pacific Journal vol. 13, Issue. 44, No. 3, November 16, 2015 /]

“It is shocking, isn’t it,” said Mark Selden, a historian at Cornell University. “It is precisely correct, as far as we know. No one was prosecuted. A deal was cut for the rehabilitation of everyone,” Mr. Selden said. Other nations among the Allied victors did try those Unit 731 members whom they captured, however. In 1949 in Khabarovsk, the Soviet Union put on trial 12 Japanese caught during the Russian push east, and in 1956, China tried 36 in Shenyang. /

“There are also serious historians and bioethicists who believe what happened is morally too significant and damaging to humanity to be excused. Jing-Bao Nie at the University of Otago in New Zealand is one. “Morally, the cover-up trampled justice in the ruthless pursuit of national interest and national security,” Mr. Nie said. “Legally, the cover-up constitutes complicity after the fact,” he said. “And pragmatically, a formal apology will serve the long-term interest of the United States because it can contribute positively to the relationship between the U.S. and China.”

The deal reached by the U.S. enabled it to gather information that was of great use for its own biological warfare program, early in the Cold War, said Mr. Selden. In contrast, many Nazi doctors in Europe who did similar things were prosecuted by the Nuremberg war crimes tribunal. The American action in Japan “was in some ways similar to how Wernher von Braun and other scientists were taken to the U.S.,” said Mr. Selden, referring to the German rocket scientist. “The U.S. made very good use of them.” “In Japan, they did want the biological warfare research and they did take it. You and I may wonder if it was a wise thing to do, but the reality is that there was no significant pushback,” he said. For the U.S., an apology, to improve relations with China, may be needed one day, Mr. Selden said. “We are at a period in which there are a lot of tensions in the relationship.”Yet for now, anger in China is directed almost entirely toward Japan, he said.“I’ve often been struck by the unrestrained anger toward the Japanese, far beyond anything toward the U.S. Even if we are in a period of many frictions,” said Mr. Selden.

New Unit 731 Museum

The Museum of War Crime Evidence by Japanese Army Unit 731 opened in August 2015 in Pingfang near Harbin in northeast China. Designed by a team led by Dr. He Jingtang of South China University of Technology, who also designed the China pavilion of the Shanghai Expo and the Nanjing Massacre Memorial Hall, the Unit 731 museum is a black marble building that looks like a split box and supposed to bring to mind the black box of a crashed plane.

Remains of the original Unit 731 complex

Didi Kirsten Tatlow wrote in The Asia-Pacific Journal: the museum “is bolder in intent than the older, adjacent museum that it incorporates and replaces.” The new museum enlarges an earlier one on the site where Japanese doctors of Unit 731 carried out medical atrocities on prisoners that rivaled in brutality, or perhaps even surpassed, those committed by Dr. Josef Mengele in Nazi Germany.” However, the exhibits are often have a highly ideological “patriotic education” orientation. “A visitor book at the museum, for instance, records mostly stock patriotic phrases like, “Never forget the national humiliation!”[Source: “Didi Kirsten Tatlow The Asia-Pacific Journal vol. 13, Issue. 44, No. 3, November 16, 2015 /]

“On a meters-long, white stone stele that lies horizontally amid others, as if it has been tossed in the air and has landed haphazardly, are engraved the names of 60 doctors and other members of Unit 731, with a short description of what they did after the war. It reads a little like a Who’s Who of the post-war Japanese medical establishment...Outside, a shop offers cups and t-shirts with patriotic Chinese emblems and messages of victory over Japan, amid other museum merchandise. But the room is deserted and the offerings have the air of something a person might buy as penance. /

“According to Gao Yubao, the museum’s head of research, the curators were motivated by a desire to present an accurate picture of history. The museum’s message is clear: Biological warfare was Japanese national policy, and the United States covered it up in exchange for information, without bringing a single perpetrator to justice. “Unit 731 committed large-scale, systematic crimes against humanity and ethnicity.” Gao said. “Those crimes must be revealed and recorded, so that humanity can remember the price of peace and cherish it. Some countries in Europe are still suffering from war, which is proof that humanity needs constant reminders of how important peace is. /

“The vision for the museum comes from the metaphor of a black box of a plane crash. The point is to say that the site of Unit 731 is the black box that recorded one of the darkest periods of human history. In showing the contents of the black box, we find out what happened and remember the lessons learned from the disaster. The area round the museum was made to look as if the ground split open to reveal the black box. /

“The original building had a small area for displaying artifacts, but the space was too small.” Construction started in November 2014 and finished in August 2015. In the first month after the museum an average of 7,000 to 10,000 people visited the museum daily. Before, about 400,000 people came each year to visit the site.

On the museum, Mark Selden, a senior research associate in the East Asia Program at Cornell University and co-editor of “Japan’s Wartime Medical Atrocities,” said: “The Chinese state uses history to its own purposes, as do other countries, and it has a level of control that is way up in the stratosphere. We have to respect the historical data in particular situations.” Tsuneishi Keiichi, a contributor to “Japan’s Wartime Medical Atrocities” and author of “Unit 731: The Truth about Biological Weapons and Crimes” said: “I have not met a Chinese researcher who has studied the history of 731 Unit seriously. So I do not expect anything of the new museum. I think there is no really reliable and authentic research material on Shiro Ishii’s biological warfare activities in China. Those are in Japanese libraries and Japanese National Archives, and in the U.S. National Archives and the Library of Congress.”

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons, History in Pictures, Video YouTube

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated September 2016

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