As Americans Remember Pearl Harbor, Chinese Remember Japan's Unit 731
I am writing this commentary in Harbin, a city in northeast China... at the newly-renovated Unit 731 Museum. This is the site of a Japanese bacteriological warfare unit that began operations in 1938.
Japan had controlled this area—Manchuria—since 1905. Planning for war with China, Japan sent Ishii Shiro to establish a biowarfare facility here, hidden far from public scrutiny.
Ishii’s mission was to develop germ warfare for use against enemy troops and civilians. Over 30 disease agents were used including cholera, anthrax, typhoid, salmonella, bubonic plague and typhus.
In the first deployment of these germs, some Japanese troops also contracted the illnesses. But the impact on enemy soldiers and civilians was mild. Ishii discovered that the environment rapidly diluted and killed disease agents. He needed a way for his germs to be protected and find their human targets. He shifted his research to flea-borne bubonic plague and louse-borne typhus.
He would enlist insects into war.
And I am an entomologist. That is what brings me to this Museum today. Robert Oppenheimer remarked upon the successful test of the atomic bomb that now “...physicists have known sin.” With the corpses and ashes of the victims of biowarfare experimentation buried under the ground on which I stand, here is where entomology became evil.
Ishii pioneered work into growing the most dreadful of diseases. How to culture more virulent strains. How to invent better hazmat suits. How to safely infect and handle fleas and lice.
Ishii set a new standard for cruelty. When testing the effects of germs on the human body: they conducted the “autopsy” while the victim was still living in order to detect the organ damage before death and no anaesthesia was used. At least 3,000 people were used as subjects of live body experiments during World War II.
Then the infected insects were dropped over cities. It is difficult to determine the number of biological warfare deaths that occur months or years after an attack. Jeffrey Lockwood, author of the book “Six-legged Soldiers” concludes that the “accepted figure” of deaths due to Unit 731 is a total of 580,000 Chinese...killed—mostly by insects.
However, Japan was losing the war and time ran out at Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
You and I might assume that Ishii Shiro and the doctors of Unit 731 would stand trial for war crimes. We would be wrong.
America was building its own biological warfare facility at Fort Detrick, Maryland. Officers sent to interrogate Ishii recommended an immunity-for-information exchange because “Such information could not be obtained in our own laboratories because of scruples attached to human experimentation.” Ishii Shiro would die in bed at the age of 67.
Many young doctors who committed atrocities at Unit 731 would go on to become hospital administrators and lawmakers in modern Japan. Unlike Germany, where denial of war crimes is unthinkable, Japanese officials today, including their Minister of Defense Tomomi Inada, continue to deny the massacre of Nanjing, the enslavement of comfort women, and the terrible germ warfare conducted by Unit 731.
By excluding these scientists from war trials, the United States becomes complicit in these denials. As one Japanese veteran stated without remorse: “When you are in war, you must do whatever you need to do to win.”
The Unit 731 Museum in Harbin is here to help us avoid that path.