Unit 731: Japanese Atrocities and the Medical Auschwitz – Nicholas Paluba [EN]

Submitted Thursday, May 15, 2014

Editor’s note: The past is just that: in the past. However, only so many years after the conclusion of World War II is it possible to analyse, and in hindsight, ponder what was, what is and what should have been. The purpose of this post is not to condemn, but to enlighten—as is our ethos here at The Salad Bowl. – J.S. Feng

Preface: Originally done as a report for the class, Unit 731 is a relatively unknown piece of Sino-Japanese history that China holds on to with a bitter grudge. – N. Paluba

I. Introduction

Nazi experiments performed on the Jewish people incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II are common knowledge. However, Japanese experiments that were conducted in the notorious Unit 731 remain widely unknown.

Indicated in many little-known records from World War II, the Japanese medical squad, also known as Unit 731, performed many unethical experiments on live human test subjects to develop chemical weapons. The results of these experiments have remained the subject of ethical and moral debate even to this day. In some cases, the information gathered through these cruel tests might be the only information we have concerning certain maladies or conditions, but is it ethical to use the results of these experiments?

What exactly is Unit 731? Unit 731 (731部隊, Shichi San Ichi Butai) was a covert biological and chemical weapons research and development unit that was created by the Imperial Japanese Army. This unit was charged with undertaking lethal human experimentation during the course of the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and during the course of World War II. Some of the most notorious war crimes carried out by Japanese personnel were performed under the direction of Unit 731. Unit 731 was based in the Ping-fang district (平房區) in the city of Harbin (哈爾濱市). This was the largest city in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo (滿洲國), literally “the State of Manchuria,” located in the northeast region of China and Inner Mongolia.

Unit 731 was officially known as the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army (関東軍防疫給水部本部 Kantōgun Bōeki Kyūsuibu Honbu). Unit 731 was originally set up under the Kempeitai (憲兵隊) military police of the Empire of Japan, and was taken over and remained under the command of Japanese General Shiro Ishii, an officer in the Kwantung Army, until the end of the war.

In experiments conducted at the base camp in Ping-fang alone, Unit 731 is responsible for the deaths of somewhere between 3,000 and 12,000 men, women and children. Nearly 70% of all the deaths that occurred at the base camp in Ping-fang were Chinese military and civilian personnel. The other 30% consisted mostly of Russians. A very small percentage was made up of South East Asians and Pacific Islanders, which were colonies of Japan at the time, while others were prisoners of war from the Allied nations of World War II.

Many of the scientists that were involved in the experiments went on to pursue prominent careers in post-war politics, academics, business and medicine. The Soviet forces arrested some who were then tried at the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials; many others surrendered to the American Forces. Some believe that one of the reasons these scientists were not tried was because the information and experiences gained throughout the course of experimentation at Unit 731 were of great value to the United States biological weapons development program. As Supreme Commander of the Allied Forces on May 6, 1947, Douglas MacArthur wrote to Washington saying “Additional data, possibly some statements from Ishii probably can be obtained by informing the Japanese involved that information will be retained in intelligence channels and will not be employed as ‘War Crimes’ evidence.” (Gold, 2003).

II. Unit 731

Chief medical officer of the Japanese Army and protégé of Army Minister Sadao Araki, General Shirō Ishii (石井四郎) was appointed as head of the Army Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory in 1932. A secret research group known as the “Tōgō Unit” was organised by Ishii in order to perform various chemical and biological experiments in Manchuria. The creation of a Japanese biological and chemical research unit was first proposed by Ishii in the year 1930, following a two-year study abroad. This was done on the grounds that Western powers were developing their own programs. An avid supporter of Ishii, Colonel Chikahiko Koizumi, later to become Japan’s Health Minister during the years 1941 to 1945, had joined a secret poison gas research committee in 1915 following Germany’s successful use of chlorine gas at the second battle of Ypres.

Unit Tōgō was implemented at the Zhongma Fortress, which was a prison or extermination camp located in Beiyinhe (背蔭河), a village located about 100km south of Harbin on the South Manchurian Railway. A jailbreak in autumn 1934, followed later by an explosion (believed to have been an attack) in 1935 prompted Ishii to shut down Zhongma Fortress. Authorisation was later received to relocate to Ping-fang, about 24km south of Harbin, allowing him to set up a new and much larger facility. Under imperial decree from Hirohito in 1936, Unit Tōgō was assimilated into the Kwantung Army as the Epidemic Prevention Department. At the same time, this department was divided into the “Ishii Unit” and the “Wakamatsu Unit” based out of Hsinking (新京, now 長春). As of August 1940, these units were collectively known as the “Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army” (関東軍防疫給水部本部) or “Unit 731” (滿洲第731部隊) for short.

III. Activies and Experiments Conducted

Code-named “Maruta”, experiments conducted at this location were performed on live human subjects. Subjects for these tests were gathered from the surrounding area and were sometimes euphemistically referred to as “logs” (丸太 maruta). This arose as somewhat of a joke among the staff because of the unit’s official cover story given to local authorities that the facility was a lumber mill. By the accounts of a man who was employed as a “junior uniformed civilian employee” of the Japanese Army in Unit 731, the term Maruta came from German, meaning medical experiment, used in such a context as, “How many logs fell?” (Cook, 1992). The test subjects were selected in such a way that they were representative of a wide cross section of the population. This cross section included people ranging from common criminals, captured bandits and anti-Japanese partisans, political prisoners and also people that were rounded up by the Kempeitai under allegations of “suspicious activities.” Infants, the elderly and pregnant women were also included in these numbers.

a. Vivisection

The first category of experiments conducted were vivisections performed on prisoners. According to Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, a “vivisection” is “the cutting of or operation on a living animal usually for physiological or pathological investigation; broadly:  animal experimentation especially if considered to cause distress to the subject.” The prisoners were first infected with various diseases prior to being vivisected. Invasive surgery was performed on the prisoners by scientists to determine the effects of diseases on the human body. These were conducted without anesthesia and while the the patient was still alive because it was feared that the process of decomposition could affect the results.

In order to study blood loss, many prisoners has limbs removed. Sometimes, these removed limbs were then re-attached to the opposite side of the body. Limbs were frozen and amputated, while others had limbs frozen and thawed repeatedly in order to study gangrene and rotting that resulted from this process.

Prisoners had stomachs surgically removed and their intestines re-attached to their esophagus. Still others had portions of their brain, lungs and liver removed in order to test the body’s reactions without these organs. (Parry, 2007)

In a testimony given to the Japan Times, Japanese army surgeon Ken Yuasa testified, “I was afraid during my first vivisection, but the second time around, it was much easier. By the third time, I was willing to do it.” It is believed by Yuasa that around 1,000 people, including surgeons were involved in vivisections across mainland China.

b. Germ Warfare Attacks

Disguised as vaccinations, prisoners were injected with inoculations of a variety of diseases in order to study their effects. To study the effects of untreated venereal diseases, prisoners—both male and female—were deliberately infected, often in such methods as rape, with syphilis and gonorrhea.

Fleas that were infected with plagues, infected clothing and infected supplied that were encased in bombs were dropped over various targets. The cholera, anthrax and plague that resulted from these bombings is estimated to have killed around 400,000 Chinese civilians. Tularemia was also tested on Chinese civilians.

Various units were involved in research, development and experimental deployment of epidemic-creating biowarfare weapons in many assaults against the Chinese populace (including both civilian and military) throughout World War II. Fleas that were infested with plagues were bred in captivity in the laboratories of units 731 and 1644. These infected fleas were then spread by low flying aircraft over Chinese cities. These included Ningbo in 1940, and Changde in the Hunan Province in 1941. The bubonic plague epidemics resulting from these aerial sprayings kill thousands of people. (Barenblatt, 2004)

c. Weapons Testing

Grenades were thrown at humans subjects placed at varying distances and in a variety of positions. These prisoners had flame throwers tested on them, while others were tied to stakes and used as targets for the testing of germ-releasing bombs, chemical weapons and various explosive devices. (Monchinski, 2008)

d. Other Experiments

In other tests conducted, some prisoners were deprived of food and water to determine the length of time until death; subjects were also placed in high-pressure chambers until such point. Many were experimented on in order to determine the relationship between temperature, burns and human survival. They were placed in centrifuges and spun until death, and some were given transfusions of animal blood. Still others were exposed to lethal doses of x-rays, and subjects were placed in gas chambers and exposed to a variety of chemicals. Sea water was injected into subjects to test if it could be used as a substitute for saline solutions. And some were burned or prematurely buried alive. In all cases, these tests were repeated until death. (Advocacy & Intelligence Index for POWs-MIAs Archives, 2001).

IV. Biological Warfare

Experiments were conducted on prisoners to test the effects of plague, cholera, smallpox, botulism and many other diseases. This research later led to the development of the flea bomb and the defoliation bacilli bomb used to spread the bubonic plague. As proposed by Ishii in 1938, some of these bombs were designed with porcelain shells. Bombs of these varieties allowed Japanese soldiers to launch biological warfare against a variety of targets. This enabled them to infect agriculture, reservoirs, wells and other areas with anthrax, plague-carrier fleas, typhoid, dysentery, cholera and other deadly pathogens. During these biological bomb experiments, scientists robed in protective suits would examine the victims that had been exposed to these pathogens. Food supplies infected with various pathogens were dropped by airplane into areas that were not under Japanese control. Poisoned food and candy was also given out to unsuspecting victims and children and the results examined.

An “International Symposium on the Crimes of Bacteriological Warfare” was conducted in 2002 in Changde, China, a site of such flea spraying attacks. It was estimated that at least 580,000 people died as results of this attack. (Barenblatt, 2004)

V. Surrender and Immunity

Operations and experiments continued until the end of the war. Ishii wished to use biological weapons in the pacific conflict since May of 1944, but his efforts proved fruitless.

With the invasion of Russia into Manchukuo and Mengjiang (蒙疆) in August 1945, the unit hastily abandoned its work, with the members and their families fleeing back to Japan. It was ordered by Ishii that every member “take the secret to the grave.” Their lives were threatened, and they were prohibited from going into public work back in Japan. Vials of potassium cyanide were issued in case any remaining personnel were captured. Skeleton crews of Ishii’s Japanese troops were charged with the responsibility of blowing up the compound in the final days of the war. This was done to destroy evidence that could possibly be used against Japan at a later time. Because of their outstanding construction, many of these compounds remained somewhat intact.

a. Grant of Immunity by the United States

After the surrender of Imperial Japan to the Allied Forces in 1945 following the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Douglas MacArthur became the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers, and through this rebuilt Japan during the Allied occupation. It was during this time that MacArthur gave secret immunity to the scientists of Unit 731, also inclusive of their leader. In exchange, they would provide the United States, but not other wartime allies, with their biological warfare research (Gold, 2003). Occupation authorities from the U.S. continued to monitor the activities of unit’s members, even going as far as reading and censoring their mail. It was the belief of the U.S. that this research data was valuable, and they did not want other nations, most particularly the Soviet Union, to acquire such data on biological weapons. Only one reference to Japanese experiments with “poisonous serums” on Chinese civilians was made to the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. This investigation took place in August 1946 and was conducted by David Sutton, assistant to the Chinese prosecutor. The defense counselor of the Japanese argued against this, saying the claims were vague and uncorroborated, and it was dismissed by Sir William Webb, the tribunal president, for lack of evidence. Sutton made no further pursuit of this subject. This might be because Sutton was likely unaware of the activities of Unit 731. It is believed that his reference to it at the trial was an accident.

b. Trials by the Soviets

While publicly silent on the issue of Unit 731 at the Tokyo Trials, in the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials the Soviet Union pursued the case and prosecuted twelve top military leaders and scientists from Unit 731 and the affiliated biological warfare prisons of Unit 1644 and Unit 100, located in Nanjing and Changchun respectively. The trials of the captured Japanese perpetrators were held in Khabarovsk in December 1949. A Moscow foreign-language press released a partial but lengthy transcript of the trial proceedings. It was published in various languages the following year. One of the top Soviet prosecutors at the Nuremberg Trials, Lev Smirnov, was the lead prosecuting attorney at the trials held at Khabarovsk. The Japanese doctors and army commanders that were convicted of committing crimes against humanity through experiments conducted at Unit 731 received sentences ranging from two to 25 years in a Siberian labour camp. These trials were branded as communist propaganda and the U.S. refused to acknowledge them (Tsuchiya, 2011).

VI. Post World War II

a. Official Silence Under Occupation

Under the occupation of the United States, members of the notorious Unit 731 and other experimental groups were allowed to go free. A graduate of Unit 1644, Masami Kitaoka, while working for the National Institute of Health Sciences continued to perform experiments on unwilling Japanese subjects from 1947 to 1956. The prisoners used as test subjects were infected with maladies such as rickettsia, and mental health patients with typhus.

b. Debate and Post-occupation Japanese Media Coverage

Discussions of the activities that took place under the command of Unit 731 didn’t begin until the 1950s, following the end of the U.S. occupation of Japan. When human experiments were carried out in Nagoya City Pediatric Hospital in 1952, resulting in one death, they were publicly tied to former members of Unit 731. Later in the same decade, it was suspected by journalists that murders attributed to Sadamichi Hirasawa by the government were in fact carried out by members of the former Unit 731. Thought to be based on real incidents about human experimentation, the book The Sea and Poison was published by Japanese author Shusaku Endo in 1958. Two books published by Japanese author Morimura Seiichi, The Devil’s Gluttony and The Devil’s Gluttony: A Sequel, released in 1981 and 1983 respectively, were purported to reveal the “true” operations of Unit 731. It was later discovered that these facts were confused with those of Unit 100, and used unrelated photos, falsely attributing them to Unit 731, raising questions about its accuracy. The testimony of Ken Yuasa, also appearing in 1981, was the first direct testimony of human vivisection in China. A 2001 documentary titled Japanese Devils was composed mostly of interviews with 14 members of Unit 731 who had been captured and held prisoner by China until later being released.

c. Japan’s Official Government Response

Following the end of U.S. Occupation, the government of Japan apologized for its behavior prior to the war, but more specific apologies and indemnities are determined on the basis of crimes that have occurred, which requires a higher standard of evidence. But Unit 731 presents a special problem. Unlike the human experimentation performed by the Nazis, the activities that took place under the command of Unit 731 are only known from the testimonies of former unit members.

Many Japanese history textbooks contain reference to Unit 731, but fail to go into detail about the experiments. Saburo Ienaga’s New History of Japan contains a detailed description of the events that occurred, based on testimonies from officers affiliated with Unit 731 (Masalski, 2001). The Ministry of Education attempted to remove these passages from the textbook before it was taught in schools, stating that the testimonies were insufficient. It was ruled by the Japanese Supreme Court during 1997 that the testimonies were indeed sufficient and that any attempt to remove the passage would be deemed an illegal violation of freedom of speech.

In 1997, Kōnen Tsuchiya, an international lawyer,  filed a class action lawsuit against the government of Japan, stating that reparations be paid for crimes committed under the authority of Unit 731. All levels of court determined the suit was baseless. No facts were found about the existence of human experimentation, but it was decided by the court that the case of reparations be determined by international treaties, and not by local courts.

In October 2003, in response to an inquiry from a member of the House of Representatives, the Prime Minister of Japan said that Japan recognizes the gravity of the matters related to Unit 731, and while they do not possess any related records, they will publicize any records that are located in the future.

VII. Closing

The experiments conducted under Shirō Ishii while in command of Unit 731 can be deemed nothing short of atrocious and are disturbing on many levels. In some cases, the experiments conducted at these locations are the only knowledge the modern world has on certain maladies or condition, but is this suffice a reason for us to use this information? Is it moral for us to look at these records and use the suffering of thousands upon thousands of live human subjects for our benefit today? Labelled as the “Medical Auschwitz,” the Japanese atrocities committed during World War II through Unit 731 remain shrouded in much mystery as one of the lesser-known forms of persecution suffered by the Chinese in the last century.

Note: Academic report for Professor Hsin-Ming Chu’s Study of Mainland China class, January 9, 2014. Sources available upon request.


Nicholas Paluba was born in Honolulu, Hawaii. He is currently a student in the Department of Diplomacy at National Chengchi University, Taiwan. Nicholas enjoys traveling and photography. He also has a deep love for both performing and listening to music. Nicholas believes life should be taken one step at a time.
“Everything has beauty, but not everyone sees it.”
I met Nicholas in my junior year at National Chengchi University. His enthusiasm for multiculturalism, in no small part due to his own diverse background, and willingness to converse about related topics left me eager to bring him on board as The Salad Bowl’s English-language editor. Thanks for your contribution, Nick. – John.

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