Japanese Atrocities During WW II, Part 3: The Horror of Unit 731

7 Aug



Shiro Ishii, head of Japan's notorious Unit 731

Shiro Ishii, Japan’s “Dr. Death,” who committed many atrocities during World War II


Of all the posts that I have written for this blog, the two most popular have been about Japanese atrocities during World War II. I wrote these posts to explain to a member of my book group why the Chinese had negative feelings toward the Japanese during the war. She was curious because we had just read the book At the Corner of Sweet and Sour, which is about a Chinese boy and a Japanese girl during that time in San Francisco.

If you live in the United States, as I do, it is easy to feel shame at the role Americans took in imprisoning thousands of innocent Japanese-American civilians and residents during the war in dusty, inhumane “camps” such as Manzanar. Many Americans feel shame at the dropping of the Atomic bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, claiming that unleashing nuclear power was unnecessary and that the war would have ended anyway. I do not share that opinion, but will debate it at a later time. However, the fact is that many innocent people were murdered by these bombs, either right at that moment or through radiation sickness. John Hershey’s Hiroshima and the story of Sadako and the thousand paper cranes helped to popularize the cruelty of the bombs. The behavior of the Japanese after the war—their willingness to put it behind them and become peaceable members of the world community—also helped to give them a good reputation. However, the resurgence of Japanese nationalism in recent months and Japan’s attitude toward the war, from the way it is presented in textbooks to its unwillingness to take responsibility for its actions, has, in my opinion, led Japan to become a nation lacking in the moral gravity that it should have. If it had followed the model of Germany, which has truly, deeply, and painfully struggled with its shame and its moral failings, it would be, frankly, a better country than it is now.

Today I will share just one of Japan’s more brutal war actions, the medical experiments carried on by the notorious Unit 731. This medical unit (along with others) experimented on prisoners of war, civilians, and others by infecting them with deadly diseases such as cholera, dysentery, and bubonic plague. They tested out weapons of biological warfare such as anthrax. And they committed vivisection—operating on live victims without anesthesia, removing organs or amputating limbs. Unit 731 was based in northeastern China, and was led by “mad scientist” Lieutenant General Shiro Ishii, who specialized in testing germs on prisoners and in dropping infected rats and fleas on Chinese villages. According to Globalsecurity.org, “slightly less than 1,000 human autopsies apparently were carried out at Unit 731, most on victims exposed to aerosolized anthrax.”

But experiments took place in other occupied territories as well, and even at one Japanese university. The 2002 International Symposium on the Crimes of Bacteriological Warfare claims that the Japanese Army killed as many as 580,000 people through its use of human experimentation and germ warfare.

One of the few who was willing to speak out about Japan’s atrocities was a former soldier named Akira Makino. He was so ashamed that it took him ten years to marry the woman he loved, and even then, he never told her what happened. “According to an article in the Brunei Times, Makino, was so haunted by his experiences in the Philippines during the war that he could not speak about them until after his wife’s death. “It was cruel, too cruel to talk about it to a woman. My wife might have thought I was such a cruel person. That’s what was in my mind,” he said.

At the time, Makino was a beginning medic. He said his superior commanding doctor used prisoners to teach the medics about human anatomy. He said that “These were nothing but living-body experiments.” Makino said, “My captain combat-surgeon often showed us human intestines, and said this was the liver and that was that and so on” he added. Afterwards, the prisoners were thrown into pits they had been forced to dig themselves. Until his death in 2007, Makino spoke up and also went on at least ten trips to the Philippines to bring needed supplies to poor people in an attempt to apologize for what he had seen.

It could be argued that cruel and inhumane behavior such as Dr. Ishii’s should be punished in some way. Instead, Ishii and his medical team managed to bargain for their freedom f by sharing the information they learned about germ warfare for their experiments with the Allies. US microbiologist Dr. Edwin Hill wrote a report saying that the information was “absolutely invaluable”, that it “could never have been obtained in the United States because of scruples attached to experiments on humans”, and “the information was obtained fairly cheaply”.(BBC Horizon “Biology at War: A Plague in the Wind” (29 Oct. 1984).


Cheaply indeed.

Sources and resources:

Unit 731 – Nightmare in Manchuria (History Channel)


Biography: Shiro Ishii

Writing Prompt: If you can get valuable information in an unethical way, and the information is already available, is it worth the price of overlooking the atrocity of a few perpetrators?



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