Most of us are aware of the bizarre and cruel human experimentation projects performed by Germany’s infamous Josef Mengele, and those who are regular readers may even be aware of the Soviets’ involvement in similar experiments headed by Professor Grigory Mairinovsky, but Russia and Germany weren’t the only Axis powers interested in human test subjects. Considered to be one of the most closely guarded secrets of WWII, Japan formed their own classified research unit responsible for the torture and death of nearly 30,000 people – primarily Chinese civilians and captured Allied POWs.
Under the direction of General Shiro Ishii, Japan’s secret unit 731 was formed within the early phases of second Sino-Japanese war. In the beginning the project primarily focused on military medicine and disease prevention on the battlefield. It was due to this cutting edge research that Japan would become a worldwide expert on wartime medical care. Without a doubt, the early research conducted within Unit 731 provided valuable bio-medical data that is still utilized today, but General Ishii had considerably darker plans.
Fixated on the Geneva Convention and the banishment of biological warfare, Ishii became obsessed with the idea of developing super germs and using deadly viruses against enemy combatants on the battlefield. After years of proposing his plans to the Japanese armed forces, Ishii’s superiors would eventually allow him to take over the immunology department of the Tokyo Army Medical College and appoint him as the head of the newly implemented germ warfare program he proposed to create.
The Chinese region of Manchuria had been previously taken by Japanese forces in 1931, it was there that Ishii’s biological warfare experiments would begin. Using forced labor to construct a research and prison facility comparable in size to that of Germany’s Auschwitz death camp, the “Zhong Ma Fortress” allowed Ishii’s research team to carry out their laboratory experiments and plan field attacks without much intervention from the outside world. It wasn’t uncommon for people to be kidnapped off the streets and taken to the secret testing facility or for the army to conduct “germ bomb” attacks on entire communities. Reports of what the Japanese army was doing in these villages were passed on to the Chinese communist government, but those reports went widely ignored since these regions were considered government dissenters.
It was well known among the Chinese that anyone sent to the prison would never make it out alive. Housing a mix of “desirable” civilians, Japanese government dissenters, and Allied POWs– collectively known as “logs”, most of the human experimentation was conducted within the Zhong Ma Fortress. Prisoners were regularly injected with deadly viruses and bacteria in order for the researchers to record their findings. Those that were deemed unusable were euthanized, those that survived were vivisected while still conscious and without anesthesia. Some tests included freezing prisoners to death in order to study the effects of frostbite, others were slowly cooked alive through repeated high voltage shocks. One experiment involved hanging subjects upside down in order to determine how long it would take a person to choke to death. The lucky ones were just casually murdered in order to study their brains and other vital organs. All logs were then promptly disposed of in the crematorium once the experiment was completed or otherwise determined to be no longer useful.
Officially referring to these human test subjects as “monkeys”, General Ishii was able to pass along all of his research data to the scientific and medical communities without suspicion and personally patented 200 of his discoveries. Just before Allied forces closed in on Japan and the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Ishii ordered the Zhong Ma Fortress and other smaller research facilities to be destroyed. Surviving prisoners at the Fortress were shot and thousands of rats infected with the bubonic plague were released into the wild. In spite of his efforts, Allied intelligence already knew of Ishii’s research. In 1948, eager to retrieve Ishii’s discoveries before the Soviets, the U.S. Government offered him and the researchers involved in the experiments at Unit 731 complete immunity from being tried for war crimes in exchange for their collected data and cooperation.
Surviving Allied POWs were sworn to secrecy about what they endured in General Ishii’s camps. Both the Japanese and U.S. government routinely denied the existence of Unit 731 and any biological warfare research conducted by General Ishii, even with the surmounting evidence and eyewitness testimony that suggested otherwise. It wouldn’t be until the early 1980’s that the Japanese Government would finally admit the existence of Unit 731 and the Chinese attempted to rebuild the main facility as a memorial to the fallen victims. In 1996, 200 surviving U.S. ex-POWs held within the secret Japanese facilities would express their outrage over the cover-up before the United States House of Representatives. The hearing would last just half a day and resulted in little except for the admission that the files obtained from Ishii were later returned to the Japanese government without even making copies. In 2007 the U.S. government released a 100,000 page document detailing everything known about the human test subjects, Unit 731, and the history of biological warfare research conducted by the Japanese government.
Almost 70 years later and justice has not been formally served for those that suffered at the hands of the Japanese government. Most of Ishii’s team went on to hold respectable positions within the medical and scientific communities in Japan, some are even celebrated war heroes and had statues erected in their honor. To this day the Japanese Government has taken very little responsibility and has offered no restitution or issued any apology to the Chinese people effected by the Unit 731 experiments.