Appendices - Hirohito's War
D: THE JAPANESE EMPIRE - FROM CO-PROSPERITY TO TYRANNY
Unit 731 and the Secrets of Medical Experimentation: The man most closely associated with Unit 731, Shiro Ishii was born in 1892. Japan’s Dr. Mengele (the SS Officer and Auschwitz physician) came from a wealthy landed family in Chiyoda Prefecture, several hours north of Tokyo. He graduated as a Doctor of Medicine from Kyoto University in 1911 where he specialised in bacteriology. His reputation for being pushy and selfish did nothing to hinder this career. In 1920 Ishii joined the army, becoming a commissioned officer and transferring to the First Army Hospital in Tokyo. Japan’s leaving of the League of Nations in 1932 provided an opportune moment for Ishii to bid for funding for research in biological warfare. A facility was established with 200 rooms a hundred miles south of Harbin in Manchuria; it was a walled in fortress surrounded by a 3-meter-high electrified fence. Five years later escapees revealed the secrets and a new establishment was constructed at Pingfang nearer to Harbin. When people asked what Unit 731 was for, the answer was that it was a lumber mill. (It should be noted that the designation Unit 731 only started in August 1935) Researchers privately joked, “the people are the logs (maruta).”71 From now on prisoners became known as maruta. Their names were expunged and replaced by numbers; as one researcher noted, “They are counted not as one person or two persons but ‘one log, two logs’. We are not concerned with where they are from, how they came here.”72
Satellite facilities had other specialities. Unit 100 managed by veterinarian Yujiro Wakamatsu specialised in producing pathogens such as glanders and anthrax. The targets of his research were horses and other edible animals of the Chinese and Soviet Armies. At Anda, three hours from Unit 731, outdoor experiments were made with pathogens. Tests were also carried out on prisoners using poison gasses. Nami Unit 8604, established at Guangzhou in 1938, carried out experiments for the spreading of bubonic plague. Plague was also a major part of the work of Beijing based Unit 1855. Choi Hyung Shin who worked as a translator at Unit 1855 remembered, “in the plague tests, the prisoners suffered with chills and fever, and groaned in pain… until they died. From what I saw, one person was killed every day.”73 Apart from plague human experiments also involved Cholera and Epidemic Haemorrhagic Fever. Experimenting with suffering of other kinds included frostbite.
Victims of Ishii’s research victims included all nationalities including Americans, French and English, though, given the location of Unit 731, most of the evidence for experimentation on white POWs comes from proceedings of the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials in 1949. However, given the location of Ishii’s operation it is not surprising that Chinese victims predominated. The mass experiments were also carried out in China. It is estimated that Ishii’s disease campaigns, which involved the dropping of pathogens from airplanes, killed more than 400,000 Chinese citizens. Some reports suggest that epidemics were still sweeping northern China as late as 1948.
Perhaps vivisections on living people were the most horrifying of all Unit 731 activities. Information is inevitably scarce but the leading researcher on the subject of Unit 731 activities recalled in a lecture that she gave in Osaka in 1994 that one of her interviewees broke down and wept as he admitted to committing six live vivisections. Sometimes chloroform was used but sometimes not. One Chinese woman regained consciousness on the operating table and screamed, “Go ahead and kill me, but please don’t kill my child!”74 She was held down and given more anaesthetic.
In March 2007 Akira Makino admitted to performing live vivisection. It was a startling testimony: “We removed some of the organs and amputated legs and arms. Two of the victims were young women, 18 or 19 years old. I hesitate to say it but we opened up their wombs to show the younger soldiers. They knew little about women – it was sex education.”75 Seemingly every type of vivisection was carried out, often for reasons of dubious or non-existent medical value. One former Unit 731 medic, Takeo Wano, testified to seeing a whole man pickled in formaldehyde standing in a six-foot-high glass specimen jar. He had been vertically cut in two, like a Damien Hurst art work. Another story tells of kempeitai guards who “grabbed a prisoner and held him down while one of them cleaved open his skull with an axe.”76 It seems that General Ishii had demanded a fresh brain to experiment on.
Naokata Ishibashi, a civilian employee, also recalled being given a job cleaning the human specimen room. He perused the medical charts of maruta used in plague experiments at Anda: “Some would die in two days, some in five or seven, sometimes in ten days or more… The records showed that every month between forty and sixty people were killed in these plague tests.”77 Others obstinately refused to die. A Japanese major at Harbin recalled one sixty-eight year old man: “He had been injected with plague germs but did not die. He was put through the phosgene gas test and survived. An army doctor then used an extra-heavy needle, and again injected air into the vein, but the man still survived. Finally the doctors killed him by hanging him by the neck from a tree.”78 Not surprising, given their fears of post-war reprisals including war crimes trials, when the Soviets invaded Manchuria, urgent orders were given to blow up Unit 731 facilities and hide the evidence of human experiments.
A member of Dr. Hideo Futagi’s vivisection team recalled, “we injected women with syphilis.”79 They were looking for ways to treat Japanese soldiers who often hid their illness because it led to disgrace and a barring from promotion. Babies born to imprisoned mothers were used for research. Japanese researchers at Unit 731 would take pleasure from the victims of experiments. With some time to kill one researcher recalled deciding to rape a Chinese woman exposed to frostbite whose bones were turning black and gangrenous. He decided to rape her anyway until he noticed, “her sex organ was festering, with pus oozing to the surface.”80
After the war, at a meeting with Dr. Fell, who worked for the US Chemical Warfare Division, General Ishii reportedly informed him “My experience would be a useful advantage to the United States in the event of war with the Soviet Union.”81 Three of Ishii’s subordinates, Dr. Masaji Kitano, the head of frostbite research, Lieutenant-General Naito Ryoichi, head of bacteriological research and Hideo Futagi, the vivisection team leader, set up Japan’s first blood bank in 1951 and the company later named Midori Juji, or Green Cross as it was better known when it listed on the Tokyo Stock Exchange, became a successful developer of blood products. The founders distanced themselves from Ishii and refused to employ him though Kitano officiated at his funeral. Other important figures attached to Unit 731 either continued to work in government at a high level or took senior posts in academia or industry. It is speculated that many of them continued to be paid for their work by the US government. MacArthur brought none of the senior Unit 731 staff before the war crimes tribunals.
As ever the practice of mass torture, the information as to who knew about Unit 731 is opaque. However it is known from his memoirs that Prince Mikasa, Hirohito’s younger brother, visited Ishii’s operations where he saw a film of Chinese prisoners “made to march on the plains of Manchuria for poison gas experiments on humans.”82 It seems unlikely that Hirohito did not know about what was going on. Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, a former head of the kempeitai in Manchuria, was so delighted with Ishii’s work that he organised for Hirohito to award Ishii a special service decoration.
Given Hirohito’s known inquisitiveness regarding military affairs, is it likely that he was unaware of Unit 731’s activities? As has been suggested in pages 111-121 of Hirohito’s War, it may never be known what the Emperor knew; court papers were destroyed and MacArthur’s decision to excuse the Emperor and his family from prosecution, part of an orchestrated plan to obfuscate the truth, means that it is very unlikely that the real story will uncovered. It can only be surmised that, given his own family’s involvement in war crimes in China and his detailed involvement in and monitoring of all aspects of the war, it is highly unlikely that he did not know of the activities of Unit 731. Whether he authorised its activities or was simply guilty of the sin of omission is again a matter of speculation – almost certainly unprovable in court.