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JAPANESE BIO-WEAPONS RESEARCH, MEDICAL EXPERIMENTS, AND UNIT 731
THE TESTING PROGRAM
Between 1932 and 1945 scientists and doctors with the Imperial Japanese Army conducted thousands of medical experiments on human beings. This testing program surpassed in scale, extent, and duration that of Nazi doctors in German-occupied Europe. More importantly, these experiments also included a biological weapons testing program, which even the Germans never attempted. These activities took place in a series of research camps established in the Japanese puppet-state of Manchukuo (Manchuria), which Japan had conquered from China in 1931. The subjects of the testing included civilians and prisoners of war, among which were Chinese, Koreans, Russians, Mongolians, Americans, and POWs from other Allied countries. Symbolic of their disdain for human life, the Japanese referred to these testing subjects as "Maruta" or "logs".
The primary testing facility was located in a camp complex at Ping Fan outside of the city of Harbin. The unit stationed there was designated Unit 731 and placed under the command of Lieutenant General Ishii Shiro. For security purposes Unit 731 was given the ironic designation of "Water Purification Unit 731". In the last two decades the designation "Unit 731" has become a blanket term used to describe the overall Japanese bio-weapons program. In reality, however, the complex under Unit 731 consisted of more than 150 buildings spread out over six kilometers. In addition, nine satellite facilities were also established: Unit 100, Unit 200, Unite 516, Unit 543, Unit 773, Unit 1644, Unit 1855, Unit 8604, and Unit 9420.
Within the Unit 731 complex numerous factories and laboratories produced chemicals and biological agents, among which were disease-infected fleas and plague bacteria. Autopsies and other controlled experiments were carried out as well. These included, but were not limited to
A large number of biological weapons experiments were also conducted at Ping Fan and its subsidiary camps. These experiments sometimes entailed the injection of a biological pathogen into the body of a human subject. Among the pathogens tested were cholera, small pox, plague, and botulism. Once the disease had run its course an autopsy would be conducted to determine the impact of the pathogen. Other experiments included placing humans in gas chambers and exposing them to airborne diseases like anthrax. Just under 1,000 autopsies were carried out at Unit 731, with estimates of the overall number who being as high as 3,000 people.
In addition to conducting medical experiments in controlled camp conditions, the Japanese also conducted field tests. These tests took place during the Second Sino-Japanese war from 1937 to 1945 and they entailed the use of weaponized pathogens. Parachute-laden ceramic bombs containing plague-infected fleas were dropped on Chinese cities and water supplies were poisoned with water-borne pathogens like cholera. Altogether the Japanese attacked eleven Chinese cities with biological weapons, causing the deaths of as many as 200,000 people. This research, while deemed important by the Japanese High Command, likely did not significantly alter the course of the war in China. Furthermore, during the last two years of the conflict with the United States, General Ishii unsuccessfully lobbied for the use of biological weapons in the Pacific.
Toward the end of the war the activities of Unit 731 were gradually curtailed. Then, shortly before the Japanese surrender, Ishii swore his personnel to silence and ordered the Ping Fan complex destroyed. During these final operations Japanese troops released thousands of plague-infected rodents and other disease-infected animals. The resulting outbreaks of the plague killed at least 30,000 people in the Harbin area from 1946 through 1948. Tons of toxic chemicals were also dumped into rivers or buried. Most of the buildings at Ping Fan were then either razed to the ground or destroyed with explosives.
FINDING THE FACTS
Following Japan's surrender to the Allies in August 1945, General Douglas MacArthur became the Supreme Commander of the Allied Powers. His office in Tokyo opened officially in September 1945 and was charged with rebuilding Japan during the American occupation. Within weeks after MacArthur's arrival, Lt. Colonel Murray Sanders from Ft. Detrick, MD, was assigned the task of investigating rumors about the Japanese bio-weapons program that U.S. intelligence had heard. These rumors were based on a sizeable body of letters MacArthur's intelligence office in Tokyo had received from numerous sources.
Sanders was desperate for information concerning Japanese bio-weapons. But as he continued to delve into the subject, he found that the people he interviewed would tell him nothing unless they were promised some kind of protection from prosecution for their activities. Making matters even more complicated for Sanders was the fact that the man assigned to be his interpreter was none other than Lieutenant Colonel Ryoichi Naito, a former member of Unit 731. Sanders appears to have been unaware of this at the time. Being neither a Japanese speaker nor a scientist, Sanders also did not know that Colonel Ryoichi actively participated in weaving a web of half-truths and outright lies concerning Unit 731. Colonel Ryoichi eventually persuaded Sanders that witnesses would talk only if they were promised immunity from prosecution. The result, according to the scholar Tien-wei Wu, was that
Murray Sanders was soon followed by another investigative team headed by Lieutenant Colonel Arvo Thompson. Thompson worked closely with the intelligence branch of the SCAP (Supreme Command Allied Powers) in Japan. Throughout late 1945 and into 1946 Thompson followed leads, questioned witnesses, and interrogated members of the Unit 731 staff. Thompson was then followed by Norbert Fell, a microbiologist who also came from Ft. Detrick. The work of Thompson, and especially Fell, led directly to Ishii Shiro and several of his most important subordinates, including General Wakamatsu Yujiro, Major General Kitano Masaji, and Lieutenant Colonel Ryoichi Naito. These investigations concluded decisively that not only had the Japanese conducted substantial and extensive biological and chemical weapons tests in Manchuria, they had done so on civilians and Allied POWs, including Americans. In addition, Fell concluded that the level of Japanese research was so advanced it had reached the point at which scientific conclusions could be drawn.
Simultaneous to the investigations of Unit 731, an increasingly large number of Japanese war criminals were being tried in Tokyo for crimes against humanity. Initially, according to Sheldon Harris in his well-researched book Factories of Death, Ishii and his colleagues feared that they too would be tried for war crimes. However, they were soon made aware that it was more important to the Americans to collect information on bio-weapons than it was to prosecute the men of Unit 731. It appears that from the very beginning of their investigative efforts, the Americans were more interested in learning that they could from Ishii than in bringing him and the others to justice. At one point Sanders had even said men like Ishii "were in no danger of being charged with war crimes should they provide him with details of their BW investigations". Despite his promise, Sanders' investigation had been severely hampered by continued Japanese stonewalling and deception. Unit 731 veterans were simply too afraid of prosecution for their wartime activities. It would only be during Norbert Fell's subsequent investigation that the information would truly begin to flow. In one of his reports, Fell mentioned that 'The Japanese were assured that war crimes were not involved". Once word of this had passed through the grapevine, former members of Unit 731 began contacting Fell to offer him the information they had.
In the end, Fell accumulated a significant amount of detailed evidence about the Japanese weapons program. He also accumulated enough evidence to classify the major players in Unit 731, Ishii, Wakamatsu, Kitano, and several others, as major war criminals. However, the price for getting the information out of Ishii and the others was promising these men immunity from prosecution.
The problem is that Fell was not of sufficient rank or influence to have granted Ishii and the others immunity. For this Fell needed to consult with Washington. Sheldon Harris describes a meeting held in Washington, D.C. on June 23, 1947 during which "representatives from the War, State, and Justice Departments ... 'informally agreed' to accept 'the recommendations of the C. in C., FEC [General MacArthur], and the Chief, Chemical Corps [General Alden Waitt], i.e. that all information obtained in this investigation would be held in intelligence channels and not used for 'War Crimes' programs". Approval for this informal agreement was then kicked upstairs to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, which appears to have authorized the immunity promise. The problem here is that the Joint Chiefs do not approve political policies. Therefore, final authorization for immunity must have come from President Truman. From this point on not a single former Japanese officer, doctor, or scientist who had been involved in biological or chemical weapons research in Manchuria would be prosecuted. Unit 731 was never even mentioned in the records of the Tokyo war crimes trials. It was as if the operations of Unit 731 had never happened.
Even before the decision in Washington to hide the facts of Japanese biological weapons research and atrocities, MacArthur's command in Japan had erected a wall of silence surrounding the entire issue. According to information compiled by Tien-wei Wu,
In 1949, the Soviets officially requested access to records and Japanese personnel as part of their own investigation into Japanese biological warfare crimes. These requests were either summarily ignored or refused by American authorities. Given the increasingly hostile environment of the developing Cold War there would be no information sharing with the USSR.
In addition to opposing the Soviets, the U.S. military had another very good reason for keeping biological warfare information secret, it was trying to glean the benefits of Japanese data for it's own biological and chemical warfare programs. The information and the expertise provided by Ishii and his colleagues was crucial to U.S. weapons research.
Therefore, at the same time that American prosecutors and judges were sitting on tribunals trying Nazi war criminals for their crimes, the U.S. government was becoming ever more deeply involved in covering up some of the worst atrocities committed during the Second World War.
For example, as the State-War-Navy Department's Sub-Committee for the Far East concluded in a report dated August 1, 1947:
Thus a cynical bargain was struck. Atrocities committed by Unit 731 personnel were forgotten in exchange for information about biological and chemical weapons that the U.S. could use for its own programs. It is perhaps worth noting here that, to its credit, the State Department argued strongly against covering-up the crimes of Unit 731, claiming that "such a course would be a violation of international laws and detrimental to human morality and once revealed, it would be a source of serious embarrassment to the United States".
In the decades afterward, the former members of Unit 731 went on to assume prominent positions and start lucrative careers in Japanese society. Naito Ryoichi, for one, became the head of the Green Cross pharmaceutical company. Public knowledge about Unit 731 only came to light in 1989 after an article was published in the now defunct Japanese magazine Days Japan. Compensation cases are still occasionally initiated against the government of Japan by victims of the Unit 731 experiments. However, these cases always end up being thrown out by the courts (See "The Asian Auschwitz of Unit 731"). To this day the victims of biological and chemical experiments in Manchuria have received neither compensation nor an apology for Japanese wrong-doing.
To this point in time (summer 2006), the United States government continues to sit on a large number of Japanese records that were seized by the U.S. Army during the post-war occupation of Japan. These records have been classified since 1945 and are held in the National Archives and Records Administration facility in College Park, MD. Scholars anticipate that a certain percentage of these records contain detailed information about the activities of Unit 731. However, no one knows this for certain.
In 2000, the U.S. Congress passed the Japanese Imperial Government Disclosure Act. This act allegedly authorized the disclosure to the public of all records from the Empire of Japan that are held at NARA. The cataloging and release of these records falls under the responsibility of the The Nazi War Crimes and Japanese Imperial Government Interagency Working Group (IWG). The IWG has been empowered to
Despite this mandate no records pertaining to Unit 731 or the Japanese biological and chemical weapons program have appeared. It is also not likely that they will appear given the fact that Section 803, Sub-Section (b), Line 3 stipulates that records which "reveal information that would assist in the development or use of weapons of mass destruction" are exempt from release. Given that biological and chemical weapons are categorized as weapons of mass destruction it remains to be seen if any of the classified records at NARA on Unit 731 ever become available to the public.
THE U.S. CONGRESSIONAL "JAPANESE IMPERIAL GOVERNMENT DISCLOSURE ACT" OF 2000
SEC. 801. SHORT TITLE.
SEC. 802. DESIGNATION.
SEC. 803. REQUIREMENT OF DISCLOSURE OF RECORDS.
Unit 731 and General Ishii Shiro
War Crimes Trials and Government Actions
Khabarovsk War Crimes Trials
The Nazi War Crimes and Japanese
Imperial Government Interagency Working Group (IWG)
2) Sheldon Harris, Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-1945, and the American Cover-Up (Routledge, 1995), p. 191.
3) Harris, Factories, p. 196.
4) Harris, Factories, p. 196.
5) Harris, Factories, p. 204.