“Unit 731 Testimony: Japan's Wartime Human Experimentation Program” by Hal Gold is a disturbing account of a top secret project named Unit 731, which conducted some of the most unethical and brutal human experiments during World War II.
Many people know about the battles and bombs dropped during the Second World War, but almost no one has heard of the cruel deeds performed by Japanese doctors and soldiers in Japan’s medical wards where prisoners were treated as human guinea pigs and underwent gruesome medical experiments.
The book is split up in two parts.
The first part retells the story of Japan’s history and involvement in WWII and how Japanese doctors went from fighting biowarfare to running experiments on humans in their own Unit 731 testing labs. The second half of the book involves interviews with actual former Unit 731 members themselves, who recount memories of cutting open pregnant women to injecting plague germs into healthy farmers.
Hal Gold (1929 – 2009) was a writer, historian, critic, and long-time Kyoto resident. He lived in Kyoto for over 30 years, and was a well-known writer on Japan-related subjects.
1) The Start of an Evil Genius
Shiro Ishii was born on June 25, 1892 in a small village two hours from Tokyo.
He went on to study at the prestigious Kyoto Imperial University and earned awards from the United States and Europe for his work. He also received his Doctorate of Medicine in 1911.
Ishii studied bacteriology for his postgraduate work and married the school president’s daughter.
He also enlisted in the army and quickly rose to a lieutenant.
It was clear Ishii was a gifted and smart young man with a bright future.
Yet, about two years later, he responsible for running Unit 731, a “prison camp” that was used to develop biological and chemical weapons that were tested on prisoners.
When Ishii learned about the Geneva Convention of 1925, which prohibited biological and chemical warfare, he was encouraged by this notion since if something were “bad enough to be outlawed, then it must certainly be effective.”
However, just as it took years for Hitler to gain power and create the concentration camps, Ishii too played the long game.
By the 1930s, Japan was expanding its power on to the Asian mainland and the military needed to figure out ways to prevent diseases infecting their troops.
Ishii also worked on turning bacteria and gas into weapons, but animal research had serious limits in producing usable data.
Then in 1933, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations, which had judged it wrong for its aggression against China. This severance of ties would play a big role in the creation of Unit 731 since the country no longer had promises to keep.
During this time, Japan’s Emperor had created a special police force called like kenpeitai, much like the Nazi SS or the Soviet NKVD.
Groups or individuals responsible for anti-Japanese resistance, were quickly captured by the kenpeitai. They were given jobs such as catching spies and interrogating suspects, and were “authorized to use torture” (pg 30).
All of the pieces were slowly falling into place.
2) The start of unit 731
As Japanese troops moved into Manchuria, they were concerned about a clash with Soviet troops along the Soviet-Manchurian border.
Ishii planned to use his specialty to overcome his side’s disadvantage.
In the city of Harbin, he set up a facility to focus on vaccines and other proper medical research. It would serve as a facade of goodwork.
However, about 100 kilometers to the South, he and his troops cleared out a local village and had Chinese laborers build a military complex. It was officially known as the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army, but later adopted the name Unit 731.
The laborers were paid almost nothing for their work, and one man reported that all of the workers were killed after the project was finished.
Once completed, the complex kept around 500 to 600 prisoners. Many of whom were treated well and were given rice, meat and vegetables.
A normal state of health would provide the most accurate data for their experiments.
However, the life expectancy at the prison was a maximum of one month…
3) Prisoners used into experiments (women & children too)
Some prisoners had large amounts of blood taken every two or three days. This went on and on, while scientists kept careful records, until the prisoner was literally drained to death. Others, were injected with poison to see how they would react.
Other experiments were also performed on prisoners, including vivisections, which involved infecting a prisoner with a disease and then cutting them open while they were alive and without anesthesia, to study the effects of the disease. Patients were kept alive because the scientists thought it would give more accurate results.
For more research, several new satellite facilities were built in Xinjing, Beijing, Singapore and other locations.
Outdoor tests of plague, cholera and other pathogens were dropped on subjects while they were tied to crosses. Rats and fleas were raised for experiments to spread diseases and released in local villages.
One satellite facility had a large refrigerator la where subjects had their flesh frozen over and over again. Others used prisoners as bayonet practice for young soldiers.
One of the worst experiments performed was forcing a healthy prisoner to have sex with one who had syphilis. Anyone resisting would be shot. Researchers would track the infection progress every week, and employed live dissection on the infect patient to investigate how their internal organs were affected by the disease.
Countless more horrible experiments were performed in Unit 731. As Japan began losing the second World War, a secret order was issued to perform more vivisections to gather as much research as possible.
It’s estimated that over 10,000 people were killed during the 10 years Unit 731 and its sister facilities were in operation.
4) No justice for victims
You might be wondering how the scientists and guards of Unit 731 were punished for their crimes after Japan lost the war.
After WWII, Nazi leaders were charged with crimes and sent to the Nuremberg trials. But for Ishii and his fellow researchers, they were given a get out of jail free card.
The researchers involved in Unit 731 were secretly given immunity by the U.S. in exchange for the data they gathered through human experimentation.
Why were the members of Unit 731 granted immunity?
The U.S. believed that the research data was valuable, and did not want other nations (particularly the Soviet Union) to acquire data on biological weapons.
“Unit 731 Testimony: Japan's Wartime Human Experimentation Program” by Hal Gold is a disturbing book to say the least. But it also serves as an important reminder to the world that life isn’t perfect.
The world can be a very dark and cruel place is people allow it. History will repeat itself if individuals don’t learn from the past and keep an eye out on the emergence of new evils.
Even today, similar concentration still exist around the world. For instance, the book, “The Aquariums of Pyongyang” by Chol-hwan, reveals the truth about North Korea’s concentration camps.
Although the things that happened in this book are horrific, it is important to learn about evil so that people will become aware of its existence, instead of turning a blind eye and pleading ignorance to a problem that still plagues the modern world.
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