Unit 731

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Unit 731 was a Japanese biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that engaged in lethal human experimentation and biological weapons manufacturing during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) and later World War II. The unit is estimated to have killed 200,000 and 300,000 people. It was based in Harbin, Northeast China and had active branch offices throughout China and Southeast Asia.

The Unit 731 complex.



“Unit 731 Testimony” (2011)


Gold, Hal (2011). “Unit 731 Testimony” (1st ed.). New York: Tuttle Pub. ISBN 978-1462900824.

  • The Epidemic prevention and Water Purification Department of the wanting Army-popularly known by its codename “Manchurian Unit No 731” or simply “Unit 731”-was a secret biological weapons research and development unit maintained by the Imperial Japanese Army in the outskirts of Harbin in Japanese-controlled Manchuria, northeastern China, for the duration of World War II in Asia and the Pacific. It has gained international notoriety in recent decades as research revealed the shocking details of Unit 731’s core wartime activity: the use of thousands of human guinea pigs for medical experimentation. The vast majority of these human subjects are believed to have been Chinese nationals taken prisoner over the course of the course of the Second Sino-Japanese war that originated in the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in September 1931, and that grew to fullblown warfare in July 1937. Men, women, and children of other nationalities were also used for experiments, and babies born to women in Unit 731’s custody apparently were not spared either.
    • Yuma Totani, Foreword p.1
  • This book outlines medical experimentation that was conducted by Unit 731, heinous acts including injecting human subjects with pathogens; monitoring the progress of diseases by drawing blood samples from and conducting vivisection on live individuals; exposing human subjects to infected insects in an open-air testing field; infecting a health individual with venereal disease by way of forced sexual intercourse with a carrier of venereal disease; causing frostbite on limbs by exposing them to water and cold air in a sub-zero temperature environment; and collecting human specimens-organs, body parts and even entire bodies of human subjects-which were subsequently kept at Unit 731’s lab and the army medical facilities in Tokyo. None of the subjects in Unit 731’s custody survived the war, as they either died during experiments or were killed en masse as part of the Japanese cover-up effort at the war’s end. Some of the biological weapons thus developed, meanwhile, were put to use during the Japanese military campaigns against China. The Imperial Japanese Army also set up other medical units in Beijing, Nanjing, Guangzhou, and Singapore, so that biological weapons research and development could be carried forth in the broader region of Asia and the Pacific under Japanese military control.
    • p.2
  • While launching counter-offensives against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in the last war years, the Allied powers repeatedly issued joint declarations regarding their intention to bring to justice the Axis war criminals. One might expect, under those circumstances, that the members of Unit 731 would have been among the first for the Allied authorities to name as war criminals and to put on trial. But that, in fact, was not the case. Unit 731 rather became a pawn of cold-war politics as the U.S. government prioritized racing against the Soviet Union in securing the biological weapons’ knowledge that Unit 731 had amassed and, to that end, shielding from war crimes prosecution the medical unit’s former members, including its chief, Surgeon General Ishii Shiro. The Soviet authorities, for their part, had their own share of interests in gaining access to Unit 731’s secretive information, but they appeared also focused on using it as a propaganda tool to be deployed against the United States. Having failed in getting the inter-Allied prosecuting agency at the International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE, 1946-48) to incorporate the evidence of Unit 731 in the case against major Japanese war criminals, the Soviet government set up a special military tribunal at Khabarovsk in December 1949 to hold a joint trial of 12 former Japanese army officers on criminal charges relating to Unit 731’s wartime activities. It went on to publish the official record of the trial in multiple languages (including in Japanese), and put pressure on the United States and other Allied countries to proceed with a trial of the Japanese emperor, Hirohito (1901-89; r. 1926-89), based on the Khabarovsk Trial’s findings. No formal inter-Allied deliberation concerning the possible trial of Hirohito ensued, however, since the U.S. government snubbed the Soviet initiative as a publicity stunt, and the Soviet government eventually let the matter drop. In this manner, the Allied Powers allowed certain known war criminals to escape prosecution despite their stated policy at the outset to mete out stern punishment to war criminals, thereby sending contradictory messages to the Japanese public about the Allied commitment to justice and accountability.
    • pp.2-3
  • The Japanese people began acquiring knowledge about Unit 731 as early as the 1950s, thanks in part to confessional accounts that some of the former Japanese soldiers returning from China published, and also to book-length studies of Unit 731 became a household word with the publication in 1981 of Akuma no hoshoku (“The Devil’s Gluttony”), written by popular author Moriumura Seiichi. This book offered in a gripping narrative the details of diabolical activities of Unit 731, and set in motion a nation-wide dialogue about Unit 731 and its legacy in postwar Japan. Meanwhile, Unit 731 as a subject of scholarly inquiry gained traction, and researchers in Japan as well as elsewhere came to produce a number of original studies that made extensive use of archival materials in China, Japan, the Soviet Union and the United States.
    • pp.3-4
  • As of today, Unit 731 is arguably one of the most thoroughly researched and best documented among many known episodes of Japanese war crimes. It may be also said that the highly organized and institutionalized nature of Unit 731’s criminality likely made it comparatively easy for researchers to develop a comprehensive picture of Unit 731’s wartime activities once relevant oral and documentary histories became available. To achieve the same level of comprehensiveness would be challenging with other episodes of large-scale Japanese war crimes, such as the Nanjing Massacre, whose occurrence could not be attributed to the establishment and operation of a single Unit 731-like criminal organization. In a word, the crimes committed by the members of Unit 731 were a case of “criminality of closed systems” in the sense that the unit members made systematic use of humans for medical experimentation in fulfillment of their specific organizational mission, just like the members of concentration camps in German-controlled Europe gassed to death the Jewish people in fulfillment of the camps’ organizational mission.
    • pp.4-5
  • The Japanese right in the past decades has contested the veracity of individual confessional accounts by former soldiers and other types of documentation by researchers in their effort to deny that alleged heinous acts were ever committed in the name of Japan or of the Japanese emperor. However, it is an indisputable fact that the Japanese army leadership at the highest level sanctioned the establishment off Unit 731 for the purpose of researching and developing biological weapons. Furthermore, given the duration of Unit 731’s operations, given the well-established lines of communication between unit 731 and the army authorities at Tokyo, and given the transmission of human specimens taken from individuals used for medical experimentation from the former to the latter, one could reasonably infer that the Japanese army leadership at the highest levels knew and condoned the use of human guinea pigs, if not that they expressly authorized it. The share of responsibility for Unit 731’s activities on the part of Emperor Hirohito, in this regard, is worthy of further investigation. After all, Emperor Hirohito occupied the highest position in the Japanese army establishment for the entire duration of World War II in Asia and the Pacific, in his capacity as “the head of the Empire, combining in Himself the rights of sovereignty, and exercises them,” and concurrently assuming the “supreme command of the Army and Navy” (The Constitution of the empire of Japan, 1889-1947).
    • p.5
  • General readers in the West may be far less acquainted with the history of Unit 731-or, for that matter, the Sino-Japanese War that informs the backstory of Unit 731-for reasons that the remembrance of World War II and war crimes operates on a different plane form the one in postwar Japan. The story of Unit 731 nonetheless needs to be retold and passed on to the next generation of people across the world, as they shoulder the responsibility of protecting those who fall victim to comparable episodes of mass atrocity and grave human-rights abuses in the twenty-first century.
    • p.6
  • Some four decades following the end of World War II, details concerning the Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731, which researched and conducted biological warfare, began surfacing with startling impact. Information about this outfit, at whose hands an estimated three thousand Manchurians, Chinese, Russians, Koreans, Europeans, and Americans were killed, had remained largely hidden over the years, either by governmental control or a code of silence adhered to by its former members themselves. Then, newly revealed information stirred interest in an era which Japanese officialdom had been trying to wash away with the detergent of neglect. Japan has been told to leave the past behind and move ahead told to new ties of friendship and commerce with other countries. Yet while business ties develop, and amity is proclaimed to be spreading old facts emerging as recent revelations increase their magnetic attraction and pull us into a reexamination of what happened then-and again incite us into debates of how and why.
    It can be argued that probably no school system anywhere teaches true history; only the degree of rearrangement varies. For the years during which the research units were active, the chasm between history and Japan’s official stance yawns wide. For years, Unit 731 “did not exist.” Requests and demands not just or monetary compensation but for mere recognition of history and apology have been brushed away, turned down because “compensation has been made at government levels.” Instead, Japan offers its dedication to “world peace” with statements that are as vague as they are eloquent.
    • Introduction, p.7
  • Information on Japan’s consumption of live human beings as biological test material has been surfacing for many years now. As with the comfort women issue, however, there has never been a jolt of sufficient voltage to rock the national government into acts of contrition or compensation. Rather, it has been local governments who have opened their eyes to history. The efforts of local governments in conjunction with high degrees of volunteer activity in their areas, can be credited with bringing the Unit 731 Exhibition before the eyes of Japanese in sixty-one locations over the course of a year and a half. The exhibition, in whose final days this book was begun, was arranged by a central organizing committee in Tokyo, and each locality which wanted to plan a local exhibition had to raise its own funds and find its own venue. There was, of course, an admission fee to enter the exhibit, and so for the visitors it could be considered a self-financed course in the history omitted by orthodox education.
    The shock to the Japanese people was predictable. In spite of the occasional documentary coverage or newspaper article, Unit 731 was largely unknown and unthought of. It sat safely outside the scope of the consciousness of most Japanese. True, some attention was drawn to Unit 731 when the Japanese government was taken to court for not permitting factual accounts of it in school textbooks, but even those with some knowledge of the Ishii organization had their eyes opened at the exhibits.
    • pp.7-8
  • Several factors have conspired to keep Unit 731’s activities from receiving the attention they so richly deserve. The decades of concealment of the outfit’s history were partly the fruit of the Japanese central government’s reputed skill at inactivity, along with its priority on avoiding all manners of controversy, whether domestic or international. Evidence also failed to surface simply because there were no survivors among the victims of Unit 731; all were eliminated before the end of the war. Then, there was the combination order-threat by commanding general Ishii Shiro himself that former unit members were to “take the secret to the grave.” Obedience to the command was probably not at all difficult for those surviving Japanese members of the unit who could have borne witness but would have felt scalpels turned in their own hearts were their children to ask, “Daddy! How could you do something like that?”- and feel it even more acutely in their later years when the question would be prefaced with “Grandpa.”
  • pp.8-9
  • This last fact highlights an even more astonishing result of the exhibition. Surviving members of Unit 731 who had sworn to remain silent about their memories came out before the public to testify-to confess-and finally unburden their minds. After a half century of silence, they told. Some could tell all but their names, and retained that one secret before the public: an omission meaningful to them, but a minor exclusion for those of us more interested in their stories than in their identities. Others identified themselves openly. Some reached the point of weeping with equal openness, as they looked back through decades of silence to stir up ugly recollections.
    But those who are coming forward now, after some half-century of silence, are among the most forceful in pressing for the story to be told. Additionally, a limited number of members of the post-war generation- scientists, doctors, writers-are searching out the survivors, doing their own research, and informing the public through writings and lectures. Outrage and shame span the generations. Exhibition sites generally have a desk where visitors may write their impressions and comments. Attendees from elementary school on up have recorded the shock of the history lesson.
    • p.9
  • There are several reasons why the code of silence has evaporated at this late hour. Whatever these motivations might be, however we can be grateful that the grave did not get all the truth. One focus of this book will be the actual words of those who helped conduct Japan’s biological warfare human experimentation program.
    The exhibition itself, the reactions it provoked, and the testimonies of former unit members who came forth and spoke out were all driving factors behind the creation of this book. It is as important for these events to be available to English-readers as it is that Japanese know them. Some of the testimonies and statements presented ere were originally given at lecture programs which the author attended, recorded, and translated. At other programs in different parts of the country, testimonies were obtained with the cooperation of the local organizing committees. An independent team sought out former Unit 731 members and produced a video series which was another source. A few of the testimonies were told to other people who then reported on them at lectures or in print.
    The recent declassification under the Freedom of Information Act of some documents that had been sealed for years also played an important role in the creation of this book. Events in the former Soviet Union likewise brought about a freeing of material formerly kept hidden away. Some Japanese documents have also been declassified making them available to researchers. In the end, however, the most thought-provoking source of public information on Japan’s human experiments comes from those who were there, then emerged from silence and provided the personal accounts which lead us back to the crimes with distressing credibility. These firsthand recollections make mockery of statements which attempt to smooth down the edges of the cruelty and racism that made Unit 731 possible.
    • pp.9-10
  • Encyclopedic article on Unit 731 on Wikipedia
  • Media related to Unit 731 on Wikimedia Commons