Books

'Japan's Infamous Unit 731': Testament to the very worst of human experimentation

by Iain Maloney

Contributing Writer

In Mexican tradition there is the idea of a person dying three deaths: the first when you physically die, the second when your body decays and returns to nature, and the final when there is no one around who remembers you. Keeping a person alive in memory is a core part of numerous cultures, whether through passing a name down family lines, by burying the departed in the garden, as some do in Samoa, or by storytelling.

Japan’s Infamous Unit 731, by Hal Gold.
256 pages
TUTTLE PUBLISHING, Nonfiction.

The fear of the third death is also what drives a lot of historical research and writing, and is at least subconsciously behind the newly reprinted edition of Hal Gold’s book on Unit 731 — the euphemistically named Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department — the earliest iteration of which was set up in Tokyo in 1932 by the Imperial Japanese Army under the directorship of Shiro Ishii, an expert in bacteriology.

The unit’s stated aim was to support troops by alleviating the risks of death and crippling illness though infection, a problem that accounted for more military deaths than combat. Japan was at the forefront of medical research in this area and, by the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, astounding advances in the field were being made. On paper, Unit 731 looked like a continuation of this proud tradition. It was not.

Ishii is the villain of the book and Gold’s portrayal of him lacks nuance: He is “pushy, inconsiderate and selfish … a ladder-climber.” Ishii’s marriage to the daughter of the president of Kyoto Imperial University is presented as purely a matter of social advancement. These characteristics are twinned with a sociopathic attitude to human subjects and a drive to “the furtherance of chemical and bacteriological warfare as Japanese military orthodoxy.”

To these ends, Ishii urges the army to send him and his team first to Zhongma in Manchuria (now Heilongjiang province) in 1932 where, under the guise of dispensing vaccines, they conducted experiments on human subjects. Some were infected with aggressive strains of bacteria to witness their effects. Others were infected with deadly diseases and their organs removed for study — often before death. Tests often focused on endurance: How much blood could be drained before a person dies? How long could people live without water? What did frostbite do to flesh? Gold’s descriptions — and accompanying photographs — leave nothing to the imagination.

A prison break in 1936 risked exposure, so the unit moved to nearby Pingfang where they built, mostly by forced labor, “a sprawling walled city of more than 70 buildings on a 6-square-kilometer tract of land.” The experiments continued.

The first half of the book sets the scene for Japan’s presence in China and Ishii’s own rise to prominence, charts the torture and experiments carried out by Ishii and his team, and delves into the wider context of human experimentation within the Japanese sphere of influence during this period. The latter half is made up of eyewitness testimony by researchers and nurses attached to the unit, civilians employed by the unit, soldiers stationed there and even Ishii’s driver. The effect is one of overwhelming horror and sadness.

While the facts of Unit 731 speak for themselves, and the oral history gives voice to the human side, Gold can’t quite leave it there, and the book suffers from a large degree of editorializing. His prose is highly subjective and his rhetoric bludgeoningly emotive.

The statement, “the original bacteriological aims of Japan were soon to be warped in the direction of causing, rather than preventing and curing, disease” is clear and powerful. Unfortunately, he follows it up with “the high morality of Japanese troops … would be shred and rewoven into racist ugliness.”

While one can’t help but harshly judge Ishii and those who supported and enabled his project, it is not the role of the historian to pass such judgement. When dealing with controversial episodes — as with the issue of “comfort women” and the Nanjing Massacre, Unit 731’s crimes are denied by many of the right wing — the historian’s power lies in their objectivity and academic distance, their research and reliance on evidence.

Gold, and the historians and eyewitnesses he relies on, have done their work. The evidence stands alone. By moralizing and name-calling, by telling the reader how to react to obvious atrocities, Gold undermines himself. It’s an easy mistake for a writer immersed in such horror to make, but one that has no place in sober history.

For such historical episodes to avoid a third death, books like this must remain in print. The facts and the evidence for them must remain available. Those who forget history are doomed to repeat its mistakes, and those who would choose to deny or twist history to their own ends thrive in those wastelands.

It is 87 years since Ishii and his team set sail for Manchuria, and soon there will be no eyewitnesses left. Hyperemotion, fake news and insidious “alternative facts” blight discourse today, so perhaps our best hope lies in well-researched, dispassionate history. This isn’t that, but ensuring this book remains on the shelves is a step in the right direction.

Coronavirus banner