I think it is well known that Nazi doctors at Third Reich concentration camps carried out medical experiments which most people would consider torture, and which an international tribunal considered to be war crimes. The fact that Japanese
doctors for the Japanese Imperial Co-Prosperity Sphere (which I'll abbreviate as "JICOPS", although the book never does) did pretty much the same thing in China, from 1932 to 1944.
The subject of Imperial Japanese war crimes has always been a little vague to me. I know that Japanese forces brutally mistreated Korean, Filipino, Manchurian, and other subjects during the period of colonization (roughly 1909-1944), and I know about the "rape of Nanking" and the "comfort women". Beyond that, though, I'm a little sketchy. Don't get me wrong; I'm not eager to defend Imperial Japan; it's just that I don't have many specific atrocities to cite about them, the way I do with Hitler's Germany.
Part of my ignorance may be my own failing, but part of it may also be that the Japanese war trials were less public than those in the European theatre, and atrocities were less front-and-center, and much of the Japanese war trials were preoccupied with ferretting out who was actually responsible for giving orders.
This book tells the story of "Unit 731" - a Japanese Imperial Army research unit which set up shop in Manchuria, and conducted human experimentation on kidnapped or commandeered Chinese citizens from 1932-1944. The victims, incidentally, were
systemically dehumanized- being refered to by the Japanese Imperial staff as "logs". As the operation grew, several satellite facilities sprung up, including in Singapore and
Thailand, but by far the largest and most active was Dr. Shiro Iishi's lab in Heibo, Manchuria.
For his part, Iishi was a sociopath obsessed with advancing his career at any cost. After medical school, during the period when militarism in Japan was in its ascendency, he took up with the Army, studying infectious disease (ID). ID was a hot topic at
the time, as advanced sanitation, hygeine and antiseptic surgical techniques were largely credited for Japan's astounding success and low casualty rate during the Russo-
Japanese War of 1904-1905.
Ishii's directed research, using human subjects, at the Heibo facility, investigating three general areas:
1) Testing endurance limits: human subjects were used to determine minimum starvation diets, resistance or susceptibility to frostbite, and extreme bloodloss regimens. These experiments were carried out with a mind to reduce Japanese Imperial Army
casualties- a fact which some of the researchers took some moral refuge in.
2) Developing and testing a biological weapons program: Human subjects were intentionally exposed to lethal pathogens- most typically different preparations of Yersinea pestis (the bacteria responsible for bubonic plague) and cholera. These experiments were purely offensive in nature, and there was no offical Japanese recognition of these programs after the war, until the evidence of it became irrufutable in the 1980's.
3) "Basic anatomy and physiology" would be the coy way of decribing the third category, but what we're talking about is human vivisection. It's hard to imagine how much legitimate "science" this could have possibly represented, even if administered under the heading of "experimental surgery". Nevertheless, hundreds of prisoners were opened, dissected, and had organs removed without anesthesia. Almost all of these cases died on the examination table. Like the bioweapons program, these cases were not officially acknowledged for decades.
The details of what went on at Heibo takes up the first 2/3 of the book or so. Two interesting facts about the Japanese Imperial bioweapons program:
1) The JICOPS government had no hesitation using biological weapons to wipe out the entire population of Okinawa, and to make the island uninhabitable, if it looked like Allied forces were going to take it over.
In fact, this did come to pass, and the orders to destroy Okinawa were actually issued, and the effort to execute them was underway. The island population was only saved by an external factor: the ship carrying the infectious agents was sunk.
This remains a touchy issue, even today, because Okinawa was once its own kingdom, and its people maintain an ethnic and cultural identity apart from the rest of Japan. Their unfair treatment (sometimes real, sometimes perceived) by the central government of Japan is often attributed to an institutionalized racism on the part of "mainlanders". The fact that the mainland government was at one time willing to wipe out Okinawans
wholesale opens up those very old and deep wounds.
2) As late as 1944, the JICOPS government had both plans and capability to send a lone submarine equipped with a seaplane to a major American West Coast population center to deliver an aerosolized biological weapon which would infect the city with
Yersinea. In this case, the plan was nixed at the last minute by a dissenting Japanese General Umezo Yoshijiro, who feared retaliation, as well as a negative world opinion which might turn neutral countries against Japan.
The last third of the book includes testimonials of people actually involved with Unit 731, but in a more general sense deals with how the truth about Unit 731 was almost
lost to obscurity, and how it came to light.
Being a military operation during wartime, Unit 731 was protected from public
scrutiny during the war. When Japan was forced out of Manchuria, the facility was partially destroyed- enough to obscure the specifics of what was going on there.
Because 731 was not known to Allied intelligence, much of it was not discovered by the
American occupation government, or the subsequent postwar Japanese government. (It's actually complicated; some of Unit 731's deeds were known, but weren't prosecuted, because American forces cut a deal with Japanese scientists, because they wanted to know what information may have fallen into Soviet hands.)
For decades, the idea that Japan had engaged in wartime bioweapons research using human subjects remained in the province of urban myth and "crazy conspiracy theory". It appears most of the highest-ranking leaders of the program (those who survived the war and evaded war crimes prosecution) enjoyed serene postwar careers, and took their secrets to the grave- with even spouses and children unaware of their dark histories.
It was only in the late 1980s and early 1990s that people associated with the program began to come forward, and most of these were low-level functionaries, who either didn't fully know at the time what they were doing, or whose participation was in one way or
another coerced. By and large, the testimonials in this book are not from officials who conceived, constructed and managed Unit 731, but from low-level functionaries, whose tangential participation was enough to burden their consciences. These are people who led prisoners from holding cells to laboratories, laboratory assistants, people who maintained the facilities, who transcribed notes, or prepared food. Arguably, many of them are not completely free of blame, but they were not the masterminds of the operation.
Among the masterminds, it appears most died comfortably in old age, with their secrets intact. The one exception in this book is the high-placed Dr. Hisato Yoshimura, who sat on Dr. Iiashi's staff, and who enjoyed an illustious post-war career as the Dean of a medical school. When confronted by journalists in 1984 with evidence of the
atrocities at Heibo, Yoshimura absolved himself with the reasoning:
"We were at war, and that's what my country ordered. If there was any wrongdoing, it was the fault of the country, not the individual."
-basically a paraphrasing of the Nurenberg Defense.
Once confessors started coming forward- nearly 50 years after the events in question- other evidence was more easily obtained. Bones of human subjects were found on the building site of the old Army research building- now located in the middle of Tokyo's busy "Shinjuku" entertainment district. A more careful review of postwar publications also reveals Unit 731 human experimentation (on cholera) passed off as civilian research on monkies. Unlike legitimate animal medical experimentation, these papers do not identify the species of the monkey, and they give physiologic data more appropriate to humans than to any known species of lower primates.
As happened with the mafia in the United States (after the famous "Apalachin Meeting"), once an initial irrefutable truth came to light, it had the effect of a "dam breaking" and an entire wave of evidence followed. Each former participant, or person with a piece of the puzzle, who came forward made it so much easier for the next person to come forward.
More than anything, I am struck by the timeline. It seems dozens of people, either out of guilt, shame, or fear of the consequences- kept their secrets about Unit 731 for decades. Here in 2014, only 12 years out from 9/11, I continue to be amazed that there are people who refuse to even consider the possibility that American insiders may have collaborated in the attacks of 9/11, and I continue to be amazed that they offer the reasoning that "Surely somebody would have come forward by now." The history of Unit 731 is instructive of many things- human capacity for evil, the power of authority to force good people to do horrible things, and importantly, the fact that sometimes a LOT of people can take some very dark secrets with them to the grave. I don't offer Unit 731 as proof that 9/11 was an inside job, but I do offer it as a powerful refutation of the logic that "surely somebody would have said something by now". Most of the testimonials in this book are from the early 1990s, although some of the earlier public testimonials began in the early 1980's- divulging events that had been covered up and hidden for forty years or more. At that rate, we should be on schedule to hear from the first 9/11 insiders around September 2051.