Unit 731: The Terrors of Biological Warfare

4-6 weeks. 

It’s a duration of time that you and I probably take for granted. What can really happen in that time? Nothing, right? Maybe that’s a big project at work or maybe how long you’d spend learning integrals in calculus. 

In a different perspective, that is precisely the duration of time that Chinese, Korean, Mongolian, and Russian people in regions around Northeast China had after they were picked up by the Imperial Japanese Army for no apparent reason in the mid 1930s to mid 1940s. 

If only they knew what they were actually being picked up for was to be shipped off to a place called “Harbin,” a district in Manchuria of Japan at the time. The compound they were headed to had the rather innocent name, “Army Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory.” 

The place they were actually headed to had no epidemic prevention lab.

This was nothing good willed at all. Far from it. Right when they got onto that windowless van, their identities had changed from whoever they were to a number, a few digits, a specimen.  And as soon as they got off, well, they would never see their loved ones ever again. And thus ensued some of the most gruesome human experiments ever to have occurred in the name of war, or worse yet, science. But the human body, well, it can only endure so much. Nobody who was shipped off to this place lived for more than 4-6 weeks after being taken. 4-6 weeks.

This is the story of Unit 731. 

The unit was built as a hub for chemical warfare research, inspired by the Nazis and their use of chemical weapons. Surgeon General of the imperial Japanese army, Shiro Ishii, had taken a few trips abroad which had sowed the idea into his demented head before finally bringing it to attention with a secret group of high-ranking Japanese officials.

Initially scattered across different parts of Japan, the unit finally came together under one roof that would finally get the name of the epidemic prevention center. People were seemingly picked at random from Chinese streets. There were men of all ages, women, and even babies. While the overwhelming majority of the victims of Unit 731 were Chinese, they also comprised Koreans, Mongolians, Russians, and some westerners as well. Basically anyone they could get their hands on. After the initial shock that most of the prisoners had suffered from being brought into such a place, surprisingly, they were actually fed quite well for the first few days. 

Don’t mistake this as a gesture of kindness. 

In the minds of Shiro Ishii, this wasn’t anything remotely close to that. It was simply to ensure that his precious ‘test-subjects’ were in an ideal state of health before the experiments began. The element of deception was interwoven in every facet of Unit 731, and it began with their first meal of the very first day. In fact, Unit 731 couldn’t care less about its victims beyond their usefulness for their research. Most notably, they weren’t even referred to as ‘humans’ or even ‘subjects.’ Within the unit staff, they were simply “Maruta” or “logs.” 

The dehumanization began at the gate. 

When the ‘grace period,’ or so to speak, was finally over, the experimentation could begin. This includes everything from infecting people with the bubonic plague, syphilis, to amputating limbs from one side of the body and re-attaching them on the other simply to see what would happen. Other tests included testing the methods to treat shrapnel wounds by first tying people to a post and then detonating an explosive in close proximity. 

In the movie “Unit 731: Nights in Manchuria,” it was said:

“To determine the best course of treatment for varying degrees of shrapnel wounds sustained on the field by Japanese Soldiers, Chinese prisoners were exposed to direct bomb blasts. They were strapped, unprotected, to wooden planks that were staked into the ground at increasing distances around a bomb that was then detonated. It was surgery for most, autopsies for the rest.”

It is to be noted that none of these surgeries or experimentations were done under anesthesia. In typical demented Shiro Ishii fashion, the reasoning for this was that they weren’t sure if anesthesia would have a confounding effect on the wounds or how they healed. After the initial bouts of screams, most of the victims just laid there, waiting to bleed to death. 

There are other numerous accounts of “vivisections' - or experimentation on live humans. It was so routine that they would go through numerous bodies just ‘for practice.’ Then there was the fascination with infectious diseases and their wartime applications. People would be infected left right and center with venereal diseases, and would then be forced to transmit those diseases amongst the other prisoners around. Babies were also said to have been born during the Unit 731 experiments, but I think you and I both know that many of them never got to see the light of day.

Another relatively more known experiment of Unit 731 were the tests conducted to treat frostbite. Given the possibility of a war with the Soviets, the Japanese army wanted to know how their soldiers would fare in the subzero temperatures in the event of frostbite and how best to treat them. To do so, however, they would first artificially induce frostbite in people by taking them outside in the freezing cold and splashing water onto their tied hands until they froze. 

Guards would then strike the arms literally to see what sound they made. If they sounded like wood, they knew they had frostbite. The victims would then be brought in for a plethora of ‘treatments’ to try on them. Sometimes their limbs would be submerged into liquids at well over boiling temperatures. A similar slew of experiments followed for extreme heat. They conducted experiments where participants would be forced to stay inside rooms with temperatures nearing boiling point all to see how long a human could survive and how quickly the water in their bodies would evaporate. Then there were experiments to see how humans would fare against different chemical agents, in case it wasn’t already clear from the Nazis. 

The lab was just the major military establishment to house all of this. That is not to say the unit did not have a presence elsewhere. In fact, Unit 731 is said to have had branches as far as Singapore and Beijing. Besides, viruses and bacteria developed within the facilities of Unit 731 were then tested in parts of China as well. Troops from the unit were said to offer candies laced with anthrax to kids in China all while guising it as an act of kindness. 

They would also offer injections of infectious diseases in the name of preventative vaccinations. At the same time, they managed to create flies to spread the bubonic plague. Low flying planes carrying buckets of these flies would drop them into parts of China, and just days later, people would start perishing before the eyes of their loved ones for no apparent reason. They would also infect agriculture, and water systems of these cities to examine how much of the population it would affect. Just these acts alone are said to have taken 400,000 Chinese lives. The biological warfare unit was so prolific that the logs would report bacteria quantities in kilograms, not grams, which is how it's used in pretty much every other bio lab in the world. 

That should give you a sense of the scale at which they were operating. Reports suggest the biological ammunition that Unit 731 possessed in its heyday was enough to destroy our current world's population many times over. 

A single death is a tragedy. A million is a statistic. It’s a quote that has been used a lot in the last 18 months due to the pandemic. In Unit 731’s case, one could make a similar argument. To Shiro Ishii, even a million lives wouldn’t have truly registered. What mattered was how much data he had, and how much more he needed. This operation of the Imperial army was so massive that they simply lost all sense of value for human life that wasn’t their own. 

In their own twisted way, the staff of Unit 731 justified their activities to their conscience by saying that they would have killed people in the battlefield anyways, so they might as well do it in the name of science. 

But, even that wasn’t entirely true. 

It was noted that a lot of the experiments the people in the unit were doing had no seeming scientific benefit. For example, they were injecting victims with blood from monkeys just to see how they would react. A professor at Osaka University who studied the units activities including watching footage, had the following to say:

"Some of the experiments had nothing to do with advancing the capability of germ warfare, or of medicine. There is such a thing as professional curiosity: ‘What would happen if we did such and such?’ What medical purpose was served by performing and studying beheadings? None at all. That was just playing around. Professional people, too, like to play."

They were simply doing them to soothe the demented impulse in them that one may call curiosity. These were psychopaths with power unlike anything they had ever experienced. 

Every rule has an exception. You know how people always say curiosity should know no bounds? Well, this is that exception.

Of course, these are just some of the experiments. The truth is, some of the details are just so gruesome that I decided not to even mention them. Even the ones I mentioned are probably enough for this video to get restricted, and that’s okay, because this is a discussion worth having. These and other experiments have taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. Lower-bound estimates of the death-toll from Unit 731 and its activities are somewhere around half a million. 

Now, I am not one to compare atrocities. But it does seem a bit odd to me that people know about the Guantanamo Bays of the world but not about Unit 731. 

Of course, that was until I found out that it’s no accident that that’s the case. 

Once Japan's surrender was imminent, the United States wanted full access to research documents of Unit 731. They even threatened the Japanese with involving the Soviets in their trial, which would complicate things for Shiro Ishii and his staff given many of Unit 731s victims were Russians. They were fearful of a trial under the war crimes law under the Soviets, and decided to strike a deal for complete immunity from all charges in exchange for the documents with the United States. 

The United States on the other hand wanted to ensure that these documents did not find their own to either their adversaries or even their allies, and in a singular bid to get the documents, they accepted the deal. Because of this, most members of Unit 731 were allowed to walk out and live their lives to their natural deaths scot-free, and some were even paid hefty sums along with their immunity for the documents. 

These people were literally paid for doing all of these terrible things to their fellow human beings, and this is probably the first time you’re hearing of it.

The United States maintains official silence over the unit to this day, and dismissed some of the early claims about the unit as communist propaganda. 

Many of the unit staff opened clinics later in life and went on to have very successful careers. Justice was certainly not served. Now, whether what the United States did was right or wrong - I’ll let you decide. But what they essentially said to the rest of the world is this: The United States of America is ready to overlook even the most horrific violations of human rights if it is advantageous to do so. It is only relatively recently that the Japanese government even acknowledged the existence of this unit. Because of the deal with the United States government, most of the documents about the unit never really made it to the public, and all but a handful of its staff remain alive. How they managed to get so many people to hate the other so much that it didn’t bother them to gas mothers and their infants, let alone do the plethora of other heinous things I just mentioned, is astonishing. 

Every member of the unit who was asked why they had done what they did had precisely the type of reply that you would expect.

“I was ordered.” 

- MA, MM