More than 60 years after the end of the Second World War, the name "Unit 731" still has the power to generate shock, revulsion and denial in Japan.
The Imperial Japanese Army's notorious medical research team carried out secret human experiments regarded as some of the worst war crimes in history.
Its scientists subjected more than 10,000 people per year to grotesque Josef Mengele-style torture in the name of science, including captured Russian soldiers and downed American aircrews.
The experiments included hanging people upside down until they choked, burying them alive, injecting air into their veins and placing them in high-pressure chambers.
Now new detail about their victims' suffering could be revealed after the authorities in Tokyo announced plans to open an investigation into human bones thought to have come from the unit.
A new search is also due to be carried out for mass graves that may contain more victims of human experiments.
The bones are thought to be from up to 100 people and were discovered in a mass grave in 1989 during construction work.
They bore the marks of saws and some of the skulls had drill holes and portions of the bone cut out. But the issue is so controversial in Japan that they have since been stored in a repository.
Acting on information from a former nurse, the authorities have announced they will re-examine the remains to determine whether they were used in some of the barbaric experiments carried out by Unit 731 in the dying days of the Second World War.
Toyo Ishii came forward to say that during the weeks after Japan's surrender in August 1945, she and her colleagues at the army hospital were ordered to bury corpses, bones and body parts – she said it was impossible to determine how many people they came from – before the Allies arrived.
In an interview, she claimed that the hospital had three mortuaries where bodies with numbered tags around their necks were stored in a pool of formalin to preserve them before they were dissected. Organs and other body parts were preserved in glass jars. The sites that Ishii pinpointed as the mass graves will now be excavated.
The remains were found on the site of an apartment complex in the Shinjuku district of the city which is scheduled for redevelopment. It means the search is likely to be the last effort to identify the victims and determine their fate.
An investigation after the remains were found in 1989 concluded they were mostly non-Japanese Asians and had probably been used in "medial education" or taken to the medical school from battlefields overseas for analysis. The health ministry has repeatedly denied requests from relatives of several Chinese whose relatives are believed to have died in Unit 731 experiments to have DNA tests carried out on the bones.
Unit 731 was mostly active in China, where it carried out biological, bacteriological and chemical weapons tests on civilians and prisoners of war, including Russian soldiers and Americans.
Others were subject to live vivisections, exposed to extreme cold or killed in tests in pressure chambers.
The extreme right wing in Japan refuses to accept that the unit was anything more than a sanitation team that operated behind the front-line troops while virtually nothing on its activities is mentioned in school history books. Many of the scientists involved in Unit 731 went on to have careers in politics, academia, business, and medicine.
"Most people do not believe it even happened; the rest just want to cover it up and forget about what Japan did during the war," said Tsuyoshi Amemiya, a retired military historian. "Young people don't know and they don't want to know. - telegraph
Unit 731 was a covert biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army that undertook lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945) and World War II. It was responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes carried out by Japanese personnel.
Unit 731 was the code name (tsūshōgō) of an Imperial Japanese Army unit officially known as the Kempeitai Political Department and Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory. It was initially set up under the Kempeitai military police of the Empire of Japan to develop weapons of mass destruction for potential use against Chinese, and possibly Soviet forces.
Japan used human guinea pigs as terminal experimentation material. But for the most part, we have heard second, third-hand reports and read the accounts of western researchers. Recently, by combining the surviving documents of Unit 731 and the Japanese government, accounts of surviving POWs and civilians, and the accounts of surviving members of Unit 731, we are beginning to recognize the despicable level of barbarism that was engaged in these horrific places... Pingfan and Mukden, Manchuria, and even in Japan itself.
Fifty years later, the Japanese continue to deny or minimize this part of their wartime record, refused demands for a clear apology. The cover-up was assisted by the United States in the postwar years. Rather than allow Unit 731 research on biological warfare to fall into Soviet hands, America shielded some of the war's worst criminals in exchange for their knowledge. Today, victims of the experiments are at last seeking compensation in the courts.
Unit 731's sprawling headquarters were at Pingfan - completed with airport, railway stations and dungeons - on the outskirts of Harbin. Retreating Japanese troops burned down most of Pingfan in an attempt to destroy evidence, but even today, a local factory still fires up in incinerator where victims of medical experiments - at least 3,000 men, women and children - were disposed of. A dank cellar eerily suggests the thousand of white rats once bred there as carrier of bubonic plague and whose release at the war's end killed thousands of local Chinese in an epidemic.
Prof. Keiichi Tsuneishi, a Japanese historian of science, pieced together much of the Unit 731 story from scientific papers published by doctors, many of whom later agreed to speak to him. "They have no sense of remorse at all," he says. Instead, the doctors complained of wasting the best years of their lives on medical research that could not be continued after the war.
These attitudes have contributed to a collective amnesia in Japan toward war atrocities. Still, the truth keeps seeping out. One example: Japanese right-wingers typically deny the Nanjing massacre of 1937-38, in which marauding troops slaughtered some 200,000 Chinese. A secret report from the defunct Japanese South Manchuria Railroad Co. recently came to light detailing some results of the massacre.
Professor Tsuneishi says that the death of Emperor Hirohito 1989 has made it easier for veterans to speak openly. Even so, reverence for the emperor's brother, Prince Mikasa, learned of the human experiments when visiting Pingfan in 1943, and it is almost inconceivable that the emperor, who signed the order founding Unit 731, was unaware of the true nature of the work.
Indeed, recent historical research suggests that the emperor had a considerable greater hand in directly managing the conduct of the war and delaying the peace than had been thought. When Mac Arthur spared Hirohito from prosecuting in the interests of stability, he inadvertently blocked Japanese efforts to know and face their own past.
Shiro Ishii was unlike most young officers destined for high rank. His backers included some of the biggest guns in the Japanese military establishment. He regularly went on night long drinking binges. A prolific womaniser, he was well known in Tokyo's leading geisha houses. His ability to finance his "recreational" activities on junior officer's pay remains mysterious. Later, however, he grew wealthy, insisting on kick-backs from contractors building his various "facilities." Remembered as the "Father of Japan's BW programme," his most notable observation was that BW must be significant otherwise it wouldn't have been "outlawed by the League of Nations."
Ishii Shiro was a brilliant and grandiose Army microbiologist. Possessing a flamboyant personality, he soon attracted the attention of influential and senior officers, and was assured rapid promotion. By 1927 he was closely aligned to ultra-nationalists in the War Ministry and pushing hard for developments in Biological Weapons. Following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria, Ishii wangled an assignment to the Manchurian colony. He chose Harbin, capital of the Heilongjiang province, to begin his covert work involving human experimentation. Even though a junior officer, Major Ishii was given a large, secret annual budget. His first command was assigned the cover name, the "Togo Unit" and boasted 300 men. This unit rapidly evolved and grew, undergoing a number of "cover" identities along the way.
When Ishii wanted a human brain to experiment upon, guards were assigned to acquire the organ. Grabbing a prisoner, the guards held him down, while another cleaved open his skull with an axe. The organ was clumsily removed and rushed to Ishii's laboratory. The remains of the "sacrificed" prisoner were then "disposed" of in the camp crematorium. Other prisoners could look forward to equally horrific experimentation. Live dissection was common-place.
By the close of WW11, Ishii - now ranked a Lt. General - bound his subordinates to an oath of secrecy. Thereafter members of Unit 731 made their way home, after first destroying the Pingfan facility and other sites, as best they could. Despite claims that all, or most of the - all important - records were destroyed in the clean-up exercise, it is thought that many were buried by Ishii, for later retrieval. Despite their precautions, Allied intelligence had sizeable dossiers on the leading Japanese microbiologists. The Americans, especially, believed they were way behind the Japanese in the field of Biological Warfare. US military strategists appreciated the tactical benefits of germ warfare. Biological agents could be introduced in to a war zone covertly. In fact, Ishii had done this on a number of occasions in China and elsewhere.
With the "cold war" beginning to hot up, senior US military officers were anxious to block the Soviets acquiring Ishii's expertise and records. A secret deal was discussed at the highest levels. Yet, a major obstacle had to be overcome. It was the darkest "secret of secrets." Returning Allied POW's recounted harrowing tales of biological experimentation ruthlessly conducted upon them. If these stories were reported by the press, the public would bray for blood. Despite this a deal was struck. By 1948, immunity was offered to all members of Ishii's Unit in exchange for data and co-operation. Prosecutors at the Tokyo War Crimes trials were warned off. Allied POW's were sworn to secrecy, and cynically forgotten. The biggest cover-up of the war had commenced. - copi.com - Unit 731
Unit 731 Testimony
A Plague Upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan's Biological Warfare Program
Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45 and the American Cover-Up
Horror in the East: Japan and the Atrocities of World War II
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