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     Jan 29, 2005
The horrors of Unit 731 revisited

A Plague Upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan's Biological Warfare Program by Daniel Barenblatt

Reviewed by Victor Fic

What do people - even well-informed ones - think when they hear the term "Unit 731"? Some may assert that it is the name of an apartment block. Or they might respond that it is a swank disco in Manhattan, the successor to the famed Studio 54. "Which stars dance there these days?" they might grinningly query.

The grins will surely turn to grimaces when such people learn that "Unit 731" is convenient shorthand for one of history's most diabolical and repulsive policies, namely imperial Japan's secretive, concerted attempt to develop biowar weapons using human guinea pigs in experiments.

American journalist Daniel Barenblatt, a Harvard graduate, says he decided to write at length on this harrowing topic because, as he stated in an exclusive interview to Asia Times Online recently in Beijing (with e-mail follow ups), he thinks that something is fundamentally wrong with the world. This is especially true with the decisions of destructive politicians. Unit 731 is a blood-soaked example of what he detests.

For Barenblatt, who describes himself as "extremely sensitive", conducting this path-breaking research was like striding forward with a thorn in his foot. As he fathomed ugly truths, he was in "non-stop pain" emotionally.

His self-torturing efforts may have paid off, for Barenblatt's book appears to break new information presented in dynamic prose that neither trivializes nor hypes the topic. The work could become a leader in its field.

For instance, in 1994, American historian Sheldon Harris wrote the then touchstone work on the subject, Factories of Death, with an update in 2001. While Barenblatt lionizes Harris, he has added "genocide" in his subtitle to underscore the fact that Japan's perfidy killed a stunning 580,000 people, a higher number than Harris cited. He derives the figure from the collective opinions of experts and scholars attending a December 2002 conference in Changde, Hunan province, China.

Barenblatt's portrait of Japanese doctor Shiro Ishii, the evil mastermind behind the biowar program, is outstanding, in contrast to Harris's more academic prose. Here, Ishii is described in colorful and gripping passages as brilliant, charming, intimidating, embezzling, stone-hearted - and prone to satisfying his huge sex drive with girls no older than 16. Barenblatt adroitly summarizes that Ishii was "a brash and flamboyantly corrupt man who considered himself a visionary" beyond scruples, driven to break new scientific ground and to help Japan defeat its foes.

What did this awful man do? At "medical" facilities such as Unit 731 in Pingfan, Manchuria, starting in 1936 - building upon earlier efforts - Ishii and his cohorts carried out experiments that included injecting viruses or pathogens for cholera, anthrax, bubonic plague and many other diseases into living prisoners; the bacteria or germs would incubate in their bodies.

Then the victim would be strapped down to an operating table. Some screamed in a non-human way when they realized their fate: Unit 731 "doctors" would cut them open to observe the progress of the germs incubating within them or to harvest organs that had enough germs to weaponize or spread on nearby villagers.

During one anthrax operation, the doctors noted the progress of the pathogen organ by organ. The victim's suffering was unspeakable, with "his organs swelling, bleeding and disintegrating". In a poignant summary of the horror, Barenblatt says that the doctors in the biowar program turned life - biology - against life.

Other experiments were not related to germ warfare per se, but transpired so that the doctors could learn more about how humans live and die. These included studies of dehydration, starvation, frostbite, air pressure - some inmates had their eyes blown out - transfusions of animal blood to humans and others. Even children and babies were destroyed this way. Other ghoulish experiments included cutting off a prisoner's hands and sewing them back on to the opposite arms to gauge what happened.

According to Barenblatt, the Japanese also carried out experiments on other Japanese in the home islands akin to Nazi efforts on the mentally handicapped. The victims were Japanese prisoners of the Soviets; when released, they returned to Japan. It was the gravest shame to have the inferior Russians - further stigmatized as communists - capture a Japanese. The ordeal ended in the death of the Japanese subjects.

One of the most stirring passages comes when Barenblatt refines a tale that Harris first related of a Chinese hero known only as Li. He organized an escape from Unit 731's precursor human-experiment compound at Beiyinhe. Apparently, Li knocked a guard over the head though his cell bars and snatched his keys. Then he unfastened his leg irons and released other prisoners too.

Next Li led the prisoners to the compound wall, forming a human chain to try to get the group of 30 men up and over. Guards killed Li before he could escape, but a dozen men did get out, making Li a true champion. "I was able to pin it down as 1934," says Barenblatt of the escape's date.

Barenblatt courts controversy when he implicitly condemns the US for agreeing not to prosecute Unit 731 miscreants after the war in return for their research. The United States' usual alibi is that the Americans feared that the data would fall into Soviet hands. According to Barenblatt, the Russians had long obtained information on the experiments, making the US "denial" strategy moot.

However, American Cold Warriors might counter-argue that, because of ethical constraints, it would be entirely impossible for them to replicate a single immoral experiment to gather even an iota of data. As long as the Americans feared that the Kremlin could obtain more biowarfare information from the doctors - just when its nuclear inferiority made such data ever more valuable - the West had to act maximally to protect itself. Perhaps it is safest to assert that the bargain will remain a controversy.

Barenblatt also reveals that the US had a biowar program of its own at Camp Detrick, Maryland, where it conducted research for offensive and defensive reasons. "I have a great deal of new, declassified material from Camp Detrick and the US military," he boasts. It remains to be seen whether experts in the area buttress or scotch his ideas on the scope and aims of the US efforts.

Barenblatt will surely raise hackles for backing an old charge that China, the USSR and North Korea first leveled against the US during the Korean War, namely that it was employing biowar weapons based on data procured from the Japanese. He even argues that it is "disturbingly plausible" that Washington brought Ishii, living near Tokyo after the war, to Korea to assist its efforts.

Strangely, while Barenblatt cites a 1952 report that castigates the US, he does not mention the recent work of Canadian scholars Steven Endicott and Edward Hagerman. Their book, The United States and Biological Warfare, drew upon newly opened Chinese archives to declare the United States guilty. The hurdle for all the various accusers, however, is this: crack historians Kathryn Weathersby and Milton Leitenberg have examined different documents and concluded that the idea of US biowar attacks during the Korean War was a Chinese propaganda hoax.

Those who strenuously argue that it was a profound miscarriage of justice that Ishii the medical Moloch escaped justice might take heart, for Mother Nature meted out punishment of sorts. In 1959, Ishii the pseudo-doctor - he had murdered thousands of people through the deliberate use of various disease - died of throat cancer.

A Plague Upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan's Biological Warfare Program by Daniel Barenblatt. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2004. ISBN: 0060933879; preface plus 260 pages. Price US$14.95.

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Unit 731: The case against evil
(Aug 28, '02)


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