Doctors of depravity

As longtimers around here know, I have a great interest in all things World War II, including the Holocaust. I’ve written numerous times, either in the context of discussing the Holocaust or while discussing bioethics and the evolution of about the horrific medical experiments carried out by the Nazis. Much less frequently mentioned are the equally horrific excuses for “medical experiments” carried out by the Japanese on various prisoners that fell into their hands. Although not as systematic or widespread an atrocity as the Nazi medical experiments, they should not be forgotten, and, fortunately, several of the Japanese who participated in these “experiments” are speaking up to tell their stories before they die:

After more than 60 years of silence, World War II’s most enduring and horrible secret is being nudged into the light of day. One by one the participants, white-haired and mildmannered, line up to tell their dreadful stories before they die.

Akira Makino is a frail widower living near Osaka in Japan. His only unusual habit is to regularly visit an obscure little town in the southern Philippines, where he gives clothes to poor children and has set up war memorials.

Mr Makino was stationed there during the war. What he never told anybody, including his wife, was that during the four months before Japan’s defeat in March 1945, he dissected ten Filipino prisoners of war, including two teenage girls. He cut out their livers, kidneys and wombs while they were still alive. Only when he cut open their hearts did they finally perish.

These barbaric acts were, he said this week, “educational”, to improve his knowledge of anatomy. “We removed some of the organs and amputated legs and arms. Two of the victims were young women, 18 or 19 years old. I hesitate to say it but we opened up their wombs to show the younger soldiers. They knew very little about women – it was sex education.”

Why did he do it? “It was the order of the emperor, and the emperor was a god. I had no choice. If I had disobeyed I would have been killed.” But the vivisections were also a revenge on the “enemy” – Filipino tribespeople whom the Japanese suspected of spying for the Americans.

Makino’s prisoners were lucky in that they were anaesthetized. Not all victims of his unit, known as Unit 731 and dedicated to developing agents for biological warfare, were so lucky:

A jovial old Japanese farmer who in the war had been a medical assistant in a Japanese army unit in China described to a U.S. reporter recently what it was like to dissect a Chinese prisoner who was still alive.

Munching rice cakes, he reminisced: “The fellow knew it was over for him, and so he didn’t struggle when they led him into the room and tied him down. But when I picked up the scalpel, that’s when he began screaming. I cut him open from the chest to the stomach and he screamed terribly, and his face was all twisted in agony.

“He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped.

“This was all in a day’s work for the surgeons, but it really left an impression on me because it was my first time.” The man could not be sedated, added the farmer, because it might have distorted the experiment.

In some ways these experiments were worse than those of the Nazis. I could be wrong about this, but, to my knowledge, the Nazis never dissected subjects alive without anaesthesia, although they did subject many prisoners to experiments involving immersion in cold water and exposure to low pressures, as found at high altitudes. (The Japanese did experiments in which they exposed prisoners to the bitter cold of Manchuria until their limbs froze.) They also “euthanized” prisoners by injecting them with phenol right into the heart. One thing that the Nazis and Japanese shared in common: A dehumanization of the subjects of this “research.” Indeed, the Japanese didn’t even refer to them as human:

Human beings used for experiments were nicknamed “maruta” or “logs” because the cover story given to the local authorities was that Unit 731 was a lumber mill. Logs were inert matter, a form of plant life, and that was how the Japanese regarded the Chinese “bandits”, “criminals” and “suspicious persons” brought in from the surrounding countryside.

Shackled hand and foot, they were fed well and exercised regularly. “Unless you work with a healthy body you can’t get results,” recalled a member of the Unit.

But the torture inflicted upon them is unimaginable: they were exposed to phosgene gas to discover the effect on their lungs, or given electrical charges which slowly roasted them. Prisoners were decapitated in order for Japanese soldiers to test the sharpness of their swords.

Others had limbs amputated to study blood loss – limbs that were sometimes stitched back on the opposite sides of the body. Other victims had various parts of their brains, lungs or liver removed, or their stomach removed and their oesophagus reattached to their intestines.

That latter reference makes me wonder if the Japanese were using prisoners to train their surgeons. After all, when surgeons remove the stomach for cancer or other causes, the usual way they reestablish continuity of the GI tract is to attach the esophagus to the small bowel.

Unlike the case with the Germans, the Japanese who supervised and authored these atrocities mostly got off scot-free, going on to live prosperous lives after the war, mainly because General MacArthur wanted the data on biological warfare:

Why, then, after the war, were nearly all the scientists at Unit 731 freed? Why did Dr Josef Mengele, the Nazi ‘Angel of Death’ at Auschwitz, have to flee to South America and spend the rest of his life in hiding, while Dr Shiro Ishii died at home of throat cancer aged 67 after a prosperous and untroubled life?

The answer is that the Japanese were allowed to erase Unit 731 from the archives by the American government, which wanted Ishii’s biological warfare findings for itself.

In the autumn of 1945, General MacArthur granted immunity to members of the Unit in exchange for research data on biological warfare.

After Japan’s surrender, Ishii’s team fled back across China to the safety of their homeland. Ishii ordered the slaughter of the remaining 150 “logs” in the compound and told every member of the group to “take the secret to the grave”, threatening death to anybody who went public.

Vials of potassium cyanide were issued in case anyone was captured. The last of his troops blew up the compound.

From then on, a curtain of secrecy was lowered. Unit 731 was not part of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. One reference to “poisonous serums” being used on the Chinese was allowed to slip by for lack of evidence.

Lawyers for the International Prosecution Section gathered evidence which was sent directly to President Truman. No more was heard of it.

The Americans took the view that all this valuable research data could end up in the hands of the Soviets if they did not act fast. This was, after all, the kind of information that no other nation would have had the ruthlessness to collect.

Thus the Japanese were off the hook. Unlike Germany, which atoned for its war crimes, Japan has been able to deny the evidence of Unit 731. When, as now, it does admit its existence, it refuses Chinese demands for an apology and compensation on the grounds that there is no legal basis for them – since all compensation issues had been settled by a treaty with China in 1972.

Many of the staff at Unit 731 went on to prominent careers. The man who succeeded Ishii as commander of Unit 731, Dr Masaji Kitano, became head of Green Cross, once Japan’s largest pharmaceutical company.

I have to wonder if more than a little racism was involved here as well. After all, the prisoners being “experimented” on were not Europeans, as in the case of the Nazis, but Chinese, Mongolians, Filipinos, and Koreans, although a comparatively small number of hapless British and American P.O.W.s did fall into Ishii’s ‘s clutches. Whatever the reason, the failure of the U.S. government to hold the Japanese to account for these crimes is one of its more shameful actions associated with the war.


  1. #1 Blake Stacey
    March 8, 2007

    I suppose there was no way that this “research data” could have been read into the record during a war-crimes trial. Then the Soviets would’ve gotten hold of it, after all.

  2. #2 Sastra
    March 8, 2007

    Stories like this always make me wonder about those folk who claim Western Civilization is far more imperialistic, brutal, and corrupt than peaceful, harmonious Eastern cultures. How do they account for this sort of thing? Seems to me human nature is pretty much the same throughout the world, and time.

    I suppose the 20th century “improvement” here is that the soldiers thought they were doing it for scientific research, and had to keep it secret. In past ages, they would have been doing it for entertainment, and in public.

  3. #3 Decline and Fall
    March 8, 2007

    I suppose the 20th century “improvement” here is that the soldiers thought they were doing it for scientific research

    It’s hardly an improvement, but I assume you meant that ironically. This should be yet another cautionary note to those who believe themselves to be superior by virtue of their reason and the nobility of their science. Atrorocities are committed not just by the West, fundamentalists, communists, or any other group you want to mention–we’re all capable of inhumanity. Milgram made that clear.

  4. #4 Colugo
    March 8, 2007

    Unit 731 is one of the worst atrocities in human history, yet it is one of the least well known. I once had a conversation with a high school social studies teacher (who happened to be a Red Diaper baby well informed about American and Stalinist crimes); he had never heard of Unit 731.

    Another important excerpt from the article:

    “Vast quantities of anthrax and bubonic plague bacteria were stored at Unit 731. Ishii manufactured plague bombs which could spread fatal diseases far and wide. Thousands of white rats were bred as plague carriers, and fleas introduced to feed on them.
    Plague fleas were then encased in bombs, with which Japanese troops launched biological attacks on reservoirs, wells and agricultural areas.
    Infected clothing and food supplies were also dropped. Villages and whole towns were afflicted with cholera, anthrax and the plague, which between them killed over the years an estimated 400,000 Chinese.”

    Another article on Unit 731:

    Photographs of Unit 731 and other atrocities (Warning: extremely graphic and disturbing)

    To this day many in Japan still deny Unit 731 atrocities, just like they deny ‘comfort women’ sex slavery and the Rape of Nanking.

    Japanese corporations and atrocity denial (note Mitsubishi and Unit 731)

    Note: In fact, many Nazi surgical experiments were performed without anesthesia:

    Surviving twin:
    “Once, I witnessed a stomach operation — Mengele was removing pieces from the stomach, but without any anesthetic.”

    There are many other examples.

  5. #5 Mark
    March 8, 2007

    Some of my fellow students at grad school in the early ’80s were from China, both mainland and Taiwan. The ones who were willing to express an opinion said they hated the Japanese still for the way the Japanese had treated Chinese during WW II.

  6. #6 Tomas
    March 8, 2007

    My wife is chinese (that 3 generations away) and she hates japanese. The chinese are brought up with it and the goverment uses it to divert attention from its own creative historical writings.

    But there is definantly something to be angry about. Unlike germany, japan doesnt, as a nation, seem to have accepted that the imperialist wars in asia and the atrocities commited there was a bad thing or something that reflected some fault in the japanese state or ideology. For instance the Yasukuni temple ( still pays homage to Class A warcriminals like Tojo (who got hanged for his crimes). If Japan, like Germany, had had its reckoning with the past when the people who lived it was alive it would have defused alot of tention in Asia. But Japan should today come to grips with the past, because it makes it too easy for other asian peoples to hate them if they dont.

  7. #7 Tomas
    March 8, 2007

    Oh and concerning that shrine, Its like if the germans had a church dedicated to the fallen of the war, with special shrines for himmler, göring and the lot, where the german chanchlor would come and lay flowers once a year.

    As a part of its activity it would have flyers passed out explaining that the deaths of WWII was unfortunated, but germany had to free the germanic peoples and gain lebensraum and explain that the holocaust was unfortunatedly needed to curb the Jewish threat, but it wasnt really that many who died and only from stavation.

    I bet we (anyone who had grandparent or parents affected by WWII) would be pretty pissed at germany even today.

  8. #8 Keanus
    March 8, 2007

    Orac, your comments are timely. While driving today I heard that women in Korea, China and elsewhere are challenging the Japanese to apologize to them for having made “comfort women” of them during WWII. The Abe, the current Japanese prime minister, apparently wants to apologize but right wing firebrands in his governing party don’t think Japan should. So Abe’s caught between a rock and a hard place.

    Having noted that, I’ve long heard, including from a number of Japanese from whom I bought merchandise for the North American market, that Japanese culture has long harbored racist attitudes toward all non-Japanese. Although it was shattered at the end of WWII and in the decades since, Japan has culturally long harbored the belief in the racial, physical, and intellectual superiority of the Japanese. And, from various bits of news that leaks out, those views endure to this day among much of the population. Given the long history of Japan with its continental neighbors, they push back with just as much fervor. Until Japan comes to terms with its past, admits and apologizes for the horrors that have been perpetrated in its name, it will be treated with contempt by its neighbors, regardless of its economic prowess.

    And let’s not forget the current brouhaha over the Japanese kidnapped by North Korea during the 80’s and forced to live there. I smell a hint of retribution in that, which makes the Japanese demands for an apology a bit hypocritical when Japan has so far refused to apologize for the “comfort women” and other atrocities.

  9. #9 Heathen Dan
    March 8, 2007

    Yeah, I’ve heard terrible stories from the older generation about the Japanese atrocities. I don’t know if I had kin who were tortured like that, but I know at least a couple of grand-uncles who died in the Death March.

    And BTW, it’s Filipino, not Philipino. 😀

  10. #10 Colugo
    March 8, 2007

    While Unit 731 and Auschwitz – among history’s most worst atrocities – should not be trivialized by inappropriate comparisons, neither should ongoing perversions of biomedicine be ignored.

    China’s death vans and trade in the organs of the executed

    Reports of poison experiments in North Korea

  11. #11 Orac
    March 8, 2007

    And BTW, it’s Filipino, not Philipino. 😀


  12. #12 Baratos
    March 8, 2007

    …….Wow. Unit 731 makes a GUlag camp look like a health spa. What amazes me the most about this is not what they did, but that they were able to live with it.

  13. #13 llewelly
    March 8, 2007

    Dr. Egnor has nothing on these guys. Not that you ever implied he did.

  14. #14 James
    March 9, 2007

    That’s what happens when you have a God-Emperor commanding you to do evil things for your country. One more reason to separate church and state.

    And no I don’t mean that as an excuse.

  15. #15 Justin Moretti
    March 9, 2007

    James, I’m not sure how much stake Hirohito personally had in all this, although there is no doubt that the orders were carried out IN his name, even if not actually OVER his signature.

    The Yasukuni Shrine is a double-edged thing in my mind. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the military exploits of your own side, as carried out against the military forces of other nations. The line blurs when the same people you want to idolize for their fighting prowess and courage (which the Japanese had plenty of) also did or ordered terrible things like Unit 731.

    Likewise, nobody doubts the bravery, resilience and professionalism of the German soldier; the pity of it is that, in addition to his home and family, he was defending Nazism. (Yes, the Wehrmacht did terrible things within the USSR, but I think you know what I’m getting at.)

  16. #16 Tomas
    March 9, 2007

    But the Yasukuni shrine is not just about remembering the dead. It is used to create a alternate history of the war to make Japan a victim and a hero rather than what it in fact was, a aggressive, racist, imperialist and somewhat genocidal state that started a war of conquest and caused the deaths of milions.

    Go check out the website of the shrine. Its enlightening.

  17. #17 Christian
    March 9, 2007

    My wife is from Nanjing. If like the Germans, the Japanese would have acknowledged the atrocities, rather than glossing over the history, the Chinese would have a much kinder view of the Japanese than they do today. Additionally, they still hold us responsible for not prosecuting the Japanese war criminals as vigorously as we did the Germans. I am not sure that the trade off for the research was worth it…

  18. #18 manfred
    March 9, 2007


    Americans also remember their dead soldiers and erect monuments in their honour. For instance they honour their soldiers who died in Vietnam – despite the My Lai massacre and what became known in the Winter soldier investigations. They honour those who die in Iraq – despite Abu Ghraib.
    Why should a different standard be applied to the Japanese?

    There is no reason for any nation to claim moral high ground, as each one has skeletons in her closet. It is hugely hypocritical for Red China (with its record of genocide and terror) to critisize the Japanese. And why do Americans in discussions so rarely mention the war crimes and atrocities their nation committed? It is widely known e.g. that US soldiers in the Pacific War rarely took prisoners. And what about their bombing campaigns that took the lives of hundred thousands of civilians in Germany and Japan?

  19. #19 blf
    March 9, 2007

    I recall reading an article in The Guardian a few years ago which claimed the interesting point that the older people (in Japan) now want to the Unit 731 story to be told (conscience clearing before they die), the young people want to know what happened, but the problem is the middle-aged. They are (now) the ones who deny, sweep under the carpet, don’t understand the outrage, and so on–and are also the current generation in power, hence the continuing silence…

    Unfortunately, I cannot now find that article on the website. (I don’t know if it ever was on the website; I read the physical copy most days.) Whilst searching for it, I did find this lengthy article from The Observer (the sister Sunday paper): The day the earth died (caution: some readers may find it stomach churning!). That article is from 2003 and, amongst other points, also claims disections were performed on (apparently) alive people:

    The victims were routinely sliced apart to observe how the pathogens travelled through the living body. They were dissected and prepared for observation, classification and, frequently, recontamination in readiness for re-injection into another prisoner to start the cycle again.

  20. #20 Colugo
    March 9, 2007

    Manfred: “Why should a different standard be applied to the Japanese? …

    This assertion of moral equivalence trivializes the special nature of crimes like the Holocaust, Unit 731, the Soviet Gulag, the Belgian Congo, and other mega-atrocities of despotic regimes. To claim that all nations are equally guilty is to imply that no regime is more guilty than any other, and that some kinds of crimes are no worse than others. Allied bombing of Berlin, Dresden, and Tokyo are not morally equivalent to the systematic mass murder perpetrated by Japan and Germany.

    Firestorm by Marshall De Bruhl×394

    Downfall by Robert B. Frank

    More appropriate comparisons of American historic events to the crimes of Axis Germany and Japan would be the destruction of Native American societies and Antebellum slavery. However, even those atrocities do not lead to the conclusion that 20th century America was as heinous as, and therefore morally equivalent to, Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. For one thing, it made a huge difference which side won World War II. If the Axis had won, there would have been more Holocausts and Unit 731s perpetrated by those powers. Because the Allies won, there were not.

    “And why do Americans in discussions so rarely mention the war crimes and atrocities their nation committed?”

    That in no way resembles the discourse about America that I observe in both the media and in my own circles.

  21. #21 Dianne
    March 9, 2007

    What amazes me the most about this is not what they did, but that they were able to live with it.

    Unfortunately, I’m not sure that what they did was all that far out of the human norm. Remember the Milgram experiments? Tuskegee? The dropping of the atomic bombs on people? (The first could be justified as part of the war, the second was clearly, obviously, and IIRC, even acknowledged to be, a test of the weapon more than an act of war.) Dresden? Guantanamo?

    None of which is to imply that I think that the US is as bad as Nazi Germany or Imperial Japan–yeck! It certainly is not! But that’s not exactly a high bar. It’s just that on some level all people have the capacity to commit atrocities and all societies have the capacity to demand them. That’s why we need institutional review boards, transparancy in government, and a free press. To keep ourselves under control.

  22. #22 Dianne
    March 9, 2007

    Japan has culturally long harbored the belief in the racial, physical, and intellectual superiority of the Japanese.

    Know any cultures that don’t believe in their own superiority? Again, this is a commonality with most of humanity, not a unique “perversion” of Japanese culture.

  23. #23 tim gueguen
    March 9, 2007

    I sometimes wonder if part of the difference between the treatment of Japanese and German war crimes was also ironically due to racism towards the Japanese themselves. After all the Germans were Christian and European, and their crimes violated the supposed laws and morals of that culture and religion, while the Japanese were non-white and non-Christian, and thus couldn’t be expected to behave in a moral or civilised manor. In others words the Germans behaved like barbarians and had to be punished for it, while the Japanese were barbarians and just did the things barbarians are expected to do, and so didn’t need the same kind of punishment.

  24. #24 pough
    March 12, 2007

    It’s not just shocking hearing about the things that have been done. It’s also shocking to think, “there, but for the grace of [whomever] go I.” (In both senses – perpetrator and victim.) It’s frightening and humbling to realize that we humans can do such horrifying things. And I must acknowledge that if I was raised from birth to believe my ruler was my god, that my people were the only true humans and that I would be killed for disobeying I might have done the very same thing.

    I really hope Abe is able to apologize. Even if the Chinese government uses this as a way to manipulate their own people, an apology seems like a Very Good Idea (with Pooh-like capitals). On a flight to Japan a few years ago I enjoyed talking to a Japanese person who told me that the politicians are pretty much the worst of the lot, in terms of arrogance and racism. And from what I gather, the middle-aged group can be pretty bad – or at least very myopic. But I think that younger generations will view that in much the same way our western younger generations are starting to view things like homophobia.

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