The Crimes of Unit 731
Published: March 18, 1995
Parades and ceremonies commemorating World War II often make it easy to forget the extraordinary brutality of the conflict. Some of the war's worst atrocities were committed by the Japanese Army. It slaughtered Chinese civilians for sport, raped and enslaved young women to improve soldiers' morale and conducted grisly biological warfare experiments. A powerful report in yesterday's Times recounted the wartime exploits of the Imperial Army's Unit 731 based in China, Japan's principal practitioner of human experiments.
Plague-infected fleas were airdropped over Chinese cities, causing epidemics. Cholera and typhoid cultures were poured into wells. Prisoners were dissected alive without anesthetics. Others were subjected to pressure changes that made their bodies literally explode. At least 200,000 Chinese are estimated to have died in these experiments. There were also plans, which were never carried out, to send germs via balloons into the Western United States.
Japan's wartime barbarity is a searing memory in most of Asia. But in Japan itself there have been censorship, denial and attempts to minimize the facts or offset them with Japanese sufferings, especially the atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Equating the Japanese Army's gratuitous sadism with Washington's choice of military tactics to shorten the war is morally obtuse. But before Americans get self-righteous about Japan's handling of an ugly history, they should ponder Washington's own role in downplaying Unit 731 and other Japanese war crimes.
The United States wanted the Japanese findings about the effects of biological agents on soldiers and civilians available for its own potential military use. It not only exempted the leaders of Unit 731 from trial, but put them on the American payroll.
More broadly, an American occupation regime eager to enlist Japan as a cold-war ally quickly shifted gears from demilitarizing Japan to rehabilitating its wartime leadership. As with newly revealed decisions to expose unknowing American civilians to fallout from the Nevada nuclear tests of the 1950's, considerations of morality and accountability were easily overridden whenever the magic words "national security" were invoked.
A useful way to commemorate this year's 50th anniversary of the end of World War II would be to face up to aspects of the war's history that various governments have contrived to gloss over. Japan has more to face up to than most.