Dr Ishii gets away with it

Ian Buruma

  • Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45, and the American Cover-Up by Sheldon Harris
    Routledge, 297 pp, £25.00, December 1993, ISBN 0 415 09105 5

The story of Lieutenant-General Ishii Shiro and his Unit 731 should stand as a warning – not so much against human wickedness, about which little can be done, but against gullibility. Unlike his German colleague Dr Mengele, who was a bit of a hack, Dr Ishii was a respected scholar in his field – which was military medicine, or more specifically, biological warfare. Despite his reputation for being an arrogant operator and a noisy brothel man, Ishii managed to impress some of the leading figures of the Japanese medical profession in the Twenties. He made his name by devising a water filtration system to prevent epidemics. It is said that he demonstrated the effectiveness of his invention to Emperor Hirohito by urinating into his filter and inviting the Emperor to drink the result. Ishii’s filter was perhaps the doctor’s only benign contribution to mankind.

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