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.

After reading a report about biological warfare in 1925, Ishii became an active lobbyist for this line of attack. His success was not immediate, but by 1930 the increasingly unscrupulous High Command was sufficiently interested in the young man for him to be appointed professor of immunology at the Tokyo Army Medical School. He also gained the support of an eminent military scientist, Koizumi Chikahiko, who fancied himself as a humanist as well as a patriot. His slogan, Sheldon Harris tells us, was ‘Great doctors tend their country, good doctors tend people, and lesser doctors heal illnesses.’ Healing was of little interest to Dr Ishii. Inflicting diseases on Japan’s enemies was his life’s work. According to his mentor’s dictum, Ishii was a great doctor.

The problem with being in Tokyo, even at such a congenial institution as the Army Medical School, was that biological warfare remained a somewhat abstract science. Ishii wanted to test the results of his work on people, rather than mice. There was no better place to do this than the new Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo – and later, in the wake of Japanese military campaigns, mainland China itself. Ishii set up his biological warfare Unit 731 in Ping Fan, near Harbin, with sub-divisions in other Manchurian and Chinese cities, including Nanking. There he experimented with anthrax bombs, toxic chemicals and other pathogens. Plague epidemics were spread among the local population through fleas, rats or infected food; cholera was injected in human guinea pigs, known as ‘logs’; tons of fatal bacteria were manufactured. POWs of many nationalities, as well as thousands of Chinese prisoners, including women and children, were subjected to vivisection, freezing experiments and lethal injections. Some people had horse urine injected into their kidneys. Children were given chocolates filled with anthrax. ‘Logs’ were suspended upside down, so the doctors could establish how long it took for a person to choke to death.

Dr Ishii and his colleagues began their research in earnest in 1932. By the time they had to flee from the Soviet Army in 1945, tens of thousands of people had probably died as a consequence of their actions. The exact figure will never be known, because epidemics mo messy affairs. It is hard to tell, for example, whether the 30,000 people who died from plague in 1947 in north-eastern China are to be counted among Ishii’s victims. We do know that he deliberately infected many parts of that area. We also know that Ishii was far from alone in his endeavours. We know this from one of his closest collaborators, Dr Naito Ryoichi, who is quoted by Harris. Naito, like most of his wartime colleagues, prospered after the war. He founded the Green Cross Company, the largest producer of ethical drugs in Japan. ‘Most microbiologists in Japan were connected in some way or another with Ishii’s work,’ Naito recalled in 1947. ‘He mobilised most of the universities of Japan to help in research for his unit. In addition to the Tokyo Army Medical College, there were the Kyoto Imperial University, Tokyo Imperial University, Infectious Disease Research Laboratory, Tokyo etc’

Extraordinary though it may seem, the activities of Unit 731 (and related outfits) were virtually unknown to most Japanese at least until 1976, when a Japanese television documentary was made on the subject. And the cat was only truly let out of the bag in 1982, with the publication of The Devil’s Gluttony, a fictionalised account written by Morimura Seiichi, a thriller writer. Nonetheless, the story of Unit 731 is yet to appear in Japanese school textbooks. When challenged about this, the Ministry of Education, one of the most reactionary arms of the Japanese bureaucracy, has claimed ‘lack of evidence’. In the Sixties, the left-wing historian Ienaga Saburo mentioned Unit 731 in a school textbook: the ministry ordered the reference to be deleted. Lack of evidence was also the excuse given by the American occupation authorities in the late Forties for refusing to prosecute Dr Ishii and others for war crimes.

Sheldon Harris’s account of how the story was kept secret for so long, not just by the Japanese, but by the Americans who granted the doctors immunity from prosecution in exchange for their data, is fascinating. His touch is less sure when dealing with the activities of Unit 731. Dante’s name crops up, as it tends to do in journalistic accounts of human wickedness ‘In Dante’s Divine Comedy, the poet divided hell into nine circles. In Ping Fan, Ishii divided his hell into eight subdivisions.’

A sure way to get attention in Japanese studies is to involve the Emperor directly in this infernal business. The most sensational book on this score was Japan’s Imperial Conspiracy (1971) by David Bergamini, who saw the Emperor as the mastermind of Japanese militarism. The book was so riddled with factual errors that it was easy to discredit. Even so, Bergamini was a much used source for Edward Behr’s popular book Hirohito: Behind the Myth (1989); and both Behr and Bergamini are extensively quoted here.

Exactly what role the Emperor played during the war is indeed of great historical interest. But Harris’s insinuations are not particularly useful. His chapter on the subject, entitled ‘Who Knew?’, is littered with ‘probablys’: Prince Konoye Fumimaro, prime minister from 1937 to 1941, ‘was probably aware of the BW [Biological Warfare] program’; ‘It is probable that [Marquis] Kido [Lord Keeper of the Privy Seal] knew of the BW experiments’; ‘Some of the royal party probably surveyed the BW laboratories at Mukden, Changchun and Ping Fan Harbin.’ Well, probably. But then, in Harris’s concluding words: ‘the disturbing question remains, did the Emperor know of human experiments?’ Harris’s answer: ‘probably not.’ And this after all that huffing and puffing. It might have been better it Harris had left the question of the Emperor’s knowledge alone, and concentrated on his real story: the post-war cover-up.

This is where the matter of gullibility comes in. Ishii and his colleagues got away with their crimes, during the war and after, because they were the experts, the keepers of arcane knowledge which bamboozled enough people to keep the experts in clover. Expertise, exploited and promoted with skill and vigour by Ishii, guaranteed a steady flow of Japanese funds, and convinced the Americans after the war that the doctors had something worth paying for. The ethics of how the experts arrived at their knowledge was never of much importance to anyone.

Harris raises the issue of medical ethics early on in his book. He points out that Japanese medical schools in Ishii’s day did not offer courses in ethics. Graduates were not administered the Hippocratic oath. This brings up the question of Japan’s non-Christian ‘shame culture’. The Japanese, so it is some times thought, don’t understand the notion of guilt, since guilt is a matter between ourselves and God, whereas shame depends on social sanctions; shame is a matter of ‘face’. In other words, as long as the doctors were praised for their work, the ethics of what they were doing was never an issue.

Yet they knew they could not conduct their experiments in Japan. They also tried to keep secret the human experiments. Clearly, then, such research was not common Japanese practice. There was, however, a racial element involved. The doctors were influenced by racialist ideas, which were current at the time, and not only in the Orient. The Japanese, like many Europeans, had a tribal view of the world. Men were divided by race. Some races were superior to others. It is entirely in keeping with the racialist views of Japanese then – and, alas, quite often still now – that the doctors experimented with American POWs to find out about the immunity of ‘Anglo-Saxons’ to infectious diseases. It was equally accepted that what might not be ethical when practised on Japanese, or even Anglo-Saxons, was perfectly all right if the guinea pigs were Chinese.

But if we assume that the Japanese, because of their culture, have no understanding of guilt, how then do we explain the behaviour of the Americans? They felt no pangs of guilt when they hushed up the Japanese experiments in exchange for data. As Harris observes about the American scientists and intelligence officials, ‘in all the considerable documentation that has survived over the more than four decades from the events described, not one individual is chronicled as having said BW human experiments were an abomination, and that their perpetrators should be prosecuted.’ The distinction between ‘guilt’ and ‘shame’ cultures is not very apparent.

Nor was biological warfare something only the Japanese were prepared to engage in. The US had its own stockpiles of deadly viruses and toxic chemicals. Harris quotes a US military position paper on the possible use of toxic chemicals in the Pacific War. According to this paper, ‘readiness for gas warfare was reported on periodically by the US Chemical Warfare Committee.’ Curiously, Hitler is said to have opposed biological warfare, even going so far as to prohibit research; we can only assume this had something to do with his experiences in the trenches in World War One.

Still, it is certainly true that Ishii and his colleagues were given more opportunity to do as they liked in Manchuria than they would have had in American research labs. Japanese racialism removed some of the scruples. The greed for secret knowledge removed the rest. Perhaps all scientists are vulnerable to this. And the rest of us, who are gullible enough to believe that the doctor always knows best, are inclined to give the experts a free hand. But, as was the case with Mengele’s crackpot experiments with twins at Auschwitz, there is no evidence that the Japanese doctors came up with anything that merited all the money they received or the indulgence with which they were treated by the US.

The promised alchemy of Ishii’s labs was not the only thing to make the Americans feverish. The Japanese doctors – like the German scientists at Nasa, some of whom were hardly more admirable than Ishii – were also saved by the Cold War. Not only were the Americans keen to know what the Japanese had found out: they were equally anxious that it should be kept from the Soviets. And the Japanese were highly adept at using this to their advantage. In 1947, a year after a brief mention of Japanese human experiments was dismissed during the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, an American scientist named Norbert Fell was sent to Japan to interview several of the Japanese scientists.

The Japanese told Fell that they had been forced into biological warfare research, after they had captured Soviet spies carrying BW agents. Their subsequent activities were a defensive measure against the Communists, in the course of which they naturally stumbled on the offensive potential of BW. It would be most unfortunate, they said, if their knowledge should fall into the wrong hands. Therefore, they needed American protection. Ishii himself told Fell he wanted to be hired by the US as a BW expert: ‘in the preparation for the war with Russia. I can give you the advantage of my twenty years’ research and experience.’ Ishii is said to have visited the US, to lecture on his field of expertise, and some claim to have seen him in Korea during the Korean War. All we know for sure, however, is that a US government committee concluded in that same year: ‘The value to the US of the Japanese BW data is of such importance to national security as to far outweigh the value accruing from war crimes prosecution.’

So the doctors got away with it. To be fair to the Americans, one should put these events in context: the Soviets were as keen as the Americans to talk to the Japanese and get hold of their data. In 1947, the Soviets petitioned the Americans to hand over Ishii, so he could be tried for war crimes against the USSR. The Americans refused. When the Soviets finally received permission to interview him, the US authorities coached him in what to say.

Some of the Japanese participants in biological warfare activities in Manchuria had not been able to escape the Red Army in 1945, and 12 men were put on trial in Khabarovsk in 1949. The Americans were nervous, since the Soviets used the trial to highlight the American cover-up as much as the Japanese war crimes. As was to be expected of a Soviet trial, the defendants – accused, among other things, of causing the deaths of Soviet citizens – all pleaded guilty to every charge. (An account of the trial, published by the Foreign Languages Press, was for a long time the only documentary evidence of the activities of Unit 731.) None of the guilty Japanese was sentenced to death, however. All were released in 1956. A surprising turn of events. But, as Harris says, ‘the speculation that the 12 divulged to the Soviets all the BW information they possessed in exchange for lenient prison terms cannot be discounted.’