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“Unit 731” | The History of the Imperial Japanese Army’s Terrible Chemical and Biological Weapons Development Unit During World War II

  • The search for knowledge and power gave rise to the creation of a program that used humans as guinea pigs;
  • The brutal Japanese program reached 150 instalations and killed more than 300,000 people in China;
  • Controversially, the United States chose to “pardon” members of the Japanese unit in exchange for information;

Throughout history, there are moments that challenge our understanding of human society. One of these episodes is the macabre story of Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army.

This secret unit carried out inhumane experiments on human beings, leaving a legacy of horror that echoes to this day. Therefore, it is important to remember what Unit 731 was, its crimes against humanity and the ethical dilemmas faced when dealing with war crimes.

Source: Wikipedia

What was Unit 731 and what were its crimes against humanity?

In a dark part of history, cruelty exceeded all limits. A Japanese military unit, created in 1936 by direct order of Emperor Hirohito, also operating during the Second World War, carrying out terrible and inhumane experiments. This is Unit 731.

Unit 731 was a top-secret group of the Imperial Japanese Army that aimed to develop biological and chemical weapons for military use. But what makes this even more horrific is how they achieved their goals: through brutal experiments on human beings.

The Unit was located near the city of Harbin, Heilongjiang province, in northeastern China, a region then occupied by Japan during World War II. The victims were mainly Chinese civilians, but also included prisoners of war of different nationalities, including Chinese, Russians and other Asians.

At least 3,000 people were used for human experimentation by Unit 731 and more than 300,000 people in China were killed by Japan’s biological weapons.

The program was led by microbiologist Shiro Ishii and eventually was made up of several locations and had the capacity to hold 600 people at a time for experimentation, according to the book Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-1945, and the American Cover-up.

These victims were chosen for the brutal experiments conducted by the Unit due to the inhumane and scientifically distorted view of the Japanese military, who saw humans as guinea pigs for their studies on biological and chemical warfare. They sought to test the limits of the human body, study the effects of deadly diseases, and develop methods to spread these diseases effectively in the event of conflict.

They called their victims “logs”, which would be “marutas” in Japanese, which literally means “firewood”, as if they were referring to pieces of wood to be used for experimentation, completely disregarding their humanity.

In favor of this “research”, the Unit committed a series of unimaginable atrocities. Men, women and even babies were targets of these horrors. Prisoners of war were subjected to a wide range of brutal and inhumane experiments.

From being infected with deadly diseases such as the bubonic plague, to having their limbs gangrenous or frozen in ice water to test the effects of freezing. Women were targeted for systematic rape to study the effects of syphilis on fetuses. These innocent babies were then cruelly dissected alive in the name of the Unit’s distorted science, among other hideous experiments.

These crimes represent just the tip of the iceberg of the horror perpetrated by this Japanese military unit during World War II.

These events contributed to growing international pressure for measures to limit the use and proliferation of such weapons.

The creation of the OPCW – Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons – in 1997 was an important milestone in this regard. Based in The Hague, Netherlands, the organization is responsible for implementing the Chemical Weapons Convention, which prohibits the development, production, storage and use of chemical weapons and promotes the destruction of existing stocks.

Although there is no direct link between Unit 731 and the creation of the OPCW, the horrors committed by the Japanese unit contributed to global awareness of the dangers of chemical and biological weapons.

What was the role of the United States in the history of Unit 731?

The United States played a very controversial role in the history of Unit 731.

After the war ended, the US discovered the horrors committed by Unit 731 and other Japanese biological warfare facilities. But unlike what they did in Germany with the Nazis, where they publicly exposed their crimes, tried and condemned their leaders, Washington chose a different path in Japan.

Instead of punishing those responsible for war crimes, the US decided to hide the truth and even offer immunity to the Japanese perpetrators. Why? Well, there were a number of reasons.

First, there was concern that the Soviet Union might have an interest in the knowledge gained by the Japanese and might use it for their own purposes. In an era of the Cold War, the American government was willing to do anything to prevent the Soviets from appropriating this information.

Furthermore, there was a “war is war” mentality that influenced many of the decisions made at the time. American leaders were more concerned about national security than justice or morality, leading them to make a pragmatic decision.

They saw the knowledge gained by the Japanese as valuable to U.S. scientific and military advances, and were willing

They are all sweeping Japanese war crimes under the rug to ensure this.

Thus, preventing them from being judged later in institutions such as the International Court of Justice, in the case of the then Japanese Empire, just as Germany was judged at the Nuremberg Trials after the end of the Second World War.

The third reason is the fact that the Japanese population saw the emperor as a God, so his judgment would lead to an endless rebellion. A shocking fact is that Japan to this day has not formally apologized for the atrocities of World War II.

This has left many wondering whether the country is sacrificing justice in the name of scientific advancement and national security… and the answer is a very uncomfortable “yes,” yet another stain on its moral reputation. Instead of bringing justice to the victims of Japanese horrors, the United States chose to cover up the crimes in the name of its own interests.

How could Unit 731 have contributed to the chemical and biological weapons program in the United States?

In a secret agreement reached between September 1945 and November 1948, the US Army’s Fort Detrick spent 250,000 yen, the equivalent of several thousand US dollars at the time, to obtain medical data and documents about human experiments, bacterial tests, war of germs and toxic gas experiments conducted by Unit 731, as reported by Jin Chengmin, curator of the War Crimes Evidence Museum by Unit 731 of the Japanese Army.

This data became key for the country to advance its own research into chemical and biological weapons. According to the Chinese newspaper Global Times, the epicenter of this development was at Fort Detrick, a military complex in Maryland, where the CIA and Unit 731 worked together on covert operations.

Beginning in 1949, the CIA established a unit within Fort Detrick known as the Special Operations Division, focused exclusively on the development of biological weapons. They launched the MKNAOMI program, which gave rise to a variety of biological weapons, including the terrifying “feather bomb”, inspired by the practices of Unit 731.

According to the Chinese newspaper, Ishii – the person responsible for the Unit – was invited to a lecture after the war, revealing a direct link between these entities.

Therefore, this collaboration may have been crucial in boosting the United States’ chemical and biological weapons program. Although there are no explicit documents, the evidence points to a significant influence of Unit 731 on Fort Detrick operations.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, interestingly, a group of Chinese researchers showed interest in using data from Unit 731 experiments. They believe that access to this data could be fundamental to developing more effective pandemic control and management measures. , thus contributing to global public health.

However, this idea caused controversy due to the terrible origin of the data, which raised questions about ethics and respect for the victims of these experiments.

What are the dilemmas faced in the search for a balance between punishing and forgiving war crimes?

The dilemma between punishing or forgiving war crimes is like a tightrope stretched between justice and peace.

If we decide to punish those responsible, we run the risk of generating resentment and fueling conflicts instead of resolving them. This accumulated anger can only fuel a cycle of violence, prolonging the conflict and causing more suffering.

On the other hand, if we choose forgiveness, we can make room for peace, but at what cost? We allow those responsible to get away with it, leaving a bitter taste of injustice in the mouths of many and undermining society’s trust in law and justice.

The truth is that it is not an easy choice. An example of this is the Brazilian case after the military dictatorship. After years of repression and human rights violations, the country faced the difficult decision of how to deal with those responsible for these crimes.

The option for amnesty, in the name of “national pacification”, was controversial. While some believed it was the best way to move forward, others saw it as a way to sweep the crimes under the rug.

However, even with the amnesty, Brazilian civil society did not forget the horrors of the military regime. There has been an ongoing movement for truth and justice, with several initiatives to investigate and document crimes committed. This included the creation of the National Truth Commission in 2011, which investigated human rights violations during the dictatorship period.

Therefore, when looking at the history of Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army, we are confronted not only with the horrors of the past, but also with the ethical and moral dilemmas that exist to this day.

As we attempt to resolve the ethical and moral issues related to peace and justice, it is important that we remain vigilant in defending human rights and preventing similar atrocities in the future.

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