from left: a photograph of  Lee Gi-Su, a Korean victim of Unit 731 (from Chosunilbo), a photograph released from Jilin Provincial Archives, which, according to Xinhua Press, "shows personnels of 'Manchukuo' attend a 'plague prevention' action which indeed is a bacteriological test directed by Japan's 'Unit 731' in November of 1940 at Nong'an County, northeast China's Jilin Province" (wikimedia commons), a photograph of Shiro Ishii (masao takezawa / wikimedia commons)


essay | 5.8.17

Sanctioned Sacrifice

On the legacy of Shiro Ishii and Japan's infamous Unit 731.

by Mindy Watson


A contract for research, a paycheck in the mail

A secret death defended by ones who should have ended it

Angels of death in your white coats so serene

Devising ways of dying, so obscene, so obscene

While Washington was blathered about knickers and G-strings

Bad men were busy hiding evil things, evil things

The Breeding House” – Bruce Dickinson


Lee Gi-Su – A Photograph

Her time-torn 1940s photographic face is blanched, faint sepia. Proudly she wears a Korean peasant’s blouse, second button undone, shoulders thrown back, womanly breasts thrust forward. Her ample cheeks crouch compliantly below that fierce gaze, insolent brows. Her eyes bore into the Imperial Army photographer’s camera – they say, I am young. They say, you can kill me, but you’ll never know me. The hastily scrawled Japanese script now affixed to her picture reads, “Special Transfer Order Number 58.” Even if she could decipher these words, she could never fully comprehend what they mean – what they will mean.


In 1920, an academically gifted and inherently charismatic Japanese student named Shiro Ishii secured his medical degree from the Kyoto Imperial University Medical Department. Fourth-born son to an affluent Japanese farming family, he was eager to apply medical skill in service to his country, and subsequently enlisted in the Japanese Imperial Army. Ambitious, opportunistic, and strategically obsequious, he rocketed up the ranks, obtaining his first notable designation of Army Surgeon – First Lieutenant – in 1921.

In 1925, the League of Nations enacted and signed the Geneva Protocol, formally prohibiting worldwide chemical and biological weapons’ use in war. Regardless, several superpower signatories – France, Germany, Japan, the Soviet Union, the United Kingdom, and (later in 1942) the United States – nevertheless continued subsidizing secret biological warfare research.

By 1925, Shiro Ishii held a PhD in microbiology, a Surgeon Captain rank in the Imperial Army, and a god-like ambition rivaling that of his increasingly aspirational Japan. In light of the world’s recent biological weapons embargo, Ishii concluded that any nation that mastered and waged biological warfare would reign supreme. Already perceived as one of Japan’s most formidable, albeit unconventional, medical scholars, Ishii leveraged the Rising Sun’s growing nationalistic fervor to tirelessly lobby the Tokyo War Ministry for biological weapons research funds. In 1930, Ishii’s efforts attracted Surgeon General Koizumi Chikahiko’s interest. Through ensuing mentorship under the surgeon general, Ishii met and pitched his bioweapons research development case to Emperor Hirohito confidante General Nagata Tezsuzan and War Minister Araki Sadao. Emboldened by his high-level audience, Ishii asked for not only domestic bioweapons research funds, but also an out-of-country site to conduct the “aggressive” (human-based) type of research not authorized in Japan.

Following what’s been historically dubbed “The Manchurian Incident,” Ishii’s request was soon granted.

In 1931, fringe Japanese military elements staged an explosion near a Japanese-owned railroad in China’s northeastern Manchuria region. Publicly implicating Chinese aggressors, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Manchuria in response to this counterfeit “attack.” In 1932, Japanese forces swiftly subdued and occupied Manchuria, erecting within it the Japanese puppet state, “Manchukuo.” After the League of Nations exposed Japan’s invasion as an unwarranted, imperialistic act, Japan withdrew from the League and endured global ostracism until eight years later, when it entered World War II as an Axis power.

Between 1932 and 1933, Shiro Ishii capitalized on the Manchurian occupation. With his government’s sanction, he established a covert “Togo Unit” in China’s Beiyinhe village to pilot experimentation activities in northeastern China. In 1933, Ishii’s Togo Unit officially began using humans as biological warfare test subjects. Acknowledging the morally reprehensible nature of the work he and his subordinates would soon conduct in the names of country, war, and science, Ishii delivered to his staff the following address:

Our God-given mission as doctors is to challenge all varieties of disease-causing microorganisms; to block all roads of intrusion into the human body; to annihilate all foreign matter resident in our bodies; and to devise the most expeditious treatment possible. [Our mission here, however,] is the completely opposite of these principles, and may cause us some anguish as doctors. Nevertheless, I beseech you to pursue this research, based on the dual thrill of 1) a scientist to exert efforts for probing for the truth in natural science and research into, and discovery of, the unknown world, and 2) as a military person, to successfully build a military against the enemy.

 Ishii and his Togo Unit heads systematically and secretly obtained and subjected victims from the local populace to grisly experiments. According to Sheldon Harris, author of Factories of Death, subjects faced forced exposure to “virtually every known pathogen, chemical pesticide, and plant or animal poison” while Ishii and his team observed, documented, and extrapolated military applications from the results. 

On April 23, 1936, The Japanese War Ministry officially sanctioned the Togo Unit’s conversion to what would become Japan’s nexus biological weapons experimentation and production facility, Unit 731. Capitalizing on his government’s favor and Unit 731’s legal authority, Ishii deemed Beiyinhe’s limited population pool and rural location insufficient to perform large-scale bioweapons research and testing. By 1938, he secured sprawling new premises to the northeast in Harbin and acquired his first Unit 731 team, comprising eight Kyoto University assistant professors, two bacteriologists, three pathologists, two physiologists, and one animal experimentation specialist.

"Building on the site of the Harbin bioweapon facility of Unit 731," 松岡明芳 / wikimedia commons

Harris notes that, during the total thirteen years of Japanese biological warfare research in Manchuria and China, Ishii and associates “tested” more than ten thousand human subjects. The occupying Japanese Army assured Manchurian residents the massive Unit 731 facility was a harmless lumber mill, prompting network employees to pejoratively refer to their human victims – predominantly Chinese, Korean, Soviet, and Mongolian citizens/soldiers or anti-Japanese activists – as “logs” (maruta). In the 1998 documentary Unit 731: Nightmare in Manchuria, former Unit 731 Chinese slave laborer Fang Zeng-Yu recounts:

The train with eight boxcars stopped. Soldiers opened the doors and removed what looked like straw mats wrapped in steel wires. I didn’t know what was happening. And then I noticed arms sticking out and heads moving and blood coming out. And then the Japanese soldiers yelled “logs,” so I knew those were people.

Angels of Death

Unit 731 physicians and scientists actively or indirectly (through animal vectors) infected human subjects – men, women, children, and infants – with plague, typhus, smallpox, yellow fever, tularemia, hepatitis, gas gangrene, tetanus, cholera, dysentery, glanders, anthrax, scarlet fever, undulant fever, tick encephalitis, epidemic hemorrhagic fever, whooping cough, pneumonia, typhoid fever, epidemic cerebrospinal meningitis, venereal diseases, tuberculosis, salmonella, and associated local diseases. “We were testing the effectiveness of germs to determine how many people would be killed without giving a vaccine,” former Unit 731 medical researcher Yoshino Shinozuka explains in archival interview footage. “In other prisoners, we injected vaccines and waited a while for antibodies to react.”

According to Harris, Ishii and associates directly “observe[d] the human body’s defenses battling the invasive pathogens” by dissecting subjects alive. Yoshino recalls, “I was ordered to wash that person’s body with a deck brush before he or she was taken into the dissection room, naked by a member of the special team. The first time, I trembled.” Non-anesthetized victims – Ishii believed anesthesia skewed precious test results – endured excruciating, prolonged vivisections. “One team member was listening to the heartbeat with a stethoscope. One was standing holding a knife,” Yoshino remembers. “The moment the stethoscope was removed from the ear, a knife went into the body”.

Though Ishii preferred vivisection – live, infected prisoners produced visceral, real-time results – he and associates did not waste the bodies of those who met death mid-experiment. Says Yoshino, “Those who didn’t get the vaccine got sick and died first. So we dissected them.”

Along with observing pathogenesis in human bodies for later bioweapons cultivation and perfection, Ishii and Unit leaders sought ways to better understand frostbite, a major cause of battlefield mortality. Harris explains, “The winters here were very severe, forty to fifty degrees below zero Fahrenheit…[Unit researchers wanted to] see …the most effective way of dealing with frostbite, so that could be used in warfare as well, both to protect Japanese troops as well as to affect the enemy.” Beginning in 1938, Unit researchers conducted extensive, ultimately fatal frostbite experiments. “They would expose prisoners on various parts of their bodies to these temperatures, freeze them,” Harris explains, “and then try various techniques to literally dehydrate them.” Ishii associate Hisato Yoshimura published and internationally translated his frostbite research results: most acclaimed was his work on a three-day old infant.

Beginning in 1939, Ishii and Unit scientists began studying and modeling biological agent dispersal patterns to refine Japan’s own bioweapons delivery systems. To directly observe anthrax infectivity rates by target proximity, Ishii and associates exploded anthrax-filled bombs near prisoners tied to stakes at varying distances away. One report noted that an average of “six of ten subjects developed definite bacteremia.” Researchers also exposed victims to open-air bubonic plague bacilli spread from low-flying airplanes, according to historian E.C. Congress – “thirty to one hundred percent of subjects used in various trials became infected and the mortality was at least sixty percent” – and sealed prisoners in bubonic “plague-flea”-infested rooms: “If subjects moved freely about a room containing a concentration of twenty fleas per square meter, six of ten subjects became infected and four of these died.”

Around the same time, Unit scientists also began weaponizing epidemic hemorrhagic fever. In 1944, scientist Shiro Kasahara and Unit 731 commander Masaji Kitano jointly authored an article depicting hemorrhagic fever agent isolation and infectivity in monkeys. Only years later did the article’s cited “102.9”-degree fever temperature betray its authors’ secret – the intentionally infected test subjects were not monkeys. 102.9 degrees Fahrenheit is a fever for a human – but a completely normal temperature for a monkey.

How did Shiro Ishii acquire a seemingly limitless number of test subjects without arousing public censure or suspicion? To both neatly eradicate dissidence as well as provide fodder for Ishii’s ravenous bioweapons mill, the Japanese government formally sanctioned a “special transfer procedure” by which military police in Manchuria could officially dispatch anti-Japanese insurgents to Unit 731 or one of its sister facilities. Once issued a “Special Order Transfer No. 58,” a “highly anti-Japanese” or otherwise “useless” person could expect a one-way ticket to death and dismemberment –in that order, if they were fortunate.

Imperial Army Surgeon Major Kiyoshi Kawashima later admitted during a Soviet Kharaivsk trial that the Army deported four hundred to six hundred prisoners to the Unit annually between 1939 and Japan’s defeat – adding up to “at least three thousand,” not including those remitted to the predecessor Togo Unit.

Congress notes that Ishii’s human subjects customarily lived no longer than two weeks. The rare lingering survivor either found him/herself the subject of a guaranteed lethal experiment – bomb blast testing, forced embolism, pressure chamber paroxysm, protracted hanging – or, when medically obsolete, staring down a firearm’s barrel. The Japanese Army disposed of Unit victims’ bodies in a mass crematorium, “much like,” as noted in the documentary Unit 731: Nightmare in Manchuria, “the one that was working overtime three thousand miles away in Nazi-occupied Europe.”

By 1939, Ishii’s biological weapons network had expanded significantly beyond its core facility in Harbin. New human experimentation sites in Guangzhou (Unit 8604) and Nanjing (Unit 1644) opened. Soon thereafter, Unit 731 – now comprising 10,045 workers – relocated to larger premises in Pingfan to begin its flagship goal of conducting mass biological weapons field trials on the unsuspecting Chinese populace.



“One team member was listening to the heartbeat with a stethoscope. One was standing holding a knife,” Yoshino remembers. “The moment the stethoscope was removed from the ear, a knife went into the body.”



On October 27, 1940, the Kwantung Army released bubonic plague fleas into the Ningbo populace, resulting in 106 Chinese deaths. In November 1940, Network agents released additional plague fleas into the central Chinese city, Jinhua. In fall 1941, the Army dropped pathogens on the interior Chinese city of Changde. In 1942, Network agents dropped cholera bacteria onto a battlefield, resulting in ten thousand subsequent casualties – ironically, all Japanese soldiers.

Frustrated with his limited success deploying biological weapons in the field, Ishii developed a pathogen delivery system capable of producing target-specific, highly virulent results. While Ishii’s neophyte attempts at bioweapon delivery primarily involved dropping disease vectors (usually infected fleas) and distributing plague-laden food to starving locals, he ultimately perfected the ceramic “Ishii bomb” in 1944 – with hopes of striking the United States.

Viewing the United States as its chief threat and rival, the Japanese Imperial Army reserved special cruelties for American prisoners of war (POWs) during World War II. While accounts of Japanese military barbarism toward captured POWs abound, historical texts largely omit one documented account of POW victimhood at the hands of Unit 731 affiliates. In a shocking display of opportunism, Network-funded Kyushu Imperial University School of Medicine students practiced surgeries on eight live United States POWs between May and June of 1945. Professor Fukujiro Ishiyama and students performed and documented their procedures, which included stomach, gallbladder, and liver removals; blood substitute injections; induced cardiac arrests; open-heart surgeries; and brain surgeries.

In the summer of 1945, Shiro Ishii, his quest to biologically attack the United States unfulfilled, acknowledged World War II Axis powers’ – and Japan’s – imminent defeat. Fearing war crime charges or worse, Ishii ordered Unit employees to destroy all evidence, including Unit prisoners themselves. In the 2010 documentary, Doctors of Death, writer D. Pohlmann recounts how military employees summarily gassed all Unit captives, “machine-gunning” any subsequent survivors. Unit workers “barbecued” most corpses and dumped the remaining bodies into the nearby Sungari River.

Ishii didn’t yet know it, but the advancing American foes to whom he’d planned to deliver a massive plague-ridden payload would be his and his associates’ salvation.

A Contract for Research

Unbeknownst to Japan (or the American public), the United States had been nurturing its own biological and chemical research program –  cold war paranoia’s inevitable progeny – since 1942. Its strategic and operational headquarters were in Fort Detrick, Maryland.

When credible United States military sources alleged in 1945 that Japan had groundbreaking, firsthand biological weapons research data – invaluable data on human subjects that America could not obtain “in [its] own laboratories because of scruples attached to human experimentation,” Fort Detrick scientists Edwin V. Hill and Joseph Victor rushed to Japan to interview returning Unit 731 scientists. For three years, Hill and Victor probed Ishii and associates for biological warfare data, ultimately succeeding, as Dr. Hill’s dispatch to Fort Detrick in 1947 demonstrated: “Evidence gathered in this investigation has greatly supplemented and amplified previous aspects of the field. These data were secured with…a mere pittance by comparison with the actual cost of the studies.” The covert pact was sealed. War criminal Shiro Ishii and his Unit 731 associates had successfully bought immunity in exchange for full human experimentation data disclosure to the United States. And the rest was history – carelessly discarded, whitewashed history.



"One can’t easily cry or shout over something that happened more than fifty years ago. That’s simply how we human beings are."



As recognized Unit 731 authority T. Keiichi confirms, most Ishii Network physicians and medical researchers ultimately returned to Japan, enjoying prominent careers as prestigious university professors and “eminent figures in the postwar medical and scientific establishment.” Furthermore, Keiichi notes that while Western powers tried more than five thousand Japanese combatants as war criminals, no Japanese biological warfare practitioner ever suffered a criminal charge. Allied powers clamored for German war criminal prosecutions, decried Nazi atrocities, erected memorials for holocaust victims – but knew virtually nothing of these Japanese Imperial crimes, shed no tears for anonymous Eastern victims. Japanese textbooks excluded Shiro Ishii and his Network’s activities, and the Japanese government neither formerly acknowledged nor apologized for sanctioning these brutalities. 

Today, medical history experts question to what extent “politically motivated intelligence tampering,” as Keiichi terms it, marred the authenticity and accuracy of the Japanese medical experimentation documents currently housed in the US Library of Congress. Just how forthright were the conquered Japanese scientists? Who gained by substantiating these data’s “high value” – data bought with blood and torment and withheld justice? The irony is that America’s far superior scientific prowess and technology within years rendered the Japanese human experimentation data obsolete.

On the Sins of Their Fathers

During the Cold War, the US biological warfare program intermittently stepped into its Japanese progenitor’s footsteps, conducting simulant and actual agent field-testing on its own citizenry between 1941 and 1969. To track microbial dispersal patterns, the US government released Bacillus globigii (BG), a spore-forming microorganism, into New York City subway tubes in 1966. And in its most infamous human experimentation trials, the US Army Chemical Corps conducted classified medical studies at Edgewood Arsenal in Maryland on roughly seven thousand soldiers between 1955 to 1975 to determine, according to the US Department of Defense’s Edgewood Arsenal Chemical Agent Exposure Studies report, the “long term health effects of short-term exposure to chemical agents,” including “nerve agents, nerve agent treatments (antidotes, psychochemical (hallucinogenic drugs), irritants, and blistering agents.”

Did the United States ever deploy in battle Ishii’s or its own aggressive human experimentation products? While the US government substantiates none of these claims, numerous sources, including Japanese journalist Fuyuko Nishisato, allege the US government directly enlisted Shiro Ishii’s assistance during the Korean War between 1950 and 1953 to conduct biological warfare on North Korean troops. According to Nishisato, some sources contend “that Shiro Ishii continued his work [in the Korean War]…in order to lead biological warfare, he flew to Korea on a U.S. airplane.” In particular, some sources note, “there was allegedly biological warfare” in Korea and “the design of the [US] bombs as well as the insects used” directly mirror those found in Unit 731 remnants.

In 1972, world superpowers again convened to globally outlaw biological warfare. While more than one hundred countries signed and agreed to Biological Weapons Convention terms, many secretly continued supporting and funding biological weapons research. The US government itself admitted to conducting limited bioweapons-related human experimentation prior to signing the Biological Weapons Convention agreement, but promises current biological warfare research efforts are “purely defensive.”

While historians slightly dissent on the number of total Unit 731 (and affiliate) casualties, they generally agree that approximately three thousand victims perished at Pingfan, Japan’s primary biological warfare experimentation site. Chinese researchers have strived to honor each of the approximately three hundred identified victims; their names, birthplaces, ages, occupations, addresses, educational backgrounds, and photographs now adorn Harbin’s Unit 731 Exhibition Hall of Criminal Evidence for Japanese Army Aggression Against China museum. The Chinese media distributed just one victim’s photograph – that of Lee Gi-Su, a Korean woman aged twenty-eight at the time of her arrest and deportation to Unit 731.

In 2001, independent Japanese filmmaker Minoru Matsui released a documentary entitled “Japanese Devils,” which features the confessions of fourteen Japanese war veterans, among them military physicians who served under Shiro Ishii’s Unit 731. While Matsui applauded these veterans for exhibiting genuine remorse and bravely publicizing the truth – a feat the Japanese government has yet to accomplish – he cautioned viewers to expect no emotional outpourings from his interviewees: “One can’t easily cry or shout over something that happened more than fifty years ago. That’s simply how we human beings are.”

 Shiro Ishii – A Photograph

Poised against the grainy, gray backdrop, he presents unblemished skin, angular features, a slightly askew lieutenant general’s cap, straight-laced military stripes. His eyes smolder, banter with the beholder, the camera, the world. A derisive upturned mouth irreverently cockeyes the coal black moustache it supports. He projects arrogance, ambition, a goal, a dream. The Japanese Surgeon General, the War Minister, the Emperor’s confidante – he’s seduced them all with their kind of pillow talk – manifest destiny, the Rising Sun draping all others in dusk. His eyes offer a contract, a memorandum of agreement. I will do great things, they promise. I will do terrible things.


Mindy Watson is a Washington, DC/Northern Virginia-based writer who holds an MA in Nonfiction Writing from The Johns Hopkins University. Her essays have appeared in Adelaide MagazineArs MedicaCorvus Review, and Thread Literary Magazine; her poems have appeared in Autumn Sky PoetryClementine UnboundEkphrastic ReviewLiterary HatchetMidnight Lane BoutiquePalettes & QuillsQuarterday Review, and Snakeskin Poetry.


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