Doctors of depravity

As longtimers around here know, I have a great interest in all things World War II, including the Holocaust. I’ve written numerous times, either in the context of discussing the Holocaust or while discussing bioethics and the evolution of about the horrific medical experiments carried out by the Nazis. Much less frequently mentioned are the equally horrific excuses for “medical experiments” carried out by the Japanese on various prisoners that fell into their hands. Although not as systematic or widespread an atrocity as the Nazi medical experiments, they should not be forgotten, and, fortunately, several of the Japanese who participated in these “experiments” are speaking up to tell their stories before they die:

After more than 60 years of silence, World War II’s most enduring and horrible secret is being nudged into the light of day. One by one the participants, white-haired and mildmannered, line up to tell their dreadful stories before they die.

Akira Makino is a frail widower living near Osaka in Japan. His only unusual habit is to regularly visit an obscure little town in the southern Philippines, where he gives clothes to poor children and has set up war memorials.

Mr Makino was stationed there during the war. What he never told anybody, including his wife, was that during the four months before Japan’s defeat in March 1945, he dissected ten Filipino prisoners of war, including two teenage girls. He cut out their livers, kidneys and wombs while they were still alive. Only when he cut open their hearts did they finally perish.

These barbaric acts were, he said this week, “educational”, to improve his knowledge of anatomy. “We removed some of the organs and amputated legs and arms. Two of the victims were young women, 18 or 19 years old. I hesitate to say it but we opened up their wombs to show the younger soldiers. They knew very little about women – it was sex education.”

Why did he do it? “It was the order of the emperor, and the emperor was a god. I had no choice. If I had disobeyed I would have been killed.” But the vivisections were also a revenge on the “enemy” – Filipino tribespeople whom the Japanese suspected of spying for the Americans.


Makino’s prisoners were lucky in that they were anaesthetized. Not all victims of his unit, known as Unit 731 and dedicated to developing agents for biological warfare, were so lucky:

A jovial old Japanese farmer who in the war had been a medical assistant in a Japanese army unit in China described to a U.S. reporter recently what it was like to dissect a Chinese prisoner who was still alive.

Munching rice cakes, he reminisced: “The fellow knew it was over for him, and so he didn’t struggle when they led him into the room and tied him down. But when I picked up the scalpel, that’s when he began screaming. I cut him open from the chest to the stomach and he screamed terribly, and his face was all twisted in agony.

“He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped.

“This was all in a day’s work for the surgeons, but it really left an impression on me because it was my first time.” The man could not be sedated, added the farmer, because it might have distorted the experiment.

In some ways these experiments were worse than those of the Nazis. I could be wrong about this, but, to my knowledge, the Nazis never dissected subjects alive without anaesthesia, although they did subject many prisoners to experiments involving immersion in cold water and exposure to low pressures, as found at high altitudes. (The Japanese did experiments in which they exposed prisoners to the bitter cold of Manchuria until their limbs froze.) They also “euthanized” prisoners by injecting them with phenol right into the heart. One thing that the Nazis and Japanese shared in common: A dehumanization of the subjects of this “research.” Indeed, the Japanese didn’t even refer to them as human:

Human beings used for experiments were nicknamed “maruta” or “logs” because the cover story given to the local authorities was that Unit 731 was a lumber mill. Logs were inert matter, a form of plant life, and that was how the Japanese regarded the Chinese “bandits”, “criminals” and “suspicious persons” brought in from the surrounding countryside.

Shackled hand and foot, they were fed well and exercised regularly. “Unless you work with a healthy body you can’t get results,” recalled a member of the Unit.

But the torture inflicted upon them is unimaginable: they were exposed to phosgene gas to discover the effect on their lungs, or given electrical charges which slowly roasted them. Prisoners were decapitated in order for Japanese soldiers to test the sharpness of their swords.

Others had limbs amputated to study blood loss – limbs that were sometimes stitched back on the opposite sides of the body. Other victims had various parts of their brains, lungs or liver removed, or their stomach removed and their oesophagus reattached to their intestines.

That latter reference makes me wonder if the Japanese were using prisoners to train their surgeons. After all, when surgeons remove the stomach for cancer or other causes, the usual way they reestablish continuity of the GI tract is to attach the esophagus to the small bowel.

Unlike the case with the Germans, the Japanese who supervised and authored these atrocities mostly got off scot-free, going on to live prosperous lives after the war, mainly because General MacArthur wanted the data on biological warfare:

Why, then, after the war, were nearly all the scientists at Unit 731 freed? Why did Dr Josef Mengele, the Nazi ‘Angel of Death’ at Auschwitz, have to flee to South America and spend the rest of his life in hiding, while Dr Shiro Ishii died at home of throat cancer aged 67 after a prosperous and untroubled life?

The answer is that the Japanese were allowed to erase Unit 731 from the archives by the American government, which wanted Ishii’s biological warfare findings for itself.

In the autumn of 1945, General MacArthur granted immunity to members of the Unit in exchange for research data on biological warfare.

After Japan’s surrender, Ishii’s team fled back across China to the safety of their homeland. Ishii ordered the slaughter of the remaining 150 “logs” in the compound and told every member of the group to “take the secret to the grave”, threatening death to anybody who went public.

Vials of potassium cyanide were issued in case anyone was captured. The last of his troops blew up the compound.

From then on, a curtain of secrecy was lowered. Unit 731 was not part of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. One reference to “poisonous serums” being used on the Chinese was allowed to slip by for lack of evidence.

Lawyers for the International Prosecution Section gathered evidence which was sent directly to President Truman. No more was heard of it.

The Americans took the view that all this valuable research data could end up in the hands of the Soviets if they did not act fast. This was, after all, the kind of information that no other nation would have had the ruthlessness to collect.

Thus the Japanese were off the hook. Unlike Germany, which atoned for its war crimes, Japan has been able to deny the evidence of Unit 731. When, as now, it does admit its existence, it refuses Chinese demands for an apology and compensation on the grounds that there is no legal basis for them – since all compensation issues had been settled by a treaty with China in 1972.

Many of the staff at Unit 731 went on to prominent careers. The man who succeeded Ishii as commander of Unit 731, Dr Masaji Kitano, became head of Green Cross, once Japan’s largest pharmaceutical company.

I have to wonder if more than a little racism was involved here as well. After all, the prisoners being “experimented” on were not Europeans, as in the case of the Nazis, but Chinese, Mongolians, Filipinos, and Koreans, although a comparatively small number of hapless British and American P.O.W.s did fall into Ishii’s ‘s clutches. Whatever the reason, the failure of the U.S. government to hold the Japanese to account for these crimes is one of its more shameful actions associated with the war.