In Search of the Ghoulish Work of Japan's Unit 731

Josh Clark

There was something about the moment in human history that encapsulated World War II where the idea of vivisecting humans seemed appealing to a lot of people around the world. Either that, or there are a lot of us who really want to dismember alive those people we interact with at any given moment and it was only under the utter attendent loss of humanity that afforded some of those people the opportunity to do it. That Herophilus, the father of anatomy, vivisected about 600 live subjects in the fouth century BC, shows that the curosity of what will happen when a knife opens a live human is an ancient one.

Still, the unsual inhumaneness of World War II will likely last as a blemish on civilization for as long as it stands. Chuck and I recently podcasted on the internment of Japanese and Japanese-Americans in the U.S. during that war. Americans also have the skeleton of the Dachau massacre of unarmed camp guards during its liberation in 1944. All of this is not to mention the release of not one, but two atomic bombs onto civilian populations, killing about 215,000 men, women and children. Of course, the Nazis are the worst thing to happen to the human race since Europeans spread out of Europe during the Age of Discovery. And the Japanese have their dirty past as well.

It's long been known that Japan maintained a shadowy elite medical corp called Unit 731 during the war. Exactly what they did has remained largely an undiscussed secret. In less official circles, this secret has been somewhat open, centered around well-founded rumors that the Japanese carried out experiments similar to those of the Nazis: hypothermia experiments, purposeful exposure to contagions and toxins and -- worst of all -- vivisection, the dissection of a live and aware human being.

The Economist reports that this undiscussed secret in Japan has recently come closer toward the fore since 2006, when a Japanese nurse named Toyo Ishii entered into public record her account of what she saw at the Tokyo medical campus where Unit 731 was headquartered. Ishii said that while working there so encountered perserved remains of humans, that dismembered remains are buried in mass graves on the campus, and that as Allied forces made their way into Tokyo she and others were ordered to destroy human remains.

Some remains had already been uncovered and marked by the Japanese with a black obelisk (referred to as "specimens"), but Ishii's testimony convinced the government that there are more. An apartment block that had been erected over the site was purchased and demolished and a few days ago excavation began on the site. What the excavators will likely find are the remains of Russian, Korean and Chinese captured during World War II and murdered in the name of medical curiosity.

The members of Unit 731 encountered a similar fate to many of the scientists employed by the Nazis: They were allowed their freedom and granted privilege by the United States, which protected them in return for exclusive access to the data they'd compiled from those experiments on unwilling human subjects.