Hsinking (Changchun), Manchukuo February 18, 1932

The Meiji Restoration of Imperial rule in Japan in 1868 resulted in the down­fall of that country’s power­ful mili­tary com­man­ders, the sho­guns, and the Japa­nese samu­rai war­rior class. Partly as a con­ces­sion to the samu­rai, the Japa­nese govern­ment em­barked on an aggres­sive foreign policy in Man­churia in North­eastern China and on the Korean Penin­sula. The Japa­nese defeat of Czarist Russia over the latter’s ter­ri­torial ambi­tions in Man­churia in 1904–1905 both bol­stered Japan’s power, autho­rity, and self-con­fi­dence in the Asia Pacific region while it sparked an up­surge in national and impe­rial senti­ments among impor­tant sec­tors with­in Japan it­self, among them the mili­tary, polit­i­cal parties, and the jingoistic press. The Treaty of Ver­sailles, which ended World War I, granted Japan rights and con­ces­sions in the Shan­tung Penin­sula in North­eastern China across the Yellow Sea from Korea, a Japanese colony since 1910.

Using an argu­ment similar to the Nazis’ man­tra for Lebens­raum in Eastern Europe and Fascist Italy’s spazio vitale in the Medi­ter­ranean Basin, Japa­nese national extre­mists looked west across the Sea of Japan to China for living space. (A corol­lary of the quest of Japa­nese extre­mists for living space for their country’s “excess popu­la­tion” was Hakkō ichiu, a Japa­nese polit­ical slogan meaning the divine right of the Empire of Japan to “unify the eight corners of the world.” The next logi­cal step was the pro­cla­ma­tion of a “new order in East Asia” (Tōa Shin Chitsujo) that morphed into the “Greater East Asia Co-Pro­sper­ity Sphere” in the 1940s in which Japan assumed the axial posi­tion around which some 10 East Asian socio-polit­ical enti­ties orbited.) On Septem­ber 18, 1931, Japan’s Kwan­tung Army in China in­vaded Man­churia. Five months later on this date, Febru­ary 18, 1932, the Kwan­tung Army, with­out the approval of Tokyo, estab­lished the pup­pet state of Man­chu­kuo (State of the Manchus), the Kwan­tung Army’s spring­board for further free­wheeling aggres­sion in China. In the same year the Impe­rial Japa­nese Army, with the blessings of Shōwa Em­peror Hiro­hito (on the throne from 1926 to 1989), organ­ized a secret research group in Man­chukuo’s Ping­fang dis­trict for the pur­pose of de­vel­oping chemi­cal and bio­logical wea­pons to be used against the Chinese, Koreans, and other “inferior” peoples whose terri­tory they, compar­able to the Nazis and Fascists in Europe, intended to conquer.

Unit 731, whose Ping­fang head­quarters’ design was that of a lum­ber mill, was the most noto­rious of these research labora­tories, where epi­demic and viral dis­eases such as bubonic plague, typhoid, cho­lera, and an­thrax were mass-produced. Branch units were estab­lished at Bei­jing, Nan­jing (Nan­king), Guang­dong, and Singa­pore, which along with the main Ping­fang campus employed as many as 20,000 staff mem­bers. More than 10,000 humans (euphe­mis­tically known as “logs,” pro­nounced maruta in Jap­a­nese) were sub­jects of bar­barous experi­ments con­ducted in this and simi­lar fac­tories of death, repeatedly being forced to work to ex­haus­tion and ex­posed to dis­eases, starva­tion, and vivi­section. Hap­less subjects included crimi­nals, ban­dits, anti-Japa­nese parti­sans, poli­tical pri­soners, as well as infants, children, the elderly, and preg­nant women. Run by the Kwan­tung Army, Unit 731’s vic­tims also included U.S., British, Dutch, Australian, and Soviet prisoners of war.

Subjects of experimentation were typically infected with par­tic­u­lar patho­gens by injec­tion or ingesting contam­in­ated food or water. They would be observed, their symptoms recorded, blood samples taken, organ tissue vivi­sected, and, following death, their bodies incin­er­ated. Unit 731’s germ and chemi­cal wea­pons pro­grams resulted in pos­sibly as many as 200,000 grisly deaths (to say nothing of extreme suffering) of civil­ians and mili­tary per­son­nel between 1932 and 1945. In a deal struck with U.S. occu­pa­tion forces, most Jap­a­nese per­pe­trators were never brought to justice after the war.

Japanese Puppet State Manchukuo (1932–1945) and Biological/­Chemical Warfare Unit 731

Japanese Manchukuo (Chinese Manchuria)

Above: Map of Manchukuo (Manchuria) in relation to its neigh­bors. The large area labeled “Japan” is the Japa­nese colony of Korea (1910–1945). The smaller area on the south­ern part of the Liao­dong Penin­sula in Man­churia went by the name of Kwan­tung Leased Terri­tory (formerly a Russian-leased terri­tory from 1898 to 1905), which included the mil­itarily and econo­mically significant ports of Lüshunkou (Port Arthur) and Dalian. In 1934 the Kwan­tung Army placed Puyi (Pu Yi), the last Qing emperor of China, at the city of Chang­chun, renaming it Hsin­king or Xin­jing (New Capital). Pi­yu (1906–1967) served as Japa­nese pup­pet emperor of Manchukuo until August 1945, when Hirohito agreed to end the Asia Pacific War.

Japanese propaganda poster, Manchukuo (Manchuria)Unit 731 headquarters near Harbin, Manchukuo

Left: Propaganda poster promoting harmony between Japa­nese, Chi­nese, and the resi­dents of Manchu­kuo. The cap­tion says (right to left): “With the coopera­tion of Japan, China, and Manchukuo, the world can be in peace.”

Right: Japanese Biological Warfare Unit 731 Head­quarters at Ping­fang, Manchu­kuo (North­east China), a little over 60 miles southeast of Harbin. Officially known as the Epi­demic Pre­ven­tion and Water Puri­fi­cation Depart­ment of the Kwan­tung Army (the Japa­nese occu­pa­tion army in Man­chu­kuo), the sprawling com­plex was ser­viced by an air­port and rail­road sta­tions. Leading Japa­nese medi­cal schools assigned doctors to Unit 731, some of whom later com­plained of wasting the best years of their lives on medi­cal research that could not be con­tinued after the war. Almost 70 per­cent of the vic­tims who died in at Ping­fang (there were other Unit 731 instal­la­tions) were Chi­nese, including both civil­ian and mili­tary. Soviets com­prised close to 30 per­cent of the vic­tims. Most of Ping­fang was burnt by the Japa­nese to destroy evi­dence of some of the most grue­some atroci­ties of World War II, but the incin­er­a­tor where the remains of victims were burnt remains today. Unlike war crimes asso­ci­ated with Nazi human experi­men­ta­tion, which are extremely well docu­mented, the acti­vi­ties of Unit 731 are known only from the testimonies of former unit members.

Japan’s Unit 731: A Documentary on Biological and Chemical Warfare Conducted Around the Globe (WARNING: Extreme Content)