A surprisingly tortuous study of Imperial Japan’s biological warfare program of the 1930s and ’40s.
The work of the research group called Unit 731 is no longer secret, having figured prominently in news accounts of ongoing demands for reparations on the part of the Chinese. But debut author Barenblatt has been tracking the story for a decade and uncovers some hard-won facts. The unit was founded by a medical doctor named Shiro Ishii, who was inspired to found a biological weapons facility after reading the text of the Geneva Convention of 1925, which specifically forbade biochemical methods of warfare. Ishii petitioned the military command unsuccessfully until, in 1928, a more hawkish regime came into power and pressed the Japanese to invade Manchuria. In 1931, following the so-called Mukden Incident, that invasion was staged, and Ishii’s soldiers concocted dozens of biological weapons to deploy against Chinese soldiers and civilians, as well as Russian and Mongolian troops stationed on the Manchurian frontier; Chinese researchers have estimated that as many as 580,000 people were killed by Japanese germ warfare, and Barenblatt adds that the Allied powers knew of Unit 731 and its terrible program as early as 1939. Barenblatt plainly considers Shiro Ishii to be the Japanese counterpart of Joseph Mengele, writing that he “was the archetype of a highly functioning sociopath, playing the dramatic role of the unstable ‘mad doctor’ with flourish.” Villainous, too, were the cold warriors of the Pentagon, who, after the Japanese surrender, decided to “immunize Japanese [biological warfare] and medical atrocity suspects from prosecution” and spirited away their records of experimentation on unwilling humans. Some of these immunized scientists, Barenblatt notes, went on to found pharmaceutical and biotech companies, one of which sold HIV-tainted blood to Asian and American hospitals in the late 1980s and, under a new name, “lives on even now as a distinct corporate entity within the enormous Mitsubishi conglomerate.”
Yet more illumination of the atrocities of WWII in its vast catalogue of inhumanity.