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Unit 731: Japan’s Secret Experiments On Human Test Subjects

We are all familiar with stories of seemingly pointless murders. While acts of violence by individuals may result in the shocking tales of serial killers with murderous obsessions, nothing compares to the systematic savagery that can be inflected by a government that actively seeks to cause harm.

Many are aware of the sadistic and nightmarish experiments enacted by Nazi scientists during World War II. The savage, bloodthirsty procedures done in the name of 'science' are known for their unbelievable treatment of children, refugees, disabled people, as well as many other groups unfortunate enough to find themselves at the end of the National Socialist Party's ire.

But fewer people know of similar efforts made by the Japanese that emerged at the same time. Spanning the same rough period from the mid-1930s up to the end of the Second World War, Japan covertly operated a systematic human experimentation program that saw victims amputated, raped, injected with diseases, as well as dozens of other atrocities that have illustrated just how monstrous people can be.

Come to be known as "Asia's Auschwitz", this is the story of Unit 731.

What Came Before

In 1932, chief Japanese medical officer Shirō Ishii was appointed as the coordinator and head of the Army Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory, also known as AEPRL.

After becoming in charge of the AEPRL, Ishii organized the creation of a covert unit that was tasked with researching biological, bacterial, and chemical warfare: the Tōgō Unit. Ishii was spurred onto the idea based on his visits to other countries' research facilities during the span of 1928, as he was concerned that the Allies might use the newly emerging form of warfare on the Japanese

Ishii was said to have been intrigued with the potential uses of disease in a martial context, but he was reportedly “frustrated by his inability to test his laboratory results on humans."

The Tōgō Unit was Ishii's response to this morbid dissatisfaction, and the unit was established to conduct first-hand experiments on human subjects. The unit was stationed at the Zhongma Fortress experimentation camp, which, after a prison escape and a later explosion, was closed due to fears of discovery by the wider Japanese populace.

Soon after Zhongma's closure in 1935, Ishii was granted permission to create a much larger facility— which would eventually become the infamous Unit 731.


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The 'Lumber Mill' - Unit 731

Unit 731 was built in the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo, which is now Northeast China. Manchukuo was home to 731 partly because of the access to the Chinese population, who were the primary targets of the secret Japanese scientists.

It did not take long for Unit 731 to begin steadfastly inflicting its victims with unspeakable abuse. Officially, 731 and other sister units were known as the "Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army," but history would show that their actual purpose was much more morbid.

Victims were internally referred to as "logs" by staff. This began as a joke as the purpose of the facility that was given to the local authorities was that it was a sort of lumber mill. Similarly, in some of the experiments that took place in Unit 731 that were later used in published scientific materials, the authors recorded that the research had been done with primates. These research papers lied, stating that the research was conducted with "manchurian monkeys" and "long-tailed monkeys".

Most of the victims of Unit 731 were from the local Chinese population. Researchers appeared to target specific types of people, namely political objectors, communists, criminals, poor civilians, and disabled people.

There is extensive historical evidence of the atrocities carried out by researchers, guards, and officials at Unit 731, with this article providing just a snapshot of the horrors that took place in a small region of Japanese-occupied China.

Injections With Deadly Diseases

Part of Unit 731's research was to see the benefits of biological and bacterial warfare. One project saw the 731 develop a supply of plague-carrying fleas that were dropped on Chinese civilians via airplane. The unit spread epidemics of the bubonic plague, smallpox, typhoid, and paratyphoid among Chinese cities through the use of specialized bombs that could infiltrate important infrastructure such as waterways in order to infect civilians on a mass scale.

But 731 also regularly injected its own prisoners with diseases, whilst pretending they were actually vaccinations. Victims were intentionally infected with diseases such as syphilis and gonorrhea in order for the teams to study their effects on new-born babies. This required the researchers to force male and female prisoners to have sexual intercourse at the threat of being shot. None of the babies are known to have survived.

Many of these diseases' symptoms were exacerbated by the poor, cramped living conditions of the 731 facility. Most, if not all of those infected, died.

Human Vivisections

Vivisection—also known as surgery conducted on a live animal for research—on human subjects was rife at Unit 731. The majority of time these vivisections were done without any aesthetic, with the victim totally conscious. In most of these instances, the patient would die from trauma or blood loss.

These surgeries were done to observe the effects of the diseases purposely inflicted on 731's prisoners. Some medical staff would remove the organs of patients to view how diseases spread within the body. Similarly, researchers would remove parts of the body's vital organs such as the brain to view the effects.

Some prisoners had their upper and lower appendages removed and amputated before being re-attached to the opposite site. Other reports show that some victims had their stomach removed and their esophagus surgically attached to their intestines.

Effects On The Human Body

Many of the unit's experiments were to see the application of warfare in a test environment. This saw 731 apply countless examples of cruelty upon human subjects to view how the human body responds to certain trauma.

Some victims were subjected to tests against weaponry such as bombs, knives, and chemical weapons. Prisoners would have weapons used on them from different positions and distances, with researchers hoping to see how to effectively use weapons on a human target.

Captives were taken outside to see how the body responds to extreme temperature fluctuations. Victims' limbs would be placed in water so that they could freeze before being hit with a stick. The limb would then be exposed to different treatments to see how the frostbitten area would respond.

In a variety of horrific tests, Unit 731 researchers starved captives to see how long it would take for the subject to die; injected people with animal blood; left subjects in pressure chambers until their eyes popped out; electrocuted people; injected captives with seawater; burned victims alive; spun victims in centrifuges until they died; and buried victims alive.

The barbaric nature of these tests has been described as "psychopathically sadistic, with no conceivable military application".

Forgiven And Forgotten Atrocities

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Perhaps out shadowed by the genocidal efforts of Nazi Germany's holocaust, the history of Unit 731 is unknown to most Western audiences.

This is partly due to the fact that the United States granted immunity to 731's physicians on the promise that they would give the U.S. exclusive possession of the research Unit 731 had undertaken. The United States saw biological warfare research as valuable and did not want other countries, particularly the Soviet Union, to have the upper hand.

Accounts of what happened at Unit 731 were also dismissed as communist propaganda by the West, leading the atrocities to go undiscovered for decades.

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