The cover for Unit 731, while it was in operation, was a lumber mill. Situated in Harbin, which at the time was part of Japanese-occupied Manchuria, the complex would receive daily deliveries of new “logs” (maruta), and workers would come and come.
Those that lived nearby saw black smoke billowing from the chimney stacks, however, something very different from sawing wood was going on inside.
Unit 731 was actually a biological weapon research facility. The “logs” was the term the staff used for the influx of Chinese prisoners that they experimented on and the black smoke was coming from the incinerators used to burn the bodies once they had finished with them.
Sanctioned by the Japanese Government
The site was Commanded by General Shiro Ishii, an officer in the Kwantung Army.
It is unknown just how many people died while Unit 731 was active, however, if victims of the resulting biological weapons are taken into account, the estimates are in the hundreds of thousands.
What is known is that every single man, woman or child that entered the complex as a prisoner, did not come out alive.
Furthermore, almost all of those deaths would have been in a horrific manner.
Inside Unit 731
Established in 1936, and operational throughout World War II, those that worked at the research unit, had no regard for human life.
Functioned under the approval of Japan’s Emperor Hirohito, it was very much a case of anything goes in the name of science.
The in-house experimentation included the study of blood loss by performing amputations, stitching limbs onto other stumps of the body, and operating to remove organs to observe the impact.
No anesthetic was used of course.
Rape and forced pregnancy occurred so that fetal survival and damage to the host reproductive organs could be examined.
Patients were also infected with diseases such as gonorrhea and syphilis in order to see the results. This involved researchers forcing infected and non-infected prisoners to have intercourse.
The researchers also liked to work “out in the field”. This meant targeting hungry children and offering them food and candy laced with lethal pathogens. The impact was then observed.
Unit programs involving biological warfare resulted in the highest death tolls. Anthrax, smallpox, typhoid, cholera, and plague-infected fleas were tested on humans at Unit 731.
Not only were prisoners within the complex infected, but the army would also fly planes and perform aerial drops over Chinese towns and villages.
These highly infectious diseases were released directly onto crops and into the water supply.
These atrocities continued for a full 9 years until Japan’s surrender in 1945. Upon defeat, the staff of Unit 731 destroyed as much evidence as they could before fleeing the complex.
Unfortunately, the horror of Unit 731 has had a long-lasting legacy. Very few people have ever been officially held responsible.
In fact, researchers held by the U.S government were given immunity in exchange for data surrounding the experiments. (The Soviet government was less lenient, arrested researchers were tried at the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials in 1949.)
Immunity meant relocation to the US, where many of the scientists enjoyed prominent careers in academia, business, and medicine.
The Japanese government was never tried in relation to these war crimes.
Where is the Unit 731 Museum?
- Address: 25 Xinjiang Dajie, Harbin, China
- Phone: +86 451 8710 8731
Unit 731 today
Graphic photographs depict some of the experiments that took place.
Original medical instruments, including needles, saws, and vivisection hooks, serve as a chilling indication of what those poor victims endured.
A very moving section of the museum can be found inside the main exhibition hall. Here the walls are lined with hundreds of portraits and the firsthand testimonies of the guards that helped to bring the atrocities of Unit 731 to light.
That being said, the inhumanity and suffering that occurred at Unit 731 is extremely difficult to comprehend overall. The impact will stay with you long after you have left the museum.
Good to know
The museum is located approximately 1 hour from the center of Harbin. Bus no 338 or 343 from the western part of the train station will take you there.
Guided tours are available. If you don’t opt for this you should definitely use the English audio guide.