The Ghosts of Unit 731


While America celebrated the sixth anniversary of the end of the World War II, two recently released documents show the Allies gave monetary rewards to a group of the Imperial Japanese Army officers responsible for some of most horrific and brutal activities in the Pacific.

According to an editorial in the Japan Times on August 15 (the same day the rest of the world was celebrating the anniversary), the American government had keen interest in Japan's notorious Unit 731. In 1947, military leaders in Washington advocated paying about $500 and giving other benefits to former members of a Japanese germ warfare unit to obtain data on human experiments conducted on thousands of innocent Chinese. 

As an American who has taught young people in both countries, I have closely followed the growing debate over Japanos inability to "sincerely" apologize for its wartime aggression and the intense hatred many Chinese have for their East Asian neighbor.

In 1998, while I was teaching high school English near Nagoya, Japan, I purchased a book prominently displayed at a popular bookstore about Unit 731's gruesome wartime chemical and biological experiments on Chinese civilians near the northeastern city of Harbin, in the late 1930s.

While few Japanese want to talk about the painful events of 60 years ago, the vast majority realize their soldiers committed some very terrible crimes. 

The story of Unit 731 holds an important lesson for today's global war on terror where chemical and biological warfare pose a threat to our safety. 

The Japan Times editorial says Brigadier General Charles Willoughby, head of the intelligence unit of the Occupation forces in Japan was behind Washington's efforts to gain access to Unit 731's biological and chemical research:

In the documents, Willoughby described the achievements of his unit's investigations, saying the

"information procured will have the greatest value in future development of the U.S. BW (bacteria warfare) program."

Citing a U.S. War Department specialist in charge of the investigation, Willoughby wrote in the report that data on human experiments may prove invaluable" and the information was only obtainable through the skillful, psychological approach to top—flight pathologists" involved in Unit 731 experiments.

The U.S. provided money, food, gifts, entertainment and other kinds of rewards to the former Unit 731members, according to the report     

According to Keiichi Tsuneishi, a professor at Kanagawa University and an expert on biological and chemical weapons who uncovered the documents at the U.S. National Archives, members of 731 were forced by Washington to choose between cooperating and facing war crime charges.    

Looking back, it would be easy to condemn the actions of Charles Willoughby as morally wrong by paying wartime criminals for their knowledge about chemical and biological warfare.

But, as many Americans have painfully realized since the tragedy of 9/11, we live in a world where such an attack is certainly possible.

Therefore, it is sometimes necessary to cooperate with a few bad guys so we can continue to enjoy the peace and prosperity we all enjoy.   

Brian Schwarz   8 17 05

Thomas Lifson adds:

I see this editorial and much of the research effort as aimed at making Japan's atrocities less horrific in world opinion, by saying ":everybody does it" (or at least wants the results). Some of the data was quite valuable and could help save lives. For instrance Unit 731 did reserach on the effects of cold temperatures on human survical — by seeing exactly what conditions would lead to (human) deaths.

The reserach involved killing people. But the data could save the lives of fliers, for instance, who might be shot down in cold ocean waters.

Furthermore, the Japan Times article uses a highly exaggerated inflation adjustment based on government salary scales, to make it sem as though large amounts of money were given out. In fact the total amount reqested was a bit over $500, not the hundreds of thousands of dollars implied by the inflation adjustment.

I studied the US Occupation of Japan closely in graduate school, and wrote my masters thesis on the subject of its policy toward the management of large firms, using the archives of people like Colonel (later General) Willoughby. I have an extremely high opinion of these men (and a few women, too) and their achievments. They laid a strong foundation for the democratic and prosperous Japan of today.