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From The Asian Reporter, V14, #22 (May 25, 2004), page 16.

Buried evil comes to light

A Plague Upon Humanity:

The Secret Genocide of Axis Japan’s Germ Warfare Operation

By Daniel Barenblatt

HarperCollins Publishers, 2004

Hardcover, 260 pages, $25.95

By Andrew J. Weber

The numbers alone are horrifying. Nearly 10 years of atrocities. Some 20,000 physicians and scientists involved. And over 580,000 people killed, all victims of Imperial Japan’s bio-war program.

Just as horrifying is the rationalization for that program by its founder and mastermind, Dr. Shiro Ishii. After reading the Geneva Convention treaty specifically banning biological agents in battle, Ishii’s immoral calculus led him to conclude that, "If the prospect of germ warfare created such dread … Japan must do everything in its power to create the most virulent germ weapons." Japan was a Geneva signatory, but Ishii was soon able to convince his superiors of the horrible power he could develop for their use, and "Unit 731," Imperial Japan’s "Secret of Secrets," was born.

That secret was well kept. Today the names Dr. Ishii, Pingfan, and Beiyinhe are virtually unknown to the world, but they should be as infamous as some of their German Nazi equivalents: Dr. Mengele, Dachau, and Auschwitz.

Following 10 years of research, Darien Barenblatt exposes Unit 731 in an important popular history (if any book about this type of material can be described as "popular"). Eminently readable and surprisingly concise for its depth, A Plague Upon Humanity succeeds in bringing these half-century-old horrors to the modern reader.

In language that somehow manages to be conversational and stomach-turning at the same time, Barenblatt details the Japanese atrocities. These include: dissemination of laboratory-bred microorganisms such as typhoid, dysentery, plague, cholera, anthrax, and other lethal agents; release of swarms of infected and disease-carrying fleas, rats, dogs, horses, and birds; and dropping of special glass and porcelain bombs carrying virulent strains of bacteria.

The Japanese scientists also conducted such laboratory studies as the effects of dehydration, starvation, poisoning, frostbite, and animal-to-human blood transfusions on any unfortunate prisoners they were able to obtain. These experiments typically ended with the vivisection of the "patient," often without any form of anesthetic.

Even among crimes of this magnitude, several incidents stand out for their exceptional inhumanity. In 1940, Dr. Ishii’s associates spread cholera bacteria near the town of Changchun, resulting in a few infections. Ishii then organized a vaccination drive, but delivered injections that actually contained the virulent strain of the bacteria, creating an epidemic. Two years later, Japanese soldiers distributed fruit and pastries injected with cholera cultures to starving Chinese children, sparking another epidemic which claimed over 400,000 civilian lives.

Many of the crimes described in A Plague Upon Humanity were initially publicized in a traveling historical exhibit that attracted huge crowds across Japan in 1994. Attendees viewed scientific equipment used in the secret experiments and watched confessions from many now-elderly program participants. While some doctors expressed what one described as his desire "not to take this story with me to hell … [but instead] to leave it in this world," others were unapologetic. "I am proud to have been a part of … the world’s first unit to use biology in combat," explained Toshimi Mizobuchi, a former biological trainer for the military. "It was war."

Whether this new openness will lead to any justice for the victims remains to be seen. A landmark civil court case against the Japanese government was decided in Tokyo on August 30, 2002. The plaintiffs, 180 Chinese citizens acting on behalf of over 2,000 victims, achieved at best a symbolic victory; the court refused to grant an official apology, but the judges did legally acknowledge that the atrocities had occurred.

But this issue is even being addressed in a court of law has to be considered a victory, given its shameful history. As if the humanitarian horrors unleashed by Dr. Ishii’s program were not enough, A Plague Upon Humanity offers another final horror for the American reader: how the Japanese "Secret of Secrets" was hidden for so long. General Douglas MacArthur and his superiors in the U.S. hold direct, personal responsibility for concealing the truth about Unit 731.

Seeking an edge over the Soviet Union at the dawn of the Cold War, the U.S. military offered immunity from war crimes prosecution to the Japanese doctors in exchange for their knowledge. Nazi doctors were brought to justice at Nuremberg; the Japanese doctors melted back into civilian society. Many later rose to prominence, including Dr. Ryoichi Naito, who became CEO of Green Cross pharmaceuticals, and Kozo Okamoto, who became medical director of Osaka Kinki University.

Although justice for the victims remains elusive, Barenblatt has now presented the evidence in the court of public opinion, and hopefully his book will garner the audience it deserves. The American audience in particular needs to take a hard look not just at the horrors of the Japanese bio-war program but also its own government’s complicity in burying the awful truth. One can only hope that with biological weapons once more in the headlines, the Japanese crimes (and the American cover-up) will join the growing list of twentieth century atrocities that we will "Never allow again."


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