Most people have heard of the atrocities the Nazi’s committed against the Jewish people during World War II, but few have heard of the horrible treatments the Japanese inflicted on the Chinese, Koreans, Russians, and Americans in Manchuria China from 1932-1945. Unlike the Nazi trials, there has been no punishment enforced on the Japanese who participated in the mistreatment of humans in Manchuria.

The use of bubonic plague bombs and, subsequently, the release of plague on Chinese villages by the Japanese have had an impact on relations between the people of Japan and China today. The atrocities that took place in Manchuria are not the only events in history that have caused tensions between the two countries, but this paper’s focus is to address the impact that plague has had on their relations since World War II and how it has affected what has been allowed to be published in textbooks used in Japanese schools.

During WWII, the Japanese army had a secret biological warfare research unit in Manchuria called Unit 731. General Shiro Ishii was the lead physician of Unit 731; he reasoned that biological warfare must be dangerous and effective if it was banned by the Geneva protocol of 1925. He also tried to justify his research by noticing that the United States did not immediately sign the protocol; therefore, they must have biological weapons and were prepared to use them. A biological weapons research center was set up in 1933 with the help of General Ishii and many other workers in Manchuria rather than in Japan. Researching offensive biological weapons was deemed too for Japan proper. Japanese occupancy of Manchuria began in 1931. The occupancy not only gave the Japanese an advantage of separating the research station from their island, but also gave them access to as many Chinese individuals as they wanted for use as human experimental subjects. With Chinese lives for use at no cost, it was hoped by the Japanese that they could eventually lead the world in biological warfare (Wu 2002).

Years later, in 1938, the Manchurian research station moved to Pingfan, a town 20 kilometers southwest of Harbin. This new research station was called Unit 731 and was disguised as a water-purification facility named, “Epidemic Prevention and Water Supply Unit of the Kwantung Army.” Unit 731 was comprised of 150 buildings surrounded by a wall and a dry moat, as well as high voltage wires, which did not resemble a water-purification facility. The buildings included accommodations for thousands of people, a railway siding, an incinerator, a power house with cooling towers, an animal house, an airfield, an insectarium, an administration building, an exercise yard, and a square-shaped building called Ro block. Blocks 7 and 8 were two other buildings hidden in the center of Ro block in which human experimentation took place (Williams and Wallace 1989).

Many bacterial diseases were studied to determine their warfare potential. The bacterial diseases included plague, anthrax, dysentery, typhoid, paratyphoid, cholera, in addition to many others. Disease vectors (mainly insects), new drugs, chemical toxins, and frostbite were also studied. The bacterial production area was designed to produce large quantities of bacteria and eventually use them as biological weapons. Before they could be used as weapons, they were tested for their virulence on potential enemies and for protective measures in case enemy countries used the biological weapons on them. To test the virulence of the bacteria, human subjects were deliberately infected and vivisected to determine the disease course inside the body. The Japanese claimed they did not want to use anesthesia or dead patients because they felt they would not obtain accurate information on what was happening to the human body. As one can imagine, to deliberately infect or harm an individual with the intent of fatality just to observe the course of the disease in the human body is terrifying in itself, but to perform a vivisection on a living human with no anesthesia for a “clearer” picture is unthinkable. By being able to experiment on humans, the Japanese scientists obtained great detail on the progression of a disease inside the body. The Japanese learned how to protect themselves against the disease. This information helped make their biological weapons program strong from both an offensive and defensive perspective (Williams and Wallace 1989).

The mechanism for transmission of infection was not well known at the time and Ishii wondered what could be used as the perfect biological weapon. He became interested in the plague bacterium as a candidate for a biological weapon because its casualties are higher than other diseases in proportion to the number of bacteria disseminated (Williams and Wallace 1989). Through many attempts, Ishii was able to construct a clay bomb filled with oxygen and plague-infected fleas that could drop from aircraft at a height of 200-300 meters and explode leaving no trace. Clay was used because it explodes quite easily without producing much heat, which destroyed the fleas in previous bomb attempts. The fleas were packaged inside the bomb along with oxygen to help them survive the high altitudes, and this allowed the planes to escape any enemy planes if they had to. Each bomb contained 30,000 fleas (Pulex irritans). Fleas have sturdy bodies and are small enough that they are resistant to air drag and because of their small mass, gravity also does not have much of an effect (Williams and Wallace 1989). These characteristics made it possible for the flea to jump from the broken clay bombs without many casualties and subsequently target the human population.

Plague bombs were not the only way bacteria were spread on the Chinese villages. Wheat and rice particles covered in Y. pestis as well as cotton wadding and pieces of paper carrying the bacteria were dropped from planes to infect and destroy food supplies with the bacteria by landing and contaminating maturing crops. People were infected if they came into contact with any infected rat, or flea, or by harvesting the food that was contaminated (Harris and Paxman 1982). Rats were the first victims of weaponized plague, and people eventually began to succumb to the disease. Many of the Chinese called it the rat plague because of the rapid deaths of rats in their villages, and their lack of knowledge of what it truly was. The Japanese army entered some of the villages after the bombs were dropped and set up “help” stations in public buildings like a church, and would coerce victims seeking help for their illness to come in. Instead of receiving medical attention, they were vivisected.

The growth and care of rats was an important part of the biological weapons research at Unit 731 because they were needed to keep the fleas alive for the plague bombs. It is estimated that 3 million rats lived within the walls of Unit 731. Many of these rats were infected with bubonic plague, and when Unit 731 was destroyed at the end of the war, these rats escaped into the countryside and caused epidemics of plague over several years (Daniels 2001). The free and infected rats produced epidemics of plague in 22 counties in China, costing more than 20,000 lives (Wu 2002).

Experiments performed by the Japanese occurred over 13 years, ending in 1945 when the Russians invaded Manchuria in August. Unit 731 was deliberately burned and all evidence destroyed including the study subjects called Marutas, which translates as logs of wood, all in the attempt to hide what they had done. (Williams and Wallace 1989) Approximately 3,000 to 12,000 people died at Unit 731.Ishii and the other workers were never punished for their war crimes on the condition that they offered the United States all of the information they gained on biological weapons. The United States government was interested in the test results for their own research in biological weapons. Many of the Japanese biowarfare leaders went on to become prominent figures in their research communities (Harbin and Kattoulas 2002).

Years later, in 1965, the failure of the Japanese to address these war crimes in their history textbooks caused some Chinese citizens to take the Japanese government to court. The first lawsuit was filed in 1965 by Saburo Ienaga, a prominent historian, against the Japanese Ministry of Education (MOE). The MOE requires that manuscripts of the textbooks be reviewed before they are allowed to be published. The purpose of the lawsuit was to compel the Japanese government to publish the textbooks with accurate information. Before the lawsuits were filed, the minister of education asked that textbook writers “soften their approach to Japan’s excesses during World War II… (Ienaga 1994).” This spurred Koreans, Chinese and Taiwanese people to attack the Japanese leaders, arguing that it is insensitive to the memories of East Asians and dishonest to Japanese children to withhold historical facts.

Ienaga (1994) argued that the government’s goal was to exclude many of the descriptions of the horrors of war, and Japan’s participation in crimes against humanity to glorify war and the military. The argument follows that textbooks are strong instructional tools in classrooms and what is taught to the children from these textbooks is highly believable and carried on into the future of Japan. It is obviously very dangerous to present untruthful information to children because they believe so strongly what they are taught in schools.

Ienaga filed a lawsuit because the MOE rejected his history textbook on the grounds that it revealed too much of the bad side of war. An example of the language that Ienaga had to delete to publish his textbook reads as follows. “A biological warfare detachment, the 731 Unit, was set up in the suburbs of Harbin and for several years conducted experiments on foreign prisoners, including thousands of Chinese. These cruel experiments, which continued until the Soviet Union entered the war, were murder.” The MOE required this paragraph to be deleted because “No credible scholarly research articles or books have yet been published on this issue; it is premature to discuss it in a textbook” (Ienaga 1994). In 1997, Japan’s Supreme Court finally sided with Ienaga that the MOE illegally removed references to biological warfare experiments from manuscripts proposed to become textbooks, but the MOE is still allowed to censor information in the manuscripts before publication is allowed (CNN 1997). The debate continued until 1993 ending the Ministry of Education’s censorship of the war crimes that were committed by the Japanese during WWII.

The Japanese denial over the war crimes has resulted in Chinese victims of plague outbreaks to seek compensation for their suffering. This shows that not only are future generations affected by this denial of the truth, but victims of the plague and other bacterial diseases who are alive today are still being affected by what happened. Plague, alone, has not contributed to the tensions between the countries of Japan and China, but instead was a part of the whole that caused hurt and misery among the people that endured it. The tensions between these countries are not all about history. Ultimately, the balance of power in Asia is at stake. Japan has been used to having a larger economic power over China and since the 1980’s, China’s economic power has grown and is now a key competitor. Since World War II, the Japanese government has apologized numerous times to the people of China, but the new history books, with jaded words about what truly happened in the history between the two countries, has caused tensions to remain high.

References Cited

  1. CNN. 1997. Japan court rules against atrocity cover-up: but continues to allow textbook censorship.
  2. Daniels, A. 2001. Germs against man: bioterror: a brief history.
  3. Harbin, M. F. and Kattoulas, V. 2002. Black Death. Time Asia.,13675,501020909-346284,00.html
  4. Harris, R. and Paxman, J. 1982. A higher form of killing: the secret story of chemical and biological warfare. Hill and Wang, New York.
  5. Ienaga S. 1994. The glorification of war in Japanese education. International Security 18:113-133.
  6. McCurry, J. 2004. Japan’s sins of the past. Guardian Unlimited.,7792,1338296,00.html
  7. Williams, P. and Wallace, D. 1989. Unit 731: Japan’s secret biological warfare in World War II. Hodder and Sioughton, London.
  8. Wu, T. 2002. A Preliminary Review of Studies of Japanese Biological Warfare and Unit 731 in the United States.