The Asian Bucket List II. Harbin in Sun, Ice and Blood

The banner that greets when you enter the museum
The banner that greets when you enter the Unit 731  museum

Harbin, Manchuria:  Officials here seem reluctant to spotlight the Japanese germ warfare scientists and what they did to thousands of local inhabitants here in 1932 and beyond.

Perhaps that’s the reason Harbin has built China’s greatest contemporary war museum, known formally as “The Museum of Evidence of War Crimes by Japanese Army Unit 731,”  in Pingfang, a southwestern district of Harbin so far removed from the city’s center that it takes two buses and at least an hour to find it.

The New Harbin War Atrocities Museum
The New Harbin War Atrocities Museum

Pingfang was the seat of some of the most monstrous experiments ever conducted on living human beings. The more than 10,000 square foot museum, which reopened in August 2015 in two rhomboid-shaped black marble structures resting heavily on first-floor exhibition glass, displays thousands of artifacts — shackles, scalpels, germ bombs, magnified photos of rats, fleas, plague and anthrax — all part of a secret Japanese program to develop biological and chemical warfare that would ultimately be used against the United States.  As the New York Times put it:

“…Unit 731 bred plague microbes, then deliberately infected handcuffsthousands of men, women and children. It conducted vivisection and frostbite and air pressure experiments, transfused prisoners with horse blood and studied the effect of weapons on the body, among many things.”

Japanese military uniforms from Unit 731
Japanese military uniforms from Unit 731

That’s a comparatively mild description.  Those who care to read more might want to peruse Nicholas D. Kristof’s excellent 1995 article, Unmasking Horror — A Special Report: Japan Confronting Gruesome War Atrocity in The New York Times.   This was written a full 20 years before the new museum opened.

Unit 731 was spearheaded by an insanely efficient microbiologist, Dr. Shiro Ishii, who told Japanese leaders that the war could not be won without the widespread destruction of Allied civilians and soldiers  using such “weapons” as anthrax, plague, typhus, typhoid, cholera and other disease.

Shiro Ishii as a young medical student
Shiro Ishii as a young medical student

Ishii led the Japanese effort after officials recognized the value of germ warfare when the Geneva Convention banned it in 1925.  “If it was so awful that it had to be banned under international law,  the officers reasoned, it must make a great weapon,” Kristof wrote.

The Allies thought the same thing.  And that’s why, after the Japanese were vanquished following Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945, all the Mengele-like physician-vivisectionists of Unit 731 were given an Allied free pass to go on with their lives without prosecution for war crimes.  In exchange, the Japanese divulged their germ warfare secrets and methodologies to the Americans.

How did this happen?  It’s a complex story, one that has inspired Chinese abhorrence and periodic demands from bioethicists for an American apology.

It starts after the Mukden incident, when the Japanese fabricated an explosion, then used it as a pretext to conquer China.  The Japanese 4th Mixed Brigade closed in on Harbin in 1932, part of its clean sweep of  Manchuria which was renamed “Manchukuo,,” a puppet state. Dr. Shiro Ishii was dispatched to lead the experimentation in a large scale biological and chemical warfare unit constructed in Pingfang and other locations throughout China.   Harbin was chosen partially because of the ease with which native-born paupers, communists, Russian Jews, and Eastern European immigrants, Pacific islanders,  among others, could be rounded up on the streets for experimentation.   Many of the thugs who grabbed victims were Russian fascists collaborating with the Japanese. According to Kristof:

“The [experimental] subjects were called marutas, or logs, and most were Communist sympathizers or ordinary criminals. The majority were Chinese, but many were Russians, expatriates living in China.”

He continues:

“Takeo Wano, a 71-year-old former medical worker in Unit 731 who now lives here in the northern Japanese city of Morioka, said he once saw a six-foot-high glass jar in which a Western man was pickled in formaldehyde. The man had been cut into two pieces, vertically, and Mr. Wano guesses that he was Russian because there were many Russians then living in the area.” (1995)

Unit 731 Tools of the trade
Unit 731 Tools of the trade

One of the objectives of the 6 square kilometer Pingfang installation, where the Japanese built 150 separate structures (e.g., prison space, labs, pits to breed rats and fleas),  was to devise effective poison gas and “germ bombs.”  The bombs consisted of either poison gas or plague-infested fleas, anthrax, and other deadly microbes.  They were dropped directly on the prisoners while they were tied to stakes in open “test” fields.

The new museum graphically recreates these scenes.  It offers state-of-the-art scale models of the huge germ warfare facility, signposting, year by year, in multiple languages, how the atrocities, torture, and mass murders played out.

Cover Ups

As a cover for its real activities, Unit 731 was called  the “Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army” (関東軍防疫給水部本部 Kantōgun Bōeki Kyūsuibu Honbu).  In reality, Ishii and his cohorts killed thousands, possibly tens of thousands of men, women, and children.  In addition, hundreds of thousands of Chinese died from the Japanese spreading biological and chemical weapons on the mainland throughout the 30s until the surrender of 1945.

“The research was kept secret after the end of the war in part because the United States Army granted immunity from war crimes prosecution to the doctors in exchange for their data. Japanese and American documents show that the United States helped cover up the human experimentation. Instead of putting the ringleaders on trial, it gave them stipends.” (Kristoff, 1995).  The plan, ultimately, was to accumulate germ and chemical weapons knowledge in the event that further wars ensued.

The numbers of dead are astonishing.  “According to the precious historical materials we found, at least 3,000 people, mostly Chinese civilians, died in the experiments between 1939 and 1945,” said Jin Chengmin, curator of the new Harbin Unit 731 exhibition space.

“Outside the camp, thousands of Chinese-estimated at more than 300,000-were killed by biological weapons produced in the laboratories of Unit 731,” Jin said.

The worst part of this story is that the American allies covered up the atrocities and exonerated all the Japanese doctors and medical personnel on the site in exchange for their germ warfare secrets, according to multiple articles published about Unit 731 in The New York Times.  German doctors were not so lucky; it’s quite possible the Americans thought the Japanese far more advanced in their biological warfare techniques than any other country in the world.


In many respects the Harbin museum is state of the art.  Even though I visited it nearly a year ago, my recollections are vivid.

I remember the signed descriptions of Japanese medical personnel raping Chinese women prisoners and then vivisecting them and their unborn babies to see the effects of the pathogens injected into them. A Russian woman tried to protect her child as the doctors timed their convulsions in a gas chamber.  Young Chinese men were stripped naked and cut open chest to stomach, then disemboweled without anesthetic to see the effects of anthrax and plague (Kristof, 1995). Planes sprayed the testing zones with gas, plague culture or flea bombs to see how many people would die.  In one case, the wind suddenly changed direction as poison gas bombs dropped down, forcing the Japanese soldiers and scientists to flee from the area. Like fleas.

Target Practice
Target Practice

No Chinese survived any of these experiments.  Old Japanese men recalled what they did on the record.  Thus far, there has been little written on the US actors and why the USA didn’t prosecute or issue apologies to China after the war.

When the Soviet Union finally took Harbin,  the capital city of Heilongjiang province, in August 1945, the retreating Japanese invaders destroyed most of the facilities that produced germ  and chemical weapons.  But more than 10,000 artifacts survived and were first placed in one of the old original buildings in the Pingfang site.

The new museum has the plaintive feel of Maya Lin’s Vietnam War Memorial.  Only more so.  I’ve visited the Holocaust museum in Washington DC and now this one in Harbin, and I have to say, the Harbin museum affected me just as deeply.  The exhibits are not only beautifully mounted — I recall an entire hall devoted to microscope images of pathogens blown up to mural size, along with images of breeding grounds for fleas and rats.  Yet the museum curators exercised just enough graphical restraint to convey the realities without nauseating visitors.

Historians and bioethicists like Jing-Bao Nie at the University of Otago in New Zealand see the American exoneration of the Japanese physician-killers as unconscionable.  I agree.

“Morally, the cover-up trampled justice in the ruthless pursuit of national interest and national security,” Mr. Nie wrote in an email to a New York Times reporter  in 2015.

A museum reconstruction of the germ bomb test site
A museum reconstruction of the germ bomb test site

“Legally, the cover-up constitutes complicity after fact,” he wrote. “And pragmatically, a formal apology will serve the long-term interest of the United States because it can contribute positively to the relationship between the U.S. and China.”

Thus far, no apology, no acknowledgement.  You need a strong stomach to visit this museum, but the information is hugely valuable to anyone who cares about recent war history — and our wavering moral compass.



Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *