1980s: Evidence of atrocities begins to emerge from the shadows

The hidden record of Japanese medical atrocities came to light in Japan through lawsuits filed by Chinese victims of germ warfare; the discovery of bones of the victims of experiments; and documented evidence of Japanese preparations for biological warfare.

1981: American journalist John W. Powell, Jr. was the first person who uncovered the unspeakable atrocities committed by Unit 731 and raised the issue of possible U.S. cover-up. Powell took over his father’s publication, The China Weekly, in Shanghai until June 1953 when he returned to America. He obtained the transcripts of the Khbarovsk trials, and in the October 1981 issue of Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Powel published “Japan’s Biological Weapons, 1930-1945: A Hidden Chapter in History,” jointly with Robert Gomer and Burt Rolling.

The in-depth article reported details about open-air germ tests on captured Chinese and Russian men, women and children; and described how some had been bound to stakes in a large field and bombarded with anthrax; others were subjected to germs of bubonic plague, cholera, smallpox, typhus and typhoid; and women were subjected to syphilis. And the article revealed that, ironically, Japan had been the world’s first power to use radiation against a wartime enemy; killing Chinese captives by exposing their livers to lethal X-ray doses. The article was preceded by an editorial preface stating:

“When this story first reached the Bulletin, our reaction was horrified disbelief. I think all of us hoped that it was not true. Unfortunately, subsequent research shows that it is all too true. In order to verify the facts set forth here we enlisted the help of a number of distinguished scientists and historians. . . . Any reader with a sense of justice and decency will be nauseated, not only by these atrocities, but equally so by the reaction of the U.S. Department of War and State. . .

By acquiring “at a fraction of the original cost” the “invaluable” results of the Japanese experiments, have we not put ourselves on the same level as the Japanese experimenters?”
“The Japanese tortured and killed helpless prisoners in search of “a cheap and effective weapon. The Americans and British invented firestorms and the U.S. dropped two nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In such a climate it may have seemed reasonable not to bring the Japanese responsible for the biological “experiments” to justice, but it was and remains monstrous. By acquiring “at a fraction of the original cost” the “invaluable” results of the Japanese experiments, have we not put ourselves on the same level as the Japanese experimenters? (Bulletin of Atomic Scientists (1981); entire article reproduced in The Congressional Record Nov. 10, 1999, pp S14533-S14571; Cited at China History Forum)

Public consciousness led to widespread discussion about Unit 731 and also discussion about contemporary medical ethics in Japan. When he learned about the concealment of evidence from the court, Justice B.V.A Roling, the only surviving judge from the International Military Tribunal for the Far East in Tokyo (Asia’s Nuremberg), complained that no word about biological warfare had been offered in evidence:

“It is a bitter experience for me to be informed now that centrally ordered Japanese war criminality of the most disgusting kind was kept secret from the court by the U.S. government. This Japanese war criminality consisted, in part, of using human beings, prisoners of war, Chinese as well as American, as “guinea pigs” in an endeavor to test the impact of specific biological warfare weapons.” (Congressional Record. Nov. 10, 1999; quoted by Christopher Reed. The U.S. and the Japanese Mengele: Payoffs and Amnesty for Unit 731 Scientists, The Asia-Pacific Journal: Japan Focus, 2006)

1982: China opened a Museum in Harbin dedicated to exhibiting Unit 731 War Crimes.
The Unit 731 museum is housed on the foundation of the Sifang Building, which was bombed by the Japanese before they left in haste. Only the foundation of the building was left in 1982. A dig conducted in August 2008 revealed the foundation of the central corridor and the prison. Excavations continued for decades.

Japan’s experimental atrocities were the focus of several news reports: CBS’s 60 Minutes (1982); a British Independent Television documentary (1985); an excerpt of the British broadcast on ABC’s 20/20 (1985)

1984: Discovery of a diary of a military officer stationed in Unit 731, by a student in a Tokyo book shop.
The diary contained detailed descriptions of biological experiments which they were conducting on humans. 

1986: A Congressional hearing with one single former POW
In 1986, following Powell’s disclosures led to a single congressional hearing. Roughly 200 POWs survived Mukden prison; Frank James was the sole POW who was allowed to testify with stern instructions that he would be “graveled down” if he mentioned anything derogatory about General Douglas MacArthur.

Mark Felton provides background to Frank James’ testimony: prior to his Congressional testimony, James had been interviewed by historian, Linda Goetz Holmes, whose book. Guests of the Emperor: The Secret History of Japan’s Mukden POW Camp (2010) chronicles the Japanese slave labor camps where 36,000 American POWs were subjected to inhuman conditions in violation of the Geneva Conventions. Many died of pneumonia exposure, starvation and untreated diseases from malnutrition. James indicated that the Japanese medical tests actually began in Pusan, Korea, shortly after the transport ship bringing them from the Philippines docked. Before the prisoners were processed on arrival at Mukden Camp on November 11, 1942, a team of Japanese physicians wearing face masks met them and conducted tests; these included spraying a liquid in their faces, various injections, and glass rods inserted in their rectums. James indicated that these were rigid sigmoidoscopies that permitted examination of the lower colon.

“Everybody had six or seven blood samples taken. All of us at Mukden were directly or indirectly used for experiments. I had constant diarrhea. Medical data was being constantly taken by Japanese doctors. We know that dead Americans were autopsied on site at the Mukden temporary camp by a team of Japanese Army surgeons and medics because Major Peaty recorded this fact in his diary on February 15, 1943 when he wrote: ‘Autopsies being performed on the corpses by visiting Japanese.’ (Felton. The Devil’s Doctors: Japanese Human Experiments on Allied Prisoners of War, 2012)

In his testimony Frank James stated that he had assisted Japanese doctors during the autopsies of American prisoners who had died during the winter of 1942-43. He had been assigned to the burial details shortly after his arrival at the camp, but autopsies and burial were postponed because the ground was frozen solid. By spring of 1943 he and his colleagues had over 200 bodies.

“’A team of Japanese medical personnel, Unit 731, arrived with an autopsy table for taking specimens. They opened the bodies – the head, chest and stomach – and took out desired specimens, which were placed in containers and marked with the POW’s numbers.’” (Felton. The Devil’s Doctors, 2012)

John Hatcher, the chief archivist for the U.S. Army testified that there were no records to indicate Americans had been the victims of wartime experiments. He stated that the Army had sent most of its documents back to Japan in the late 1950s and never made copies.

James, speaking on behalf of the 200 U.S. POW survivors stated, “We were just pawns. W always knew there was a cover-up.” No other soldier testified, and the hearing ended after half a day; Congress never again took up the issue. (The Mudken Files: POWs Claim Germ Warfare Coverup by U.S. San Jose Mercury News, August 13, 1995 posted Nov. 2014 at Constantine Report)

In 1988, the Mayor of Nagasaki, Hitoshi Motoshima, broke a taboo by stating publicly that Emperor Hirohito bore responsibility for the war. His statement ignited nationwide controversy and an ultranationalist shot him in the back in January, 1990. He survived and lived to witness the Fukushima nuclear disaster. [Interview: Ex-Nagasaki Mayor, The Asahi Shimbun, 2012 ]

1989 a massive grave of human bodies were found at a Tokyo construction site
Some meters away from the construction site lay the wartime laboratory of Unit 731, Japan’s top-secret biological warfare program; Unit 731. The site revealed dozens of fragmented thigh bones and skulls, some with holes drilled in them or sections cut out. Police denied there was any evidence of criminal activity. And the ministry of Health concluded that the bones could not be directly linked to Unit 731, glossing over its own acknowledgement that the remains were mostly of non-Japanese Asians — which would have, in fact, been evidence that they were human subjects of Unit 731 biological warfare experiments. Unit 731 was acquiring human guinea pigs from the Manchuria base to Tokyo. After the end of WWII, the bodies were disposed in a massive grave and Unit 731′ s activities remained Japan’s most closely guarded secret.

The Health ministry described the remains as likely bodies used in “medical education” or brought back from the war zone for analysis at the medical school. (Japan Digs WWII Site Linked to Human Experiments, CBS news, February, 2011)

1989: publication of Unit 731: The Japanese Army¹s Secret of Secrets by Peter Williams and David Wallace, co-producers of the 1985 British broadcast. In Japan, a comparable bombshell of a book was Seiichi Morimura’s three-volume novel, The Devil’s Gluttony, 1983-85. Seiichi shocked his countrymen by describing Japan’s biological experiments on humans.

In 1989, the Japanese magazine Days Japan revealed how those who had escaped prosecution had gone on to take some of the most prestigious positions in the Japanese medical community. The man who succeeded Ishii Shiro as commander of Unit 731, Dr. Masaji Kitano, became head of Japan’s largest pharmaceutical company, the Green Cross. Others took up posts heading university medical schools, and also worked in the Japanese health ministry. (Shane Green. Asian Auschwitz of Unit 731, The Age, 2002)

In 1989, Peter Williams and David Wallace, two British journalists, published their book, Unit 731: Japan’s Secret Biological Warfare in World War II (1989) provided a detailed account of the Japanese biological warfare Unit 731 and U.S. cover-up. (It was translated into Chinese by Tien-wei Wu and published by Academia Historica, Taipei, 1992).