After decades of tension over Japan’s failure to address atrocities that it perpetrated before and during World War II, the island nation’s relations with its regional neighbors, China and South Korea, are improving. Six weeks ago, for the first time in years, representatives of Japan’s Upper House resumed exchanges with Chinese parliamentarians. And in December, after the Japanese government long denied its coercive role in the abuse, the country’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, apologized and offered financial compensation for Japan’s exploitation of tens of thousands of Korean “comfort women” (a euphemism referring to Japanese military sexual slaves during the country’s colonial rule of the Korean peninsula from 1910 to 1945).
Although these recent developments are welcome, Japan’s reconciliation with its neighbors and with its own dark past will remain incomplete and insincere unless and until it acknowledges a lesser known but no less grotesque category of its wartime offenses: human experimentation. Just as Europe would not countenance German refusal to own up to the Holocaust atrocities of Josef Mengele, so too should East Asia expect Japan to offer a full, genuine account of and apology for the “scientific” barbarities it perpetrated. Some of the human guinea pigs were American soldiers, so Washington should help lead the campaign to demand Japanese responsibility. The United States, however, must make amends of its own: prioritizing military development over justice, the government sought to cover up and benefit from these bio-experiments, and has never properly accounted for its shameful calculus.
This shocking episode is perhaps the most successful aspect of Japan’s whitewashing of history, even if we do know some details of what occurred. The Imperial Japanese Army’s Unit 731, led by Lieutenant General Shiro Ishii, conducted experiments on thousands of civilians and Allied soldiers during World War II. (Although no consensus exists about whether American prisoners of war were among the victims of Unit 731 specifically, they certainly were subjects of Japanese human experiments elsewhere.) These experiments, sometimes referred to as the “Asian Auschwitz,” included vivisections, dissections, weapons testing, starvation, dehydration, poisoning, extreme temperature and pressure testing, and deliberate infection with numerous deadly diseases (such as bubonic plague, cholera, anthrax, smallpox, gangrene, streptococcus bacteria, and syphilis). Had World War II continued, the Japanese planned to use biological weapons developed from these experiments to attack the US military in the Pacific Theatre and possibly even the West Coast of the United States itself.
Once the war had ended, the US government offered immunity and other incentives—including money, food, and entertainment—to over 3,600 Japanese government agents, physicians, and scientists involved in these experiments. Afterwards, some of these Japanese assumed prominent roles (including senior positions in the health ministry, academia, and the private sector) in postwar Japanese society, allegedly with the assistance or at least knowledge of the US government.
Some may argue that the US government bears no moral responsibility, as it did not directly participate in this human experimentation. But the United States declined to hold many of the perpetrators accountable, and benefited materially as well. US government officials were interested in the potential utility of the work of Ishii and other Japanese, however unethical, to the US military. Senior American officials felt that obtaining data from the experiments was more valuable than bringing those involved to justice, because the information could be used to advance the US government’s own weapons development program. American officials also were concerned about preventing other countries, particularly the Soviet Union, from obtaining the data. The incipient Cold War—and the superpowers’ attendant desire to secure competitive advantages and scientific advancements—thus chilled the US government’s enthusiasm for investigating and prosecuting Japanese human experimenters. American officials believed that their research would be useful in the arms race developing between the Soviet Union and the United States.
As with Japanese exploitation of comfort women, justice for Japanese human experimentation is long overdue. Illustrating that memorialization of these Japanese atrocities is an ongoing concern, just last August China opened a museum dedicated to researching and revealing this ghastly subject. Japan should, finally, now admit its wrongdoing, officially apologize, and offer meaningful, direct restitution to any surviving victims of the experiments. The United States, for its part, should apologize for offering amnesty to the atrocity perpetrators. Both Japan and the United States should declassify and release relevant records of the number, nationalities, and names of victims as well as deals struck between the two countries.
The fact that Japan has not fully acknowledged its wartime atrocities creates uncertainty about its true intentions and likely behavior, particularly as the country pursues a military resurgence and seeks to present a more unified front against North Korea’s increasing aggression. Japan’s horrific history will never be forgiven until it thoroughly and genuinely atones for all of its heinous crimes during World War II. Only then will Japan be more fully embraced by its neighbors and others in the international community as a sincere partner in establishing an honest account of the past and a more humane approach to the future.
Featured image: Lake Toya, Hokkaido. CC0 via Pixabay.