In 1894, bubonic plague irrupted in Canton, China, and spread to Hong Kong. From this port city, the lethal trio of fleas, rats, and bacteria stowed away on ships heading around the world. As the ensuing pandemic began claiming 12 million lives, two scientists raced to discover the microbe responsible for the Black Death. The winner beat his rival by a matter of days, and the victor's name is now known to every student of microbiology. Alexander Yersin, an eccentric French doctor, shares his name with the plague bacterium, Yersinia pestis. And the loser? Kitasato Shibasaburo is no more than a footnote in the chronicles of science. This Japanese microbiologist was, however, a vital link in a chain of events that led to the most diabolical program of entomological warfare ever devised.
Kitasato studied under one of the greatest pathologists in history, Robert Koch. And Kitasato was a fast learner. He worked alongside other Japanese scientists to develop a public health system far ahead of anything in Europe or North America. Then the Japanese converted their science into an unprecedented military breakthrough.
In every conflict up to the Russo-Japanese War, disease had taken a greater toll than bullets and bombs. But at the beginning of the conflict in 1904, the Japanese instituted an elaborate and effective program of hygiene and medical care.1 When the war ended 18 months later, 1.5 percent of the Japanese troops had been killed in battle, but only 1.2 percent had succumbed to infections. Not only had Japan defeated the microbes and the Russians, but they emerged as an exemplar of wartime compassion.
While the Russians left their wounded behind, the Japanese provided medical care to the enemy, paid POWs a modest salary for their labor, and returned all prisoners—some in better shape than they had been before the war—to their homeland. But within just 20 years, Japan's military would be transformed from a model of morality into a template of depravity. This change would be catalyzed by an individual whose own transmogrification from healer to monster was a microcosm of his country's degeneration.
In June 1892, Ishii Shiro was born into a world of power and privilege (see Figure 8.1).2 His parents were the aristocracy of the village of Chiyoda-Mura, a couple of hours southeast of Tokyo. Based on centuries-old tradition, the Ishii family received tribute from the peasants, who showed deep respect for their feudal lords. So Ishii Shiro—the youngest of four brothers—grew up being waited on by servants in a stately villa amid verdant bamboo groves and fruit orchards.
Although privilege often spawns indolence, Ishii was an energetic student. Throughout his early education, teachers were amazed at his abilities. By adolescence, Ishii's sense of social entitlement and his formidable intellect had conspired to shape a domineering personality. His size and bearing only enhanced this persona. At 5 feet, 10 inches, Ishii towered over his contemporaries, and his normal speaking voice boomed over the hushed tones of the demure Japanese. He was fanatically loyal to the emperor, having been well served by the stratification of Japanese society. Seeking to satisfy both his brilliant mind and darkening heart, Ishii began to formulate a plan to combine his growing interest in medicine with his access to political power.
In April 1916, Ishii was admitted to the Medical Department of Kyoto Imperial University. Brilliant and arrogant, Ishii breezed through his classes and alienated his classmates. He had no use for them, but the academic patriarchs of this prestigious university could prove most useful, if carefully
Figure 8.1. General Ishii Shiro, the mastermind of Japan's Unit 731. Ishii was responsible for developing biological weapons during World War II, in a program that made extensive use of human experimentation. The breakthrough in terms of operational weapons came when Ishii realized that by using insect vectors, the pathogens would be protected from environmental degradation, provided with the conditions needed to reproduce, and carried directly to the human enemy. (Bulletin of Unit 731, Masao Takezawa)
manipulated. And Ishii's genius extended beyond textbooks; he was a brilliant social climber. Through a paradoxical blend of obsequiousness and brazen-ness, he became a frequent visitor to the home of the university president. If this affront to cultural norms was not sufficient, Ishii swept away all vestiges of propriety by marrying the president's daughter. He graduated in December 1920, having earned a medical degree and cemented his social standing.
A month later, Ishii began his military training and by summer he was commissioned as a surgeon—first lieutenant. Assigned as a physician to the Imperial Guards Division, he quickly found that medical science was much more to his liking than caring for sick people. As a consummate player in the power game of the Japanese military, Ishii managed to secure a transfer to a research posting at the First Army Hospital in Tokyo in the summer of 1922. There, he acquired a reputation for long nights of debauchery and even longer days of research. The latter caught the eye of his superiors, who assigned Ishii to his alma mater for postgraduate studies.
Ishii arrived at Kyoto Imperial University still seeking the optimal path to glory. Medicine and the military had fueled his journey, but Ishii had not been able to chart a clear course into the future. His clarity of purpose finally came in the form of two events, one experiential and the other intellectual. This pair of epiphanies put Ishii on a one-way road to infamy.
The first of Ishii's signposts appeared when he was sent to the island of Shikoku in 1924.3 Having devoted himself to studies of pathogenic microbiology and preventive medicine, Ishii was an obvious choice to investigate the outbreak of a mysterious disease. When he arrived, Ishii found the patients gaunt and shaking uncontrollably with chills. Soon, they became unable to move their arms or legs, and the inexorable spread of paralysis culminated in a merciful death. Ishii and his colleagues ascertained that the killer was a previously unknown mosquito-borne virus. The discovery of Japanese B encephalitis was a professional coup for Ishii, but the lasting effect for him was witnessing the disease's sociopolitical repercussions. A sudden, unaccountable malady had killed 3,500 people, swamped the medical infrastructure, evoked terror among victims, induced chaos among authorities—and planted a seed in Ishii's mind as to the capacity of an insect-borne disease. What if such power could be harnessed?
Ishii returned to the university and completed another two years of study and research, earning a doctorate in microbiology. He had begun to establish himself as a preeminent medical scholar, publishing a well-received series of papers in prestigious journals. To stay on top, a scientist must be a voracious reader, and Ishii read with one eye aimed at the cutting edge of his field and the other directed toward military tactics. The latter soon focused on a report of the 1925 Geneva Disarmament Convention.
First Lieutenant Harada, a physician and member of the Japanese War Ministry's Bureau, had attended the Geneva Convention, and his government had dutifully signed the agreement to prohibit biological weapons.4 Although Harada's report had been largely overlooked, Ishii saw within it the key to his future—and that of the Japanese empire. The prohibition of biological agents in warfare was based on a few straightforward considerations. Poison gases had been brutally effective in the First World War, and military scientists were frantically searching for deadlier agents. These research programs were ineluctably drawn toward biological weapons. And the viability of using disease to wage war had been dramatically enhanced by the development of mass-immunization methods to protect the aggressor from a "boomerang" effect. Ishii reasoned that powerful nations would invest their time only in banning weapons that were likely to be wickedly effective. This logic compelled him to take his case to the highest levels of government.
Using his connections within the Tokyo hierarchy, Ishii finagled his way into the heart of the Japanese War Ministry.5 There, he made an intelligent and impassioned case for initiating a biological warfare program. But he failed to provoke sufficient paranoia among the Japanese leaders to convince them to support his initiative. They appreciated the hypothetical arguments, but Ishii lacked hard evidence that the rest of the world was preparing such horrific weapons. Whether their hesitation reflected the politics of practicality or the vestiges of honor, they would not launch a biological warfare program without a more compelling case. Ishii accepted the challenge with his typical fervor.
Although he was in the midst of starting a large family, Ishii knew that he had to leave his wife and children if he was to prove that other nations were secretly violating the Geneva Protocol. His future depended on convincing the authorities to fund a biological warfare program and, of course, to put him at the helm. Currying favor from his superiors, Ishii received support for a round-the-world tour of military facilities. Leaving in the spring of 1928, Ishii spent two years visiting more than 20 countries, including the powers of Europe along with Egypt, the Soviet Union, Canada, and the United States.
When Ishii returned to Japan in 1930, he had acquired considerable circumstantial evidence of biological weapons programs in other nations. However, his new information regarding misconduct elsewhere in the world was not nearly as important as the ideological shift that had transpired in his absence.
Ultra-nationalism had infused the political system, and the Japanese High Command had embraced aggressive expansionism. They were primed to believe that the western powers were pursuing nefarious weapons. The passion of the government, the power of the military, and the potency of science made for a supercharged combination. Just four months after returning to his homeland, Ishii was promoted to major and appointed to the Tokyo Army Medical College. In parlaying his ascending status into influence at ever-higher levels of the government, his lobbying began to yield tangible results.
Having caught the attention of Koizumi Chikahiko, Japan's most eminent military scientist and dean of the Army Medical College, Ishii garnered support for establishing a department of immunology—a front for his first forays into biological weapons research. Ishii was put in charge of the Orwellian "Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory." Although protecting Japanese troops from disease was part of the agenda, the military understood that the laboratory's ultimate goal was to initiate epidemics. The formalization of Ishii's program sent a clear signal to the Japanese government that the military considered biological warfare to be a viable line of research and development.
To be fair, Ishii was not entirely monomaniacal in his pursuit of inflicting disease. While at the college, he made his final, positive contribution to human well-being.6 Ishii invented a ceramic filter that eliminated the need for boiling water as a means of sterilization, a most difficult proposition in the course of battle. He received generous royalties from the Japanese Army and Navy above the table and lucrative kickbacks from suppliers under the table. The latter practice would continue in various guises throughout Ishii's career and allow him to amass considerable wealth. Most important, his standing in the power structure skyrocketed. With access to the emperor's inner circle, Ishii had the clout to make things happen in a big way.
Having made exciting inroads with animal studies at his Tokyo laboratory, Ishii knew that the next step would require a moral leap for even the most zealous political and military leaders. The preliminary results had to be verified: he needed human guinea pigs. Ishii anticipated that practical concerns would also work against him. The biomedical facility could not ensure containment, so infecting human subjects amid the bustling population of Tokyo would be too dangerous. He needed to conduct such hazardous work abroad.
Only a fool would expect another sovereign nation to willingly put its populace at grave risk to support the Japanese biological warfare effort.7 Ishii was a visionary but he was no fool. So he'd watched attentively as the Kwantung Army of Imperial Japan provided the perfect location for his dream to materialize—a place where people "could be plucked from the streets like rats" and their government would not so much as murmur a protest.8
Manchuria had long been the foster child of Asian powers.9 Since the 12th century, this northeastern region of China had passed through the control of four dynasties, followed by various warlords in the 19th century. In 1898, the Russians forced the Chinese to grant them a lease covering much of the Kwantung Peninsula on the southern coast of Manchuria. When the Japanese thrashed the Russians in 1905, the victors took custody of the peninsula. Such a bold move might have outraged other world powers, but the United States was busy with its own colonial efforts. In a quid pro quo of epic proportions, Japan recognized the U.S. claim to occupy the Philippines in return for the United States' accepting Japan's suzerainty over Korea, control of the coastal city of Port Arthur, and—most critically—occupation of the Kwantung Peninsula.
The Japanese established the Kwantung Army to cement their foothold in Manchuria. By 1919, the chaotic bureaucracy that masqueraded as a government of the region had been converted into a military organization under the aegis of Japan. The occupiers realized that their resource needs had outgrown their borders, so the peninsula was seen as a stepping stone to the coal, iron, oil, and metals of Manchuria. The United States had been placated, but the Asian powers bristled at Japanese expansionism.
With China trending toward unification under Chiang Kai-shek and Russia flexing its muscles to the north, Japan couldn't simply invade Manchuria without provoking the wrath of these formidable nations. The Japanese needed an excuse. So in September 1931, they blew up a section of their own track on the South Manchurian Railway. Attacking yourself would seem to be an odd ploy, but the Japanese declared the destruction had been the work of Chinese insurgents. Japan had to "defend" its interests, so the army attacked a nearby garrison of sleeping Chinese soldiers—and then kept going. Thousands of troops poured through the door opened by the "Manchurian Incident," and by the end of 1932, the Kwantung Army controlled the entire region.
Manchuria became a puppet state, with every Chinese official having a Japanese "adviser" who pulled the strings. And Ishii had the perfect setting for his program. Here was a land in which the putative government could not object to his work. Moreover, Manchuria was a scientific paradise, with excellent facilities built using natural resource revenues and without the bothersome strictures of Japanese culture. The pièce de résistance was the availability of human guinea pigs, provided by the kenpeitai. This military police force used sporadic attacks by the Manchurians' underground resistance as an excuse to arrest virtually anyone.
In 1932, Ishii moved his laboratory and staff to a military hospital in the bustling cosmopolitan city of Harbin.10 Ishii soon discovered that the hustle and bustle of Harbin made it difficult to keep secret the sinister activities of his unit. Ever the slick operator, he convinced the High Command to approve construction of a new facility outside of the city.
Beiyinhe was an unexceptional village of about 300 homes within a diffuse scattering of settlements called Zhong Ma City by the locals. But there was nothing city-like about the area, which consisted of subsistence farms. Beiyinhe was 60 miles south of Harbin and situated a few hundred yards from the rail line, making it both isolated and accessible. The logistics were ideal for Ishii's unit, and nobody would notice if a few hundred peasants suddenly relocated. Or disappeared.
Late in the summer of 1932, the Japanese army swept into Beiyinhe and torched the entire village, save a large building that was suitable for Ishii's headquarters. Chinese laborers were conscripted to build what became Zhong Ma Prison Camp. They were made to wear blinderlike shields so they could not figure out what they were constructing. Even so, those who worked on the most sensitive area—the inner section of medical laboratories within the prisoners' quarters—were executed once the building was complete to ensure secrecy. In all, the facility included about 100 brick buildings, comprising laboratories, offices, living quarters, dining areas, warehouses, cell blocks—and a crematorium. The camp was surrounded by a 10-foot brick wall topped with high voltage wires. At the entrance, a drawbridge led to twin iron doors.
Ishii's house of horrors could hold 1,000 prisoners, although there were normally about half this many. The average life expectancy of a captive was one month. The inmates were shackled but well fed, not out of any sense of compassion but to ensure useful data from the experiments. Most of the records were destroyed, but documents recovered by the Chinese after the war provide a glimpse into the research at Zhong Ma Prison Camp.
According to one report, Ishii's minions captured 40 mice (perhaps rats) from an area in which plague was endemic near the Manchurian-Soviet bor-der.11 The scientists collected fleas from the rodents, extracted plague bacteria from the insects, and injected the microbes into three communist guerrillas. The subjects became delirious with fever (the data sheets reveal that one had a fever of I04°F on the 12th day) and were vivisected while unconscious. Ishii converted such initial successes into personal gain, being promoted to lieutenant colonel in the summer of 1935. However, the use of human subjects soon set the stage for disaster.
Less than a year after the prison was up and running, rumors spread among the local villages that inmates were being killed.12 Eyewitness testimony to the horrors inside Zhong Ma Prison Camp came in the fall of 1936. The Japanese guards had drunk themselves into a stupor in the course of the Mid-Autumn Festival (in an ironic twist, this holiday celebrates the Chinese overthrow of their earlier oppressors, the Mongols). Seizing the opportunity, the prisoners who had enough strength to stagger from their cells made their break. Most were soon recaptured, but a band of partisans found a dozen of the fugitives wandering in the nearby woods and hid them from the Japanese. The escapees' stories of atrocities spread throughout the region. With the real purpose of Zhong Ma Prison Camp no longer secret, the Japanese military was faced with either terminating their biological warfare project or relocating the operation. Ishii might have saved the program on his own, but the Russians gave his superiors a compelling reason not only to continue but also to dramatically expand development of biological warfare.
In the midst of the crisis concerning the prison break, the Japanese military police arrested five Russian spies in the Kwantung region.13 The infiltrators were not nearly as worrisome as the materials they were carrying: glass bottles and ampulae containing bacteria responsible for dysentery, cholera, and anthrax. The threat of biological sabotage was all that Ishii needed to secure endorsement of his work at the highest levels of the Japanese command. So in 1937 Zhong Ma Prison Camp was obliterated and construction began on a facility that would usher in the darkest days of entomological science.
Was this article helpful?
SWINE INFLUENZA frightening you? CONCERNED about the health implications? Coughs and Sneezes Spread Diseases! Stop The Swine Flu from Spreading. Follow the advice to keep your family and friends safe from this virus and not become another victim. These simple cost free guidelines will help you to protect yourself from the swine flu.