Biological Warfare

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Review of 'A Plague upon Humanity', Daniel Barenblatt, Souvenir £18.99

This book tells the horrifying and shocking story of imperial Japan's biological weapons programme during the 1930s and 1940s. An estimated 580,000 people died as a result of 'research' on live human beings and experimental use of germs as weapons of mass destruction.

The Nazis' experiments on human beings are well known. Less well known in the west are the crimes of Japan's Dr Mengele, Shiro Ishii. Dr Ishii is portrayed by the author as a flamboyant yet fanatical imperialist who exploits his ruling class connections to campaign for Japan to develop biological weapons to further its expansionist aims.

Japan's biological weapons programme is set against the rising imperialist conflict in the first half of the last century. Its rapid industrial development had made it a world leader in medicine. From 1931, with the conquest of Manchuria, this knowledge was perverted to be used to torture human beings to death rather than cure them. Japan's economic weakness compared to its rivals made germ warfare attractive to the military, as biological weapons could be developed and used more cheaply than other weapons of mass destruction.

The victims were overwhelmingly Chinese Communists and nationalists, murdered for opposing the brutal occupation of their country. They also included Allied prisoners of war and unfortunate civilians kidnapped by Japanese troops because they fitted the biological types required by scientists.

Ishii was at the centre of a vast network of research sites which eventually covered all Japan's conquests in south east Asia and the Pacific. Prisoners were subjected to appalling treatment at the hands of top biologists, under the aegis of the military. Men, women and children were injected with diseases such as TB, bubonic plague and syphilis, and their suffering was monitored and recorded. Many were subjected to live vivisection without anaesthetic with their organs being removed while they were still alive.

Few survived more than a few months in these horrific laboratories of death. In an echo of Auschwitz, bodies were burned in a giant crematorium at complexes at Pingfan and Changchun in Manchuria. For the military and its scientists, non-Japanese peoples were subhuman - fit only to be tortured to death for the greater glory of Japan. To the scientists, the victims were known as maruta or logs, and treated accordingly.

Scandalously, Ishii and his colleagues went on to enjoy distinguished academic and business careers after the war, getting off scot free. They cut a deal with General MacArthur, Japan's de facto ruler in the postwar period, that they would help the US biological weapons effort in return for immunity from prosecution for war crimes. Biological weapons were not mentioned in the major war crimes trial of Japan's war leaders in 1948, despite testimony from leaders of Japan's biological weapons programme being available from a recent Soviet trial. Just as Japan had used biological weapons in Manchuria during the Second World War, US forces under MacArthur were to use identical weapons in the same area during the Korean War.

Despite all efforts to cover up the crimes of Japan's most eminent scientists, knowledge did leak out. In the 1990s a major exhibition exposing the horrors of wartime experiments toured Japan including eyewitnesses' testimony. As with its other war crimes, the establishment has refused to apologise for the activities of the army's biological units and denied compensation to survivors.

When Bush and Blair preach about the horrors of weapons of mass destruction we should remember that both Britain and the US have germ warfare programmes. Institutions such as Porton Down have experimented on servicemen without their knowledge. The Bush administration has refused to sign an international treaty limiting biological weapons. The crimes of the Japanese ruling class were not just an aberration, but the product of an aggressive imperialism which is unfortunately still with us.