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Japan's secret weapons

A Plague Upon Humanity: The Secret Genocide of Axis Japan's Germ Warfare Operation

  • Daniel Barenblatt
HarperCollins: 2004. 256 pp. US$25.95, Can$35.95 To be published in the UK in March 2004 by Souvenir Press, £20

When Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931, it alleged Chinese involvement in blowing up a section of the Japanese-owned South Manchurian Railway. The charge was false: confessions in 1945 by some of those involved confirmed that Japanese engineers carried out the attack to provide the pretext for the invasion of the Asian mainland. History is littered with similar pretexts.

Condemnation of Japan's invasion by the League of Nations followed relatively swiftly, prompting Japan to leave the body in 1933. Japan subsequently attacked China in 1937 and the US naval base at Pearl Harbor in 1941, and then invaded Vietnam, Malaysia and the Philippines. The brutality of the invaders has been well documented and the success of the military campaign waged by Japan is now textbook material.

Less well known are some of the means that Japan used to get its way, and biological warfare is just one of these. Daniel Barenblatt's A Plague Upon Humanity is an attempt to redress this ignorance and to provide a readable book that documents what happened. Barenblatt is bemused, asking himself how it is that the “startling” information about Japan's use of biological warfare “is not common knowledge, as is the Holocaust and the experiments of the Nazi doctors?”

A Plague Upon Humanity addresses this question, the succinct answer to which is political expediency. Following the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, Japanese scientists and doctors involved in the biological-warfare programme did a deal with the United States. The arrangement was that the United States would receive details of the programme and results of experiments, and in return the Japanese researchers would receive immunity from prosecution. The deal only became public knowledge in 1980.

As far as the United States was concerned, the information it received was a windfall. Not only had the Japanese used plague, cholera, paratyphoid and anthrax in attacks on Chinese civilians, but they had also carried out experiments on some 3,000 people. These experiments are some of the most gruesome recorded, and many involved deliberately infecting people. Individuals — primarily locals who had infringed the Japanese penal codes — were exposed to a single bacterial or viral agent and monitored. As the disease progressed, those infected (the maruta, or ‘logs of wood’, as they were often called) were assessed on a daily basis; official records show that some were even operated on while still alive. But none survived their ordeal — all 3,000 either succumbed to the infection or were killed and their tissue retained.

The Japanese tested at least 19 bacteria and viruses as candidates for biological warfare. Writing about this in 1947, Edwin Hill, chief of basic sciences at Camp Detrick in the United States, the main research centre for biological warfare, noted that his government had obtained the data for a “mere pittance by comparison with the actual cost of the studies”. The value of the data was not in question for, as Hill observed: “Such information could not be obtained in our own laboratories because of scruples attached to human experimentation.” Hill does not seem to comment on the scruples of those who use the information or who failed to prosecute the scientists for war crimes.

None of the above is new information, and most of it is retold in Barenblatt's book. Drawing heavily on already published works, particularly Factories of Death by the late Sheldon Harris and Unit 731 by Peter Williams and David Wallace, this latest addition to the literature is something of a disappointment. Barenblatt is right to be outraged about his subject matter and the fact that it still remains relatively obscure; perhaps his book will reach a wide audience and fulfil one of his aims. But for researchers in this field, his book will be a let-down. The sources of the many facts cited in the text are not referenced. Given that the material is so outrageous, it is all the more important to be scrupulous about documenting its origins.

Japan's biological-warfare programme was the brainchild of Shiro Ishii, an immunologist who inveigled his way into Japan's military hierarchy and pushed at an open door to get the funding he needed. His supporters were persuaded that biological warfare would assist Japan's imperial ambitions, enabling Ishii to set up shop in Manchuria at a centre known as Unit 731. Barenblatt demonizes Ishii, and there is much to condemn, but the actions of this rogue scientist are not new. What is missing from Barenblatt's book, and what is sorely needed, is solid evidence of the number of Chinese who died as a result of Japan's use of biological warfare in the field. Sadly, there are few Chinese scholars working in this area with access to the necessary archives.

Barenblatt refers to Chinese sources who claim that as many as 580,000 died as a result of Japan's biological warfare. The figure is said to be preliminary: the number may increase as house-to-house enquiries by investigators turn up more victims. Whether these deaths are truly attributable to the biological-warfare programme, or are the result of insanitary conditions brought about by mass population movements in war, is not clear. What is beyond dispute, however, is that Japan used biological warfare to kill many people. The more people who know this, and about those who did deals to suppress the information, the better.

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Hay, A. Japan's secret weapons. Nature 427, 396 (2004).

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