China: Family & the forgotten lives of Unit 731


“What kind of music do you like?” I asked the taxi driver in Chinese as he drove us to a popular nightclub in Harbin. Two of my American classmates chatted in the backseat.

“I like slow, emotional ballads the best,” he said, the corner of his eyes crinkling into a warm smile. I rolled my window down, stuck my hand out to feel the breeze and asked the driver to put his favorite radio station on.

We sat in silence listening to the unwavering vocalist for a few minutes, then I asked him where he was from and what his favorite hobbies were – did he like to watch TV, read books, play sports?

“I’m from the countryside – and I don’t really have many hobbies, I work all day every day,” he said and reached out to turn the radio volume down slightly. “Sometimes I like to read novels, but it’s hard for me because I grew up in the country and never learned how to read, so there’s many characters I don’t recognize.”

I was taken aback – most of the time when I try and talk to taxi drivers they’re not this open about their lives. The idioms I learned in my ancient Chinese class swirled around in my mind – I felt guilty that I had the opportunity to study such things, while this man was confined to a taxi.

“My parents had six kids, so our living conditions weren’t great,” he continued. He sounded both proud and incredulous – almost like he couldn’t believe his own life turned out the way it did.

“If money wasn’t an issue and you could do absolutely anything you want with your life, what would you do?” I asked him.

“I would want to do exactly what I’m doing right now – working to support my son so he can go to college and study chemistry,” the man said without hesitation. “I love my family.”


We didn’t end up staying at the nightclub very long. After listening to such soft, silvery music in the taxi, the electronic house beats felt like bombs going off, not music.

I also couldn’t help but to wonder if all the people drinking, dancing, texting and lounging at VIP tables under the flashy lights were as happy as the taxi driver was.


The next day we visited the museum of Unit 731, which was the covert Japanese biological and chemical warfare research center during the Second Sino-Japanese War of World War II.

Hiding behind the official title of the “Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army,” Unit 731 committed some of the most atrocious war crimes in history.

Over 3,000 men, women, children, infants, elderly and pregnant women – majority Chinese, some Soviet, Mongolian and Korean – were subject to inhumane experimentation, such as the removal of organs from live bodies, amputation, germ warfare attacks, weapon testing and frostbite. And outside the walls of Unit 731, tens of thousands of people died in field experimentations.

I couldn’t believe that prior to the museum visit, I had never heard of Unit 731 before. Everyone is familiar with the horrors of Nazi concentration camps, but Unit 731 still seems to be a secret.

The museum was a haunted house of repulsive stories that I struggled to believe had occurred on the ground I was walking on.

The human subjects of Unit 731 were referred to as “maruta,” meaning “logs,” “wood,” or “raw material” and were identified by three-digit numbers.

The ten Chinese prisoners of war were tied on the pillars and they were ten to twenty meters away from the scatter-bombs filled with gangrene bacteria. In order to prevent them from being killed by bombs immediately, their heads and backs were covered by special metal plates and thick cotton quilts, while their feet and hips were exposed outside. When the electric switches were open, the bombs exploded… they died after suffering from severe pain for seven days. 

A placard described the first-hand account of the dissection of a teenage boy: blood splattered everywhere as the surgeons removed each one of his organs, until all that was left was an “empty carcass.” 

A former member of Unit 731, Kanetoshi Tsuruta, recalled that before setting off from General Temple to Haiha River to spread the germs, three of them took a break in a farmhouse. Lying that they were just Japanese travelers, the family made leek dumplings for them with hospitality. Before leaving, they spread the dried plague germ around the farmhouse unnoticed. When they finished the germ spreading mission and returned from Halha River, they found all three members of the family were dead.

Another Unit 731 staff confession described the dissection of a pregnant woman: “You can do whatever you want to me, but please don’t hurt my baby,” she pleaded to the Japanese surgeons who were strapping her down to an examination table. They shoved a chloroform towel over her face and sliced her body open down the center from her chest to her abdomen. As they prodded at her insides and removed her organs, her hands and feet still shook with life.

Senior Japanese Army surgeon, Shirō Ishii – who as a medical student referred to his bacteria as his “pets” – convinced his superiors to establish Unit 731 and became the commander of the torture-house.

Japan lacks the natural resources necessary to build machinery, the only way we can win this war is by pursuing the development of biological and chemical weapons, he said in his speech to Japanese Imperial Army officials.

Unit 731 had a total of 4,515 staff and had its own railway tracks, airport, dormitory, and education, medical, commercial, recreational and religious facilities. They also had a “youth class” of high school graduate recruits who took part in “worship ceremonies” and training.

After the war, the Unit 731 researchers were not tried for war crimes.

American General Douglas MacArther, who was responsible for rebuilding Japan during the Allied occupations, believed the data gathered from human experimentation was valuable and secretly granted Unit 731 physicians immunity in exchange for providing only the U.S. – and not other wartime allies – with the research data.

American microbiologist, Dr. Edwin Hill, wrote in a report that the information from Unit 731 was “absolutely invaluable,” and that it “could never have been obtained in the United States because of scruples attached to experiments on humans.”

Many of the Unit 731 rose to prominent careers in politics, academia, business and medicine in Japan.

Shirō Ishii, who received the “Order of the Golden Kite” award for his “bravery and leadership” during the height of Unit 731, lived until age 67.


In my Chinese class we learned the idiom, “人固有一死,或重于泰山,或轻于鸿毛,” which translates to, “although everyone will die, some deaths are as important as Mount Tai, and some are as light as a feather.”

I hate this idiom.

The “Youth Class” of Unit 731
Unit 731 railway tracks
Ruins of one of the human experimentation testing site



Rat breeding room

One Comment Add yours

  1. Colleen says:

    This is wondeful

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