(In response to this post.)

I’ve been interested in Japan’s Unit 731 since it came up in a bioethics class back in college. Recently, I read a journal article on the subject written by Tsuneishi Keiichi, one of Japan’s top biowarfare specialists, and several details stood out.

“It is said that Ishii [Lt. Gen. Ishii Shiro, the head of Unit 731 and Japan’s wartime biochemical weapons research network] first became convinced of the need to develop biological weapons with the signing of the Geneva Protocol in 1925.”

For context: the 1925 Geneva Protocol outlawed use of biological and chemical weapons in war. Which means Ishii decided to embark on his research precisely because a good number of nations (38 original signatories), including many then-formidable powers – France, Germany, Russia, the UK, the US* – had agreed not to use biological and chemical weapons.

* Though lobbies in Congress blocked US ratification of the 1925 Geneva Protocol until the 70s

(My first reaction: What an asshole. This impression remains unchanged, and is much more vehement than that pithy statement implies.)

It’s reasonable to assume that Ishii Shiro plunged into Japanese biological and chemical weapon development with the intent of taking advantage of the prohibitions placed on protocol signatories. But did Japan – or at least Ishii and his research network – really intend, or at least expect, conflict with these powers?

At this point, it’s worth noting that:

  • the Geneva Protocol didn’t ban the production and stockpiling of biological and chemical weapons, nor did it prohibit their use against non-ratifying parties; and
  • many of Japan’s neighbors didn’t ratify the protocol until much later: North and South Korea in 1989, for example, and China in 1952. (Japan itself was an original signatory but only ratified the protocol in 1970.)

It seems that Ishii, at best, undertook his research in anticipation of biochemical warfare from Japan’s neighbors. At worst, he meant for Japan to use that research against those same neighbors with a little less fear of commensurate retaliation from other powers that had, by 1925, already used thousands of tons of chemical agents in World War I.

But possibly belligerent motivations and Ishii’s rank aside, it would be disingenuous to characterize Unit 731 as solely a military enterprise:

“For the most part, the Ishii network took on university researchers as technicians. The part-time researchers were part-time employees of the Military Medical School Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory; they were professors at Tokyo and Kyoto imperial universities who were contracted to perform research in their own laboratories. In short, a large number of civilian researchers were mobilized.” (emphasis mine)

Civilian technicians worked in the military; part-time researchers also worked on Unit 731 projects outside of the military structure. It’s easy, and perhaps more palatable for us now, to compartmentalize these atrocities and confine intent and responsibility to the Japanese military personnel of the period. This was, after all, a secret unit. But the reality is that Ishii’s research was sustained by civilian participation.

Did these civilians intend to commit atrocities? Let’s segue a bit to Hannah Arendt’s discussion of Adolf Eichmann, who faced trial for his role in orchestrating the Holocaust. In general, criminal law requires some element of intent (mens rea) for there to be liability. But Arendt notes that, in Eichmann’s obedient implementation of policy, there’s a lack of reflection. Consequently, the legal concept of “intention” can’t be said to apply.

In short: can we, must we, speak of criminal intent when dealing with blind obedience? Can standard legal frameworks grasp the details and encompass the systematization of these crimes?

Arendt gives us the now-famous phrase, “the banality of evil,” which for Arendt meant how people like Eichmann “accepted, routinised, and implemented [these crimes] without moral revulsion and political indignation and resistance.” We can also take this as a gesture at the inadequacy of established legal frameworks in the face of cases like Eichmann and Ishii. Arendt enjoins us to consider people like Eichmann and the Ishii network (including its civilian researchers) not just as perpetrators of specific atrocities against discrete persons/groups. They’ve committed gross and unprecedented crimes against humanity itself, not least by failing to consider their actions crimes. Their systematic, unthinking commission of these crimes—and thus their implicit refutation of established frameworks of judgment, legal or even moral—should well count as a grave evil of its own.

It’s important to remember, in this case, the sheer extent of the Ishii network. We’re talking about Unit 731, but it’s called a network for a reason:

“With the expansion of the war front throughout China after 1937, sister units affiliated with Unit 731 were established in major Chinese cities… (Unit 1855 was established in Beijing on February 9, 1938; Unit 1644 in Nanjing on April 18, 1939; and Unit 8604 in Guangzhou on April 8, 1939). Later, after Japan occupied Singapore a similar unit (Unit 9420) was established there on March 26, 1942… As of the end of 1939 (that is, before the establishment of the Singapore unit), the network had a total staff of 10,045, of which 4,898 were assigned to the core units in Tokyo and Pingfan.”

Sure, call Unit 731 the Asian Auschwitz, but just as Auschwitz was one of many camps, the same holds true for the Japanese complex in Pingfan. Despite being a “secret unit,” Unit 731 was in no way an isolated program confined to one horror-house facility or an unsanctioned pursuit led by a rogue officer. This was a massive undertaking, and official support stretched far beyond just Lt. Gen. Ishii. The Kwantung Army chief of staff and the Ministry of War’s vice minister signed off on these units’ formation; Emperor Hirohito approved their creation.

Speaking of permission:

“‘Such information could not be obtained in our own laboratories because of scruples attached to human experimentation.’”

That’s a line that Keiichi quotes from the Hill and Victor Report, which was the product of the second phase of US investigations into the Unit 731 network. That’s also, perhaps, the one line that best encapsulates why the United States let this vast, aberrant system get away with murder (and much else besides).

I’m not inclined to buy wholesale the implied benevolence in the claim that the US meant to keep Unit 731 research out of any other nation’s hands. For one thing: that line up there and its “scruples.” It’s such a flaccid word for what ought to be a fierce and adamant objection to human experimentation. As it is, the Hill and Victor report makes such scruples sound like inconveniences that Unit 731′s discovery so fortuitously allowed the United States to sidestep.