Hal Gold, Unit 731: Testimony (Yenbooks, 1996)
[originally posted 15Feb2001]
[ed. note 2013: I revised out some misconceptions about the film adaptation, most notably the commonly-held misconception in the late nineties that Tun Fei Mou was a pseudonym for Godfrey Ho, who directed the second film, Laboratory of the Devil. Which, by the way, I have since seen, and it’s crap.]
Over the fifty years since World War II, we have been made aware of atrocities committed during those years. We are most aware of Nazi Germany; less in the consciousness, but still a part of the common knowledge, is Stalin’s treatment of Russians during and after the war. But the actions of the Japanese army in China during the thirties and forties—and their ultimate consequences—have gone largely unreported in the Western press. Americans were first made aware of the scope and depth of Japan’s war crimes in the late 1980s by two investigative journalists, Williams and Wallace, in their book Unit 731: Japan’s Secret Biological Warfare in World War II. Soon after, Tun Fei Mou released the first of four exploitation films based on the activities of Unit 731, called Men Behind the Sun (a film partially subsidized by the Chinese government). Gradually, Americans became more aware of what happened (especially in the case of the Rape of Nanjing), but the numbers—conservative estimates put the death toll in China between 1930 and 1945 at thirty million—and the specific case of Unit 731 are still largely unknown to Americans.
Hal Gold fires another shot in the battle to set things right with his book Unit 731: Testimony. During 1993 and 1994, an exhibition based on the activities of Unit 731 toured Japan, and a handful of ex-Unit 731 personnel testified about their actions and the actions of others. It was the first time the Japanese government had allowed evidence that Unit 731 even existed to be publicized. Gold’s book starts with a history of Unit 731, and then provides transcriptions of many of the testimonies given during the exhibition.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about Unit 731: Testimony is the quotidian attitude of the employees recounted in much of the testimony. While a number mentioned initial pangs of conscience once they realized what it was Unit 731 was actually doing, almost all of them say that they simply got used to it. And we think kids are desensitized to violence today? Wonder what the average teen would do if he found himself in a room where a live vivisection, without benefit of anesthesia, were being performed.
Gold gets his message across by being invisible. He puts the facts on the table as plainly as possible, and then lets the testifiers speak for themselves. The acts lead to one conclusion: the U. S. government (and specifically MacArthur and Truman) were fully aware of the activities of Unit 731, which turned over all surviving test results and documents in exchange for immunity against war crimes prosecution (many of MacArthur’s surviving memos and letters dealing with Unit 731 strongly imply that the general didn’t consider those activities to be war crimes at all). Allegations were made during the Korean War that the United States, with help from Unit 731 commander Shiro Ishii, carried out a biological attack on Pyongyang. Gold never conclusively proves the case, but the circumstantial evidence points to the conclusion that those allegations are true.
The testimonials, on the other hand, speak volumes before they are even read. Japan is changing, as a culture, and the government’s ability to allow the disclosure of fifty-year-old state secrets are a promising beginning. (As a side note, Gold also mentions at least three aborted operations the Japanese were considering that would almost certainly have altered the course of the war. It really makes one think to realize that the Japanese had a submersible aircraft carrier sitting not far off the coast of Oregon—and decided not to use it.)
This is a powerful book, and one that should become a standard text in twentieth-century history classes. In terms of scale and in terms of horror, the Japanese occupation of what they called Manchuria was the chief atrocity of the twentieth century. And you know what they say about history forgotten. ****