Unit 731

8 Mar

“Every empire, however, tells itself and the world that it is unlike all other empires, that its mission is not to plunder and control but to educate and liberate.”
–Edward Said

Harbin, Heilongjiang province, China: a gritty metropolis.  Ice-crusted neighborhoods with baozi steamers billowing in doorways skirt expanding building projects.  Faces pass pinched and creased by time and Siberian winds.

Nowadays, the city’s main claim to fame is its International Ice and Snow Festival.  Someone once told me that part of the Chinese Zeitgeist is a taste for goofy, child-like fun.  The Ice and Snow Festival surely fits that bill.  Picture a Disneyland of glowing ice cubes, inhabited by dancing bears, bunnies, and the inevitable students posing for photos.

For those who favor museums over goofy fun, there’s Unit 731 Museum.  If you wish to visit, I recommend brushing up on the history.  Factories of Death by Sheldon Harris is an account of the Japanese Kwangtung Army’s biological and chemical warfare program in China from 1937 to the surrender of the Japanese in 1942.  A documentary can be found here.

Unit 731, also known as the “Epidemic and Water Purification Unit”, was a biological and chemical experimentation center for the Kwangtung Army situated in a suburb of Harbin called Ping Fang.  At the time, occupied Harbin was the northern industrial hub of “Manchukuo”, as the Japanese designated the northeastern region of China known as Dongbei.

In Ping Fang, in the heart of winter, a low pall fed by columns of coal smoke looms over battered factory buildings.  At the squat guardhouse, show your passport to enter free.  Before you, at the end of a wide, brick lane, extend the wings of an administration building: rusty-ashen and black-windowed.  As you approach, the aging bricks seem to exude a muted sense of brutality.

Within the administration building, exhibits are restrained.  Objects unearthed from the rubble sequestered behind glass.  Gas masks, test tubes, spent shells, and viscera hooks.  In the memorial hall, slate plaques bearing victims names line two, long walls.

The placards will inform you that Chinese victims at 731 were dubbed “logs” by the Japanese, a reference to the Unit’s official cover as a lumber mill.  Russian prisoners and later Allied prisoners were added to the Chinese, also to be injected or otherwise exposed to cholera, anthrax, bubonic plague, small pox, among other diseases.  As infections advanced, prisoners were selected for live vivisections that degeneration rates might be monitored.  In other experiments, the effectiveness of explosives was tested on victims staked out around detonation points.  Others were frozen, and limbs were sawn off in a macabre exercise in data-mining.

It was within Unit 731 that Japanese technicians developed a means of dispersing bubonic-plague-ridden fleas over a populace.  Subsequently, ceramic shells full of infected fleas were dropped around nearby Chinese villages.  Later, personnel arrived masked and gloved to perform autopsies on the dead and dying.

Besides Unit 731, lesser known units were imbedded in cities across China.  Notably, Unit 100, called the Warhorse Disease Prevention Shop, was established just south of Changchun.  Unit 100 was largely occupied with researching diseases and chemicals for destroying crops and animals, but human prisoners were also used.

In Nong An, a group of Japanese doctors established a clinic at Beiguan school, ostensibly to combat the plague, which had “cropped up” in Changchun suburbs.  Entire neighborhoods were called out for inspection, and each individual running a fever was taken.  Locals joked morbidly that anybody ushered through the front door of Beiguan School exited the rear a corpse.  In order to avoid being picked up, inhabitants attempted to reduce temperatures with potato slices under the armpits, while women applied heavy, pallor-disguising makeup.

Virtually none who worked within the walls of 731 or other centers saw justice.  A deal was made, and the American military came into possession of 731 documentation.

You might ask what value lies in dredging up such detestable history.  I would argue that the value of reminders like 731 is that they stand as antidotes against the self-congratulatory, paternalistic, but ultimately violent mindset at the root of imperialism.  Periodically, the publishing of Japanese textbooks reduces the Kwangtung Army’s incomprehensible ravages in China to a footnote.  The Chinese, understandably, become infuriated that an entire generation of Japanese may grow up completely ignorant of that historical context.  The bliss of ignorance is an opiate the modern world can scarcely afford, given the price paid for war and imperialism over the last century.

After viewing the museum, you may walk the footpath encircling snow-muffled craters remaining from the Japanese attempt to eradicate every trace of what had been done here.  Perhaps 100 meters away, battered incinerator stacks project from a disfigured wall.  Flanked by snaking trees, the administration building, too solid to demolish easily, stretches out before you.  Between you and the administration building, a pillar of rubble juts from the snow, an austere memorial to the innocents.  A sentinel standing guard against “The Dark Ages of the Mind” that would have the ghosts of tragedies past returning to shake man from his self-imposed stupor.

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