Unit 731 Museum, Harbin, Heliongjiang Province
Following the Japanese invasion of China in the late 1930s, the Japanese forces went about constructing new industrial complexes and military hubs. One such complex, known as Unit 731, was erected in the city of Harbin, the capital of the northeastern Heilongjiang province. Consisting of over 150 buildings, Unit 731 was developed to house the Imperial Japanese Army’s biological and chemical warfare research and development headquarters.
For the next eight years, Japanese doctors and medical researchers conducted a series or horrific experiments on local Chinese people, as well as Russian and Mongolian people living in the area. Despite the ban placed on biological and chemical warfare research following World War I, researchers infected individuals with the plague, anthrax, cholera and typhoid and subsequently conducted vivisections without anesthetic to see the impact of the infection on the internal organs. Other tests included freezing people to investigate ways of treating frostbite and trapping people in pressure and vacuum chambers to determine at what level the human body combusts.
It is thought that beyond the individual tests, researchers at Unit 731 also experimented on nearby villages – releasing plague infested rats, poisoning watering holes with infectious diseases and spraying towns with poisonous gasses. The ultimate aim was to produce a number of chemical and biological weapons that could be used on the Allied forces pending the continuation of World War II. When victory for the Japanese began to look impossible however, Unit 731 was quickly destroyed, the plague infected rats were released and the chemical weapons were buried in the surrounding countryside.
Historians now claim that almost 3,000 Chinese people were killed as a result of the chemical experiments. It is predicted another 30,000 died in the Harbin area between 1946 and 1948 from the plague spread by the released rats. For those who carried out the experiments, little to no punishment occurred. Instead, the leading researcher, Shiro Ishii, negotiated immunity for him and his staff in exchange for providing the US military with the detailed reports of the experiments they had conducted. As a result, no War Crime Tribunals were conducted like those held at Nuremburg. In light of this, it has only been in the last ten years that the Japanese Government has admitted to the horrendous crimes committed at Unit 731 and issued an apology to the victims’ families.
In 1982, local historical groups began to rebuild the main buildings at Unit 731 and in time, converted them into a museum. Educating locals and visitors alike, the museum explained the events that occurred at the site and memorialised those who suffered and died. In 2015, the museum was upgraded and expanded significantly. A new exhibition hall now displays thousands of objects collected by museum staff over the years, as well as photographs, maps, archival documents and personal testimonies.
Collection items such as ammunition, surgical equipment, clothing and chemical containers provide an insight into the atrocities and for many, a deeper emotive understanding of what occurred at Unit 731. Over 300,000 visitors attend the museum each year to learn about the horrors and pay their respects to those who perished at the site. With so many people eager to learn about Unit 731, Chinese authorities are said to be preparing the site for inscription on the UNESCO World Heritage List. The listing is considered by some to have the potential to be exploited politically by the Chinese Government.