Case One: Unit 731

As my dedicated readers will know, I have long had a soft spot for World War II history. A few nights ago I was reading up on the origins of the Nuremberg Code of medical ethics, which came about almost directly from the crimes perpetrated by German doctors and officials in concentration camps. Nine of these officials and doctors were apparently hanged for experimenting on 25,000 prisoners leaving 1,200 dead and many injured mentally and physically ( I imagine that this information won’t come as a surprise to any of my readers, particularly those, like myself, with a fascination for the Second World War. What surprised me, as I read mercatornet’s article, was that Japanese doctors got off without punishment despite the fact that they perpetrated similar crimes! I did some digging and discovered a host of information on “Unit 731”, a secret biological and chemical warfare research unit under the control of the Japanese Army and General Shiro Ishii. Ishii sought to create biological weapons to use against the enemies of Japan and to aid the military of his country. He oversaw the creation of a highly secretive base in the Pingfang district of Harbin in Manchukuo, calling it the “Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army”. What really went on was far more sinister… Ishii and his men kidnapped, captured, and commandeered more than twelve thousand people, including POWS, civilians of surrounding towns and innocent bystanders alike and performed cruel human experimentation on them. Not one person survived. The scientists aimed, chiefly, to invent a new form of germ warfare to use in World War II. In this vein they performed vivisection on prisoners without anesthesia after infecting them with lethal diseases in order to figure out how said diseases specifically destroyed the body. The removed organs on live prisoners and some even had body parts removed and reattached while they were still living. Female prisoners were given venereal diseases, often through rape, so that the doctors could examine the effects of syphilis and gonorrhea. Subjects were held without food and water to determine the length of human survival without key resources and some prisoners were exposed to lethal amounts of cold, pressure and other elements. Ishii and his “scientists” did not stop at the population of their own prison, however. They tested their newly developed germ warfare, including plague-ridden fleas, on nearby towns resulting in more than 400,000 deaths ( Although Ishii attempted to bring his biological weapons into play in the Pacific War, his attempts came too late to stop an American victory. Ishii ordered his workers to destroy evidence and oversaw the destruction of his compound in Pingfang. With the surrender of Imperial Japan to the Allies in 1945 and the creation of the Eastern Bloc, the Cold War was rapidly approaching. America, desperate to gain a proverbial leg up on the Soviets, granted full immunity to the physicians of Unit 731 including Shiro Ishii in exchange for information and research. American authorities went as far as to dismiss Russian trials of Unit 731 as propaganda in order to cover up the truth of what happened. In short, American Scientists convinced the government that the cruel “research” conducted by Ishii and his henchmen was valuable enough that it needed to be protected from the Russians. They were willing to allow the criminals of Unit 731 to go unpunished if it meant gained an advantage over the Soviets and possibly saving money in research. Two scientists told the US Government that Ishii’s research “had cost many millions of dollars and years of work and that the US was effective buying it for a mere pittance” ( Looking back on these events, it seems insane that criminals such as Shiro Ishii escaped punishment. But, as I see it, the core of the problem is an ETHICAL argument. What the Americans did was an act of ethical judgment, which makes this truly an ethical case study. The question: “is it ethically permissible to pardon heinous criminals if pardoning these criminals would potentially save lives?” I feel that the answer in this case is clearly, NO. I suppose I come from a few types of ethical reasoning in my conclusion, for one, in this particular case, I feel that the action is what ought to be judged, not the potential outcome. This mirrors what is known a Deontological ethic, or the belief that the rightness of something ought to be based on the morality on an action with reference to universal rules or laws. If Ishii and his subordinates did not produce valuable research they would be condemned in any court in the world for their actions, they clearly violated universal laws by killing and torturing hundreds of thousands of innocent people in the name of science. One of the advantages of Deontological ethics is that they help to eliminate bias. Clearly the Americans acted out of bias in that they gave immunity mainly because they desired a weapon against the Russians. They, in short, did not judge the ethics of Unit 731 on their actions, but rather on the possible outcomes of punishing them. Another form of ethical reasoning I used in my decision is Virtue Ethics, or the judgment of ethical permissibility on the one’s virtues and other ethical behavior. Ishii and his henchmen did not transgress in the moment; their actions were ongoing and repeated over the course of years. They covered up their operation, attempted to destroy evidence after the fact, and boasted of the potential of their research in order to gain pardons. All on top of the coldblooded murder of hundreds of thousands of women, men, and children alike! As I see it, the only possible ethical solution was to punish Ishii and his men. I see this case, and all of history as a whole, as vitally relevant to our modern day. The debate of the ethics of War Pardons permeates through politics and is loudly debated across our nation and the world. We must learn from the past in order to act in a more informed manner in the future.


One thought on “Case One: Unit 731

  1. What a fascinating read. I feel sickened by the atrocities committed by Ishii and his cronies… I can’t believe this is the first I’m hearing about Unit 731. I guess now-adays we focus more on Josef Mengele and the German side of human experimentation and war crimes. While I see how you came to the opinion that the Americans made a mistake, I can’t help but disagree with you. While what Ishii did was awful, we need to be realistic. The research his team found, though inhumane and damnable, was still valuable and had the potential to save lives. We ought to base our actions on what will help people’s lives in real, measurable, definite ways. Justice is an important concept, but in war and in life we should try to bring about the greatest possible outcome for the most people. If we hadn’t pardoned the Japanese scientists that research could have gone into the hands of the Soviets and cause immeasurable damage. Instead we were able to responsibly deal with the problem and use the research to possible save lives. If you look at it mathematically, we are really weighing the lives of nine to twenty Japanese scientists against all of America and possibly the world! We needed, and still need, to act in order to bring about the greatest possible happiness. Another way to look at it is in terms of pleasure and pain. Killing the scientists or punishing them would only bring about pain through their deaths and the deaths of however many the Russians could kill (possibly) with that research! Pardoning them resulted in pleasure and safety for our country. I agree with you in your statement that history relates to the present. We are still grappling over the ethical dilemma of War Pardons and I would urge our current government to act in accordance to the greatest good!

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