Shiro Ishii


The final collapse of the Chinese Imperial Government at the start of the 20th Century brings a 30-year period of instability to China during which the nationalist Guomindang (Nationalist Party), headed by Chiang Kai-shek, battle the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), headed by Mao Tse-Tung.

Across the East China Sea, Japan becomes progressively more nationalistic and militaristic, seeing in China an opportunity to expand on territory occupied in Manchuria (now Dongbei Pingyuan, north of Korea) and Shandong Province (across the Yellow Sea from Korea).

The Japanese military is steeped in the tradition of unquestioning loyalty to the emperor. Commands from superior officers are regarded as equivalent to commands from the emperor himself. Military leaders have direct access to the emperor and the authority to transmit his pronouncements directly to the troops. The emperor is considered divine and the seat of ultimate power. More background.

Mini biography

Born on 25 June 1892 at Chiyoda in Chiba Prefecture east of Tokyo.

He studies medicine at Kyoto Imperial University.

1914 - The First World War begins in August. Many new and deadly technologies are introduced to the battlefield during the war. One of the most sinister is the use of chemical weapons like chlorine gas, phosgene and mustard gas.

1918 - At the end of the First World War the Japanese Army sets up a unit to study techniques for biological warfare.

1920 - Ishii completes his medical degree and joins the Army Medical Corps. He is assigned to the 1st Army Hospital and Army Medical College in Tokyo.

1924 - Ishii returns to the Kyoto Imperial University for post-graduate studies. During this time he marries the daughter of the university's president.

1925 - In response to the use of chemical weapons during the First World War, world powers create the Geneva Protocol banning the use of "asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases, and of bacteriological methods of warfare". However, the protocol does not prevent countries from researching, developing and producing these weapons.

Japan does not ratify the protocol, and will not until May 1970.

1927 - Ishii is awarded a PhD. He rejoins the army.

Meanwhile, Japanese troops are sent to China to obstruct attempts by the Guomindang to unify the country. In June 1928 officers in the Kwantung (Guandong) Army, the Japanese Army unit stationed in Manchuria, begin an unauthorised campaign to precipitate a war with China. Both the Japanese high command and the Chinese refuse to take the bait.

1928 - Ishii is sent to Europe as a military attaché. For two years he tours Europe and the United States gathering information about the biological weapons research being conducted there.

On his return to Japan he is appointed professor of immunology at the Tokyo Army Medical College and given the rank of major.

1930 - Ishii helps establish a centre for bacteriological research at the medical college. The centre, called the Army Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory, conducts research into the use and neutralisation of biological and chemical weapons. There is some evidence that part of the research involves experiments on live human subjects.

1931 - In September conspirators in the Kwantung Army stage the Manchurian Incident, blowing up a section of track on the South Manchuria Railway then blaming Chinese saboteurs.

With the Japanese Government powerless to intervene, the Kwantung Army mobilises, taking nearby Mukden (now Shenyang) then, in January 1932, attacking Shanghai, south of their territory in Shandong Province.

A truce is called in March 1932. The Japanese then establish the puppet state of Manchukuo, centred on Manchuria and headed by the last Chinese emperor, Puyi.

1932 - The Japanese military effectively takes control of the Japanese Government in May when the prime minister is assassinated by a group of junior naval officers and army cadets. Manchukuo is formally recognised by the military-controlled regime.

Ishii is promoted to lieutenant-colonel and placed in charge of the Epidemic Prevention Research Laboratory. He sets up an outpost of the laboratory at Harbin in northern Manchukuo. A second centre is then established at Beiyinhe, an isolated location 100 km south of Harbin.

Variously known as the Zhongma Fortress, the Kamo Unit, the Togo Unit, the Ishii Unit and the Epidemic Prevention Department of the Kwantung Army, the Beiyinhe facility is used to conduct secret research into biological weapons. It includes prisons for the housing of live human subjects.

Other Japanese biological weapons research units are established throughout China and Asia, including the Wakamatsu Unit in Xingjing (also known as the Department of Veterinary Disease Prevention of the Kwantung Army and later designated Unit 100), Unit 1855 in Beijing, Unit 8604 in Canton/Guangzhou, Unit Ei-1644 in Nanking, Unit 2646 at Hailar in Inner Mongolia, a unit in Shanghai, Unit 9420 in Singapore and Unit 516 in Jilin Province in Manchukuo.

Experiments on living human subjects are conducted at most if not all of these facilities.

1936 - Following a military insurrection by Japanese troops in February, the government agrees to increase defence spending and boost naval construction. Japan is arming for war.

In November Japan and Germany sign the Anti-Comintern Pact, an agreement to fight the spread of communism. Italy joins a year later.

1937 - The Second Sino-Japanese War breaks out on 7 July following a skirmish between Chinese and Japanese troops outside Beijing. Chinese forces evacuate Beijing on 28 July.

The Japanese overrun Tianjin (100 km southeast of Beijing) on 30 July then attack Shanghai on 13 August.

The Japanese arsenal includes poison gas. Over the coming years the Japanese use poison gas against the Chinese more than 1,000 times.

After a three-month siege, Shanghai falls and the Guomindang forces withdraw to the northwest towards their capital Nanking (now known as Nanjing). The Japanese pursue.

The ground assault on Nanking begins on 10 December after the Chinese troops assigned to defend the city refuse to withdraw. When Nanking finally falls on 13 December, just hours after the Chinese forces have fled, the Japanese begin a bloodthirsty massacre that lasts for six weeks.

The Rape of Nanking results in the indiscriminate murder of between 200,000-350,000 Chinese civilians and surrendered soldiers. It is the worst single massacre of unarmed troops and civilians in the history of the 20th Century.

The atrocities set an example that leaves the Chinese population terrorised and passive to further Japanese advances.

1938 - In June, Ishii's research unit is relocated to a six square kilometre compound at Ping Fan, 25 km southeast of Harbin. Ping Fan contains over 150 buildings, including two prisons and three crematoriums. It is largest biological weapons research facility in the world. Its task is to develop and test biological and chemical weapons for use in both the Sino-Japanese War and the approaching Second World War.

To reduce suspicion and minimise surveillance, the facility is disguised as a large timber mill. The inmates subsequently come to be referred to as "maruta" (logs).

Ishii is promoted to a full colonel. He eventually commands a staff of 3,000, including many highly-skilled medical doctors and researchers. A further 17,000 personnel from surrounding research centres also work on his projects.

1939 - The Japanese attempt to invade Mongolia in May but are badly defeated by combined Soviet-Mongolian forces.

Meanwhile, in Europe, German troops invade Poland on 1 September. Britain and France declare war on Germany two days later. The Second World War has begun.

1940 - Japan takes possession of northern Indochina (Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam) in September .

A few days later Japan joins the Axis alliance with Germany and Italy, signing the Tripartite Pact, an agreement to carve up the world following victory in the Second World War.

The US responds by placing a ban on the export of steel, scrap metal and aviation fuel to Japan.

On 1 August, Ishii's Ping Fan research unit is renamed the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army, or Manchukuo Unit 731 for short.

At the unit's official opening Ishii states that although a doctor's mission is to cure the sick, the work on which he and his staff "are now about to embark is the complete opposite of these principles".

Over the next five years Unit 731 becomes a gruesome laboratory for the testing of pathogens like plague, cholera, epidemic haemorrhagic fever, anthrax, typhoid, tuberculosis, syphilis, salmonella, tetanus, gas gangrene, smallpox, botulism, meningitis and yellow fever.

Prisoners of war and civilians from China, Korea, Mongolia and the former Soviet Union are subjected to the experiments. Prisoners of war from the US, Britain, Australia and New Zealand are also used.

The prisoners are either injected with the pathogens or forced to eat infected food or breathe contaminated air. They are then either left to die from the contagion or killed prematurely so that the course of the disease can be observed by autopsy. Some "autopsies" are conducted on still-living and fully conscious prisoners.

Unit 731 supplies the Japanese Army with typhoid, cholera, plague and dysentery bacteria for testing in the field. Water supplies are contaminated, disease-carrying fleas and vermin are released into the Chinese countryside, and infected food supplies and clothing are dropped from aeroplanes.

The activities at Unit 731 are not restricted to bacteriological experiments. Toxic chemicals like phosgene gas and potassium cyanide are also tested. Some prisoners are nearly frozen to death in experiments designed to investigate treatments for frostbite. Others are subjected to electric shocks in order to determine the body's ability to survive electrocution. Some have limbs or organs removed to study the effects. Some are used as human targets in tests to gauge the effectiveness of various conventional weapons.

At least 200,000 die as a result of the activities at Unit 731, including at least 3,000 people killed in the experiments and at least 200,000 Chinese civilians killed in the field tests.

1941 - Japan and the Soviet Union sign the Japanese-Soviet Neutrality Pact in April, removing the threat to Japan of invasion by the Soviets and allowing the Japanese military to concentrate its war efforts on the southward drive into China and Southeast Asia.

When Japan occupies southern Indochina on 23 July the US and Britain freeze Japanese assets, an action that has the potential to cripple the Japanese armed forces. On 1 December the Japanese decide to broaden the war to the Pacific.

The Japanese air force bombs the US naval base at Pearl Harbour in Hawaii on 7 December. The US and Britain respond by declaring war on Japan.

The Japanese follow-up the bombing of Pearl Harbour with swift invasions of Southeast Asian countries and Pacific islands. By May 1942 they control Hong Kong, Kiribati, Guam and Wake Island, Burma, Malaya, Singapore, Borneo, Indonesia, the Philippines and the north of New Guinea.

1942 - The first setback for the Japanese comes on 7-8 May at the Battle of the Coral Sea. On 4-5 June the Japanese fleet is forced to withdraw at the Battle of Midway or risk destruction. By February 1943 the Japanese have been driven out of Guadalcanal at the southern end of the Solomon Islands.

1944 - The Battle of the Philippine Sea on 19-20 June confirms US naval superiority in the Pacific and seals Japan's fate. The capture of Saipan in July puts the Japanese mainland within range of American B-29 bombers.

1945 - Beginning in February extensive firebombing raids are conducted over Japan, concentrating on the capital Tokyo and the cities of Nagoya, Osaka and Kobe. The raids result in the deaths of tens of thousands of civilians. The most devastating raid occurs over Tokyo on the night of 9-10 March. About 100,000 people are killed, around one million are left homeless and almost half the city is burnt to the ground.

In June the Japanese determine to fight to the finish. Their plan for a last-stand battle against an US-led invasion is called Ketsu Go (Operation Decisive). Japanese troops are massed in the south of Kyushu Island, where the invasion forces are expected to land.

The Japanese also plan to attack the US West Coast with biological weapons carried in balloons and kamikaze (suicide) planes. However, the plans are never implemented.

Japanese preparations for an all-out fight continue until the US drops atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August respectively, killing about 120,000 people outright and fatally injuring over 100,000 more.

On 8 August the Soviet Union declares war on Japan and launches a surprise attack on Japanese forces in Manchuria.

Japanese Emperor Hirohito surrenders unconditionally on 15 August, ending both the Second World War and the Second Sino-Japanese War.

Japan is occupied by Allied military forces. The Japanese Army and navy ministries are abolished, arms and military equipment are destroyed and war industries are retooled for civilian output. Japan pledges never to go to war again and surrenders its colonial holdings, including China.

About 15 million people have been killed in the Asia and Pacific regions during the Second World War, including over 11 million Chinese and nearly two million Japanese. The Second Sino-Japanese War has claimed at least 20 million Chinese.

Following the defeat of the Japanese, civil war between the Guomindang and CCP resumes in China. Mao's communists take Beijing without a fight in January 1949 and control the entire country by the end of the year. Chiang Kai-shek and his troops flee to the island of Taiwan and proclaim Taipei as the temporary capital of China.

Meanwhile, the Japanese demolish Unit 731. The remaining prisoners are executed and all physical evidence of the events that occurred there is destroyed. During the demolition, thousands of plague-infected rats are released into the surrounding provinces, resulting in the deaths of about 20,000 to 30,000 Chinese.

In an attempt to evade justice, Ishii fakes his own death and funeral and goes into hiding. The subterfuge is eventually uncovered and in January 1946 he is handed over to the US occupation forces for interrogation. He will never face justice.

The US wants to prevent Ishii's knowledge of biological weapons from falling into the hands of the Soviet Union. It also wants to use that knowledge to augment its own germ warfare program.

Seizing the opportunity, Ishii offers to reveal all the details of his experiments at Unit 731 in exchange for immunity from prosecution at war crimes trials. The US accepts the deal and Ishii is allowed to go free. According to reports, he is even allowed to travel to the US on a lecture tour.

Immunity from prosecution is extended to all members of Ishii's team. Some are also offered material inducements, including money, food and gifts, to encourage them to talk.

Many Unit 731 veterans go on to high-profile and influential careers in Japan, taking leading roles in medical schools, pharmaceutical companies and institutions like the National Cancer Centre, the National Institute for Health and the Japanese Medical Association. One becomes Governor of Tokyo; another president of the Japan Medical Association; a third becomes head of Green Cross, Japan's largest blood products company; another head of the Japan Olympic Committee.

The immunity deal is kept secret from the public for decades. No public investigation is made into Unit 731 and the experiments conducted there. The story of Unit 731 and Japan's biological weapons program is obscured from history. The truth does not begin to emerge until the 1980s.

1946 - At war crime trials held in Tokyo from May 1946 until November 1948, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East convicts over 4,000 Japanese officials and military personnel. All mention of Ishii, Unit 731 and Japan's biological weapons program is suppressed.

In the Soviet Union, however, 12 of those involved in the running of Unit 731 are brought to trial and sentenced to between two and 25 years in prison. Others from Unit 731 are tried at Mukden in China after they are repatriated from the Soviet Union in 1956.

1950 - The Korean War begins on 25 June. The war pits North Korea (backed by the Soviet Union and China) against South Korea, back by a United Nations Command force headed by the US. The war lasts for three years.

Unsubstantiated reports allege that during the course of the war Ishii and several of his Unit 731 colleagues were coopted by the US to work on a biological weapons program. The reports further allege that the US deployed pathogens in North Korea and China using methods pioneered by Ishii.

However, the reports are strongly denied by the US.

1959 - Ishii dies of throat cancer at his home in the Chiba Prefecture on 9 October.


In 1975 the Biological Weapons Convention comes into effect. The convention prohibits its signatories from developing, producing and stockpiling biological and toxic weapons.

Japan ratifies the convention on 8 June 1982.


The truth about Unit 731, or some part of the truth at least, may have leaked out, but Japan continues to downplay or deny the crimes against humanity committed by its military during the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Second World War. No formal apology has been issued for the human rights crimes committed at Unit 731. Nor has any compensation been offered to the surviving victims. This is standard operating procedure for Japan when it comes to facing up to its wartime record. Deny. Disassemble. Dispute. It's a despicable approach that deserves nothing but contempt.