“It was hell on earth” — Japanese veteran admits Unit 731 atrocities

Nowadays, many forces in Japan only mention the country's sufferings in the war without mentioning the invasion and harm to other countries. They refuse to display the testimony and materials of the former members of Unit 731 because "they do not want to tell the children about such cruel realities."

4 mins read
Hideo Shimizu talks about his experiences in Unit 731 during an interview with Xinhua.

“So many ‘marutas’ died, and the Japanese soldiers were also dissected. I often wonder why on earth Unit 731 had done so many evil things?” asked a Japanese veteran who served at the notorious Japanese germ warfare army during World War II.

The victims, referred to in Japanese as “marutas,” or wooden logs, were deliberately infected with typhus, typhoid, cholera, anthrax and plague in addition to many other bacterial diseases to serve the goal of perfecting biological weapons. Some prisoners were then vivisected without anesthetic so that researchers could observe the effects of the disease on the human body.

Hideo Shimizu, 93, is the only living veteran of Unit 731 willing to publicly expose the crimes of the Japanese bacteriology unit, which killed thousands of Chinese civilians and Allied prisoners of war at its sprawling complex in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin, from the late 1930s to the end of the war.

The extreme cruelty and horrors left indelible memories on the ex-serviceman after he spent four months in the unit.

“This teenager was me,” said Shimizu, pointing at a black-and-white group photo that features the Unit 731 Youth Corps members and their instructors.

“I was born in Nagano prefecture. At the end of March 1945, when I was 14 years old, one of my school teachers referred me to the army in Harbin to serve as a ‘technician on probation.’ I knew nothing about what the army was or what it did specifically. This photo was taken when I joined the team,” Shimizu told Xinhua at his home in central Japan.

The teenager didn’t realize his destination was actually Unit 731, a top-secret biological and chemical warfare research base established in Harbin as the nerve center for Japanese biological warfare in China and Southeast Asia during World War II.

“There were 34 members who joined the team at the same time, three of whom were assigned to the ‘Education Ministry Training Room’ on the second floor of this building,” Shimizu said, pointing to the lower right corner of an outline sketch titled “Japanese Kwantung Army Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department Unit 731 troop headquarters” in Japanese.

“We started to learn the basics of various pathogens before extracting body fluids from mice to check for pathogens and culture them. I had no clue at that time what the cultured pathogens were being used for.”

“After a while, the instructor asked me if I wanted to become a specialized technician for germ warfare or a surgeon after my internship. He told me that to become a surgeon, one must dissect at least three cadavers,” Shimizu paused for a moment before continuing.

The instructor took him to the specimen room on the second floor of the headquarters after he said he wanted to be a surgeon. “Only me and nobody else,” the old man recalled and then lapsed into silence again.

The shelves were lined with formalin-laden bottles that contained specimens of human organs of all kinds. The instructor told him these organs were obtained from vivisection experiments on “marutas.”

Xinhua: I heard there were children among the specimens. Is that true?

Shimizu: Yes, there were children. Specimens of fetuses from mothers’ wombs and specimens of children… there were many of them.

Xinhua: Was there more than one child?

Shimizu: There were many, not just one. The children were dissected, with their organs taken out.

Xinhua: What’s the exact number?

Shimizu: Well… Too many to count. ‘Many’ is the only word I can use. Dissecting the baby… I still… To this very day, I still can’t imagine doing that to an innocent fetus.

Xinhua: So there were both babies only a few months old and older children in the room?

Shimizu: Yes. From a fetus in the womb for a few months to newborn babies. I really believe that Unit 731 did every evil deed possible… those were all innocent kids.

Shimizu said the episodes resulted in nightmares, and he often woke up in a cold sweat.

Seventy-eight years on, the hellish scenes still haunt, said Shimizu, adding that seeing his grandson today even reminds him of the horrors. He can’t imagine his own flesh and blood enduring such suffering.

In December 1949, 12 members of the Japanese Kwantung Army were tried as germ warfare criminals in the Russian Far Eastern city of Khabarovsk, where Kiyoshi Kawashima, who served as the director of the bacterial production department under Unit 731, confessed that the unit killed no less than 3,000 soldiers and civilians from China, the Soviet Union and other countries due to experimentation.

It never dawned on the former Unit 731 member that he himself had been an “experiment subject” of the germ warfare. “I once ate a steamed bun offered by the army that contained bacteria, but I wasn’t aware that I was part of the experiment until I read the Devil’s Gluttony written by Seiichi Morimura, a reportage based on interviews with many former Unit 731 members,” Shimizu recalled.

“After that meal, I suddenly had a fever of 42 degrees Celsius, which lasted for a week,” he said. “I vaguely remember that a sanitary soldier came to measure my temperature and pulse once a day during that week, but I no longer felt alive.”

Shimizu said he caught typhoid in the winter and he fled back to Japan. The doctor at the clinic told him that test results showed that he had so few red blood cells that he might not make it through the winter without treatment.

In addition to conducting bacterial experiments on Japanese soldiers, Unit 731 would also perform vivisections on members infected with germs during the experiments.

“Yoshio Shinozuka, a Youth Corps member who joined the team earlier than me, told his stories in Morimura’s book. He said his good friend Mitsuo Hirakawa was dissected alive after contracting the plague and that he stood by and saw the whole thing,” he continued.

“I believe every word Shinozuka said was real,” said Shimizu, propping his chin with his hands and with his eyes looking out of the window.

“Although I spent only four months in Unit 731, I was in deep regret when I later learned that the team I joined was the unit that invaded other countries, carried out human dissection and germ warfare,” Shimizu said.

In 2016, Shimizu and his family went to a peace-themed exhibition, where he saw the surgical knives and other evidence left by a former Unit 731 soldier. He then decided to disclose his own identity as a Unit 731 Youth Corps member, participate in peace activities and expose the crimes of the invading Japanese bacterial forces.

Since then, he has been speaking publicly about his experiences in Unit 731 and has delivered six public speeches so far this year.

“Nowadays, many forces in Japan only mention the country’s sufferings in the war without mentioning the invasion and harm to other countries. They refuse to display the testimony and materials of the former members of Unit 731 because ‘they do not want to tell the children about such cruel realities,'” said Shimizu. “I want to say that Japan has carried out cruel atrocities, including murder. We are telling our children the truth, aren’t we?”

“Facts are facts and should be accepted correctly. No more war is the most profound lesson to be learned!” Shimizu said.

Xinhua News Agency

Founded in 1931, Xinhua News Agency is one of the largest news organizations in the world, with over 10,000 employees across the globe. As the main source of news and information for China, Xinhua plays a key role in shaping the country's media landscape and communicating its perspectives to the world. The agency produces a wide range of content, including text news articles, photos, videos, and social media posts, in both Chinese and English, and its reports are widely used by media organizations around the world. Xinhua also operates several international bureaus, including in key capitals like Washington, D.C., Moscow, and London, to provide in-depth coverage of global events.

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