FACTORIES OF DEATH: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-1945, and the American Cover-Up

By Bernstein, Lewis | Military Review, September/October 2004 | Go to article overview

FACTORIES OF DEATH: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-1945, and the American Cover-Up


Bernstein, Lewis, Military Review


FACTORIES OF DEATH: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-1945, and the American Cover-Up, Sheldon H. Harris, Routledge, New York, 2002, 385 pages, $24.95.

From 1931 to 1945 the Japanese Army engaged in biological warfare (BW) and chemical warfare (CW) experiments using live human subjects, which led to the first widespread use of bacteriological agents in the war. This definitive work about Unit 731 (the Japanese Army's bacteriological warfare center) and its commander, lieutenant General Ishii Shiro, is the result of more than 20 years of research, including 12 field trips to China.

Biological warfare was part of Japan's search for relatively cheap, war-winning weapons. Intertwined with this was a debate over World War I lessons and the ways Japan could survive in a social Darwinian world surrounded by hostile powers. Author Sheldon H. Hams draws together numerous strands of intellectual, social, and scientific history, revealing that Japanese doctors were blind to their work's ethical and moral implications because of the fashion in which they were educated and trained. He explains that the widespread interest in biological and chemical warfare was a result of its being seen as a "higher form of killing" or a more humane form of warfare. Harris's descriptions of experiments are unpleasant, and the reader shares Harris's disgust for the perpetrator's moral lapses.

Although the atrocities occurred in Manchuria, the only country to hold war crime trials was the Soviet Union, and this was done in a low-key manner. China has placed a wall of secrecy around the subject, partly because of the place Manchuria holds in the founding mythology of the People's Republic as explicated in Rana Mitter, The Manchurian Myth: Nationalism, Resistance and Collaboration in Modern China (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-1945, and the American Cover-Up is unpleasant to read because it deals with a distasteful subject. …

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