Inside Unit 731, World War II Japan’s Sickening Human Experiments Program

Published November 2, 2017
Updated December 18, 2017

Vivisection Of Conscious Prisoners

Unit 731 Medical Table

Xinhua via Getty ImagesA Unit 731 doctor operates on a patient that is part of a bacteriological experiment. Date unspecified.

Unit 731 started out as a research unit, investigating the effects of disease and injury on the fighting ability of an armed force. One element of the unit, called “Maruta,” took this research a little further than the usual bounds of medical ethics by observing injuries and the course of disease on living patients.

At first, these patients were volunteers from the ranks of the army, but as the experiments reached the limits of what could be non-invasively observed, and as the supply of volunteers dried up, the unit turned to the study of Chinese POWs and civilian prisoners.

And as the concept of consent went out the window, so did the restraint of the researchers. It was around this time that Unit 731 began referring to confined research subjects as “logs,” or “Maruta” in Japanese.

Study methods in these experiments were barbaric.

Vivisection, for example, is the practice of mutilating human bodies, without anesthesia, to study the operations of living systems. Thousands of men and women, mostly Chinese communist prisoners as well as children and elderly farmers, were infected with diseases such as cholera and the plague, then had their organs removed for examination before they died in order to study the effects of the disease without the decomposition that occurs after death.

Subjects had limbs amputated and reattached to the other side of the body, while others had their limbs crushed or frozen, or had the circulation cut off to observe the progress of gangrene.

Finally, when a prisoner’s body was all used up, they would typically be shot or killed by lethal injection, though some may have been buried alive. None of the Chinese, Mongolian, Korean, or Russian prisoners assigned to Unit 731 survived their confinement.

Richard Stockton
Richard Stockton is a freelance science and technology writer from Sacramento, California.
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