Unit 731 Museum
This has to be one of the darkest places on Earth. Here, in the north-eastern corner of China
on the outskirts of the city of Harbin, the Japanese conducted research on biological warfare using humans as live guinea pigs, mostly Chinese, but also Koreans, Russians, Mongolians and others. The level of cruelty exceeded even that of the Nazis
at concentration camps
Set up in the late 1930s in Manchuria, then occupied by imperial Japan
, the facility code-named Unit 731 aimed at developing bio-weapons (in contravention of the Geneva Conventions!), and it was the largest such facility in the world at the time. “Research” included tying victims to wooden stakes out in the open and then dropping germ bombs on them in order to test the feasibility of active use of bio-warfare on the battlefield. Victims were infected with plague, cholera and anthrax pathogens, amongst other things. An especially gruesome “experiment” involved exposing victims to extreme cold (easily done in the winter in this sub-Siberian location) in order to “study” extreme frostbite. In other “experiments” victims were placed in low-pressure chambers to see at what level their eyes popped out. Moreover, victims were also subjected to vivisection, i.e. they were dissected alive, without anaesthetic! The levels of agony caused are beyond the imaginable. It is estimated that at least 3000 victims lost their lives at Unit 731. Some of the bio-weapons developed here were also used in the field in China, but it is hard to say how many more victims this resulted in, possibly hundreds of thousands.
What is clear is that none of Unit 731’s human guinea pigs survived – those still held alive there at the end of WWII
were murdered before the Japanese evacuated the site. Of the thousands of people working at the unit, none were ever brought to justice in Japan. In fact, the whole story of Unit 731 was suppressed and kept a secret until rather recently. The American
victors over Japan
decided after 1945 that the information gathered at Unit 731 was too valuable to be shared in public – and thus with the Soviets
. So they kept it to themselves. In return for providing the Americans with their “research” results, all the perpetrators got off scot-free, some even managed to ascend to high-ranking positions in medical institutions and even politics in Japan after WWII (see also Okunoshima
In China, the site of Unit 731 was turned into a memorial sometime in the 1980s, and a new modern museum was added more recently. Of the original site, the main administrative block survives to this day, and there are ruins of what was a boiler room. The purpose-built museum is located adjacent to these authentic relics and has an intriguing design with three symbolic chimneys. Artefacts come with bilingual labels and English audio guides are said to be available as well.
I haven’t been to this place myself – and doubt I ever will (because I’d rather not set foot on Chinese soil after already having had a brush with Chinese censorship, so they probably have my name on some list …). Therefore I can’t provide any first-hand impressions of the site. But here’s a report on a blog about a visit to Unit 731
(external link, opens in a new window) that also gives information on practicalities (opening times, directions, etc.), as well as photos – the lead photo above was kindly provided by the author, Steve Rohan.
UPDATE 10 September 2021: Koryo Group
have also just released a blog chapter about this museum
(another external link, also opens in a new window), and it sings the highest praises for the exhibition! The post also comes with photos. Worth a look too.
And for further background information, this is a good starting point
, esp. as it has links to documentaries and books for those who want to delve deeper into this topic (also external link opening in a new window).
just south of Harbin, Heilongjiang Province (Manchuria), China
all photos below courtesy (and copyright) of Simon Cockerel of Koryo Tours:
- Unit 731 - 01 - former administrative block
- Unit 731 - 02 - another historic building
- Unit 731 - 03 - relics
- Unit 731 - 04 - boiler relics
- Unit 731 - 05 - dark archaeology
- Unit 731 - 06 - museum building
- Unit 731 - 07 - grand hall
- Unit 731 - 08 - site plan
- Unit 731 - 09 - 3D scale model of the site as it used to be
- Unit 731 - 10 - exhibits
- Unit 731 - 11 - chemistry
- Unit 731 - 12 - lab gear
- Unit 731 - 13 - exhibition
- Unit 731 - 14 - balloon warfare
- Unit 731 - 15 - dummy war criminals
- Unit 731 - 16 - another life-size dummy scene
- Unit 731 - 17 - tribunal