The North East has a very rich history, it seems to surprise me every time. It’s not all lavender fields and immaculate ice sculptures; it’s deep, gruesome history. The World War II era seems to have been a time when humans were trying to see how far they can go, how far they could hurt each other, a power struggle. The Romans had gladiators for entertainment and during WWII, it was all in the name of scientific and biological “research”. The gall!
Before I left for the museum, I gave myself a little pep talk, questioned whether I should take my camera along, questioned whether I actually had the guts to go to the exact area where people were dissected and dehumanized as they were referred to “wooden logs”. I called a friend; we spoke about sensitivity, the history, what to expect and how I can write about this. It is a grim, sensitive topic! I did ask my Chinese colleagues whether they wanted to join but they all refused, saying that they couldn’t bear the thought of being there. I empathise. I cannot begin to imagine what that would be like. It was an emotionally draining day.
Unit 731 is in the PingFeng District just outside Harbin, China. It was set up by the Japanese Army in 1938 (they invaded the North East in 1933) and I believe that it was the biggest camp they built. This was the commander Shiro Ishii’s great plan – Offensive and Defensive Research. As you can guess, offensive research HAD to take place outside the country as they needed subjects. They had also colonised some areas in Singapore, Korea, Inner Mongolia, Nanjing, Dalian and south China. The Japanese either took war prisoners (including Americans and Russians) or “special transfers” and many a case of kidnappings. Towards the end of WWII, things were obviously getting tight and defeat was apparent, they destroyed the buildings and evidence and they fled to Japan. None of the Unit 731 scientists and researchers were ever trialled or punished. The majority moved on to become normal civilians in the medical field in Japan.
Deliberately infected with plague, anthrax, cholera and other pathogens, an estimated 3,000 of enemy soldiers and civilians were used as guinea pigs. Some of the more horrific experiments included vivisection without anesthesia and pressure chambers to see how much a human could take before his eyes popped out. According to reports never officially admitted by the Japanese authorities, the unit used thousands of Chinese and other Asian civilians and wartime prisoners as human guinea pigs to breed and develop killer diseases. – unit731.org
Of course, this is the brief history according to my account at the museum. Before you decide to go there, have a look at the site here.
How to Get There
It’s pretty easy to get there. No, no taxis involved because that will cost you an arm! Get to Harbin Metro Line 1 and take the train all the way to the Terminal Station, HaNanZhan (Harbin South Station if you’re using an English map). Use exit 1 to NanZhanNanLu. As you walk out, the bus stop is right there. Heaps of vendors and people? That’s the bus stop. No need to cross the road, take bus 343 or 220 – it will only take 45 minutes.
This was possibly the most well-organised museum I have ever been to and it is absolutely FREE! Free entrance but if you would like English audio, just head on over to the information desk with your passport and it’ll cost you a measly CNY 15.
Til next Thursday, A!