Week 7 - March 30, 2018

by David Culp, Emergency Preparedness Coordinator, Illinois Public Health Association

Japan's World War Two Bioterrorism Program

Throughout the 19th Century, there was a dramatic increase in international trade resulting from the industrial revolution’s combined demand for natural resources and development of steam powered shipping (with increased storage space, speed and range). After two hundred years of isolationist policy designed to protect Japan from foreign colonization, Japanese concerns were growing that their nation was falling behind the rest of the world; concurrently, the United States viewed it had a mandate to modernize what they perceived to be a “backward” Japanese society. The appearance of American warships off the coast of Japan would lead to the breaking of Japanese isolationism in 1854 thru a forced treaty with United States.

Japan would rapidly benefit from international trade and sharing of technology, astronomically rising from a heavily agriculturally centric nation, with miniscule technology and manufacturing, to a world power in a little more than 75 years. Following the model of European powers in the centuries before, Japan annexed territory, secured shipping lanes, expanded trade and acquired colonies to obtain raw materials needed for manufacturing, while receiving revenues and capital from exporting its products. Simultaneously, the Japanese military was achieving great success: defeating China in 1895 and seizing strategically important regions along with Taiwan and Korea in the process; defeating the Russian Empire in 1905 and obtaining lands bordering Manchuria on the Russian border; acquiring German colonies in the Pacific Ocean while supporting the Allies in World War One and acquiring territory in Siberia from the Soviet Union during the Post Russian Empire Civil War.

Increasingly, Japan saw itself as the dominant power of the Asian continent and 20th century version of the British, French, Dutch, Portuguese and Spanish Empires of the 17th and 18th centuries, which had conquered and colonized Africa, Asia and the Americas. By the early 1930’s, the Empire of Japan was a manufacturing giant, however, Japan had become a victim of its own economic success: a great manufacturing nation with increasingly diminishing raw materials. The worldwide Great Depression was severely impacting economies across the globe; but never so much as in the Japanese Empire, which saw its exports drop 50%. Economic depression increasingly impacted domestic policies in Japan leading to a rise in imperialism, militarism and installation of a totalitarian government fiercely determined to secure the Empire of Japan’s place among the powers of the modern world. Invasion of natural resource rich Manchuria in 1931 was followed by invasion of mainland China in 1937. Soon Japan was setting its ambitions towards the lucrative and strategically valuable colonies of Great Britain, France, Netherlands and United States in the Pacific Ocean.

The rapid growth of the Empire of Japan was of increasing concern to the United States; which, not wanting to cede power and control in Asia and the Pacific Ocean, would steadily implement economic controls designed to limit Japanese expansion. These controls would deleteriously exacerbate a stagnating and struggling Japanese economy; especially the implementation of an oil embargo. Japan, adamant about maintaining its position as an economic power of Asia and the world, concluded doing so would require conquest and occupation of British, French, Dutch and American territories in the Pacific Ocean; leading to the attacks of December 1941 and war with all four countries.

Fighting alongside Germany and Italy as a member of the Axis Powers during World War II, against the combined strength of the leading Allied Powers of Great Britain, Soviet Union and United States, Japan faced a struggle for the existence of its empire and was determined to take any means necessary to survive. Japan had established Unit 731, a biological warfare research and development program, in occupied Manchuria in 1938. Deeming captured British, French, Dutch, Chinese and American soldiers as inferior and without honor due to having surrendered, the Japanese treated them as human guinea pigs to develop biological warfare weapons. Unit 731 scientists exposed the captured soldiers to anthrax, plague, cholera, typhoid, syphilis and bacterial meningitis, as well as to severe environmental conditions of extreme heat and cold.

To diminish Chinese resistance through disease and death of its civilian population and military personnel, the Japanese dropped paper bags of rice grains coated with plague infected fleas on Chinese cities leading to multiple outbreaks. The danger of biological weapons is exhibited by thousands of Japanese soldiers also becoming plague victims from these attacks. The threat of biological weapons is exhibited by most Unit 731 scientists escaping war crimes persecution and securing highly placed post war government and private sector positions due to the value placed on the knowledge they obtained from their horrific experiments.