Plague upon Humanity: The Hidden History of Japan's Biological Warfare Program

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Overview

From 1932 to 1945, in a headlong quest to develop germ warfare capability for the military of Imperial Japan, hundreds of Japanese doctors, nurses and research scientists willingly participated in what was referred to at the time as 'the secret of secrets' – horrifying experiments conducted on live human beings, in this case innocent Chinese men, women, and children. This was the work of an elite group known as Unit 731, led by Japan's answer to Joseph Mengele, Dr Shiro Ishii.

Under their initiative, thousands of individuals were held captive and infected with virulent strains of anthrax, plague, cholera, and other epidemic and viral diseases. Soon entire Chinese villages were being hit with biological bombs. Even American POWs were targeted. All told, more than 250,000 people were infected, and the vast majority died. Yet, after the war, US occupation forces under General Douglas MacArthur struck a deal with these doctors that shielded them from accountability.

Provocative, alarming and utterly compelling, A Plague Upon Humanity draws on important original research to expose one of the most shameful chapters in human history.

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Editorial Reviews

Iris Chang
“Barenblatt exposes horrors that test the limits of human imagination ... A timely, important book.”
James Bradley
“An important book, A Plague upon Humanity is as alarming as it is compelling.”
James Fallows
“Daniel Barenblatt’s account could not be more timely. A revealing complement to today’s WMD debate.”
Craig Nelson
“Delivers gripping testimony and long-needed justice to one of the great untold evils of World War II.”
Ross Terrill
“Eye-opening. Daniel Barenblatt has written a powerful and disturbing book.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780060933876
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/4/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 304
  • Sales rank: 802,868
  • Product dimensions: 5.31 (w) x 8.00 (h) x 0.69 (d)

Meet the Author

Daniel Barenblatt holds degrees from Harvard and UCLA, and his writing about the Japanese germ warfare program has appeared in the Washington Post. He lives in New York City.

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First Chapter

A Plague upon Humanity
The Hidden History of Japan's Biological Warfare Program

Chapter One

A Doctor's Vision

Few have the imagination for reality.
-- Goethe

It began in Kyoto in 1927. Dr. Shiro Ishii had his decisive revelation while going about his customary routine, thumbing through a stack of scientific research journals, making his usual effort to keep abreast of the latest research literature. At the age of thirty-five, the physician had just received his Ph.D. in microbiology from Kyoto Imperial University, one of the world's top institutions in that field and a school comparable in distinction to an American Ivy League college. Ishii was a rather eccentric young man, but he was even then highly respected among his Japanese peers and professors, with a reputation for brilliance and innovation that caused many of them to overlook his extracurricular activities and tastes.

Browsing through a medical periodical, Ishii came across an article that electrified him. He had discovered a report on the Geneva Convention of 1925, to which Japan had been a signatory. The article, written by a War Ministry delegate to the conference, First Lieutenant Harada, explored why Japan had signed the convention, a treaty organized by the League of Nations that banned the use of chemical weapons. As of 1925, some 1.3 million men in Europe and North America still suffered severe health problems resulting from their exposure to poisonous gas in the battles of World War I. Few in the league wanted to see this calamity repeated, and to the convention was added one more prohibition: It was also forbidden to make weapons from the germs responsible for infectious disease epidemics and pandemics such as bubonic plague, or the Black Death, as it was called, which wiped out 25 million Europeans in a five-year period during the fourteenth century.

Ishii read the text of the Geneva Convention over and over again, with both fascination and a sense of validation, for this was the direction in which he had been heading for some time. Titled the "Protocol for the Prohibition of the Use in War of Asphyxiating, Poisonous or Other Gases, and of Bacteriological Methods of Warfare," the compact states that "the use in war of asphyxiating, poisonous or other gases and of all analogous liquids, materials or devices, has been justly condemned by the general opinion of the civilized world ... [T]he High Contracting Parties ... accept this prohibition, agree to extend this prohibition to the use of bacteriological methods of warfare and agree to be bound as between themselves according to the terms of this declaration."

The treaty was signed in Geneva on June 17, 1925, by 128 nations -- nearly every country on the planet. The prospect of germ warfare obviously created universal feelings of terror and revulsion among the civilized nations of the world. But Shiro Ishii took a different lesson from the Geneva Convention. If the prospect of germ warfare created such dread, he reasoned, Japan must do everything in its power to create the most virulent germ weapons, as well as effective methods for destroying wartime enemies with lethal diseases.

For years Ishii had spoken to colleagues and military officials of the strategic military potential of disease, and now the framers of the Geneva Convention had inadvertently done the Japanese physician a great service. Their fear of germ warfare catalyzed him to new levels of action. He would visit offices of Japan's top military officers, trying once more to persuade them that a program to conduct biological and germ warfare was the key to victory for Imperial Japan in any future wars.

By 1927 the nation had already conquered and occupied Korea and large portions of China, and powerful men in the ruling circles of Japanese society hungered for further expansion. Ishii now saw the way to make real his dream of state-of-the-art laboratories that could produce billions of deadly germs upon a general's request. The bacteriological weapons so reviled by the dignitaries who had traveled to Geneva in 1925 would become Japan's secret weapon. Ishii would be their mastermind.

At nearby Kyoto Army Hospital, to which Ishii had been attached as an active duty officer soon after attaining his doctorate, he proselytized about the military's need to make biological weapons. He took a train to Tokyo to see his old army buddies posted at the Tokyo Army First Hospital, where he had been on staff as a military surgeon five years earlier. There he managed to charm his way into the offices of high-ranking officials. He also got in to see top commanders and tacticians in Japan's War Ministry.

Ishii pleaded with them to begin researching biological weapons, citing the Harada article. He urged them to make tactical plans for the deployment of germ weapons. He also reminded them that most of the nations that had used chemical gas weapons in World War I also had ratified the Hague Convention of 1899, which banned the use of poison gas. One had to expect, he argued, that in the event of war, other countries would again develop banned weapons regardless of whatever international treaties to which they had sworn agreement.

The generals, colonels, and military scientists listened politely to Ishii, and not for the first time. The young doctor's face was well known around staff headquarters. "He always emphasized the role of bacteriological warfare in our tactical planning," wrote General Saburo Endo in his diary. But Ishii's ideas fell on deaf ears at the War Ministry. The government at the time, under Prime Minister Giichi Tanaka, had stressed a more limited role for the military and a less aggressive foreign policy. The Japanese army and navy commanders went along for the most part with the Tanaka directives, and those heading up Japan's military were unimpressed with the theoretical concepts of biological warfare. They preferred to abide by Japan's moral obligations as outlined broadly in the 1925 Geneva Convention, which Japan had signed, although not ratified.

Japan had ratified the 1899 Hague Convention, which banned chemical weapons ...

A Plague upon Humanity
The Hidden History of Japan's Biological Warfare Program
. Copyright © by Daniel Barenblatt. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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