Japan’s atrocities against China during World War II are less well-publicised than the sufferings of American and British POWs. But the 731 base, where Japan’s Unit 731 conducted horrific medical experiments on Chinese (and other) civilians and POWs during World War II, will likely transform your view of the conflict.
The Unit 731 base, out in Ping Fang, in the very far south of Harbin, is now a museum devoted to Japan’s chemical and biological warfare against China in the Sino-Japanese War that later became part of World War II.
Exhibits, most of which also have English captions, take you through the story from the very beginning, when Japan, inspired by the use of poison gas in World War I, began its own research programme. They expose the different chemical and biological warfare units operating in China, and a welter of atrocities in north-eastern China, culminating in the horrors of Unit 731.
At the base, prisoners were infected with plague, anthrax and more, and dissected alive without anaesthetic. Plague rats were bred, as were plague-carrying fleas, which were dropped onto Chinese villages to enable experiments in plague control: prisoners were strapped to wooden crosses and gassed.
Other experiments included freezing people, including a 3-day old baby, to assess methods of curing frostbite; victims died in pressure chambers, vacuum chambers and while suspended upside down.
The programme was kept secret by Japan and the US, which benefited from the medical research in its own biological weapons programmes, until long after the war when a few brave veterans exposed it.
As a whole, the museum is impactful without being gory — particularly moving is a corridor with black plaques commemorating the known victims. The narrative is told by a mixture of tableaux, found objects and a few photos: in a wise decision, the most extreme images surviving are not on display here, though photos of officers worshipping at a Shinto shrine contain considerable shock value.
The 731 base takes a while to reach, but it is definitely well worth seeing. And, if you’d like to learn more about Unit 731, this is a good place to start.
Xinjiang Dajie, Ping Fang, Harbin
9-11am and 1.30-3.30pm, Tuesday to Sunday
Tickets are free but you need to show a passport. An audio guide costs 15 kuai.
Getting to the Unit 731 Base
The unit 731 base is roughly an hour on the bus from central Harbin. The 338 and 343 run from the bus stop in the alley down the side of the Kunlun Hotel on Tielu Jie, just to the west of the train station, and the fare is 2 kuai. The bus stop is Xinjiang Dajie: walk a few minutes back and 731 is on the same side of the road. It’s a good idea to ask a fellow passenger for “chee-san-yee” (731) so they can ensure you get off at the right stop.