China’s Auschwitz: A look at the WWII Japanese Germ and Warfare Base 侵华日军第731部队遗址

Harbin housed some gruesome secrets during the Japanese Occupation (1931-1945), when the area was known as the Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army covertly developed and tested lethal biological and chemical warfare at this site under the guise of epidemic prevention and water purification works.

What took place on these grounds are considered some of the most notorious war crimes of Imperial Japan. Victims included at least 3,000 men, women and children from the area along with captured Soviets, Mongolians, Koreans, and other Allied POWs. It’s estimated that the victims total over tens of thousands from 1939 to 1945.

Led by General Ishii, bizarre and tortuous medical experiments were carried out on “Maruta,” meaning logs in Japanese, the code name for those deemed undesirable and expendable in this context. These experiments were designed to improve the efficiency of Japanese battlefield medical care and included subjecting Maruta to boiling, freezing, being exposed to bacteria and viruses, being shot, and worst of all being dissected alive without any anesthetic so that Japanese doctors could obtain ‘pure’ results without any influence of drugs. 

Frostbite Experiments

This display talked about how the vivisections happened to eight captured Americans.

I felt this museum was very well done in terms of capturing the wide scope of what took place here. For instance, one room shows the complete layout of the base modeled under a giant glass floor that one may walk on. Many firsthand accounts from those committing the crimes were available as were a few remains of the camp and the chimney where many of the Maruta were cremated on the grounds.

Some of the Japanese plans were crazy to think about. They had developed special balloons to take their biological weapons to the USA. There were also special ceramic bombs that would be filled with plague-infected fleas since using steel shells required too much explosive to break and would kill the fleas.

Most of the evidence, we learn at the end of the tour, is from American debriefings of Japanese scientists (as in the photo seen below). The unfortunate price of all their data was immunity from prosecution for war crimes. General Ishii, who commanded these efforts, was sadly never punished.

All the exhibits were well-thought out and very detailed, both enlightening while simultaneously heart wrenching at times. I appreciated that the displays were also noticeably cared for, unlike the ones at the Harbin Provincial Museum. Countless screens showing interviews with former imperial soldiers and victims provided not only a grisly glimpse into the horrors that took place here, but detailed efforts of those who contributed to the crimes to make amends and seek forgiveness (to the anger of the Japanese government officials who continue to deny what took place here).

Garlands of cranes to honor the victims

The somber hall of remembrance at the end reminded me of the Holocaust Museum in Washington, DC, another fantastic museum. Moreover, I was very impressed by the extraordinary amount of English inside the building, but note that there are no English translations on the walkable grounds of the remnants outside.

Exit from the main museum to the grounds.
A remnant

I would highly advise against bringing children or those who are fainthearted to this museum. There are no live rats here anymore, like I read they had in one exhibit, but there are quite a few gruesome recreations of the tortures.

How to get here:

The Unit 731 Museum is located far into the southern suburbs of Harbin. It’s free and open 9am-11am 1pm-3:30pm Tuesday through Sunday. To get here, one may taxi for over 70 Kuai or a public bus 338 or 343 next to the Kunlun Hotel on Tielu Jie. Ride the bus to the stop called Xinjiang Dajie. Signs will point the direction towards the entrance. An important note, if you take the bus, you pay one Kuai to get on AND two per person when you disembark since the ride is over an hour long for a total of three kuai one way.


The remains of the main boiler, torn down by the retreating Japanese to destroy evidence of what this place was.



8 Comments Add yours

  1. bye:myself says:

    I really appreciate your post. I find it very unjust that the crimes committed by the Japanese towards mainly Chinese and Koreans are basically not remembered. I’ve read about it and it makes me sick to my stomach. Mainly the inhumane human trials – unbelievable. Those were atrocious crimes and there has hardly been any acknowledgment.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. cbyrnem says:

    I have always wanted to visit Harbin due to the Jewish history there. Thank you for writing a post about this tragic, yet important museum. I also appreciate that you engaged with the politics behind what releasing testimony and information can mean for future recourse. All fascinating parts of history, and after your reading your post I am definitely adding this to my list for when I make it to Harbin. Depressing, but another historical event we as a world should not forget. Does the site itself or common discussion call it ‘China’s Auschwitz’? I see the parallels of testing on and murdering ‘socially undesirable people’, but Auschwitz was part of a systemic vehicle to eliminate an entire religion of people. I would like to learn more as this naming sounds tenuous to me.

    Like

    1. Hi cbyrnem, you make a very good point about the name of “Auschwitz.” It was mentioned on some of the signage there, and I think it was meant more to parallel the horror of the killing of the Jews and the millions of other people. I agree that it is a tenous name though, for while the Japanese committed brutal atrocities in their conquest and killings throughout China and Southeast Asia, their motivations did not target ethnic groups or their religions specifically.

      Yes, I highly recommend visiting Harbin (and Shanghai!) for more Jewish history in China. Harbin has a thriving Jewish community and an old synagogue that is still in use. In Shanghai, I visited a synagogue that was converted into a museum about the Jewish people who were able to escape and make a new life there. There’s a graphic novel called A Jewish Girl in Shanghai (the 2010 animated movie is available online that is touted as the first Chinese film to portray the Holocaust).

      Liked by 1 person

      1. cbyrnem says:

        Steph – Thanks so much for the follow-up. I appreciate it. I am also going to look up the graphic novel you mentioned! I actually used to work at a historic synagogue that is now a museum in NYC, and that is right up my alley! Shanghai is also on my “to visit” list. Thanks for the advice!

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Laurel says:

    So interesting to learn about history and actually visit it, but so eerie!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. This museum sounds very interesting and somber. Places like this are always a sober reminder of how terrible our past has been at times. Biological weapons in balloons? Yikes!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It was definitely very somber and well organized. Right? I thought that sounded so scary! Thanks for reading!

      Like

  5. Michelle says:

    I know that we can’t forget our history, but I have such a hard time visiting museums like this. You did a great job covering it. Thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

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