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.
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).
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.
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.