Let's Never Stop Bashing Inhumanity: A Reply to Frank Leavitt and an Appeal for Further Ethical Studies on Japanese Doctors' Wartime Experimentation

- Jing-Bao Nie, MD(tcm), PhD
Senior Lecturer, Bioethics Centre, Dunedin School of Medicine
University of Otago, New Zealand;
Adjunct Professor, Bioethics Center, Wuhan University, China
Email: jing-bao.nie@stonebow.otago.ac.nz

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 13 (2003), 163-6.
It is well-known that many Japanese, represented by the government, are still far from being willing to address the role of Japan in waging the war in East Asia and various kinds of war crimes of Japanese army such as the Rape of Nanking (Nanjing), "comfort women" (forced sex slaves), and experiments on living human beings. As an authoritative American historian on the subject, Sheldon Harris, has correctly observed and well described, while "here and there an isolated voice" (e.g. works by the writer Seiichi Morimura and the historian Keiichi Tsuneishi) "attempts to rouse the nation", there is a "collective amnesia" in Japan about the war, including secret biological warfare research on humans (2002: xii, 349). In a striking contrast with Germans who in general are well informed on the war and many feel guilty, most Japanese know little or have only distorted information about the war and incline to see Japan as a victim and Japanese war criminals heroes (see Buruma 2001).

Japanese who refuse to face the past seriously are usually taking two approaches-"denying" and "excusing" or "justifying." Firstly, it has been claimed that those bad things did not happen. The accused war crimes are believed to be fabricated by, for example, Chinese, Koreans and Communist Russians. Not only do they themselves deny those atrocities, in school textbooks the aggressive war is described as "entering" other countries for the good causes. This is somehow understandable since, emotionally, we do not want to believe that people we identify ourselves to belong to can conduct inhuman atrocities. For a long time, I had great difficulty in believing that in the Cultural Revolution some body parts of "class enemies" were literally eaten by some other fellow Chinese of mine. Secondly, many Japanese, who, in face of overwhelming evidence, find themselves impossible to deny, emphasize that Japan, as the only country being attacked by atomic bombs, was a victim of World War II. They go on further downplaying the horrible past by claiming that Japan was accused merely because she lost the war and that other people have conducted similar or even worse crimes then Japanese did. One argument I once read about the "revisionist" interpretation of the war is that history textbooks in China distort truth even more than those in Japan and so there is not much wrong in Japanese distorting the historical facts about the war. 

It is an extremely challenging task to face the history. For example, there is a possibility and danger that to study the terrible atrocities might generate the racist generalization on the people those criminals belong and even perpetuate hatred. In his commentary on the papers by Tsuchiya, Sass, Thomas, Tsuneishi and myself about Japanese doctors' human experimentation in wartime China in the July 2003 issue of EJAIB, Frank Leavitt (2003, 134-135) has made this point. This point is very important because racism and hatred were exactly the roots of those atrocities. Moreover, not only racism and hatred still widely exist in this world, some people even want to use the past to perpetuate racism and hatred for certain political purposes.

While I acknowledge the point made by Dr. Leavitt, I find his commentary in general is profoundly and seriously wrong. It is sending a totally wrong message at the wrong place and wrong time. In order for us to understand the past properly, we must refute its reasoning. Prof Leavitt calls for "Let's stop bashing Japan". He claims that "we are harping too much on past sins". He especially mentioned that Japanese people and government have been kind to Jewish people, that "war criminals are always and only on the losing side," and that it is "understandable", though not often "excusable", that Japan went to war (original emphasis). In reminding us that other people such Americans also conducted atrocities and that no nation "was free of atrocities in those days," Dr. Leavitt asks: "why single out one nation [Japan] for so much bashing?" In conclusion, he urges us to keep remembrance "within bonds". In other words, he believes that the current discussions on Japanese doctors' wartime (in)human experimentation are already sufficient and enough.

Whether Dr. Leavitt has intended or not to justify the atrocities, he is talking in the exactly same logic of the second popular approach many Japanese have taken about the atrocity-excusing or downplaying-as described above. This similarity somehow shocked me. At first I could hardly believe what I was actually reading. Since English is not my mother tongue, I even doubted whether I understood the words correctly. To make sure, I even checked English dictionaries about the phrase "harp on". I was not wrong, it definitely means "talk repeatedly or tiresomely about", "talk or write persistently and tediously about a particular topic." In fact, one major reason that has compelled me to write this reply is that there are many people out there in Japan and elsewhere who believe in or agree with the reasoning and viewpoints of Prof. Leavitt's commentary.

The basic historical facts on Japanese army's bacteriological warfare programs and experiments on living human beings were well established in the Khabarovsk Trial in the former Soviet Union in 1949. The former members of the bacteriological warfare programs, especially those who came back from China, started to confess and give personal testimony since 1950s. But all this has been dismissed as either a communist propaganda or being brainwashed by communists. Since the early 1980s, more archival documents, more personal testimonies by former members and victims or their relatives, detailed journalist investigations, and systematic historical studies in Japanese, Chinese and English continue to provide ironclad evidence about the horror of those "factories of death" (see The Khabarovsk Trial Materials, China Central Archive et al. 1989, Fujiii 1997, Gold 1996, Guo 1997, Harris 2002, Jie et al. 1998, Morimura 1981, 1982, 1982, Tsuneishi 1994, 1995, Williams and Wallace 1998). However, in spite of the obvious relevance of Japanese doctors' atrocities to medical ethics and medicine, not after the atrocities happened more than half a century, did some discussions from the angle of medical ethics start. Not only in Japan and international community but even in China, the subject has been, and is still, treated as having little relevance to contemporary medicine and medical ethics.

It is true and good that, internationally, medical ethicists started to take up the too-long overdue subject since the late 1990s. In 1977 a Chinese doctor and a Japanese-American obstetrician published respectively a commentary on and book review of the first edition of Sheldon Harris' important book Factories of Death (Chen 1997, Ishida 1997). Thanks to the EJAIB, starting with not long but significant article by Takashi Tsuchiya (2000), a series of discussions by scholars from Japan, China, Israel, Germany, and New Zealand have appeared (Morioka 2000, Nie 2001, Leavit 2001, Dšring 2001, Chen 2001, Tsuchiya 2003, Sass 2003, Thomas 2003, Nie et al. 2003). In addition, a panel, "Japanese Doctors' Human Experimentation in China 1933-45: Lessons from International Research Ethics and Cross-Cultural Bioethics", was presented at the fourth annual meeting of the American Society for Bioethics and Humanities held in Nashville in October 2001. A couple of other works appeared or will come out elsewhere (Nie 2002, Nie, Takashi and Li, forthcoming).

To my knowledge, these are so far all the discussions on ethical dimensions of inhuman experiments in the circles of Japanese, Chinese, and international bioethics. Are we harping too much on past sins? No, far from so. It is true that Japan, due to internal demands and external pressure, has made a little bit of progress in the past few years. For instance, the Tokyo District Court, as a response to suits by Chinese and after hearing considerable testimony from people including former members of Unit 731, officially acknowledged that the Japanese Imperial Army waged the banned germ warfare on Chinese civilians during war time. Nevertheless, after the lapse of more than half a century, justice is still not done yet and may never be done. By refusing to compensate the victims of biological experiments and other war crimes, the Japanese government is still not willing to face the past honestly. The U.S. government still never formally admits and apologizes for covering-up the Japanese doctors' atrocities. Chinese Nationalist and Communist governments still hold a somehow ambiguous attitude toward the atrocities.

Out of respect for the thousands killed in the course of these experiments in those "Eastern Auschwitz" and the consequent biological warfare unleashed on civilian populations, the importance of addressing this subject in order to seek historical justice is obvious and can hardly be overemphasized. Nevertheless, the significance of revisiting the bloody historical events is far beyond a quest for historical justice. The atrocities raise a number of perennial ethical issues set in particular historical contexts and bear direct relevance to many theoretical and practical issues in contemporary medical ethics, especially international and cross-cultural bioethics and the ethics of research involving human subjects. International and East Asian bioethics cannot afford avoiding this topic and these ethical issues. Unfortunately, the atrocities are still not explored in wider intellectual discourse, including ethics and human rights; the implications and challenges for medicine, medical ethics and international affairs today are till overlooked. In regard to the nature of those crimes, knowledge on their content and moral lessons arising from the open secret should be a significant element in the collective memory of contemporary humankind, especially in Japan and China. This is far from the case yet.

Let us suppose the following hypothetical situation: The whole world had heard about the Nazi Racial Hygiene since it was an open secret. No Nuremberg trials or anything similar to that had ever happened. For whatever reasons, the German government, with a majority of people in Germany, still refused to acknowledge that the Racial Hygiene ever existed and even claim that it was a lie, a Jewish lie. Yet, significant and enormous personal testimonies of participants and witnesses, archival documents, historical studies, and journalist reports keep coming out in the past decades, especially since early 1980s. Beyond reasonable doubt it is undeniable that bad things, no matter how hard to believe, happened. Based on these primary and secondary historical materials, some scholars from Germany and a few other countries, including Dr. Leavitt as a Jew, started, for the first time, to write about the topic from the angle of medical ethics and published a few primary reflections on the subject. Now someone, who loves Germany, come up and says to Dr. Leavitt and his colleagues: enough is enough, let's keep remembrance in bounds, let's stop bashing Germany. What would we say to this person? Isn't what this person has said totally wrong?! Please do not forget that in "Institute 731" (one of several racial hygiene research units) alone, from 1939-1945 each year at least six hundred people (mainly Jews)--two human beings each day--were experimented and killed. 

Yes, as Dr. Leavitt has pointed out, many other war crimes and criminals, such as destroying two Japanese cities by not one single but two different atomic bombs and firebombing civilian neighbourhoods in Japan, were not brought to justice at all. This is very sad. It is even sadder that these atrocities were far from seriously addressed because they were conducted by the winners of the war. But all this should not become the reasons for us not to persistently address Japanese doctors' inhuman experiments. In the same logic, one should not use Japanese wartime experimentation as a reason to stop addressing those war crimes against Japanese people. Let us suppose that a gang committed group raping and murdering. The criminals claimed that so much ever worse things have happened and are even happening at this moment, why single out their gang for so much bashing and even potential severe punishment. Let us suppose that a government sent an army with tanks to kill at least several hundreds of students and civilians who were peacefully demonstrating on the streets. When challenged about the state massacre, this government claimed that another government did the same in 1989. Should we buy this reason and then let the gang and the government go? No, absolutely not. 

From Prof. Leavitt's commentary, I have, for the first time, learnt that Japanese government and people have been kind to Jews, even when Japan was allied with Germany in the war. It is really good to know this. But I am not surprised at all because I know well and have never doubted how capable Japanese are of doing good. Nevertheless, Prof. Leavitt cites his neighbour who was once treated nicely in Japan saying to him: "The Japanese were not angels, but they were not capable of the mass extermination of a people, like the Nazi did." Obviously, Prof. Leavitt agrees with this statement. It is historically true that Japanese did not attempt to exterminate an entire people as Nazis did to Jews. But I disagree with the view that, because of their kindness to Jews, Japanese are not capable of mass killing. 

History has proven that Japanese, like other people, are capable of both good and evil. No matter how sad to say so, every people, every state, every nation is capable of what the Third Reich did-mass killing. The history of twentieth century was a history of both great progresses and inhumanity. As the British philosopher Jonathan Glover has stated, sadly enough, "no apology is needed for giving the twentieth-century atrocities a central place in our recent moral history" (2001, 3). The twentieth-century atrocities happened in a great number of places have powerfully demonstrated how normally kind and nice people can carry out extraordinary bad things. Thank God or Heaven, social institutions, human conscience, moral values, and historical circumstances have prevented mass killing from often happening. But the capability and possibility are always there. Yes, Japanese are not only capable of great literature, music, arts, philosophy, science, and technology, but also kind and nice normally. So are Germans. So are Americans. So are Russians. So are Chinese. Unfortunately, all this can never guarantee that all these people, we, never conduct extraordinary evils. Otherwise, there were no raping of Nanking, no "factories of death"; no racial hygiene, no Holocaust; no atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, no My Lai in Vietnam where almost all villagers from children to women to elderly were madly killed by armed American soldiers; no Stalin's terror, no the Gulag; no Cultural Revolution, no Chinese army's invading Vietnam and destroying towns and villages one after another in 1979. To put this point in another way, if a doctor conducted a murder, the murder is a crime even though he had saved thousands of lives before or after the murder, even though he has never been convicted in court or punished accordingly.  

Not only good or ordinary people can conduct extraordinary evils, ordinary or even bad people can do extraordinary and morally courageous things. In the Rape of Nanking when Japanese Imperial Army was carrying out various brutal crimes against hundreds and thousands of civilians, children and women included, there was a safe "island" in the then capital of China. The Nanking International Safe Zone was created by a group of Westerners, including Americans, to protect Chinese from Japanese soldiers' war crimes. It was actually led by a German, John Rabe, who was the leader of the Nazi Party in Nanking. So it was "the Nazi who saved Nanking." For most of the Chinese in the city, Rabe, the Nazi, was a hero, "the living Buddha" (see Chang 1997: 109). This may surprise Prof. Leavitt, but I am not surprised by this.

According to the logic of Prof Leavitt's commentary, since Germans in general and even the Nazi leader were kind and nice to Chinese, should we then call for "let's put the matter in perspective" and let's stop bashing the Third Reich? Since Americans in general have been kind and nice to Chinese in the Second World War, should we then call for: let's put it in perspective American atomic bombing two (not just one) Japanese cities and let's not single out the United States for so much bashing? In conclusion, should we say: since these atrocities against Jews and Japanese were "understandable", let us NOT talk and study the Holocaust and Hiroshima too much and let's keep our remembrance "within bounds"? No, absolutely not.   

Dr. Leavitt asks "why single out one nation [Japan] for so much bashing." But the questions are: who are singling out Japan for the atrocities? Who are bashing Japan? It is crystal clear that nobody, no single one whom he has commented on and who have participated in the discussions on the subject in the EJAIB since 2000, has ever bashed Japan. Nobody, no single one has even claimed that only Japanese are capable of the atrocities. On the contrary, everyone, especially the German philosopher Ole Dšring (2001) and myself (Nie 2001, 2003b), has emphasized that we should NOT see the Japanese doctors' atrocities as the Japanese problem or the problem of Japan, but the human problem, our problem. Japanese doctors' wartime experimentation is just one of twentieth-century atrocities and collective violence, though quite representative one. All of us are talking about and "bashing" the atrocities. Nobody, no single one is generalizing Japanese people and culture for the atrocities. For the German-American bioethicist Hans-Martin Sass (2003), he is "bashing" (to borrow the word of Prof. Leavitt) not so much Japan but the United States for covering-up the atrocities. For the Chinese philosophy Chen Rongxia (2001), who always has very good feeling about Japan and loves Japanese literature, even blames (thought wrongly as I see it) the East-Asian values for the atrocities. There are people and governments in this world who tend to single out the foreign countries for unfair bashing in order to fulfill certain political purposes by intentionally misleading people. But definitely not these scholars on whom Dr. Leavitt has commented.        

We are fortunate that Japanese scholars have been active in the international efforts to approach the subject from ethical perspectives. Keiichi Tsuneishi (1994, 1995) is the pioneering historian who has devoted his professional career and more to study the history of Japanese biological warfare activities. Takashi Tsuchiya (2001, 2003) is the pioneering philosopher who is bringing this topic into medical ethics in Japan and the international community. Unlike many of his fellow Japanese, Masahiro Morioka (2001), took the subject very seriously. Some of their criticism to their own people and society might be too harsh. Some points of views, such as that of both Tsuchiya and Morioka blaming East-Asian and Japanese values for the atrocities, may be wrong because it seems to me that the atrocities are clearly against East-Asian morality and medical ethics (Nie 2003a). Dr. Leavitt's commentary suggests that they should stop being unfair to their own country and people. This is a fine point. However, it is clear that these Japanese colleagues of ours are not bashing their own country and people, but the atrocities their own people once committed. If their criticism sometime is harsh, this is simply because they have high moral standards for their own country and because they have faith in their own people in achieving morally good. We should admire their moral courage in critically examining the culture and society they are living in by taking the atrocities seriously. We should applause what they have done and are doing. It is simply wrong to stop them in doing all this. In fact, their works are urging us to follow their examples and do the same to the society and culture we respectively live in.

Like Dr. Leavitt and many other people, I for a long time have warm affection for Japanese culture and people. Like Prof. Leavitt, I am uncomfortable when people, very often my fellow Chinese, make racist and extra-nationalist remarks about Japanese. But I do not think that in order to prevent people from drawing wrong and racist conclusions we should avoiding talking about bad things. On the contrary, what we need to do is to show and demonstrate the human side, not merely the "devil" side, of the atrocities. The Holocaust and "factories of death" should not be treated as merely by some Germans over Jews or by some Japanese on some Chinese, but evils conducted by some human beings over some other fellow human beings. We should reminder ourselves and our audience that those Nazis and Japanese doctors were not "others" or "devils", but us. For me, the more I study and know about this subject, the more I am convinced that those Japanese doctors are not born to be "devils", the more I am aware of the banality and universality of evils. Just one example here. At the end of his life, Ishii Shiro, the major leader of "factories of death" or the head of the "devils", was Baptized into the Roman Catholic Church and became Joseph (see Williams and Wallace 1989, 298).

As early in 1963, the German philosopher and social theorist, Theodor W. Adorno, has pointed out: "We may not know what absolute good is or the absolute norm, we may not even know what man [sic] is or the human or humanity-but what the inhuman is we know very well indeed (Adorno 2001, 175). Therefore, "the place of moral philosophy today lies more in the concrete denunciation of the inhuman, than in vague and abstract attempts to situate man in his existence" (Ibid). Together with Prof. Leavitt, I share the concern that focusing on the atrocities may perpetuate hatred which, as he has well said, "is bad for the hater and as for the hated, perhaps worse." But studying the atrocities as thoroughly as possible does not necessarily lead to hatred. On the contrary, while we can learn how to love and have humanity by following the examples of genuine love and humanity, we can learn love and have humanity more so by confronting the cases of inhumanity squarely. It is the atrocities, more than other human "achievements", that have demonstrated how destructive the hatred can be, how easily the hatred dehumanizes human beings, how hatred is bad for the hated and the hater. It is the atrocities, more than other human "achievements", that have demonstrated how destructive racism and other kinds of discriminations can be, how easily any discrimination dehumanizes human beings, how persecution is bad for the victims and the persecutors as well. We must learn to be human and remain human in constantly confronting and bashing inhumanity-the beast and devil elements of humankind-that, unfortunately, exists in the past, present and future.  

I am a little bit surprised to know from Dr. Leavitt that Takashi's article "tend to elicit" his students, the offspring of the Holocaust, "racist generalization" about Japanese. This is a sign of how reluctant we human beings, whether on the side of victims or that of persecutors, are in really learning lessons from the past, from those atrocities with thousands of human lives destroyed. The information about the Japanese war crimes in China has often elicited from my fellow Chinese racist generalization and extra-nationalist conclusions. But to stop talking and studying the past atrocities will not stop racism or extra-nationalism. Actually, the superficial and distorted understandings on the past atrocities are partly responsible for the prevalence of racism and other kinds of discrimination. By putting the atrocities in right perspectives, by studying them as thoroughly as possible, we may be able to learn how not to be a racist or discriminator. Racism, social Darwinism, and extra-nationalism were exactly the social and cultural soil of Japanese doctors' wartime human experimentation. It is the responsibility of scholars and teachers, i.e., our responsibility, to lead our students to put the atrocities in right perspectives. To be blind to the past can only continue our prejudices, enrich the social and cultural soil that has produced the atrocities, and thus increase the likelihood of bad things happening again.

Like Dr. Leavitt, I started to talk about this topic since 2001 in the bioethics courses I teach and at some professional conference I attend. Here in New Zealand, as one of the classes was ending, I once asked my students to be silent for three minutes for those sacrificed in those Japanese "factories of death" and all unethical medical experiments. Immediately before this, I asked whether it would be possible for them to participate in, not lead, that kind of atrocities under similar circumstances. Nearly all thirty students in the class, except one, raised their hands. I am very pleased with this result because for this I know that the likelihood for these young people (mostly New Zealanders) to actually participate in similar atrocities is not really high because they will watch out the dark side of human nature. I also remember that I once asked the same question to an audience in China, my motherland. Among three hundred young Chinese medical students, only ten raised their hands. I am alarmed and even somehow scared with this result. 

So far, I have been emphasizing the universality of evils, the shared features of Japanese doctors' human experimentation with other twentieth-century atrocities. In his book on the relationship between modernity and the Holocaust, the British sociologist Zygmunt Bauman (2000[1989]) has firmly argued that modernity was necessary, though not sufficient, condition of modernity. The Holocaust thus should be treated as a rare, but significant and reliable, test of the possibilities of modern society. It seems to me that this argument can well be applied to understand and analyse the case of Japanese doctors' factories of death since Japan was and is still the most "modern" and industrialized society in the East. However, all this should not be interpreted that I want to downplay or ignore the uniqueness of Japanese doctors' atrocities. Each and every case of inhumanity is a unique historical event. But we will never know what the shared features of human evils are and what the unique socio-historical dimensions of every case of inhumanity are, unless we thoroughly investigate every case of inhumanity individually and various atrocities together. 

As an active participant of studying Japanese doctors' inhuman experimentation from the angle of medical ethics, I must admit that so far the ethical studies of the atrocities are very preliminary, even tedious-uninteresting and lack of new insights. But this condition exactly means that we should persistently press on and go further, rather than stop. To build "factories of death," to fulfil the Holocaust need human talents, hard work, and collective efforts. To confront and denounce them demands even more creativity, more hard work, and more collective effort. Without collective efforts, to understand the atrocities in right perspectives can never be achieved. So we hope and have called for more scholars to join in discussing this topic (Nie et al. 2003). Here I appeal once again for further studies on the ethical lessons of Japanese doctors' experimentation in wartime China. I hope that people will never be tired about this topic. Otherwise, the similar atrocities will be very much likely to occur again.

All in all, let's NOT stop bashing the atrocities conducted by Japanese doctors during war time. For the sake of those died in "factories of death," for ourselves, for our children and our children's children, LET'S NEVER STOP BASHING INHUMANITY. Never!


My thanks go first of all to Prof Frank Leavitt for his stimulating commentary. I am grateful to Dr Ole Doering, Dr Neil Pickering and Prof Ann Boyd for their very helpful comments and generous help. A couple of paragraphs in this paper come from the chapter on Japanese doctors' wartime experimentation and medical ethics by Jing-Bao Nie, Takashi Tsuchiya and Lun Li for A History of Medical Ethics edited by Robert Baker and Laurence McCullough and to be published by Cambridge University Press.

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