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), PhDEubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 13 (2003), 163-6.
Senior Lecturer, Bioethics Centre,
Dunedin School of Medicine
University of Otago, New Zealand;
Adjunct Professor, Bioethics
Center, Wuhan University, China
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
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, Dring 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
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
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 Dring (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) 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
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
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
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