Let's Deal with the Issue: Commentary on Leavitt

- Michael Thomas,
Law Student, University of Otago, New Zealand
E-mail: mt6767@hotmail.com

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 13 (2003), 166-7.

Contrary to Leavitt's article in the July 2003 issue of EJAIB I think that writers dealing with the Japanese doctors human experimentation are not "harping too much on past sins" nor attempting to "perpetuate hatred"(1).  I do not intend to attack Leavitt's personal view in this response, rather I would like to take Leavitt's arguments separately and examine whether they stand up to closer scrutiny.  I submit that Leavitt's arguments miss the real point of discussion about this important topic for the development of Asian bioethics and more harmonious relations between Japanese and Chinese people in general.

In paragraph 3 of his 2003 article, Leavitt seems to argue that the Japanese officers were 'not capable' of committing atrocities on the same scale as the Nazis did.  But this is arguable, especially in light of Tsuchiya's article in the November 2000 issue of EJAIB where Tsuchiya points out that deadly experiments were conducted at Unit 731 in airtight chambers in the same fashion as those conducted by the Nazis (2).  My point is that in such an unethical environment as that which existed at Unit 731 (and other Units) we should be slow to assume that those doctors were not capable of inflicting human suffering on an even larger scale.  Could we be sure that those Japanese doctors' and researchers' would have stopped experimenting and so quickly destroyed their "luxurious laboratories" (2, p.180) if not forced to do so by the imminent invasion of Manchuria in August 1945?

In his next two paragraphs Leavitt puts the "matter in perspective"(1, p.134) in light of Western inflicted atrocities in Asia and particularly the American bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.  But is this addressing the issue of Japanese human experimentation?  Undeniably many atrocities have been committed in Asia by Western nations but this does not justify the Japanese experimentation.  In the May 2003 issue of EJAIB I argued that the failure to prosecute the Japanese doctors' was unjustifiable.  But I also argued that the American government's role in granting the doctors' immunity was equally blameworthy and unjustifiable.  But I think it is dangerous to assume as Leavitt  appears to have done, that "war criminals are always and only on the losing side" (1, p.134). Politically perhaps.  But which side was really the losing side here?  The Japanese doctors' who were promoted to leading positions in Japanese medical and educational institutions? Or the many hundreds of human beings who were unwillingly subject to vivisection?

Leavitt  then poses the question 'why single out one nation for so much bashing?' (1, p.135)  He emphasises this by pointing to atrocities caused by America and saying 'what nation was free of atrocities in those days?'(1, p.135).  Again I submit that this argument is weak and avoids the issue.  Leavitt  himself acknowledges, "American and other atrocities do not of course excuse the Japanese Imperial Army" (1, p.135).  But there is no Japan "bashing" going on.  The reason why I wrote about the Japanese doctors' inhumane experimentation was because it appeared to me that the Japanese doctors' and researchers' involved, have to this day, never been held accountable for their actions.  That is why Chinese and many others who were affected (either as a direct result of the experiments or indirectly through the death of family and loved ones) have never been able to deal with the issue and still view those doctors as "devils."  Sure many terrible atrocities have been caused by America and other Western nations that have not been remedied, but those are separate issues, calling for further academic discourse. 

Leavitt  writing in response to Tsuchiya, states that the sparse discussion about the ethics of human research "is not unique to Japan" (1, p.135).  It is the reluctance of the Japanese government (and indeed the Chinese one) to acknowledge this issue that has resulted in the "taboo" (3, p.101) nature of the subject in East-Asian bioethics.

Leavitt  analogises the remembrance of the Nazi atrocities, to assert that the remembrance of the Japanese doctors' experimentation "should be kept within bounds" (1, p.135).  But such an analogy is misleading.  One cannot compare the importance of the Nuremberg Trials for Western bioethics with the farcical Kaharvosk Trials of the Japanese doctors'.  The Nuremberg Trials and the Nazi regime have subsequently received huge worldwide attention and scrutiny in comparison to the Japanese doctors' experimentation.  Many Japanese people are yet to acknowledge that the atrocities occurred, let alone remember them.  Many people worldwide have not even heard about the Japanese doctors' experiments.  So how are countries like Japan and America meant to learn from their mistakes if they refuse to acknowledge them and worse still, actively suppress open discussion of them?

My final point relates to Leavitt 's consistent use of the phrase "Japanese Imperial Army" when referring to the present issue (the Japanese doctors' experimentation).  I submit that the use of "army" serves to distort the true scope of Japan's involvement in the atrocity.  It was not simply an organised militia, nor solely military doctors that performed these experiments.  The atrocity would not have been possible without the wider support of other Japanese institutions, in particular the recruitment of medical students, lecturers and university researchers to participate in the human experimentation and research.  To me, the wider involvement of Japanese medical establishments and universities presents one of the more worrying facts about the Japanese doctors' experimentation that is very important and relevant for current bioethics.

In conclusion, I think there are lessons that we as humans have yet to learn from the Japanese doctors' experimentation.  Contrary to Leavitt 's article, I argue that further awareness and discussion of this atrocity will not serve to incite hatred, but rather serve as a starting point to remedy deep felt injustices of the past, in order to build a firmer foundation for future relations between China and Japan in particular.


1. Leavitt  FJ.  Let's Stop Bashing Japan: Commentary on Tsuchiya, Sass, Thomas, Nie & Tsuneishi.  EJAIB 13 (4): 134-135.

2. Tsuchiya T.  Why Japanese doctors performed human experiments in China 1933-1945.  EJAIB 10 (6): 179.

3. Tsuchiya T.  In The Shadow of the Past Atrocities: Research Ethics with Human Subjects in Contemporary Japan.  EJAIB 13 (3): 101-102.

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