Let's Deal with the Issue: Commentary on Leavitt
- Michael Thomas,
Law Student, University of Otago, New Zealand
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.
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
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
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.
T. Why Japanese doctors performed
human experiments in China 1933-1945.
EJAIB 10 (6): 179.
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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