Below you can read a little about the terrible atrocities committed by the Japanese army in China during World War 2. You can also find practical information for visiting the Unit 731 Museum in Harbin.
Japanese Unit 731 of the Kwantung Army was a top-secret chemical and biological weapons program that conducted experiments on live test subjects during the occupation of China during the Second World War.
Below is an introduction to the crimes committed as well as a short video I put together of the museum and buildings using both drone footage and photographs.
A Short Video of the Unit 731 Building and Museum
Unit 731 Location
The unit’s research centre was located in Pingfang District, Harbin in the far northwest of China. I had wanted to visit the museum when I lived in the city in 2015, but the buildings were undergoing renovation at the time. It wasn’t until I returned to Harbin in January of 2021 that I was able to visit the Unit 731 building and museum.
Unit 731 of the Imperial Japanese Army was a covert chemical and biological warfare research unit that tested on human victims.
The museum is located in the Pingfang district of Harbin in China’s far northern Heilongjiang Province.
Entrance to the museum is free.
To get the most out of a visit, allow at least three hours.
What was Unit 731 Known For?
Unit 731 was created by Shiro Ishii, the chief medical officer of the Imperial Japanese Army. The unit was set up to research chemical and biological weapons, with the use of human test subjects. 731’s headquarters were originally located in Tokyo, however, after the Japanese invasion of China during World War Two, the unit moved to the suburbs of Harbin in China’s far north-western Manchuria region.
Japan Unit 731 was principally involved in testing biological weapons and diseases such as anthrax, botulism, plague, typhoid and more. Prisoners were then vivisected alive, usually without the use of an anesthetic (so as not to obscure the results with other factors).
Prisoners were infected in a variety of ways including by injection, gas, contaminated food and more. When testing battlefield capabilities, prisoners were tied to crosses or stakes and planes would spray pathogens above.
Another method was the use of bombs such as the defoliation bacilli bomb. Subjects would again be tied to stakes and then a bomb detonated at different ranges. To ensure the prisoners didn’t die of blast injuries their head and upper body were protected, allowing the shrapnel to maim and infect, but not kill instantly.
Ishii and his unit were also interested in the effects of extreme temperatures. As Harbin is located in the coldest part of China with winter temperatures dropping to -30c, it proved the perfect place for studying frostbite. Victims were tied down outside and their extremities doused in water and allowed to freeze.
Did Japan Bomb China with Fleas?
In 1940 the Japanese Imperial Army released fleas infected with the bubonic plague above the Chinese city of Ningbo, not far from Shanghai. According to bacteriologist Huang Ketai, over 100 people died as a result of the plague in Ningbo in November and December 1940.
The unit even had plans to send a bacterial bomb all the way to America by hot air balloon. Thankfully this was never realised.
Who were the victims of Unit 731?
The Japanese referred to their test subjects as Maruta (meaning “logs”). Many of the victims were Chinese political prisoners or criminals (on trumped-up charges) but also included the homeless, mentally ill and many unsuspecting civilians.
The unit wanted a cross-section of society to test on, so children, pregnant women and the elderly were all fair game and shown no mercy in the gas chambers or on the dissecting table. Although the victims were mostly Chinese (around 70%), the Japanese also tested on Koreans, Mongolians, Russians and Allied prisoners of war.
Are There Any Survivors of Unit 731?
There were no Unit 731 survivors. Most victims died a horrific death and no one came out of the camp alive. As the Red Army neared Harbin, Ishii ordered the destruction of the facility and the remaining 300 prisoners were poisoned or gassed. The 600 or so Chinese laborers who built the camp were all shot. Ishii instructed all of his staff to “take the secret to the grave”.
Shiro Ishii War Crimes Immunity
During all these terrible experiments, soldiers and scientists of the unit would be present and taking copious notes to be written up. Copies of these reports can be seen inside the Unit 731 Museum.
Sometimes called the Auschwitz of the East, Ishii and his unit eclipsed Josef Mengele in depravity and sadism. It is said that many of the experiments provided absolutely no military or medical benefit.
Unlike with Mengele and the Nazi atrocities, Ishii and his unit were granted full immunity by the United States who were keen to get their hands on what data had not been destroyed. In return for sharing the unit’s findings with the Americans and no one else, Ishii and his band of psychopaths were let off scot-free.
However, in 1949 the Soviets commenced their own trials of some of 731’s members, who were sentenced to unusually lenient terms of imprisonment in the gulag (it is surmised that the Japanese may have shared biological secrets with the USSR to get lighter sentences).
Unit 731 Museum
The Unit 731 Museum is located in the Pingfang district 20km south of Harbin. There is a large exhibition building that houses many interesting and terrifying artifacts including photographs, equipment, reports and confessions from members of the unit. The more horrific photographs are not on display.
There are televisual displays with interviews from victims and perpetrators and dioramas of experiments being conducted, some of which are quite disturbing.
The large exhibition/memorial hall near the exit contains the names of almost 3,000 victims.
Outside the main exhibition hall of the Unit 731 Museum are the grounds housing the administrative buildings, barracks and crumbling boiler rooms. In winter the whole place cuts a very bleak landscape.
How to get to the Unit 731 Museum
Address: 25 Xinjiang Dajie, Pingfang District, Harbin, PRC
Subway: The easiest way to get to the Unit 731 Museum is to take subway line 1 (red) to its southernmost stop at Xinjiang Street. Tickets cost from ¥3 to ¥5 one way.
Take Exit 2 and walk back a few steps to the crossroads. Turn left onto Xinjiang Street and walk five minutes until you see the barbed wire.
The museum entrance is a large black building with three large chimneys, not the red-bricked former HQ. You can either carry on up the street or walk through the underground memorial tunnel.
Bus: Take bus 338 or 343 from Harbin Railway Station. Fare is ¥2.50 and journey time is approximately one hour.
Taxi: A taxi from anywhere in the city should not cost more than ¥100.
Unt 731 Museum Opening Hours
Entrance to the museum is free. You will need to scan a QR code for a health check and have your temperature taken prior to entry.
The museum is open six days a week (closed Mondays) from 09:00 to 16:00. The museum is closed for lunch from 11:30 to 13:00.
Facilities at the Museum
There are toilets on site which are clean and include western style. It’s possible to book an English-speaking tour through companies like Trip.com.
There is nowhere selling food or drink on-site, but there are plentiful convenience stores and restaurants on the street outside.
Visit the official website for more information.
How long should I spend at the museum?
To really get the most of it, you should spend at least two hours exploring the museum and surrounding grounds. If you read every description and info-board, then three to four hours is more realistic.
Looking for more things to do in Harbin?
Harbin is home to the world-famous Ice and Snow Festival which runs from late December until March every year.
Discover Harbin‘s Russian history at Saint Sophia Cathedral and Central Street!
Where to Stay in Harbin?
I stayed at the Xiwu Boutique Express Hotel next to Harbin East Railway Station. The room was ¥250 ($40) per night, in a great location next to the subway and the room was large, warm and comfortable. You can book directly through Trip.com.
If you are looking for a cheaper alternative then you can find many hostels across the city on Hostelworld.
For those interested in history or dark tourism, this Harbin museum is a must-see for anyone visiting the city. The atrocities committed here have largely been wiped from history, so you can get a fascinating insight into one of the darkest periods of World War Two history.
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About the author:
Steve Rohan is a writer from Essex, England. He has travelled to over 60 countries, lived in China and Hong Kong, and is now living the digital nomad life on the road.
Steve prefers “slow travel” and has covered much of Europe and Asia by train, bus and boat.
Where I am now: Turkey 🇹🇷