Jump to content

Shirō Ishii

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

Shirō Ishii
Native name
石井 四郎
Born(1892-06-25)June 25, 1892
Shibayama, Chiba, Empire of Japan
DiedOctober 9, 1959(1959-10-09) (aged 67)
Tokyo, Japan
Allegiance Empire of Japan
Service/branch Imperial Japanese Army
Years of service1921–1945
RankSurgeon general (lieutenant-general)
Commands heldUnit 731, Kwantung Army
AwardsOrder of the Golden Kite, Fourth Class

Surgeon General Shirō Ishii (Japanese: 石井 四郎, Hepburn: Ishii Shirō, [iɕiː ɕiɾoː]; June 25, 1892 – October 9, 1959) was a Japanese war criminal, microbiologist and army medical officer who was the director of Unit 731, a biological warfare unit of the Imperial Japanese Army. Ishii led the development and application of biological weapons at Unit 731 in Manchukuo during the Second Sino-Japanese War from 1937 to 1945, including the bubonic plague attacks at Chinese cities of Changde and Ningbo, and planned the Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night biological attack against the United States.

Ishii and his colleagues also engaged in human experimentation, resulting in the deaths of over 10,000 subjects, most of them civilians or prisoners of war. In total, 300,000 people were killed by Japanese biological warfare.[1] Ishii was later granted immunity in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East by the United States government in exchange for information and research for the U.S. biological warfare program.


Early years[edit]

Shirō Ishii was born in Shibayama[dubiousdiscuss] in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, the fourth son of Katsuya Ishii, a wealthy landowner and sake maker. The Ishii family was the community's largest landholder and exercised a feudal dominance over the local village and surrounding hamlets. Ishii attended the Chiba Middle School (now Chiba Prefectural Chiba High School) in Chiba City and the Fourth Higher School (now Kanazawa University), a higher school in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture. He was a "teacher's favorite" and was said to have a photographic memory, able to recite a difficult text from cover to cover in one reading. Some of his classmates regarded him as brash, abrasive and arrogant. His daughter Harumi felt that Shiro had been "unjustly condemned", saying "my father was a very warm-hearted person...he was so bright that people sometimes could not catch up with the speed of his thinking and that made him irritated, and he shouted at them."[2][3] In 1916, Ishii enrolled at Faculty of Medicine, Kyoto Imperial University. He graduated in 1920, and married the daughter of Akari Torasaburō, the university's president, in the same year.[4][5]

Graduation photo of Shiro Ishii from the Department of Medicine of Kyoto Imperial University in 1920

In 1921, Ishii was commissioned into the Imperial Japanese Army as a military surgeon with the rank of Army Surgeon, First Class (surgeon lieutenant). In 1922, Ishii was assigned to the 1st Army Hospital and Army Medical School in Tokyo, where his work impressed his superiors enough to enable him to return to Kyoto Imperial University to pursue post-graduate medical schooling in 1924. During his studies, Ishii would often grow bacteria "pets" in multiple petri dishes, and his odd practice of raising bacteria as companions rather than as research subjects made him notable to the staff of the university.[6] He did not get along well with his classmates; they would become infuriated as a result of his "pushy behaviour" and "indifference". One of his mentors, Professor Ren Kimura, recalled that Ishii had an odd habit of doing his laboratory work in the middle of the night, using laboratory equipment that had been carefully cleaned by his classmates earlier. His classmates would "really be mad when they came in and found the laboratory equipment dirty the next morning".[7] In 1925, Ishii was promoted to Army Surgeon, Second Class (surgeon captain).

Biological warfare project[edit]

By 1927, Ishii was advocating for the creation of a Japanese bio-weapons program, and in 1928 began a two-year tour of the West, where he did extensive research on the effects of biological warfare and chemical warfare developments from World War I onwards. Ishii's travels were highly successful and helped win him the patronage of Sadao Araki, the Japanese Minister of the Army. Ishii also received the backing of Araki's ideological rival in the army, Major-General Tetsuzan Nagata, who was later considered Ishii's "most active supporter" at the Khabarovsk War Crime Trials. In January 1931, Ishii received promotion to Senior Army Surgeon, Third Class (surgeon major). According to Ishii's followers, Ishii was extremely loyal to the Emperor and had an "enthusiastic personality" and "daring and carefree attitude", with eccentric work habits such as working late at night in the lab after hanging out with friends at town. He was also known for his heavy drinking, womanizing and embezzling habits, which were tolerated by his colleagues.[8] Ishii was described as a vehement nationalist, and this helped him gain access to the people who could provide him funds.[9]

Ishii in 1939 inspecting water filters at the Battle of Khalkhin Gol
Shiro Ishii in 1940

In 1935, Ishii was promoted to Senior Army Surgeon, Second Class (surgeon lieutenant-colonel). On August 1, 1936, Ishii would be given formal control over Unit 731 and its research facilities. A former member of Unit 731 recalled in 1998 that when he first met Ishii in Tokyo, he was surprised at his commander's appearance: "Ishii was slovenly dressed. His uniform was covered with food stains and ashes from numerous cigarettes. His officer's sword was poorly fastened and dragged on the floor". However, in Manchuria, Ishii would transform into a different character: "he was dressed immaculately. His uniform was spotless, and his sword was tied correctly".[10]

As the leader of Unit 731, Ishii conducted a variety of experiments, including vivisections,[11] testing biological weapons on Chinese villages,[12] poisoning by toxins and gases[13][14] and forcing inmates to inflict syphillis on each other.[15] Ishii also reportedly showed Hideki Tojo, who would later become Prime Minister in 1941, films of the experiments over several years. Tojo considered them "unpleasant" and eventually stopped watching them.[16]

Further promotions for Ishii would follow: he was promoted to Senior Army Surgeon, First Class (surgeon colonel) in 1938, Assistant Surgeon General (surgeon Major General) in March 1941, and Surgeon General (surgeon Lieutenant General) in March 1945. Towards the end of the war, Ishii would develop a plan to spread plague fleas along the populated west coast of the US, known as Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night. This was targeted for September 22 but the plan was not realized due to the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945.[17] Ishii and the Japanese government attempted to cover up the facilities and experiments, but ultimately failed with their secret university lab in Tokyo and their main lab in Harbin, China. The Japanese Army's Unit 731 War Crimes Exhibition Hall (731罪证陈列馆) in Harbin stands to this day as a museum to the unit and the atrocities they committed.

War crimes immunity[edit]

Ishii was arrested by United States authorities during the Occupation of Japan at the end of World War II and, along with other leaders, was supposed to be thoroughly interrogated by Soviet authorities.[18] Instead, Ishii and his team managed to negotiate and receive immunity in 1946 from Japanese war crimes prosecution before the Tokyo tribunal in exchange for their full disclosure.[19][20] Although the Soviet authorities wished the prosecutions to take place, the United States objected after the reports of a team of military microbiologists headed by Lieutenant Colonel Murray Sanders stated that the information was "absolutely invaluable”; it "could never have been obtained in the United States because of scruples attached to experiments on humans" and "the information was obtained fairly cheaply."[18] On May 6, 1947, Douglas MacArthur wrote to Washington that "additional data, possibly some statements from Ishii probably can be obtained by informing Japanese involved that information will be retained in intelligence channels and will not be employed as 'War Crimes' evidence."[21] Ishii's immunity deal was concluded in 1948 and he was never prosecuted for any war crimes or crimes against humanity.

After being granted immunity, Ishii was hired by the U.S. government to lecture American officers at Fort Detrick on the uses of bioweapons and the findings made by Unit 731.[22][23] During the Korean War, Ishii reportedly traveled to Korea to take part in the U.S. Army's alleged biological warfare activities.[24] On 22 February 1952, Ishii was explicitly named in a statement made by North Korean Foreign Minister Pak Hon-yong, claiming that he, along with other "Japanese bacteriological war criminals",[25] had been involved in "systematically spreading large quantities of bacteria-carrying insects by aircraft in order to disseminate contagious diseases over our frontline positions and our rear".[25] However, whether the U.S. Army actually used biological weapons against Chinese or North Korean forces, or whether such allegations were mere propaganda, is disputed by historians.

After returning to Japan, Ishii opened a clinic, performing examinations and treatments for free.[26] He kept a diary, but it did not make reference to any of his wartime activities with Unit 731.[27][28]


Shiro Ishii at a reunion party of Unit 731 members after the war
Shiro Ishii after the war

In his last years, Ishii could not speak clearly; he was uncomfortable and on pain medication, speaking in a harsh voice. He died on October 9, 1959, from laryngeal cancer at the age of 67 at a hospital in Shinjuku, Tokyo. Ishii's funeral was chaired by Masaji Kitano, his second-in-command at Unit 731.[29]

According to his daughter, Ishii became a Roman Catholic shortly before his death.[29]

Ishii's daughter, Harumi Ishii, recalled in an interview[30] that shortly before his death, Ishii's medical condition worsened:

One day he took some sample tissue from himself to the University of Tokyo's Faculty of Medicine and asked one of his former subordinates to examine it, without telling him to whom it belonged. When he was told that the tissue was riddled by cancer, he proudly shouted that he had thought so too. No doctor had dared tell him he was suffering from cancer of the throat. He eventually underwent surgery and lost his voice. He was an earnest student of medicine to his last day, taking notes on his physical condition. He told his old professor Ren Kimura who came to visit him at that time: "it's all over now", writing the message because he could no longer speak. Shortly before his death, he asked to be baptised by the late Dr Herman Heuvers, former President of Sophia University in Tokyo. Dr Heuvers and my father were acquainted with each other since before the war. My father had much respect for the German people and their culture. He was baptised into the Roman Catholic Church and took the name Joseph. It seems to me that my father felt relieved somehow.

— Williams and Wallace, "Unit 731: The Japanese Army's Secret Of Secrets" (1989 p.298)

On screen[edit]

Ishii was portrayed by Min Ji-hwan in the MBC TV series Eyes of Dawn, and portrayed by Gang Wang in the 1988 film Men Behind The Sun.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Watts, Jonathan (August 28, 2002). "Japan guilty of germ warfare against thousands of Chinese". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved July 26, 2023.
  2. ^ Williams and Wallace "UNIT 731" p. 246, 247
  3. ^ Harris, Sheldon (2002). Factories Of Death. p. 14.
  4. ^ Harris, Sheldon (2002). Factories Of Death. p. 15.
  5. ^ Yang, Yan-Jun; Tam, Yue-Him (2018). Unit 731: Laboratory of the Devil, Auschwitz of the East. p. 84.
  6. ^ Sheldon Harris, Factories of Death, 2002, p. 142
  7. ^ Harris, Sheldon (2002). Factories Of Death. pp. 16–17.
  8. ^ Harris, Sheldon H. (1994). Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45, And the American Cover-up. New York: Routledge. p. 58. ISBN 9780415932141.
  9. ^ Harris, Sheldon H. (1994). Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932-45, And the American Cover-up. New York: Routledge. p. 39. ISBN 9780415932141.
  10. ^ Harris, Sheldon (2002). Factories Of Death. p. 15.
  11. ^ Nicholas D. Kristof New York Times, March 17, 1995. "Unmasking Horror: A special report. Japan Confronting Gruesome War Atrocity" Archived 2011-03-17 at the Wayback Machine
  12. ^ Harris, Sheldon. "Factories of Death" (PDF). p. 77. Archived from the original (PDF) on August 8, 2021. Retrieved May 31, 2019.
  13. ^ Croddy, Eric; Wirtz, James (2005). Weapons of Mass Destruction: Chemical and biological weapons. ABC-CLIO. ISBN 978-1851094905.
  14. ^ Gold, Hal (2019). Japan's Infamous Unit 731. Japan: Tuttle Publishing. p. 350.
  15. ^ Gold, Hal (2011). Unit 731 Testimony (1st ed.). New York: Tuttle Pub. pp. 157–158. ISBN 978-1462900824.
  16. ^ Vanderbrook, Alan (2013). "Imperial Japan's Human Experiments Before And During World War Two". Electronic Theses and Dissertations, 2004-2019 – via STARS.
  17. ^ Keener, Elyse (2020). "Alternate Warfare: The Unseen Weapons of Mass Destruction". Liberty University Journal of Statesmanship & Public Policy. 1 (1).
  18. ^ a b BBC Horizon "Biology at War: A Plague in the Wind" (Oct 29, 1984)
  19. ^ Brody, Howard; Leonard, Sarah E.; Nie, Jing-Bao; Weindling, Paul (April 2014). "United States Responses to Japanese Wartime Inhuman Experimentation after World War II: National Security and Wartime Exigency". Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics. 23 (2): 220–230. doi:10.1017/S0963180113000753. PMC 4487829. PMID 24534743.
  20. ^ Kaye, Jeffrey (April 27, 2021). "Department of Justice Official Releases Letter Admitting U.S. Amnesty of Unit 731 War Criminals". Medium.
  21. ^ Hal Gold, Unit 731 Testimony, 2003, p. 109
  22. ^ Drayton, Richard (May 10, 2005). "An ethical blank cheque". The Guardian. Retrieved June 4, 2009.
  23. ^ Kaye, Jeffrey (June 29, 2023). "Key DoD Official Who Argued for Unit 731 Amnesty Figures at Inception of U.S." Medium. Retrieved February 18, 2024.
  24. ^ Asahi Shimbun 9 Dec. 1951, evening paper
  25. ^ a b Chrystal, Paul (2023). Bioterrorism and Biological Warfare: Disease as a Weapon of War. Yorkshire: Pen and Sword. p. 198. ISBN 978-1-39909-080-3.
  26. ^ "Daughter's Eye View of Lt. Gen Ishii, Chief of Devil's Brigade". The Japan Times. August 29, 1982.
  27. ^ 青木冨貴子「731 – 石井四郎と細菌戦部隊の闇を暴く」新潮社(新潮文庫)、2005年。ISBN 4103732059[page needed]
  28. ^ Nie, Jing Bao; Guo, Nanyan; Selden, Mark; Kleinman, Arthur (July 3, 2013). Japan's Wartime Medical Atrocities: Comparative Inquiries in Science, History, and Ethics. Routledge. p. 207. ISBN 978-1-136-95260-9.
  29. ^ a b Deane, H. (1999). The Korean War 1945–1953. China Books. p. 155. ISBN 978-0835126441. Retrieved July 8, 2017.
  30. ^ "Interview with Harumi Ishii".


  • Barenblatt, Daniel. A Plague Upon Humanity: the Secret Genocide of Axis Japan's Germ Warfare Operation, HarperCollins, 2004. ISBN 978-0060186258
  • Gold, Hal. Unit 731 Testimony, Charles E Tuttle Co., 1996. ISBN 978-4900737396
  • Williams, Peter and Wallace, David. Unit 731: Japan's Secret Biological Warfare in World War II, Free Press, 1989. ISBN 978-0029353011
  • Harris, Sheldon H. Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare 1932–45 and the American Cover-Up, Routledge, 1994. ISBN 978-0415091053, 978-0415932141
  • Endicott, Stephen and Hagerman, Edward. The United States and Biological Warfare: Secrets from the Early Cold War and Korea, Indiana University Press, 1999. ISBN 978-0253334725
  • Handelman, Stephen and Alibek, Ken. Biohazard: The Chilling True Story of the Largest Covert Biological Weapons Program in the World – Told from Inside by the Man Who Ran It, Random House, 1999. ISBN 978-0375502316, 978-0385334969
  • Harris, Robert and Paxman, Jeremy. A Higher Form of Killing: The Secret History of Chemical and Biological Warfare, Random House, 2002. ISBN 978-0812966534
  • Barnaby, Wendy. The Plague Makers: The Secret World of Biological Warfare, Frog Ltd, 1999. ISBN 978-1883319854, 978-0756756987, 978-0826412584, 978-0826414151
  • Yang Yan-Jun and Tam Yue-Him. Unit 731: Laboratory of the Devil, Auschwitz of the East: Japanese Biological Warfare in China 1933-45. Fonthill Media, 2018. ISBN 978-1781556788