Shirō Ishii

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Shirō Ishii
Ishii in 1932
Native name
石井 四郎
Born(1892-06-15)June 15, 1892
Shibayama, Chiba, 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 (石井 四郎, Ishii Shirō, [iɕiː ɕiɾoː]; 25 June 1892 – 9 October 1959) was a Japanese microbiologist, army medical officer, and war criminal who served as 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 on Chinese cities of Changde and Ningbo, and planned the Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night biological attack against the United States. Ishii and Unit 731 engaged in forced human experimentation on civilians and prisoners of war that resulted in the death of over 10,000 people, and were responsible for some of the most notorious war crimes of Imperial Japan during the Pacific War. Ishii and Unit 731 were granted immunity in the International Military Tribunal for the Far East by the United States in exchange for information and research for the U.S. biological warfare program.


Early years[edit]

Shirō Ishii was born on 15 June 1892 in Shibayama in Chiba Prefecture, Japan, the fourth son of Katsuya Ishii, a local landowner and sake maker. Ishii attended the Chiba Imperial School in Chiba City and the Fourth High School in Kanazawa, Ishikawa Prefecture before studying medicine at Kyoto Imperial University. In 1921, Ishii was commissioned into the Imperial Japanese Army as a military surgeon with the rank of Army Surgeon, Second 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 gain him post-graduate medical schooling at Kyoto Imperial University two years later. 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.[1] In 1925, Ishii was promoted to Army Surgeon, First 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).

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. In these facilities Ishii and his men would perform heinous experiments on the living, including but not limited to, breeding of plague rats and subsequent infection of living subjects, forced pregnancies, inducing frostbite by inducing and trying to cure it without anesthetics, and open vivisections on fully aware subjects with little to no pain medication. 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 plan was not realized due to the surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945. 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 crime 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.[2] 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. Although the Soviet authorities wished the prosecutions to take place, the United States objected after the reports of the investigating US microbiologists. Among these was Dr. Edwin Hill, the Chief of Fort Detrick, whose report 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."[2] On 6 May 1947, Douglas MacArthur wrote to Washington D.C. 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."[3]

Ishii's immunity deal was concluded in 1948 and he was never prosecuted for any war crimes, and his exact whereabouts or occupation were unknown from 1947. Richard Drayton, a Cambridge University history lecturer, claimed that Ishii later went to Maryland to advise on bioweapons.[4] Another source says he stayed in Japan, where he opened a clinic where he did examinations and treatments for free.[5] Ishii kept a diary but it did not make reference to any of his wartime activity with Unit 731.[6] Ishii resurfaced in Japan on 17 August 1958 when he appeared for the first and only time at the gathering of the former members and delivered a farewell speech.


Ishii died on 9 October 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. According to his daughter,[citation needed] Ishii converted to Catholicism shortly before his death.[7]

Popular culture[edit]

  • Portrayed by Min Ji-hwan in the 1991–1992 MBC TV series Eyes of Dawn.
  • In the season 6, episode 7 of The Blacklist (TV series), entitled General Shiro, an assassin utilizes beetles to target victims involved in creating pesticides. Many references were made in regards to the real General Shiro.
  • Portrayed by Gang Wang in the 1988 film Men Behind The Sun.
  • American thrash metal band Slayer released a song about Ishii and his war crimes titled Unit 731 on their 2011 album World Painted Blood. The song follows a similar vein to Slayer's famous song about fellow Axis war criminal Josef Mengele, Angel of Death. Like Angel of Death, the song was written by Slayer guitarist Jeff Hanneman, who himself was an amateur historian of WW2.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ Sheldon Harris, Factories of Death, 2002, p. 142
  2. ^ a b BBC Horizon "Biology at War: A Plague in the Wind" (29 Oct. 1984)
  3. ^ Hal Gold, Unit 731 Testimony, 2003, p. 109
  4. ^ Drayton, Richard (10 May 2005). "An ethical blank cheque". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 June 2009.
  5. ^ "Daughter's Eye View of Lt. Gen Ishii, Chief of Devil's Brigade". The Japan Times. 29 August 1982.
  6. ^ 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 4-10-373205-9
  7. ^ Deane, H. (1999). The Korean War 1945-1953. China Books. p. 155. ISBN 978-0-8351-2644-1. Retrieved 2017-07-08.