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]; June 25, 1892 – October 9, 1959) was a Japanese microbiologist and army medical officer 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 the Chinese cities of Changde and Ningbo, and the planned attack against the United States in the Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night. 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. 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 25 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 1932, Ishii began his preliminary experiments in biological warfare as a secret project for the Japanese military at Zhongma Fortress, a prisoner camp operated by the Kwantung Army near the city of Harbin in the new Japanese puppet state of Manchukuo. In 1935, Ishii was promoted to Senior Army Surgeon, Second Class (surgeon lieutenant-colonel).

Unit 731[edit]

In 1936, Unit 731 was formed as the Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army, with the official purpose of engaging in water-purification work. Ishii was appointed director of Unit 731 and built a large compound — more than 150 buildings over six square kilometers — outside of Harbin to conduct secret research for biological warfare. In 1938, Ishii was promoted to Senior Army Surgeon, First Class (surgeon colonel). On 9 February 1939, Ishii gave a lecture on bacteriological warfare in the War Ministry Grand Conference Hall in Tokyo where one of those attending was Prince Yasuhito Chichibu, the brother of Emperor Hirohito), who had also observed vivisection demonstrations by Ishii.[1][2] In October 1939, Ishii was decorated with the Order of the Golden Kite, Fourth Class.[3] From 1940, Ishii was appointed Chief of the Biological Warfare Section of the Kwantung Army, holding the post simultaneously with that of the Bacteriological Department of the Army Medical Academy, and was promoted to surgeon major-general in March of the following year.[4]

In 1942, Ishii began field tests of germ warfare agents and methods of dispersion on Chinese targets, including both prisoners of war operationally on battlefields and against civilians in Chinese cities. Some historians estimate that tens of thousands died as a result of the bio-weapons deployed by the Japanese, including the bubonic plague, cholera, anthrax and others. Ishii's unit also conducted physiological experiments on human subjects, including vivisections, forced abortions, and artificially induced strokes, heart attacks, frostbite and hypothermia.[5] From 1942, Ishii was Chief of the Medical Section of the Japanese First Army.[4]

In March 1945, Ishii was promoted to surgeon general, and in the same month planned to launch biological weapons against the United States, the main opponent of Japan in the Pacific War. Ishii's project, known as Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night, had planned to release the bubonic plague in the American city of San Diego, California by utilizing kamikaze planes secretly transported across the Pacific Ocean. The operation was approved and scheduled to commence in September in conjunction with the Imperial Japanese Navy. However, in the face of imminent defeat, Japanese troops blew up the headquarters of Unit 731 during the final days of the Pacific War in order to destroy evidence of the research done there, and Ishii reportedly ordered 150 remaining subjects killed as part of the cover-up.[citation needed] Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night was cancelled upon the Surrender of Japan on August 15, 1945.

In all, more than 10,000 people,[6] of which around 600 every year were provided by the Kempeitai (Japanese secret police),[7] were subjects of the experimentation conducted by Unit 731. These subjects were called by Ishii and his peers maruta (丸太), or "logs," a term originating in the cover story told to locals that the facility contained a sawmill.[citation needed]

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 Unit 731 leaders, were to be thoroughly interrogated by Soviet authorities.[8] 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 of their germ warfare data based on human experimentation. 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".[8] 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."[9]

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.[citation needed] Richard Drayton, a Cambridge University history lecturer, claimed that Ishii later went to Maryland to advise on bioweapons.[10] Another source says he stayed in Japan, where he opened a clinic where he did examinations and treatments for free.[11] Ishii kept a diary but it did not make reference to any of his wartime activity with Unit 731.[12] Ishii resurfaced in Japan on 17 August 1958 when he appeared for the first and only time at the gathering of the former Unit 731 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.[13]

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.

See also[edit]



  1. ^ a b Sheldon Harris, Factories of Death, 2002, p. 142
  2. ^ Sheldon Harris, Japanese Biomedical Experimentation during the World War II Era, in Military Medical Ethics, volume 2, 2003, p. 469
  3. ^ Japanese Wikipedia article
  4. ^ a b Ammenthorp, Steen. "Ishii, Shiro". The Generals of World War II.
  5. ^ Baader, Gherard; Lederer, Susan E.; Low, Morris; Schmaltz, Florian; Schwerin, Alexander V. (September 2005). "Science Without Moral Boundaries". In Sachse, Carola; Walker, Mark (eds.). Osiris Volume 20. The University of Chicago Press. pp. 205–231.
  6. ^ "Book on Japan's germ warfare crimes published". ChinaDaily. Xinhua. 2003-10-17.
  7. ^ Yuki Tanaka, Hidden Horrors, Westviewpress, 1996, p. 138
  8. ^ a b BBC Horizon "Biology at War: A Plague in the Wind" (29 Oct. 1984)
  9. ^ Hal Gold, Unit 731 Testimony, 2003, p. 109
  10. ^ Drayton, Richard (10 May 2005). "An ethical blank cheque". The Guardian. Retrieved 4 June 2009.
  11. ^ "Daughter's Eye View of Lt. Gen Ishii, Chief of Devil's Brigade". The Japan Times. 29 August 1982.
  12. ^ 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
  13. ^ Deane, H. (1999). The Korean War 1945-1953. China Books. p. 155. ISBN 978-0-8351-2644-1. Retrieved 2017-07-08.