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Set up as a top-secret biological and chemical weapons facility during the Second Sino-Japanese War and World War Two, Unit 731 has been referred to as the Asian Auschwitz. Through the practice of lethal human experimentation, the unit is thought to have been responsible for the death of up to 200,000 civilians and military personnel – the vast majority Chinese and Korean nationals, but also South East Asians, Pacific Islanders and Allied POWs. In the sprawling six kilometer-square complex in the city of Harbin (now part of Northeast China) those behind the sickening ‘research’ developed some of the most cruel and sadistic experiments ever to be conducted on human victims. These included vivisection, amputations, germ warfare tests, explosive weapons testing, and much more.
Sheldon H. Harris, one of the foremost historians on Unit 731, explained in a History Channel documentary how the people tortured and killed were treated as objects: “These scientists had a weird sense of humor,” Harris revealed. “They referred to their victims as “matures”, which, loosely translated, is logs, and that’s how they thought about them, as pieces of wood, not as humans. They could cut them up; they could burn them in a fireplace… If they ran short of candidates, the secret police would just literally sweep the streets of the city and pick up enough candidates for the lab.”
Many horrific experiments were enacted on these pieces of living timber under the direction of Shiro Ishii, the unit’s commander. The experiments sound like they could easily have come from the mind Josef Mengele, the Nazi doctor also known as the Angel of Death, infamous for his sick and twisted human experiments on prisoners held in Auschwitz.
One of the medical researchers involved with Unit 731 explained how vivisection was performed on people: “I was ordered to wash that person’s body with a deck brush before he or she was taken into the dissection room naked by a member of the special team,” he recalled. “The first time, I trembled. One team member was listening to the heartbeat with a stethoscope. One was standing holding a knife. The moment the stethoscope was removed from the ear, a knife went into the body. I did not know, but according to doctors, this timing was very important, because if the timing was wrong, we could get blood all over us, and then we could get infected.”
Some of the most violent tests were connected with trying to find the best ways of treating Japanese shrapnel injuries sustained during fighting. Prisoners were tied to wooden stakes positioned around a bomb at various distances before the explosive was detonated. Those who survived would have surgery performed on them; the rest went for autopsies. Other prisoners literally became human targets for testing other weaponry such as flamethrowers, not to mention germ-releasing bombs and chemical weapons.
The testing of devices such as bombs on live human beings was just one of the many brutal activities for which Unit 731 is now known. Vivisections were performed on men, women and children – who had been infected with diseases – without the use of anesthetic. Organs were removed from test subjects while they were still alive so that decomposition would not alter the results as was feared might happen.
As suggested, germ warfare was a major concern for the scientists at Unit 731. These men carried out experiments on prisoners using a range of diseases. The aim was to find a mode of delivering such pathogens that would cause the most widespread death and devastation, and several were developed – among them the defoliation bacilli bomb and the flea bomb. Fleas carrying the bubonic plague – along with anthrax, typhoid and dysentery germs - were dropped in these bombs, some of which were designed with porcelain shells (apparently a brainchild of Shiro Ishii himself).
When the bio-weapons attacks were launched, the infected items were released from planes to fall on areas of China not occupied by Japan, where they contaminated agriculture and water supplies. What’s more, the diseases were actually administered to children in villages by way of deadly poisoned candies. In testing the effects of their work, scientists wearing hazmat suits would inspect the dying victims.
Sheldon H. Harris has talked further about the scientists’ use of human settlements outside of Unit 731: “They not only worked on humans in laboratories,” he revealed. “When they developed what they believed were prototypes or weapons of the future, they field tested them on cities and villages throughout China. Hundreds of thousands of people were affected by these tests. Many tens of thousands were killed in these field tests.”
There was no shortage of test subjects – whether outside or inside the confines of the complex. Shoichi Matsumoto, a Unit 731 bomber pilot, said: “There were always 2,000 or 3,000 logs [people] prepared. There were two burning places and there were always burning dead bodies.”
Prisoners were also infected with STDs such as gonorrhea and syphilis to see how the diseases spread in the body without treatment. Meanwhile, fleas needed for the bio-attacks involving the bubonic plague were bred by the container-full, as were chemicals and other biological agents.
While, as mentioned, some infected prisoners were sliced open to have invasive surgery performed on them while they were still living, others had their limbs severed to study blood loss – also while still alive. Researchers at the unit are furthermore known to have re-attached amputated arms and legs to victims’ bodies, and to have frozen and thawed some limbs so that they could study the effects of the rot and gangrene that set in.
Discussing some of the methods used inside the unit, Sheldon H. Harris has said: “They had refrigerator chambers, and also, in Manchuria [Northeast China], the winters here were very severe, 40 to 50 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, and they would expose prisoners – various parts of their bodies – to these temperatures, freeze them and then try various techniques to literally dehydrate them, to see what was the most effective way of dealing with frostbite, so that that could be used in warfare as well – both to protect Japanese troops as well as to affect the enemy.”
There were many other fiendish experiments acted out on the thousands of prisoners incarcerated in Unit 731. These included testing chemical weapons on people trapped inside gas chambers; spinning victims in giant centrifuges until they perished; hanging individuals upside down to test their endurance before they choked to death; and injecting air into prisoners’ arteries and horse urine into their kidneys.
All things considered, these experiments rivaled many of those dreamed up by the Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele, in terms of pure evil intent, and yet incredibly many of the scientists implicated were honored for their services to their country.
The brains behind the unit, Shiro Ishii, lived in peace and quiet to the ripe old age of 67, when he died of throat cancer. The United States felt that the research into germ warfare was too valuable to lose and so cut a deal with the Japanese. In 1947, Douglas MacArthur, the General of the US Army, 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.”
By granting immunity to Ishii and the other scientists working under him, the US wanted to ensure that no other nation would lay its hands on their research into bio-warfare. However, the Soviets did glean a certain amount of information after prosecuting 12 leaders and scientists from Unit 731 in war crimes trials held in 1949. Those found guilty were sentenced to between two and 25 years in a labor camp, and the Soviets built a biological weapons facility in Sverdlovsk using the data collected.
We are called the model minority, the quiet, passive, exotic erotics with the slanted cunt to match our slanted eyes or the small dick to match our small size. But we are not.
We must realize the capitalist system uses not just sexual preference but race and class as well to divide us.
To our Third World sisters and brothers, gay and straight, I would like to say we all share the same oppression as Third World people, and for that reason we must stand together or be hanged separately by what Audre Lorde calls the noose of conformity.
To our closeted Asian American lesbian and gay men, I would like you to consider how we become accomplices to our own sexual and racial oppression when we fail to claim our true identities.
I have a three year old daughter and any risk that I must take to build a free future for myself and my daughter is worth it. It is as concrete and as abstract as that.
Michiyo Cornell March on Washiongton 1979
This felt like hot tea down my throat. So comforting.
Today is the anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, an order that allowed the government of the United States to declare people like me a threat, round them up (including Japanese from other countries, like Peru), put them in “internment” concentration camps across the US. The xenophobia and racism of that time was unrepentant and an outgrowth of the anti-Asian, anti-immigrant policies ranging from the late 1800’s to today.
We can never forget the damages of tenuous immigration statuses and the dangers of a government that will bend to xenophobia. We can never forget what was done to Japanese and Japanese Americans. We can never forget Executive Order 9066. We can never forget that it took more than 40 years for the government to ‘apologize’ for their actions. We can never forget to show love to those who survived those camps and continue to struggle so that no others need face that type of government-sanctioned persecution and detention.
[Inspired by my Amplify associate, Karachi, and her post on Blackface, Slurs and Appropriation]
Written and compiled by Hannah Le
Yellow Face isn’t just the mere inauthenticity and a failure of aesthetics of white people dressing up, wearing make up, trying to be Asian, and/or playing the roles of Asians. No, it’s definitely more insidious and problematic than that. It is systematic racism and discrimination, refusing to hire Asians or forcing them to play as villains, or when they receive a major role, it is typically a stereotypical one (i.e., martial arts, ‘wise man’, ‘dragon lady’, etc). It simulates a crude idea of what ‘Asians’ look like, all the while perpetuating terrible stereotypes, controlling what it means to be Asian whether it’s in person, on the stage, or on screen.
Orientalism: It’s a dichotomy created by the ‘West,’ it builds a view of the ‘East’ along with many elements of this culture that becomes obscured and exotic. Making a whole group of people seen as something monolithic, creating an erasure of actual identities.
I’m not even going to try to bother with getting too in-depth about the obvious cultural appropriation, ethnocentrism, and orientalism (not too much at least). I’m not going to go into Yellow Face on stage, in whitewashing (too much), in Europe, nor will I take the time to go through political caricatures of Asians throughout history. [Not that it’s less important or there’s a lack of evidence.] These following examples and history checks should do enough for now in getting my point across. (Please find a friend in Google if you really want to educate yourself though! Thank you!)
So, why did Yellowface occur? Was there a shortage of Asian people to play these Asian roles during the times this practice was most rampant (19th and 20th century)?
Meet Sessue Hayakawa (Born 1889-Death 1973), the first Asian American leading actor. He was one of the highest paid actors of his time. His talents were definitely recognized by Paramount Pictures and was even considered a sex icon. But despite all of this, he still met discrimination and racism everywhere he went. He was always forced to either play “the exotic villain” or “the exotic lover.” He waited for his turn to be casted as a hero of color, but it never came.
This is Anna May Wong (1905-1961). During the 1920s-1930s, Anna was given many different roles as a contracted Paramount Pictures actress, but they were always either as a “dragon lady” or a “butterfly lady.” Despite all of that, she was still a household name and was considered a fashion icon.
She was the top contender for the leading role of O-Lan, a Chinese heroine for the movie The Good Earth (1937) by MGM, but that role was later given to Luise Rainer (definitely not Asian). MGM went to her and tried to give her another role for a film called Lotus, but it meant that she had to be the villain again, so she turned it down and left for Europe for more opportunities and eventually went back to Paramount Pictures.
Say hello to Philip Ahn (1905-1973). For the film, Anything Goes, Ahn was initially rejected by the director, Lewis Milestone, because—I shit you not, he said this to Philip Ahn—he thought Philip’s “English was too good for the part.” During World War II, Philip Ahn was often forced to play roles of Japanese villains. He even received death threats because people thought he was actually Japanese.
Other Asian actors/actresses: Barbara Jean Wong, Fely Franquelli, Benson Fong, Chester Gan, Honorable Wu, Kam Tong, Keye Luke, Layne Tom Jr., Maurice Liu, Philip Ahn, Richard Loo, Lotus Long, Rudy Robles, Suzanna Kim, Teru Shimada, Willie Fung, Victor Sen Yung, Toshia Mori and Wing Foo.
Merle Oberon can also be added to the list, although she was part white/part Asian. She had to lie about her origins and applied whitening make up to pass as fully white. Other Asian actors and actresses: Jack Soo, Pat Morita, Mako, Bruce Lee, Lucy Liu, Margaret Cho, B.D. Wong, Amy Hill, Jennie Kwan, Masi Oka, James Lee, Ming Na, Daniel Dae Kim, Sendhil Ramamurthy, Charlyne Yi, Miyoshi Umeki, Shin Koyamada, John Cho, Brenda Song, and George Takei. Click on this link to see a hundred more.
After going through the list, ask yourself why the majority of the actors and actresses here are either in some martial arts movies or some other stereotypical crap?
TL;DR this section: There definitely wasn’t a shortage of Asian American actors and actresses. And there still isn’t.
Very Few Examples (of Very Many) of Yellowface in History:
Nil Ashter as General Yen from The Bitter Tea of General Yen (1933)
What Nils Ashter really looked like:
Harold Huber as Ito Takimura in Little Tokyo, USA (1942)
Interestingly enough, everyone who was a “bad guy” in this was portrayed as Japanese. Even more interesting, this was around the same time Japanese Internment Camps were happening.
What Harold Huber really looked like:
Katharine Hepburn as Jade Tan in in Dragon Seed (1944)
Katharine Hepburn just a few years after Dragon Seed:
Jennifer Jones as Dr. Han Suyin in Love is a Many Splendored-Thing (1955)
Another interesting concept found in this movie. “BEING WITH ASIAN WOMEN IS SO HOT AND EXOTIC. LET’S FETISHIZE THE SHIT OUT OF THEM.” Yup.
What Jennifer Jones actually looks like:
John Wayne as Genghis Khan in The Conqueror (1956)
John Wayne, y’all:
Mickey Rooney as Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961)
Mickey Rooney at that time:
Joel Grey as Chiun (Kung Fu Master, everyone—on the left) in Remo Williams (1985)
What Joel Grey really looked like:
Other cases I haven’t really taken the time to cover: Charlie Chan Series (Actors who played as Charlie Chan from 1931-1981: Warner Oland, Sidney Toler, Roland Winters, Peter Ustinov) Fu Manchu, Madame Butterfly, The Teahouse of the August Moon, Shanghai Express, The Manchurian Candidate, Sayonara, Mr. Moto Series, 7 Faces of Dr. Lao, Short Circuit (1986 & 1988), The Party, Gunga Din, Broken Blossoms, The Year of Living Dangerously, etc.
I mean, I guess you could say, “But those movies were decades ago!”
Alex Borstein as Ms. Swan.
Nicholas Cage as Fu Manchu (2007)
(Other actors who played the role of Fu Manchu starting from the 1920s up ‘til now: H. Agar Lyons, Warner Oland, Boris Karloff, Harry Brannon, Christopher Lee, and Peter Sellers)
Christopher Walken as Feng (2007)
Rob Schneider as Asian Minister in I Now Pronounce You Chuck and Larry (2007)
M. Night’s The Last Airbender (2010)
Well, the show was based on Asian and Inuit culture. But just look at the casting. The three protagonists are all light skinned while Zuko (played by Dev Patel in the movie) is dark skinned, and by default in this movie, the bad guy. Someone please just remake this movie. Please.
British Actor, Jim Sturgess, (rocking bad eye prosthetics) playing as a Korean in Cloud Atlas (2012)
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