Photo/IllutrationKatsuo Nishiyama, second from right, and other members of his group visit Kyoto University on July 26 to hand in a written request to call for a review of a wartime dissertation. (Daisuke Mukai)

  • Photo/Illustraion

KYOTO--Scholars are calling on Kyoto University to review an academic degree it conferred on a medical officer of the Imperial Japanese Army's notorious Unit 731 on grounds his dissertation may have been based on human experimentation.

In late July, Katsuo Nishiyama, professor emeritus of preventive medicine at Shiga University of Medical Science, and six others submitted a written request addressed to Kyoto University President Juichi Yamagiwa, along with 540 or so signatures.

Nishiyama's group is demanding that the university revoke the degree if the thesis was based on human testing.

The university's vice president, Makoto Noda, and other officials told the group that university executives will discuss the matter in September and inform it of the outcome.

Nishiyama welcomed the reaction, saying that in a worst-case scenario, "I thought the university could ignore us.”

He added that how Kyoto University handles the issue will have ramifications for other universities across Japan.

Nishiyama is secretary-general of the group that is questioning the May 31, 1945, dissertation titled: “On the capacity of the dog flea to act as a vector for the plague.” It was submitted to Kyoto University, then called Kyoto Imperial University.

The medical officer noted that, in an experiment on monkeys, “those that developed symptoms complained of headache, high fever and a loss of appetite 6-8 days after the placement” of infected dog fleas.

He added that one monkey “had a fever of more than 39 degrees for five consecutive days and died on the sixth day of the onset of the disease.”

Nishiyama's group suspects the test subjects were humans for a number of reasons, not least because monkeys do not “complain of headache.”

It also said the monkey species was not described and that 39 degrees does not necessarily constitute “high fever” for monkeys.

Unit 731 is said to have conducted experiments on humans, mainly Chinese and Russian war prisoners, to develop biological weapons that would release plague and cholera on enemy forces.

The unit's members included graduates of Kyoto University, such as Shiro Ishii (1892-1959), its inaugural director.

“It is not that individual medical researchers and practitioners had thought up everything and did it on their own,” Nishiyama said. “Japan's entire medical community took part in war efforts. Unit 731 is just the tip of the iceberg.”

Nishiyama has been researching the involvement of the nation’s medical circles in the war. He is a core member of the group set up in January to call on Kyoto University to review the wartime dissertation.

Other members include Makoto Ajisaka, professor emeritus of philosophy at Kansai University, and Satoru Ikeuchi, professor emeritus of astronomy at Nagoya University.

In fiscal 2015, the government started a program to subsidize basic research by universities and other institutions that could be applied to defense technologies.

In March 2017, the Science Council of Japan, which represents the country’s scholars and scientists, issued a statement, effectively maintaining a ban on military research by universities and other institutions.

Yamagiwa, the Kyoto University president, was also appointed president of the council in October 2017. Kyoto University also said in a basic policy statement released in March that it will not engage in military research.

“Nobody will place any trust in (Kyoto University’s) basic policy of swearing off military research unless it is based on remorse for mistaken military research in the past,” said Moriaki Hirohara, a former president of Kyoto Prefectural University and another member of the group. “Kyoto University must review the dissertation, not least for the sake of consistency.”