For 62 years, Akira Makino spoke not a word of what he’d done, but to those who knew him well it must have been obvious that he was a man with a tortured conscience. Why else would he have returned so often to the obscure, mosquito-blown town in the southern Philippines where he had experience such misery during the Second World War?
He set up war memorials, gave clothes to poor children and bought an entire set of uniforms for a local baseball team. Last year, at the age of 83, he embarked on a grueling pilgrimage to 88 Buddhist temples in Japan — after number 40 he collapsed from heat exhaustion, having permanently injured his knees.
“My wife didn’t like me going back to the Philippines, she called me ’war crazy,'” said Makino, a frail old man who lives alone in Hirakata near Osaka. “But she let me go anyway. Right up until she died three years ago, I never told her. But over time I think she realized.”
Only in the twilight of his life, has Makino begun to talk about the secret which he had carried.
In 1944, as a medical auxiliary in the Japanese Imperial Navy, he was stationed in the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. There he was party to one of the most notorious and poorly chronicled cruelties of the Japanese war effort — the medical dissection and murder of living prisoners of war.
Over the course of four months before the defeat of the Japanese forces in March 1945, Makino cut open the bodies of 10 Filipino prisoners, including two teenage girls. He amputated their limbs, and cut up and removed their healthy livers, kidneys, wombs and still beating hearts for no better reason than to improve his knowledge of anatomy.
“It was educational,” he said. “Even today when I go to see doctors, they are impressed by my knowledge of the human body. But if I’m really honest, the reason we did it was to take revenge on these people who were spying for the Americans. Now, of course I feel terrible about the cruel thing that I did, and I think of it so often. But at the time what I felt for these people was closer to hatred than to pity.”
There have been other accounts of medical vivisection, most notoriously by Unit 731, a top secret arm of the Imperial Army which killed thousands of Chinese and Russian prisoners in Manchuria in the name of scientific research. But Makino’s is the first such testimony to have emerged from the Philippines — and from the Navy, which was regarded as the less cruel and fanatical of the Imperial armed forces.