THE ATROCITIES took place at a medical school in southern Japan a few months before the end of the Second World War."Eight captured American airmen had been used for medical experiments. In general the purpose of the experiments had been to obtain such information as how much blood a man could lose and remain alive, how much salt water in place of blood could safely be injected into a man's veins, and up to what point a man could survive the excision of lung tissue. There were twelve medical personnel involved in the vivisections, two of them nurses. The trial opened in Fukuoka but was later transferred to Yokohama."

I had never heard of such a story until I recently read Shusasku Endo's fictionalized version of this gruesome episode in The Sea and Poison . The case is probably news to most Americans since the trial took place 32 years ago in the occupied Japan, and the newspapers here did not publicize the event then -- partly because the "Class A" war criminals such as General Tojo were being tried in Tokyo at around the same time. The new york Times of March 12, 1948, buried a short aritcle with the sensational headline: "Cannibalism Laid to High Japanese: Thirty Go on Trial on Charge of Using Eight U.S. Fliers for Vivisection Experiments." According to this article, "five of the thirty accused ate bits of the liver of one American flier at a party." In Endo's novel, there is such an episode.

The Sea and Poision begins with a prologue, written as if the author stumbled onto the case. In a faraway suburb in Tokyo, he finds a surgeon, Dr. Suguro, who, through a bit strange and taciturn, proves to be unusually adept at treating his lung. By chance at a wedding reception in Kyushu, he meets a physician who knew of Suguro's dark past. The narrator becomes curious and digs up old newspaper clippings on the case and is astonished. What is no less appalling is that in his small, new neighborhood, he had come across two other men in a short time "who had tasted the experience of killing a man." A gasoline station owner and the proprietor of a men's wear store -- seemingly ordinary folks -- had boasted to him of their war experiences in China, and how they "raised hell."

Endo takes us back to the scene of the crime -- Fukuoka in 1945 -- when the city "was more than half burnt out with all the air raids . . . . The exploding anti-aircraft shells kept up a constant chatter, and in the lead-coloured sky the lazy drone of the B-29s went on interminably." It was a time when "no one any longer paid much attention to whether people lived or died." The author maintains this dark, ominous tone throughout the novel.

Endo focuses on three participants who played minor roles in the vivisection: Surguro, an intern at the time, dedicated and obliging to his patients but a coward easily swayed by his superiors, with no control over his own destiny; Toda, a ruthless ambitious intern, lured onto the team with promises of promotion; Ueda, a nurse embittered by a failed marriage, jealous and contemptuous of the chief surgeon's German wife, gleeful that she is ignorant of her husband's participation in the evil act. "This is for your country's sake," a doctor tells Nurse Ueda. "They've all been condemned to death anyway. This way they can do some good for the advancement of medical science.

The grievousness of the crime is clear enough. What preoccupies Endo in this novel is not so much the obviously villainous but someone with a touch of humanity like Suguro who becomes entangled in a vicious web. He is not merely a victim of circumstance but through his moral cowardice and later his apathy, he becomes just as guilty as the more willing participants. He could have blown the whistle, or at least have refused, but Suguro no longer cared. And repeating the leitmotif of his moral fiction, Endo probes into the question of the Japanese conscience: Are we not a bit like Toda who fears "disapproval in the eyes of others" rather than in the eyes of God? And when that disapproval becomes weak and murky as during those days when they were under the pressure of the military henchmen and the steay barrage of bombings, would our conscience too fail?

Four of Endo's novels are now available in this country: Silence, When I Whistle, Volcano, and The Sean and Poison . He established his reputation as one of Japan's finest writers many years ago with the publication of The Sea and Poison which won the Shincho Literary Prize and the Mainichi Cultural Award in 1958 and Silence which won the Tanizaki Prize in 1966. Unlike the recently translated works of other leading Japanese writers, such as Kobo Abo and Kenzaburo Oe, Endo's works are more accessible to the general reader. He is a prolific essayist with a catholic taste, has written detective and love stories, humorous tales, and has recently performed in New York with his theater troupe. He is also an authority on the history of Japanese Catholics: Two of his novels Silence and the forthcoming Samurai take place in persecution-ridden 17th-century Japan. He is most often compared to Graham Greene maily because the theme of Endo's Silence is similar to Greene's The power and the Glory .

Translations are never adequate. As someone said, it is somewhat like looking at the coarse picture on the back of a tapestry rather than the smooth finished surface. Turning from the Japanese to the English version of The Sea and Poison , I was struck by how different the ambience became. The casual tone of the Fukuoka dialect, which is extensively used in the novel, was completely lost. Endo has had four different translators so far, which is unfortunate. He sould have stuck to one (preferably William Johnston who translated Silence ), in which case he would have avoided the misfortune of an exceedingly awkward translation (of Volcano ) or the errors in the introduction to The Sea and Poison that Endo won the "prestigious Akutagawa Prize" for this book and that he went to Wasede University. Endo is a graduate of Keio and won the Akutagawa for an earlier work, White Man.

For this review an epilogue might be in order. A few months ago, Seitaikaibo ("Vivisecton"), by Fuyuko Kamisaka, a nonfictional account of the case, was published in Japan. In it we are told that five defendants were condemned to death and 18 others received prison sentences ranging from life to three years. Many of these sentences were later commuted. The author refutes the rumor of cannibalism as did the court in 1948. One of those sentenced to death, after serving 10 years in prison, is alive today still practicing medicine.