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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

Prisoners of Japan

page 3

Prisoners of Japan

The new zealanders who fell into the hands of the Japanese were mercifully few. From the armed forces were the survivors of warships sunk in battle in East Indies waters, airmen attached to a Royal Air Force unit in Java, the crews of planes, Air Force or Fleet Air Arm, shot down over Burma or over Japan itself. Among the Army prisoners of war were some New Zealanders serving in the Australian forces who were captured when Singapore fell, as well as others, in civil life public servants or engineers in Malaya, who were enrolled in the Malayan Defence Force. A miscellaneous group of professions supplied the New Zealand internees in Japanese hands: missionaries and teachers in China or Japan, officials in Malaya or Sarawak, engineers and technicians employed in Thailand or on the China coast.

The places of imprisonment or internment were as varied as the localities and the circumstances in which these people became captives. The conditions of internment were on the whole better than those endured by service prisoners of war. For the latter a broad policy of brutality appears to have been imposed from above. For civilian and service personnel alike the will of local commanders seems to have been the dominating factor, and some surprisingly humane conditions (surprising when set beside the general conduct of the Japanese) were offered to small groups in favoured localities. It is, however, possible to generalise and say that all, prisoners of war or internees, were badly fed by Japanese standards, atrociously by European.

The rights and obligations of prisoners of war in relation to the detaining power are defined in the Geneva Convention. A writer who examined this Convention critically has pointed out that it is a weakness, from the point of view of European troops, that the detaining power is obliged to give its prisoners only the same standard of diet as its own Base troops enjoy. As a Japanese can live on less food, on a smaller total of calories though not, of course, on a less well-balanced ‘spread’ of vitamins, than a European, the latter on a diet that satisfies the former must suffer from malnutrition. It is true that the Japanese in any case paid only lip service to the Geneva Convention; they declared their adherence to it after their entry into the war and violated its letter and its spirit in every detail in almost every prison camp. But even if their attempts to conform to the Convention had been sincere, prisoners and internees in their hands must have suffered severely. Some part of the blame for the slow starvation of their prisoners must be attributed to the differences in racial standards, though nearly everywhere it was due far more directly to a cynical disregard of every humane consideration and an active desire first to humiliate and then to destroy their victims. Prisoners of war paid with their blood and their lives for the national sense of inferiority of the divinely-descended children of Nippon.