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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Incalculable Japanese

page 4

The Incalculable Japanese

In their entry into the war the Japanese provided themselves with every modern weapon, used the latest tactics, and imitated, often with overwhelming success, the western nations in every mechanical and industrial device to increase their striking power and chance of victory. But they themselves were less Europeanised than their ships, planes, weapons and uniforms suggested. How little they had advanced towards civilisation (a condition they understood mainly on the material side) was shown most clearly in their abominable treatment of their prisoners.

The Japanese themselves did not ‘allow’ their troops to become prisoners of the enemy. It was their duty to die rather than face the world in which they had suffered defeat. Japanese soldiers who fell into the hands of the Chinese, for instance, were considered officially to be dead: their relatives were paid compensation and their glorious death was reported at the Shinto shrines. Never, never could these living dead return to their homes to outrage both their sorrowing relatives and their ancestors by contradicting so satisfying a legend.

The Japanese in some degree extended this attitude to those sailors, soldiers, and airmen of the Allies who fell into their hands. (This did not, however, prevent them in some camps attempting to victimise New Zealanders as a reprisal for the shooting of Japanese prisoners at Featherston in February 1943; this discrimination broke down in practice because the general treatment of all prisoners was in any case already a terrible victimisation.) Men who should have been dead could have no rights. But the Japanese declared their adherence to the Geneva Convention, which they had not previously ratified and could not therefore have been blamed for not observing. Thus, for the sake of wishing to appear before the world as humane, to appear as though they were capable of behaving by the standards of the European nations, the Japanese greatly increased their war guilt. It would seem, however, that the Japanese were in any case incapable of understanding the humanitarian spirit which lies behind this international agreement.

The Japanese themselves in their own services and even to some extent in civil life practise the active brutality of which prisoners of war were so often the victims. Himself struck by his superiors, the non-commissioned officer passes on the blows to the private on any occasion of displeasure; the humble private slaps or clubs the civilian or, when he is within reach, the prisoner of war.

Among their former prisoners the consensus of opinion seems to be that the Japanese were brutal rather than sadistic and largely unaware of their own brutality, which might find its target in an animal as readily as in a helpless prisoner. (That so much of their motives must be left to conjecture is some indication of the bewilderment of anyone who attempts to elucidate the contradictions of the Japanese character.) Undoubtedly they were arrogant in victory and obsessed with a desire to avenge on individuals the galling pretensions to superiority of the white races over the coloured. This led to calculated humiliations being heaped on their prisoners. An intelligent observer,* who was their prisoner for three and a half years in Malaya and Thailand, considered the main characteristic of the Japanese to be a frightening lack of balance, ‘which means that they can swing from murder to laughter in a couple of seconds, and this makes them always unpredictable and impossible to trust in any way’. They have a marked tendency to hysteria. Before attacking prisoners page 5 who had offended them, they used to work themselves up into a berserk condition until virtually they did not know what they were doing. Prisoners of war found a very few who were uniformly considerate, fair, honest, and humane. Their national tradition placed no value on these virtues even within the circle of their own families.

It is impossible not to feel deep indignation at the treatment of their prisoners by the Japanese. But, while pitying the prisoners, one may also pity the Japanese. One ex-prisoner, when asked why the Japanese had beaten up so many prisoners of war for trivial offences or for what were not really offences at all, replied, ‘Because they were unhappy’. Many times the Japanese committed atrocities which were directly opposed to their own interests. The building of the Burma-Thailand railway with prisoner-of-war labour is a case in point: it was obviously in the interest of the Japanese war effort to keep this labour force in a condition of health and vigour, yet the callous denial of essential drugs to the sick or of adequate food to any of the workers resulted in the labour force dwindling away through every type of tropical disease being added to malnutrition.

Black and white photograph of paper

from the Japanese propaganda paper Freedom

* John Coast, Railroad of Death (Commodore Press), p. 243.