Laurence Rees highlighted some of the twentieth century’s most egregious human rights abuses in his 2001 book, “Horror In The East”. It is a difficult read, shedding some light on lots of previously unknown and almost unbelievable historical events, from cannibalism right the way through to the deliberate starvation of POWs. Rees delved into the mind-set of the soldiers who committed these atrocities. For example, the Japanese soldiers unflappable belief in their divine Emperor Hirohito and their need to save “face”. The level of barbarity raised some complex moral questions. Whilst the US were unjustified in their dropping of two atomic bombs on innocent civilians, especially given that the Japanese were in the process of surrendering, Ree’s book did go some way to understanding the insanity that the US was dealing with.
Rees laid a fair amount of the blame at the door of Emperor Hirohito, the longest serving in Japanese history. Like the current situation in modern day North Korea, where ordinary citizens are forced to treat Kim Jong-un as a quasi-deity, the Japanese soldiers, and many of the public at large during the War, saw Hirohito as a supreme being. He was a God on earth to them. Rees quoted soldier Masaya Enomoto, “I didn’t feel any guilt because I was fighting for the Emperor. He was a God”. Numerous other former Japanese soldiers testified to the same thing. They believed they were fighting for a higher power and would do anything to honour Hirohito. When you combined the general obedience of the average Japanese at the time, it became a lethal cocktail. This willingness to be mannerly and follow orders manifested itself in an extreme form of “saving face”. Honed wisely, this trait can have many benefits. Visiting Japan some years ago, Iseult and I found it to be the most clean and orderly country we had ever set foot in. However, during war time in the Japanese military, it resulted in many soldiers proving how far they would go to prove their loyalty to the Emperor. New recruits were put in a position where they had to prove that they would do likewise. This unique, “situational psychology” as Rees called it, had a domino effect and created a violent culture where nobody drew the line of what was acceptable.
It was not just the soldier’s belief in Hirohito that caused violence. He was directly involved in authorising war crimes. On the 28th July 1937, he specifically “sanctioned the use of poison gas”. The Allies showed a genuine moral failing by never prosecuting the Emperor for his crimes as they did with the rest of the Japanese war time cabinet. It is inconceivable to me that he continued ruling as Emperor until 1989. Then again, were the Allies really in a moral position to prosecute anyone after dropping two nuclear bombs? Yes, the Japanese were the aggressors, however, this did not justify the Allies deliberately attacking innocent civilians. If the World is to be consistent in truly condemning War Crimes, then the US should have been prosecuted for Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Being on the winning side and having the right intentions does not justify crimes against humanity.
At the turn of the twentieth-century, the Japanese viewed their Chinese neighbours as inferior. Their racism became so extreme that they called the Chinese “Chancorro” or sub-human. It was the era of colonialism and powerful countries believed that they could rule nations they perceived to be inferior. The Japanese followed the British colonialists lead and believed that they had a right to invade China. This decision was clearly immoral. After they began their unjust occupation of mainland China, the level of violence that was meted out to the native Chinese people remains incomprehensible. Japanese soldier Hajime Kondo spoke about how he killed six innocent farmers with a bayonet. When asked about why he had targeted innocent people, he said he felt like he “had to prove his worth”.
When the Japanese captured the city of Suchow in China, it left the city with only 500 people, from a pre-war population of 350,000. Chinese soldiers were killed on the spot. The occupying forces raped thousands of innocent Chinese women. Two sixteen year olds were raped to death. There were mass shootings of innocent civilians.
Unit 731 was a notorious Japanese unit that experimented on people to develop biological weapons. They killed up to 250,000 people during the occupation of China. Most of their victims were civilians and prisoners of war who were infected with diseases such as Tetanus, Typhoid, Syphilis and Cholera (often without anaesthesia). They were stripped of their organs and female prisoners underwent forced pregnancies. They kept their test subjects in cages and often raped the women who had been infected with diseases. When reading the stories of some of the victims who survived, it is impossible to fathom how this happened. It remains a stain on the US that they did not try the members of Unit 731 for their war crimes, instead offering many of them clemency in exchange for the information they had on biological warfare.
After the Battle of Hong Kong in 1941, hundreds of British soldiers surrendered but were massacred nonetheless. The ones that survived were treated to inhumane conditions. Innocent British women were raped after the Japanese took the Island. As in Suchow, the population fell from 1.6m to 750,000 as the Japanese killed and tortured prisoners of war and civilians alike with impunity.
Similar levels of cruelty were observed everywhere the Japanese conquered. In the Dutch West Indies, multiple women were raped by the Japanese army. Japanese solider Karashima was prosecuted and killed for torturing and starving POW’s while needlessly transporting them.
Of the 1,800 Australian POWs that were kept at Sandakan and forced to build a runway strip – only six survived. There were 700 British POWs at the same camp and every one of them was killed. Rees quoted Peter Lee, one of the six who survived, “nobody at the time had any idea that such a thing could possibly occur in what is called a civilised world”.
In New Guinea, things were even more insane. The Japanese army ran out of food supplies after one of their ships was cut off by the US. They began cannibalising the prisoners of war whom they had in captivity. They ate one POW a week, sometimes hacking off a leg whilst the prisoner was still alive. There were also accounts of Indian prisoners of war being used as live targets for new recruits to practice on. Like the Chinese, the Japanese soldiers treated their prisoners of war as sub human. As Professor Tanaka said in his study of the Japanese cruelty during the war, this cannibalism was “unparalleled in history”.
Rees did contextualise the treatment of POWs with some numbers. The Nazis killed 57% of the Russian POWs that they captured during World War Two (an astonishing 3.3m of 5.7m captured). Comparatively, the Allies killed 4% of its POWs whilst Japan was in the middle at 27%.
Rees dismissed the notion that the Japanese were somehow “inherently cruel” and instead established the factual reasons for the barbarity that they employed – their belief in Hirohito, who authorised war crimes, and the soldiers’ desire to save face in front of their comrades, which created a culture that violence of any degree was acceptable. Rees argued how this unique “situational psychology” that the Japanese soldiers encountered was partly responsible. Japan was so determined to never allow a repeat of World War Two that they created Article Nine in their post war constitution which outlawed the use of war as a means to settle disputes. If only we could get every country in the world to follow suit and truly embrace a peaceful planet.