Laurence Rees highlights 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 to deliberate starvation of POW’s. Rees attempts to delve into the mind-set of the soldiers who committed the atrocities and find out their motivations. From their unflappable belief in the divine emperor to their desire to save “face” at all times, Rees documents the horror and endeavours to comprehend it. The level of barbarity raises some complex moral questions. The United State’s completely unjustified dropping of two atomic bombs on innocent civilians to effectively end the war has always troubled me. Given the Japanese were in the process of surrendering, why did they do it? Whilst those questions throw up their own compound issues, when I read Ree’s book, it gave me a new understanding of the insanity the US was dealing with. This is in no way to justify their indiscriminate nuking of two cites. It just provides more background information. I do not remember being taught in school that dropping the atomic bomb was morally wrong or to be condemned. It felt opaquely justified in order to win the war.
Rees places 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 divine being. He was a God on earth to them. Rees quotes soldier Masaya Enomoto as evidence of this: “I didn’t feel any guilt because I was fighting for the emperor. He was a God”. Further proof is chronicled throughout from numerous other former Japanese soldiers testifying to the same thing. They believed they were fighting for a higher power and would do anything to honour him. 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” within Japanese society. Used constructively, this 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 on. However, during war time in the Japanese military, it lead to some soldiers proving how far they would go in their show of 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” 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 was the root cause for the 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? Surely not. Yes, the Japanese were the aggressors and their vision of society was wrong. However, this does 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 in every way. This belief became so extreme that they were viewed as “Chancorro” or sub human. This was the era of colonialism and powerful countries believed 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 wrong on any moral standing. After they began their unjust occupation of mainland China, the level of violence meted out to the native Chinese people remains incomprehensible to this day. Japanese soldier Hajime Kondo spoke about how he killed six innocent farmers with a bayonet. When asked why he targeted innocent people, he said he felt like he “had to prove his worth”. Another clear example of Japanese soldiers trying to save face in front of each other.
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 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 organs and female prisoners underwent forced pregnancy. 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 difficult to comprehend how this occurred. It remains a stain on the US that they did not try the members of Unit 731 for 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 with impunity.
Treatment of Prisoners of War (POWs):
Similar levels of cruelty that to that observed in Hong Kong were inflicted upon POW’s 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 1800 Australian POWs that were kept at Sandakan and forced to build a runway strip – only 6 survived. There were 700 British POWs at the same camp and every one of them was killed. Rees quotes Peter Lee, one of the 6 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 as one of their ships was cut off by the Americans. They began cannibalising the POWs 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 POWs being used as live targets for new recruits to practice on. Like the Chinese, the Japanese soldiers treated their POWs as sub human. As Professor Tanaka said in his study of the Japanese cruelty during the war, this cannibalism was “unparalleled in history”.
Rees does contextualise the treatment of POWs with some numbers. The Nazis killed 57% of the Russian POWs that it captured during World War Two(an astonishing 3.3m of 5.7m captured). The Allies killed 4% of its POWs whilst Japan was in the middle at 27%.
Rees dismisses the notion that the Japanese were somehow “inherently cruel” and details the factual reasons for their actions. The belief in their emperor, who authorised war crimes. The soldiers desire to save face in front of their comrades, which created a culture that violence of any degree was acceptable. Rees argues how this unique “situational psychology” that the Japanese soldiers encountered is partly responsible. He quotes a German who lived through the Third Reich as evidence of this phenomenon: “The trouble with the world today is people who haven’t been tested go around making judgments about people who have been tested”. Japan was so determined to never allow the circumstances occur that let people behave in such an inhumane way, that they created article 9 in their post war constitution, which outlaws them using war as a means to settling disputes. Now if we could only get every country in the world to follow suit and truly embrace a peaceful world without war.