JAPAN DURING WORLD WAR II
Scholars such as Ian Buruma and Karel van Wolferen have argued that before and during the World War II there was no central leadership in Japan. Rather it was a “bunch of competing and coalescing interests” that “fought and lost in a kind of fractious dither, improvised day to day by a chaotic chain of command.” By 1944, 80 percent of the national budget went to the military.
For many Japanese the war about poverty, bombings and waiting for the end. Men went to war and never came back. Newsreels and radio informed them of battles in far off places. Ceremonies were held for soldiers in their hometowns before they were sent off. Mournful gatherings were held when the ashes of those who died in battle were brought home.
Many ordinary Japanese were taught how to carve a bamboo pole into a pike and use it as deadly weapon to jab into the throat of an advancing American soldier. Near the end of the war Japanese soldiers and civilians built underground bases in anticipation of an invasion.
Japanese women were required to support the war effort by serving formally in the armed forces and Japanese Red Cross as nurses; by participating in women’s groups that received ashes of war dead, visited bereaved families and solicited donations for national defense; by organizing military exercises with bamboo spears; and, as the war wore on, by making up for labor shortages in Japanese factories.
Women sold their best kimonos for a couple of days’ rice. Infants died because doctors on horse-drawn carriages couldn’t reach them in time. One woman told the writer Martha Sherrill, “All of Japan was so dark. Tokyo had turned to ashes. No one could escape a sense of loss.”
The Japanese were quite brutal and ruthless. American soldiers found the cut-off the heads of their comrades with their genitals stuffed in their mouths. There were reports of Japanese soldiers binding the legs of women in labor so they are their children died in horrible pain. One woman had one breast cut off and the other burned with cigarettes and was tortured with electric shocks often refusing to have sex with Japanese soldiers.
Japanese soldiers expected civilians in occupied territories to bow respectfully in their presence. When civilians neglected to do this, according to some accounts, they were viciously slapped. The Kempeitai, the Japanese secret police, were notorious for their brutality.
The war historian Max Hastings wrote, “War is inherently inhumane but the Japanese practiced extraordinary refinements of inhumanity in the treatment of those thrown at their mercy.” Sadism was often the status quo. P.O.W’s were starved, beheaded, raped, bayoneted and, in some cases, vivisected.”
In his dairy a Japanese soldier who died in the Battle of Manila wrote of his love for his family, eulogized the beauty of a sunset---then described how he participated in a massacre of Filipinos during which he dashed a baby against a tree.”
Japanese brutality encouraged local people to launch resistance movements. One Filipino man told Time, "One war scene I can never foreign was a Japanese soldier waving a bayonet with a baby stuck on the tip. I just can't find it in my heart to forgive them."
A Japanese guard commander aboard the tramp steamer Shinyo Maru told the POWs aboard his ship they would be killed if the ship was attacked. Sure enough when the ship was torpedoed in September 1944, Japanese guards machine gunned the prisoners that tried to escape. About 20 men that escaped to the sea were picked up by another Japanese ship. When their identifies were learned they were executed.
American Brutality and Ruthlessness
The American response to Japanese ruthlessness and brutality---added to American cruelty and callousness that hatched without Japanese help---was to be equally ruthless and brutal even to its own side. American submarines, for example, had no way of knowing which Japanese transport ship carried Allied prisoners of war and which didn’t. American commanders were ordered to fire on all Japanese transport ships. As a result 10,000 Allied POWs were killed by friendly fire --- double the total number of Americans killed in Iraq.
The aviator Charles Lindbergh described how dead Japanese soldiers were cut up by American soldiers looking for valuables and souvenirs. Unarmed prisoners were shot dead after making clear they wanted to surrender. This was on top of what the Americans did at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the firebombing of Tokyo. In the Naked and the Dead Norman Mailer explained that the low percentage of Japanese surrenders was at least partly the result of a desire by the Allies to kill Japanese soldiers instead of capture them.
American soldiers returned home with Japanese skulls and waving them in front of Japanese Americans, saying, “There’s your uncle on a pole.” In 1946, Edgar Jones wrote in Atlantic Monthly, "What kind of war do civilians suppose we fought, anyway? We shot prisoners in cold blood, wiped out hospitals, strafed lifeboats, killed or mistreated enemy civilians, finished off the wounded, tossed the dying into a hole with the dead, and in the Pacific boiled the flesh off enemy skulls to make table ornaments for sweethearts, or carved their bones into letter openers." Among fighting American soldiers FUBAR was an anagram for the dead that meant “F***ed Up Beyond All Recognition.”
David Powers of the BBC wrote: “ John Dower, one of America’s most highly respected historians of wartime and post-war Japan, believes a major factor, often overlooked in seeking to explain why Japanese soldiers did not surrender, is that countless thousands of Japanese perished because they saw no alternative. He argues that the attack on Pearl Harbor provoked a rage bordering on the genocidal among Americans. Not only did Admiral William Halsey, Commander of the South Pacific Force, adopt the slogan 'Kill Japs, kill Japs, kill more Japs', public opinion polls in the United States consistently showed 10 to 13 per cent of all Americans supported the 'annihilation' or 'extermination' of the Japanese as a people. [Source: David Powers, BBC, February 17, 2011 ***]
“It was a war without mercy, and the US Office of War Information acknowledged as much in 1945. It noted that the unwillingness of Allied troops to take prisoners in the Pacific theatre had made it difficult for Japanese soldiers to surrender. When the present writer interviewed Hiroo Onoda for the BBC 'Timewatch' programme, he too repeatedly came back to the theme 'it was kill or be killed'.” ***
Japanese Occupation of the Philippines
The Japanese held the Philippines for three years from 1942 to 1945. At least 320,000 died by the time they were driven out. During the Japanese occupation the Philippines was controlled by a puppet government headed by Jose Laurel. The Japanese herded thousands of American civilians into squalid internment camps such as the one at Manila’s University of Santo Tomas. Some others fled to the hills to join insurgents fighting the Japanese Others hid with Filipino friends. Over 10,000 civilian internees---most of them Americans living in the Philippines when war broke out---were kept at Santo Tomás, a 17th century monastery.
F. Sionil Jose wrote in the New York Times: "I was 17, a student in Manila, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 8, 1941. That same day, the airfield in Manila and other military installations in the Philippines were also bombed. Schools were immediately closed and I returned to my hometown, Rosales, about 30 miles from Lingayen, where, within the same month, the Japanese landed. Soon after they came to Rosales. In the first month of occupation, the Japanese behaved correctly---you could say they were even cordial. Then, two months into the occupation, the sentries started slapping people for no apparent reason. Soon after, stories about the Death March following the U.S. surrender of Bataan drifted to us. In July 1942, I went to the prison camp at Capas to look for a cousin, Raymundo Alberto, who had not returned from Bataan. All of the horror stories we had heard were confirmed on that trip---I saw hundreds of Filipino prisoners sick and dying. My cousin was not there. During the occupation, food, medicine, clothing, and other basic necessities like soap and matches, became very scarce. I sometimes went to Manila to bring rice to my relatives there. On one such trip I was stopped in Moncada, in Tarlac Province. My half sack of rice was confiscated by the Japanese and I was beaten up." [Source: F. Sionil Jose, New York Times, August 13, 2010]
From 1942 to 1945 the Philippines endured a brutal Japanese military regime. Unlike the previous colonial forces, the Japanese actively encouraged Filipino languages as part of the Greater Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Japan's scheme of keeping Asia Asian. After the initial invasion of the Philippines the Japanese military authorities immediately began organizing a new government structure in the Philippines. Although the Japanese had promised independence for the islands after occupation, they initially organized a Council of State through which they directed civil affairs until October 1943, when they declared the Philippines an independent republic. Most of the Philippine elite, with a few notable exceptions, served under the Japanese. Philippine collaboration in Japanese-sponsored political institutions--which later became a major domestic political issue--was motivated by several considerations. Among them was the effort to protect the people from the harshness of Japanese rule (an effort that Quezon himself had advocated), protection of family and personal interests, and a belief that Philippine nationalism would be advanced by solidarity with fellow Asians. Many collaborated to pass information to the Allies. The Japanese-sponsored republic headed by President José P. Laurel proved to be unpopular. [Library of Congress]
According to one story, Japan lotted tons of gold and jewels from China and shipped them to the Philippines where they were hidden in tunnels bobby trapped with mines and poison gas canisters. After the war the loot was retrieved and used to finance the Japanese post-war economic miracle. There is no evidence to back up these claims. According to another story a three-foot-high Golden Buddha, diamonds and gems and 1,000 tons of gold bars accumulated by Japanese General Tomoyuki as booty was hidden shortly before the end of World War II. A poor locksmith reportedly found the Buddha and gold in a tunnel near a hospital in 1971 only to have the loot seized by Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos and stored away in a Swiss Vault. A Swiss court in Zurich ordered Imelda Marcos, as heir to her husband's fortune, to pay the family of the locksmith $460 million.
Filipino Guerilla Fight Against the Japanese
Most Filipinos remained loyal to the U.S. and numerous the Philippines rebel groups, including the Hukbalahap (the Huks) communist guerilla movement, fought against the Japanese from encampments in the jungle.Filipino insurgents conducted an effective guerilla campaign against the Japanese. They were aided to some degree by Americans who had hidden in the mountains or were smuggled in. After the war the Hukbalahap, or the People’s Anti-Japanese Army, launched a Communist revolution against the Philippines government.
Japanese occupation of the Philippines was opposed by increasingly effective underground and guerrilla activity that ultimately reached large-scale proportions. Postwar investigations showed that about 260,000 people were in guerrilla organizations and that members of the anti-Japanese underground were even more numerous. Their effectiveness was such that by the end of the war, Japan controlled only twelve of the forty-eight provinces. The major element of resistance in the Central Luzon area was furnished by the Huks, Hukbalahap, or the People's Anti-Japanese Army organized in early 1942 under the leadership of Luis Taruc, a communist party member since 1939. The Huks armed some 30,000 people and extended their control over much of Luzon. Other guerrilla units were attached to the United States Armed Forces Far East. *
Filipinos Who Fought for the Americans in World War II
Some 250,000 Filipinos enlisted in 1941 to fight with the American and help defend the Philippines. They were promised that they could become US citizens if they chose, and receive benefits under the G.I. Bill. [Source: Associated Press, June 7, 2009 +++]
Associated Press reported: Some soldiers, like Artemio Caleda, “recalled how they risked their lives in advance units determining lines of attack and how they got sick of malaria and dysentery. Caleda said his unit rescued a downed US pilot, helped capture Japanese holdout Gen. Tomoyuki Yamashita and fought for long months in the jungles. “We did it not for the benefits that were promised to us, but to defend our country,” said Caleda, who served in the 11th Infantry Regiment, part of the Filipino Organized Guerrillas. “It was the US and multinational presence that made us a target, but it was up to us to defend our freedom and democracy.” Caleda served in an advance unit sent to surround Yamashita’s forces in Ifugao province. +++
“Former Army Cpl. Salome Calderon, a female soldier, “was a member of a Filipino intelligence team that spied on Japanese military positions, making it easier for Allied forces to pinpoint targets during the liberation of the Philippines. At the team’s secret headquarters in Angono, the then 17-year-old Calderon guarded intelligence reports to be transmitted to US Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff. She also took care of children whose fathers had left to join the guerrillas, according to online editions of Hawaiian newspapers. +++
Japanese Occupation of Southeast Asia
Most of Southeast Asia was occupied during most of World War II by the Japanese. The Japanese captured Southeast Asia very quickly but had not planned very well for occupying it. In many ways the Japanese ruled through violence and repression rather than reasonable and humane governing. Southeast Asians that might have welcomed them as liberators were quickly turned off by Japanese brutality. The Japanese occupation raised a desire for independence but did not prepare the countries for it.
The Japanese took over Burma in 1942 and installed a puppet regime of Burmese nationalists. The Burmese initially welcomed the Japanese invasion because they saw it as a way of breaking free of British colonialism. In 1944 the Nationalist turned against the Japanese and helped the British and American drive the Japanese out.
The French had little impact on the war in their territories in Southeast Asia (Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia) . The Japanese forced the Vietnamese to grow jut and other industrial crops instead of rice, plus they made sure their soldiers had priority over the Vietnamese people when it came to food. In 1945, at the end of the Japanese occupation, 2 million Vietnamese, 20 percent of the north's population, starved to death.
Albert John Harris wrote in the BBC’s People’s War: The Japanese were incredibly cruel to their enemies, their captives and their own people. They were trained to be like this, they had no compassion whatsoever. Even though the Burmese were Buddhists like themselves, they were cruel even to the natives who had not fought them but welcomed them into their country. Except for the Kachims and Karens of North Burma who were Christians and gave the British Army every assistance. The Japanese were even more cruel to them when they refused to accept them as friends. The Japanese called it the Greater Asia CoProsperity Sphere. They were equally cruel to the natives of the Philippines and New Guinea. In fact during their occupations the Japanese made no friends in any country whatsoever. For instance, the Japanese wanted everyone to bow to them as a mark of respect. There were terrible recriminations if people did not do this correctly. Burma was a rich country compared to the rest of Asia---they exported vast quantities of rice to India and they had teak wood and oil. [Source: BBC’s People’s War]
Book: A Sudden Rampage: the Japanese Occupation of Southeast Asia by Nicholas Taring (Hurst & Company, 2002]
Japanese Occupation of Thailand
Thailand responded pragmatically to the military and political pressures of World War II. When sporadic fighting broke out between Thai and French forces along Thailand's eastern frontier in late 1940 and early 1941, Japan used its influence with the Vichy regime in France to obtain concessions for Thailand. As a result, France agreed in March 1941 to cede 54,000 square kilometers of Laotian territory west of the Mekong and most of the Cambodian province of Battambang to Thailand. The recovery of this lost territory and the regime's apparent victory over a European colonial power greatly enhanced Phibun's reputation. [Source: Library of Congress]
The war for Thailand began in earnest on December 8, 1941, when after several hours of fighting between Thai and Japanese troops at Chumphon, Thailand had to accede to Japanese demands for access through the country for Japanese forces invading Burma and Malaya. Phibun assured the country that the Japanese action was prearranged with a sympathetic Thai government. Later in the month Phibun signed a mutual defense pact with Japan. Pridi resigned from the cabinet in protest but subsequently accepted the nonpolitical position of regent for the absent Ananda Mahidol.
Seni Pramoj, the anti-Japanese Thai ambassador to Washington, refused his government’s orders to deliver the declaration of war, and the United States refrained from declaring war on Thailand. With American assistance Seni organized the Free Thai Movement, recruiting Thai students in the United States to work with the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS trained Thai personnel for underground activities, and units were readied to infiltrate Thailand. From the office of the regent in Thailand, Pridi ran a clandestine movement that by the end of the war had with Allied aid armed more than 50,000 Thai to resist the Japanese.
Thailand was rewarded for Phibun's close cooperation with Japan during the early years of war with the return of further territory that had once been under Bangkok's control, including portions of the Shan states in Burma and the four northernmost Malay states. Japan meanwhile had stationed 150,000 troops on Thai soil and built the infamous "death railway" through Thailand using Allied prisoners of war.
As the war dragged on, however, the Japanese presence grew more irksome. Trade came to a halt, and Japanese military personnel requisitioning supplies increasingly dealt with Thailand as a conquered territory rather than as an ally. Allied bombing raids damaged Bangkok and other targets and caused several thousand casualties. Public opinion and, even more important, the sympathies of the civilian political elite, moved perceptibly against the Phibun regime and the military. In June 1944, Phibun was forced from office and replaced by the first predominantly civilian government since the 1932 coup.
Japanese Occupation of Singapore
Reporting on what it was like in Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew wrote, "From the end of 1943, food became scarcer and scarcer. Reduced to eating old, moldy, worm-eaten stock mixed with Malayan-grown rice, we had to find substitutes. My mother, like many others, stretched what little we could get...It was amazing how hungry my brothers and I became one hour after each meal...meanwhile, inflation had been increasing month by month, and by mid-1944 it was no longer possible to live on only salary . But there were better and easier pickings to be had as a broker on the black market." [Source: The Singapore Story by Lee Kuan Yew, 1998, Times Editions]
During the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong the port facilities fell into disrepair, the governor was imprisoned in a luxury hotel, the British residents were imprisoned, torture cages were set up on the steps of the courthouse, trade virtually stopped and the Hong Kong and Shanghai bank was ordered to issue worthless currency. In Hong Kong, the Japanese did experiments with snakes and turned sumptuous mansions into geisha houses.
Romanus Miles wrote in the BBC People’s War: “We also discovered to our cost,that the infamous Kempeitai Division of the Nippon army now garrisoned our district. They were the vanguard of the successful assault on Singapore leading the 5th, 18th divisions and Imperial Guards. The men came from mining communities in northern Japan, were exceptionally tough and practiced their cruel brutality in occupied China. Now they were our masters setting up roadblocks all over the city terrifying anyone who dared to pass. This we had to do daily and I shall never forget the fear I had approaching one of these check points. Every bridge and major road junction became a terrifying experience for travelers. The soldiers manning these posts looked fearsome in their coarse uniforms, and those caps with the flaps. They took a delight in slapping or kicking us as we lined up to bow to the sentries. All watches and jewellery were taken, the owner usually receiving a slap as compensation and they liked British made bicycles especially the Raleigh make. Because of language and custom differences, misunderstandings often occurred with tragic consequences. [Source: BBC’s People’s War]
“For instance, the Japs pointed to their nose if they meant themselves just as we would point to our chest so if misunderstood tempers would flare up. When I pointed to my chest the sentry thought I had something on me and began to inspect me closely causing move havoc. Bowing the Japanese way was also a source of trouble so there was much shouting and violence. Often a few unfortunate souls would be bound tightly with rope and left in the hot sun, their fate unknown. [Ibid]
“We soon learnt the danger words like “Bageiroh, kurra and nanda” and would respond with much bowing. My heart would sink when having passed the post thinking all was well, I’d hear a loud “Oi’ and turning around I’d see a sergeant languishing in a chair in the shade beckoning me over. He was usually curious about my skin colour and if I didn’t satisfy his questions he would get nasty. On one occasion I was grabbed by my hair and had my head pulled down for inspection of my scalp. It was scary and just one of my many frightening experiences in those tyrannical times. [Ibid]
“Using our wits my Brother and I began claiming German or Italian nationality at interrogations and were rewarded with a pat on the head and a smile. But on one occasion it didn’t work, because the Jap was drunk and particularly nasty so in the end with a nod from L, we literally ran for our lives down the back streets of the Capitol cinema and got away with it. I can imagine what would have happened to us if we got caught. There were many proclamations from the army, displayed on notice boards in public places like markets, or just pasted onto street lamp post. Invariably they ended with a dire threat of sever punishment or death for non-compliance. [Ibid]
“All Eurasians had to assemble at the Padang near the Singapore cricket pavilion to be screened on a particular day. So with water bottles, food and sun hats we went there wondering if we would ever return. Jap guards ringed the area with machine guns, looking menacing but after being harangued in the hot sun by English speaking officers about co-operating with the new regime we were allowed to go home. There was a reminder that they were going to check birth certificates at a later date. [Ibid]
The date 1942 was now 2602, Singapore became known as Syonan-to, meaning “Light of the South” and the Emperor Hirohito was God. “Syonan- to” sounded to the local Hokkien Chinese like “Birdcage Island”, which was a sinister thought. Bowing to the North East, the bearing of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo was a ritual we all got used to daily. At the road blocks, the sentries would ask locals in Malay where they were going, and if the response was Singapore, which was the customary term for the city a rain of blows would descend on the unwary individual until he remembered it was Syonan-to. On one occasion I watched a man beaten to the ground for replying “Raja” meaning King, when shown King George’s head on a coin.
Japanese Occupation of Indonesia and POW Escape in Australia
The Dutch East Indies were a valuable prize for the Japanese because the archipelago was rich in resources useful in warfare such as oil, rubber and tin. The Japanese also used thousands of Indonesians as menial laborers to build roads and railways in Southeast Asia. They participated in the building of the bridge over the River Kwai. By some estimates more 10 million Indonesians were forced to work in forced labor projects, with 1 million dying in the process.
Colonial rule by the Japanese in Indonesia in World War II was relatively mild. The Japanese occupation was more like another colonial period than a period of war. Many Indonesians, at least initially, welcomed the Japanese as liberators of Dutch rule more open to the idea of Indonesian independence. The occupation of Indonesia by the Japanese gave the nationalist movement a boost and help paved the way for the independence movement after the end of the war. Indonesians were given more control over their own affairs. A military mentality was developed there that endues to this day.
As time wore on Indonesians became increasingly unhappy under Japanese rule. Some Indonesian women and a few Dutch women became sex slaves. But in some ways the bad things the Japanese did were the same or not much worse than what the Dutch did. So they would not be held in violation of the Geneva Convention Japanese demanded that Dutch sex slaves sign formal contacts. No such formalities were done with local Indonesian women.
In August 1944, there was a mass escape of Japanese prisoners at Cowar in Australia. More than 200 Japanese prisoners died. Many killed themselves rather than surrender. The event was remembered in Japan with a television drama called The Day Our Lives Were Lighter Than Toilet Paper: Escape from Cowra Prison Camp.
The defeat of Japan by American forces is something for which Australians are grateful. After the war Australia looked to America instead of the United Kingdom for inspiration. "It was almost like a divorce and remarriage" Australian journalist Ross Terrill said.
Pacific Island Occupation
Japan occupied many islands in present-day Micronesia and the Pacific. They developed and built railroads, phosphate and bauxite mines, sugar plantations, schools, and buildings with 20-inch-thick walls strong enough withstand typhoons and bombs.
In Palau the Japanese reduced the power of the local chiefs and confiscated Palauan land. Yes, they built schools but those attended by local children taught students a subservient form of the Japanese language. Pacific towns were turned into centers of Japanese cultures, complete with bath houses, kabuki theaters, Shinto shrines and geishas.
By 1940, there more Japanese in Micronesia than native people (70,000 compared to 50,000). On Pohnpei there were 14,000 Japanese, Okinawans and Koreans and only 5,000 Pohnpeians. Before the outbreak of World War II, the Japanese forced the Palauan populace to work in slave-like conditions to fortify and militarize the islands. Forced laborers that didn't cooperate in projects to build airfields and military fortifications on Yap had pieces of their stone money destroyed.
Cannibalism by Japanese soldiers took place on Chichi Jima, a remote island near Iwo Jima in the middle of the Pacific about halfway between Japan and Guam. In 1944, an American prisoner was taken from a cave there and beheaded in front of crowd. A former Japanese soldier told the Los Angeles Times that night he and some other soldiers had their first meat in years. “It was very special, since we lived for years on miso soup and rice. Only later did I learn we’d eaten the soldier.”
New Guinea Occupation
During World War II New Guinea and the islands of Melanesia were taken over by the Japanese. Taking advantage of the superstitious beliefs and lack of material good possessed by the local people, the Japanese offered rewards of samurai swords to tribesmen who brought in downed Allied pilots with their hands and feet tied and slung on poles like pigs.
The tribesmen switched their allegiance when the Allies cut of the Japanese supplies lines and the Japanese stopped giving out gifts and rewards and instead started enslaving the local population.
Cargo cults gained found in Melanesia gained momentum during World War II when once again the island were visited by strangers bearing gifts, this time American GI's with packaged food, arms, jeeps and fabricated houses. The soldiers eventually departed but the people were left with "Navy Tom" to worship as well as "John Frum."
New Guinea has several species of glow-in-the- dark mushrooms. During World War II an American reporter wrote his wife: I'm writing to you tonight by the light of five mushrooms.
Image Sources: National Archives of the United States; Wikimedia Commons
Text Sources: National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun, The New Yorker, Lonely Planet Guides, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wikipedia, BBC, Eyewitness to History , edited by John Carey ( Avon Books, 1987), Compton’s Encyclopedia, History of Warfare by John Keegan, Vintage Books, Eyewitness to History.com, The Good War An Oral History of World War II by Studs Terkel, Hamish Hamilton, 1985, BBC’s People’s War website and various books and other publications.
© 2008 Jeffrey Hays
Last updated November 2016