World War II: Japanese War Crimes and Attrocities: Mistreatment and Murder of Civilians and Soldiers

Figure 1.--

The Japanese more than 10 years before launching the Pacific War were engaged in military operations in China. First inbading Mnchuria (1931). And than launching an outright invasion of China proper (1937). And along with military operations, Japan conducted massive operaions brutalizing and killing the Chinese people i unpesedented numbers. The initial targes of the Japanese militarists were the Chinese people. At first in China and evntually Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and Oceania. Western journalists reported on the carnage, but noting prepared the world for the Rape of Nanking (1937-38). And Japnse barbarism toward civilians in Nanking was not unique. The Japanese of all the World War II belligerants were the most brutal toward POWs. They killed all the Chinese prisoners they took as well as many Western prisoners. The POWs not killed were brutalized, starved and worked to death in fetid camps throughout Asia and the Pacific. Large numbers of POWs died in these camps. Allied civilians were interned in camps. Some ware killed ouright such as the Australian nurses. They were not brutalized to the same extent of the POWs. But there treatmentment was also barabaric, denied adequate food and medical care. Large numbers perished in these camps. Not only was the death toll in Japanese POW and internment camps astronomical, but many those who survived had serios health problems. Some took years to fully recover. Some neer did fully recover, Many had premature deaths because of the lingering impact of their treatment by the Japanese.

Murder of Civilians

The Imprial Japanese Army (IJA) was responsible for the murder of millions of civilians in the areas Japan occupied. The Navy also engagd in such atrocities, but because it was primarily at sea not on the same scale as the IJA. The best known IJA atrocity is the six week Rape of Nanking (1937-38). It was an incredible incident of mass murder and rape committed by IJA troops on the residents of Nanjing (Nanking), at the time the capital of China. It was not just chaotic violence on the part of soldiers, but actually overseen and to an extent orhanized by IJA commanders. No one knows how many civilians and disarmed POWs he IJA murdered, but estimates range between 40,000-300,000 victims murdered and countless rapes. But Nanking was hardly unique. This kind of horror took place throughout the areas of China occupied by the Japanese. The acale of the the barbaism appears to have been large even by Japanese standards. The reasin we know more about the Rape of Nanking is that because it was the capital, European diolomats were present to witness the behaior of he IJA. And even larger killing spree, but not confined to a single cuty was the less well documnted massacres conducting in eastern coatal privinces China in reprisal for the Doolittle raids. [Scott] In addition to civilans killed outright, the IJA unleased Unit 731 bacterological agents on the area. Four months of terror gave the Japanese time to kill some 500.000-750,000 Chinese civilians (May-August 1942). Missionaty accounts gradually filtered back to th United States recording the barbarity, but American historians did put together the scale of the retribution untill years after the war. Japanese savagery was not limited to China. The IJA Sook Ching (肃清) killing action meaning "purge through cleansing") was the systematic purge of those the Japanese perceived hostile elements among the Chinese in Singapore (February 1942). The death tool is believed to have reacged 70,000 victims. The Japanese conducted another horific killing action in the Ohilippine--the Rape of Manila (February 1945). In this case it was Japanese Marines that did much of the killing, some 100,000 victims. And they did it in plain view of the U.S. Army that was liberating the city.

Mistreatment of Allied POWs

The mistreatment and massacres of Allied POWs are too numerous to list. Here we are not referring to incidents committed by individual soldiers and field commanders. The Pacific War was fought with unprecedented savegery. There arenumerous incidents. One example is the nine naval airmen shot down in the fighting around Iwo Jima. One was rescued (George H.W. Bush). The other eight were tortured horribly, beheaded, and devoured by the Japanese. [Bradely] There were incidents of barbarity by the Americans as well. American submarines machine gunning survivors or GIs pulling gold teeth out of living Japanese. More important is how POWs were treated once in the hands of competent authorities. The Batan Death March is the best known incident involving Americans and Philippinos. The building of the Eastern Railroad is the best known incident involving English and Commonwealth troops. I am not sure how the Japanese handeled Chinese POWs. Chinese POWs were normally killed outright were killed outright, but this needs to be confirmed. There is a huge body of evidence from the reports of Allied POWs. An estimated 40 percent of Allied POWs died in the Japanese camps. This compared to the 2 percent of American and British POWs who died in German camps. It also campares to the American POW camps where POWs lived under the same conditions as American service men. While the treatment od Allied POWs by the Japanese was demonstrably horrendous, less clear is the responsibility for these condiions. Individual camp commanders were clearly responsible, but the conditions in the Japanese camps were uniformely brutal, there must have been guidelines issued by higher authorities. Here we have only limited evidence. One important piece of evidence that surfaced at the War Crimes Trial of the major Japanese officials in Tokyo. The Japanese Vice Minister of War ordered camp commanders to execute POWs if a camp was about to fall into Allied hands [document 2015]. While this document was entered into the officil reord, it was never discussed by the Allied procecutors. Some historians speculate that this was bdecause MacArthur feared that the paper trail might extend to Emperor Hirohito.

Mistreatment of Civilian Internees

With the occupation of the Philippines, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Singapore, Mayasia, Borneo,and the Dutch East Indies, large number of civilians from combatant nations were interned by the Japanese. Conditions gradually deteriorated and the internees were forced to endure horific conditions. The internees were not as abused as the POWs, but the living conditions were still terrible. Medical supplies ran out. Food ws the major problem. The Japanese rations were inadequate and after a while the internees were not allowed tonobtain food outside the camps. The Allies tried to send Rd Cros packages, but few got through to the internees. The death rates were apauling, especially among the children. Theclargest group of civilins were Dutch. There were about 70,000 Dutch women and children interened by the Japanese in early 1942. One Dutch girl remembers at age 10 reporting to the church in Bogor where the Japanese processed them for different camps. She was in five different camps before being liberated. Her father had already been taken by the Japanese to a mens' camp. Only the younger boys stayed with the women. Her mother had a terrible choice. Should she hold on to Rob the youngest boy or let him go with Will hoping that together they would have a better change of surviving. She finally decided to let him go and agonized about it afterwards. When the British got to her camp after the war, her foot was rotting off. Somehow they all survived, but were forever changed. [Halewijn Brown] There were Americans, Australians, British, Dutch, and others among the internees. Most of the Americans were in the Philippines. One British boy whose family was in Hong Kong later described his experiences in The Empire of the Sun which was made into a movie. Japanese Army authorities in Tokyo ordered camp authorities to kill the internees at the end of the War to destroy evidence of how the civilians and POWs had been mistreated. As the Americans finally broken the Japanese Army codes (1943), some of this traffic was probably picked up, but we do not yet know the details.

Mistreatment of Forced Labor

The Japanese routinely rounded up civilians in occupied areas for forced labor. Asfar as we know there was no real organiation behind this. The Germans also did this in the East, but in the West commonly had coscriotion systems or rcruitmenr effors. The Japanese Army just seem to have ronded up people. And we notice that they seized whole populations, including men, women, and children. Conditions were commonly genocidal. A good example is the use of Javanese on Noemfoor Island off western New Guinea.


Not only was he death toll in Japanese POW and internment camps astronomical, but many those who managed to survive had serious health problems. The first POWs and internes in any number were in the Philippines. The liberation of the Philippines began with Leyte (October 1944). Most of the camps, however, were on Luzon. Thus the advancing american troops got to the POWs and internees (January-February 1945). As a result, they had a better chance of surviving than POWs and internees held deeper in the Japanese Empire, most of whom would not be liberated until after the Japanese urrendered (August 14-September 2). The camps were located in many different locations in Japanese held territory across the Pacific and East Asia. The logistics of getting to them was daunting. In some cases there were air food drops to provide food and medical supplies before Allied forces could reach them. Not only did they need food, but also emergency medical aid. That first month of liberation was the most deadly. They were in such poor condition after several years of abuse and starvation that even when food and medical care became available, many died. In some cases there were no available quarters so the POWs and internees had to stay in the camps until transport home was arranged. For many it was months before they got home. Many required extensive medical care even when they returned home. Some took years to fully recover. Some neer did fully recover and had permanent disabilities. Many had premature deaths because of the lingering impact of their treatment by the Japanese.


Halewijn Brown, Emilie. "The Agonies of internment," The Washington Post (May 29, 2005), p. W11.

Scott, James M. Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor (2015).


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Created: 7:45 PM 12/11/2018
Last updated: 7:45 PM 12/11/2018