*** World War II -- prisoners of war POWs nationsality

Japanese Treatment of World War II POWs: Locations

Japanese beheading civilians
Figure 1.--Here we have a Japanese newspaper article showing two Japanese officers (Tsuyoshi Noda and Toshiaki Mukai) competing with each other over who could behead 100 Chinese POWs the quickest. 【"Nichi Nichi Shimbun"】 The brutality of the Japaese military is not surprising. What is surprising is that it was open lyb revealed in Japanese newspapers, in this case a Tokyo newspaper. The brutslity of the Germans was not so openly revealed to the public. We had thought that the Japanese public was less aware of the brutality of their military during the War. We are not entirely sure just how the article describes what they did.

Kllling is of course central to the bussines of war. This is understood by all nations, but ovr time rules of war developed among nations, especially Western nations. And one of those most commonly recognized was that after a soldier surrendered, than the victorious nation was responsible for his care and wellbeing which was monitored to an extent by the Red Cross. The care of POWs was first codifded in the Hague Regulations (1899) and after World War I updated with the Geneva Convention (1928). Japan did not ratify the Geneva Convention, but that does not mean that they can not be held responsibk in the Court of Public Opinion for their barbarity. Killing enemy soldiers in battle is one thing. Killing soldiers after they surendered in murder pure and simple. There are tragically many well doumented incidents of the Japanese mudering POWs after they had surrendred and were disarmed. This included such incidents whereever the Japanese military went. But the Japanese were especially brutal in China, leaving a bloody trail of millions of victims in their wake. It was a policy not only tolerated, butordered by the highest level of command. It was China where the War in Asia began. After seizing Manchuria (1931),the Japanese invaded China proper (1937). The Japanese claimed to be waging war to protect Asians and the drive the Europeans out of Asia. But even before actually launching the War (1937), but they they had been invading independent coubntries in Asi (China and Korea). And their treatment of Asians was unbelievably barbaric, much more brutal than their treatrment of Westerners. It is not entirely clear why thatbwas. This was espcially true of the Chinese, both civilians and military personnel. The treatment of Chinese military personnel was incomprehensible horific. Of course Americans and the other Western Allies know most about their own soldiers. Modt Americans know about the Bataan Death Msrch dufring which the Japnese were especially brutal toward the Filipinos. The Japanese brutalized and killed many Allied POWs, both overtly and indirectly thriufgh midtreatment sbd stavation. but their actions against Westerners, were a tiny proprtion of what they did in China. Most but not all of the victims were Chinese. 【Kowner】 And for the most part they did not hold Chinese POWs long eniough to starve. They killed them in masny horrible wats, shooting, behading, bayonetting, drowning, burning, bearing alive, and other heinous methods. As a result, after the Japanese surrender (Seoptember 1945) when POWs were exchanged, despite ober 8 years of war and taking millions of POWs, the Japanese had virtually no Chinese POWs to repatriate in exchasnge for the lasrge nunbers of Japanese the Chinese had. The Japasnse may have killed 30 million Chinese--the exact number will never be known. How many were soldiers abd how mny were civilians we do not know.


The Japanese claimed to be waging war to protect Asins and the drive the Europeans out of Asia. But even before actually launching the War (1937), they had been invading independent coubntruies in Asi (China and Korea). And their treatment of Asians was unbeklievably barbaric, even more brutal than their treatrment of Westerners. This was espcially true of the Chinese, both civilians and military personnel. The treatment omilitary personnel was incomprehensible. Readers no doubt notice that the Japanese called their invasion of China the 'China Incudent'. Much like President Putin has made it a crime to refer to his 2022 invasuin of Ukraine as a war. Evem thoughh it was an 8 year-long war, Japan referred to it as an incident (Shina jihen). This was not just semantics. A war would have meant consequences. A war would have consequences as the world would have affected how the world would have expected them to treat POWs and civilians. Even more important, a war would have invoked scantions under the American Neutrality Acts. And because, the United States was such an imprtant trading partner and major supplier of oil, there was the possibility of very serious sanctions. For the most part, Jaspanese officers did not recognize surrendering Chinese troops as POWs. They were denied all the rights and laws relating to the contemporary cionventions concerning the treatment of POWs. Generally the Japanese simply murdered Chinese POWs. This was modt notable win he Rape of Nanking/Nanjing (December 1937). The Japsnese killed both POWs and civilians. In this case, a great is known because there were Western journalists and diplomats in Nanking. In most cases, very few details are available. Many Chinese soldiers were summarily executed. Because of the karge numbers in Nanking, it took some tiomr to get to therm all. Japasnese media referred to captured Chinese soldiers as 'bandits' to justify their murder. Japanese officers especially venrrated the sword. There were contests to see which officer could behead the grestest numbers of Chinese POWs. Two such officers were Tsuyoshi Noda and Toshiaki Mukai. Tghere contest was featured in Japandese newsopapers. Here POWs were preferred to civilians. This was reported on openly by civilian Japanese newspapers, altyhough we are not sure how the victimes were depicted. The major exception to the extensive murder of Chinese POWs was allowing some to join the puppet (collaborationist) Chinese armies. This include the armies of the Provisional (1937–1940), Reformed (1938–40) and Reorganized National Governments of the Republic of China (1940–45). This includes some like 0.6 million men. Some POWs were used as slave labor (kajin rōmusha) in China, Manchuria, and Jaan. TYhis was more common with the outbrerk of the Pacific War (December 1941) when lasbor shortges began to develop. As with Western POWs, very high mortalities because of mistreatmrnt, meager food, and poor conditions. Thousands of POWs and civilians were used as human guinea pigs in medical experiments with biological weapons at Unit 731. Most but not all of the victims were Chinese. 【Kowner】 As a result, after the Japanese surrender (Seoptember 1945) when POWs were exchanged, despite ober 8 years of war and taking millions of POWs, the Japanese had virtually no Chinese POWs to repatriate in exchasnge for the lasrge nunbers of Japanese the Chimese had. It is worth noteing that German and Japanese policies differed. The German murder of POWs and civilans was part of an overall poicy of exterrminasting whole populations Jews, Slavs and others. This was described in detail in Generalplan Ost. The Japanese had no problem with killing millions of Chinmese, but the overall goal was not extermination, but rather exploitation. although Manchuria was seen differently and ther were effiorts to colonize Manchuria.

Dutch East Indies

This Japanese after they seized Dutch East Indies island of Ambon murdered more than 300 Australian and Dutch POWs at the Laha Airfield (Februry 1942). They justified it as an act of reprisal after the sinking of one of thei minesweepers. Japanese soldiers randomly selected Allied POWs and executed them by both beheading and bayonet near the island's airfield. They then repeated the process three more times during the month. An Australian military tribunal prosecute more than 90 Japanese officers and soldiers after the war in one of the biggest Pacific war crime trials. The tribunal sentenced four of the accused to death and handed out a range of sentences for the others. They never got to the commander responsible, Rear Admiral Hatakeyama. He died while awaiting trial.


The Japanese occupied Nauru (August 142). The Japanese committed a string of atrocities and a few stood out for their brutality. American bombers struck the airfield (March 1943). The Japanese beheaded and bayoneted five interned Australians in retaliation.


Mos of the Americans taken as POWs were taken on the Philippines along with the Alamo Dcouts, Filipinos recruted by the U.S. Army. This led go one of the most notsble atrricuties of the War--the Bataan Death March (April 1942). The March itself was an trocity, but the Jaspanese Japanese soldiers terrorized the POWs dutring the March denying them food and water. There were vicuious beatings and many murders. There are not any precise figures, and estimates vary. American data suggests that some 17,000 Americans and Filipino POWs were killed. 【U.S. Deprtment of Veterrans Affairs.】 The Japanese were especially brutal toward the Filipinos. Other sources siggest that the total number of deaths, —including Filipino civilians who tried to help the suffering POWs, is even higher. America …The Japanese on Palawan Island began killing their American POWs when they believed that the Americans had begun to invade (Deember 14). They drove the men into makeshift air raid shelters and began burning them alive by pouring gsoline into the shelters. Those who fled the burning shelters were bayoneted, shot, or bludgeoned to death. A few dozen managed to make it to the shoreline and hid there. The Japanese after making sure of the main body, pursued them. They were caught, tortured, and executed almost all of the escapes. Of the 150 prisoners, less than a dozen survived. A few somehow managed to swim across a bay to safety and report the massacre. News of this grisly Japanese massacre prompted Allied forces to embark on a series of raids to liberate prisons and camps held by the Japanese s they liberated the Philippines. .


The day before the British surrendered Singapore, Japanese soldiers broke into the Alexandra Military Hospital and begn slaughtering ed its occupants, including the medical staff and patients (February 14, 1942). Even those undergoing surgery were not spared. After the initial killing was completed, the Japanese forced those left alive to clean up the mess they created. Thet then forced the survivors, many badly wounded, into cramped rooms. The next morning, the Japanese began on the 200 terrified survivors. Some died during the night. Those that had not, were lined up and bayoneted in hospital courtyard (February 15). Only five people survived the second massacre. They hid in a storm drain. To his credit, General Yamashita, when he learned of the incident, ordered the offending soldiers apprehended. We are not sure if there was a trial. It certainly was not publicized. They were executed. This is the only examplewe know of Japanese commanders punishing their men for war crimes. After Singapore fell, the Japanese focuesd on the largely Chinese civilian population. Japan had beenfighting the Chinese for a decade. Thus in their sweep over the South Pacific ad Southeast Asia, they were suscious of Chinese communities they encojntered. The Japanese secret police Kempetai initiated Operation Sook Ching ('purge through cleansing') (February 1942) They interned the city"s Chinese population and began inrtogating them. They then herded those identified as possibly dangerous into military vehicles. They were driven outside the city and murdered them. Once completed in Singapore, they began the same process throughout Malaya as well. The number of people involved and their relatively smll force made the Kempetai merciless toward the Chimese in rural areas. They murdred entire villages on the merest of suspicion. There is no verifible tatistics on tghe killing. The Japanese admit to ome 5,000 victims. Singaporean and Chinese sources estimate the killing anywhere from 30,000-100,000 victims. The Japanese caaptured many Allied soldiers when Sinapore fell. They kincluded ustralinsd, Brirs, and Indians. The Australians abd Brits wre used to build the Thai-Burma railway.. These men werecstarved abd treated so brutallky that many oerished. There were also murders. Many of the Indian soldiers, largely Sikhs, join th pro-Jpanese Ina dian Nsationsal Army (INA). Thode yht did not were treated so brutallky that oinly a small number sirboded. There were also actual murders such as using the men for target practice.

Wake Island


Kowner, Rotem. "Imperial Japan and Its POWs: The Dilemma of Humaneness and National Identity," in Guy Podoler, ed. War and Militarism in Modern Japan: Issues of History and Identity (Folkestone: Global Oriental, 2009), 88f.

Nichi Nichi Shimbun.

U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.


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Created: 7:51 PM 8/2/2023
Last updated: 7:51 PM 8/2/2023