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The Japanese Prisoner of War Camps - World War II

  • Category(s): Modern Historical Essays
  • Created on : 28 December 2013
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  • Author: Richard Michael Lamb


Out of horrendous suffering came exemplary fortitude and extraordinary resilience yet conspicuously unreciprocated by the captors when the dust settled post war.

1. Opening Remarks

The Japanese took considerable numbers of British and even American servicemen prisoners at the beginning of the Far Eastern conflict in approximately 1942 (early). HMS Repulse and HMS Prince of Wales: one a battleship the other a battle cruiser were both sunk near Singapore. The Japanese overran Malaysia and Singapore and later conquered Burma threatening the Jewel in the crown itself: India under the viceroy did not succumb but make no mistake British Soldiers and Sailors and Airmen were held in Japanese Camps in substantial numbers. I do not know the exact location of these camps but they were in South East Asia. Malaysia, Burma, Borneo and Singapore were British colonies at the outbreak of hostilities – all occupied by Japan’s armed forces. India was the last line of British defence against the onrushing Japanese tide. Japan ruled Manchuria, Korea and Formosa in China’s zone of influence before the war. Japan was an aggressive, aggrandising nation State built on worship of its Emperor Hirohito and in the last resort Kamikaze tactics by her Soldiers and her Airmen (suicidal tactics).

2. What happened in the POW Camps run by the Japanese?

It may well be the Japanese had not signed the Geneva Convention which regulated the proper treatment of prisoners of war at the time of the Second World War. The Germans had signed this Geneva Convention and the treatment of our captured soldiers and Airmen in German military hands was significantly better than the treatment of our captured military and civilian personnel in Japanese hands in South East Asia in World War II. The story was related post-war that rations were feeble in these Far Eastern POW camps and what is worse the Camp Guards were guilty of beatings, cruelty and brutality to severely malnourished men. Yet that is not the end of it, there was commonly seen torture of the prisoners of war (allied) again by the guards with the authority of the camp commandants. An example was to repeatedly force weakened men to climb and create an artificial “hill” (small) out of sand. The results of all this bad treatment were physical collapses and debilitating falls followed by assaults by the guards, with no respite in their ill treatment. Essentially a man could be virtually beaten to “death” in these circumstances. The full story will never be known – too horrific even for the survivors to recount.

Disease was the greatest cause of death namely: hepatitis, typhoid, dysentery, cholera, diarrhoea and malnutrition and I suspect scurvy. Clearly sanitary facilities and medical services were atrocious – the latter probably practically non- existent.

The Japanese in charge had no regard for the lives and welfare of their prisoners and the death toll was far too high in what should have been the relatively simple and easy non-combatant task of running a prisoner of war camp in Japanese occupied territories behind the front line. We all know the “bridge over the River Kwai” film and the terrible enforced labour imposed on the captured British Servicemen in these constrained circumstances of very poor rations and beatings.

3. What is the Judgement of History?

Yes, there have been trials of Japanese war criminals we are told and those were, I suspect, by Japanese tribunals. But I understand there were no International trials post-war in Japan of war criminals (Japanese) as at Nuremberg in Germany post-World War II. Whether the systematic cruelty and brutality meted out in these Japanese POW camps was closely examined at middle ranking levels and the High Command in Japan itself in these War Crimes Trials run by Tokyo is doubtful. Did they condemn their own men? Unlikely. It would have required prosecutors of the calibre of the Nuremberg advocates - the Japanese could not do it alone.

The Japanese language: verbal and written word would have made International trials very difficult (the Japanese alphabet could have baffled many Westerners even Japanologists). The Allies (Britain and the USA) made a call not to try the Japanese war criminals themselves. Reliability would have been essential with life and liberty at stake in these Japan war trials being International. History has categorically condemned the way these Japanese POW camps were managed and controlled. The evidence of the survivors has been accepted without demur by the Japanese. The detonation of the two Atom bombs (Hiroshima and Nagasaki) in August 1945 was justified on the sole ground to close these camps and free the Allied POW’s by Japanese surrender, quite apart from ending the Far Eastern War. The terrible maltreatment and course of culpable neglect had to be brought to a stop. Every life counts especially extremely vulnerable allied POW’s who were dying in Japanese Camps and subject to severe mistreatment. The Japanese have offered no defence nor has anyone come to their aid. The issue has been decided against Japan for posterity.

4. Have the Japanese shown any degree of sorrow for their misdeeds?

I am afraid the answer is firmly: No. They have been unrepentant and remain so. Surely they can see what they have done and make recompense based on the surviving POWs harrowing testimony. I believe no compensation has been freely paid and offered in the right spirit, if at all. The Japanese appear impervious to sorrow and the need to make amends – whether they have tried their own war criminals or not. The whole scenario of the Japanese War Prisoner Camps is closed but the chapter now shut demands an apology I argue and exhort the English do not give up on. Yet still the Japanese leadership will not climb the “small incline” they demanded the POW’s climb in the Camp I have referred to: The Japanese government cannot bring themselves to say sorry for their past wartime atrocities.

They have never been mirrored in the history of the British Empire save for the slave trade itself.

Clearly the Japanese leadership is still being called upon one way or another to pronounce a sense of sorrow from the top down for these appalling actions and acts of neglect. Her tragic omissions in the running of the Camps are now equated by her glaring failure to apologise for her wartime sins of commission and omission. Where will the rot stop? I observe if Japan could not cope herself with these POW camps and the care for these Allied prisoners of war in a civilized manner then surely she should have transferred them to neutral or Allied hands under the usual humanitarian rules and channels. Her wartime prosecution of this POW policy reflects very badly on the Japanese. She knew she was losing from the Battle of Midway and Guadalcanal onwards and could not thus turn the tide in Burma or the Pacific of the war. Her post war state of denial is scandalous. There can be no justification for the Japanese conduct in relation to these POW camps and her refusal to show contrition in the amicable atmosphere now prevailing. The Japanese concede the Americans have been magnanimous in victory and they are grateful for that generosity by the USA. I am afraid there are not many issues that will never “go away” but this is one. For what reason? The principal reason which drives this issue is the burning sense of injustice still felt particularly in Britain and the USA and the West generally. This injustice will not die with the deaths of the survivors and their relatives. It will persist into eternity. A sin cannot be blotted out unless Christ blots it out. These sins and this appalling war time prison regime will never be forgotten. The Japanese will be fixed with these incriminating actions until the end of time. Christ is merciful I aver but I fear for the Japanese people past and present because they have not come to terms with their Second World War record and history: they show no signs of doing so. May the white flag finally be raised in the land of the Rising Sun. Then Japan may rest peacefully and her old enemies will release her.