Swept Under the Rug: The Truth About the Japanese Holocaust
Humans being horrible to other humans is nothing new. Think of the most brutal thing you can possibly imagine, and it’s almost certain not only has some human done that to another human, but probably some nation did it as a general policy to other humans. Possibly even for the amusement of the masses. And as ever, one of the few universal truths, beyond that Star Trek the Next Generation is the greatest thing humans have ever produced, is that the past was the worst. Nowhere is this perhaps better illustrated than what we are going to do an extremely deep dive into today because it’s an often forgotten bit of history, and even those who know something about it generally haven’t heard of many facets. This is despite the whole thing being central to one of the greatest and most studied conflicts in human history.
On that note, in the pantheon of human horrible, today our collective consciousness almost always snaps to the Nazis and the seemingly endless obscene things done by them, which we’ve been covering their activities for quite literally 14 years now on this YouTube channel and our much older Today I Found Out website, and we still almost weekly discover new things we’d not even heard of concerning their activities. Fewer people discuss the things the Allies did, and not just Stalin and the Soviets, but the British and Americans and other nations had their fair share of mind boggling atrocities during the second war to end all wars. Just, in most cases outside of Stalin, these weren’t done as acts guided or explicitly allowed from the top… Usually… With one massive exception we’ll discuss later on. They still happened, however, and much more than some care to admit, but rarely discussed because victors don’t generally put that stuff in their popular history of how things happened. In fact, the losers rarely do either- Germany, as we’ve discussed before in our video How Do the Germans Teach WWII?, being one of the extremely rare examples ever in history of a nation that not only pretty much immediately took full responsibility for their atrocities, but even today emphasize it to an extreme degree in their education system- some would, probably correctly, argue too much. This is despite the fact that almost no one who took part in those atrocities, willingly or coerced, is alive today. And certainly no one left is alive today who was old enough at the time to have had any influence on matters either way. And thus, no one alive today in Germany, nor the nation we’re going to discuss in this video, bears any responsibility whatsoever for what happened then. But, at least in Germany, what happened is emphasized nonetheless so that it is remembered for the lessons it teaches- What happened. How it happened. And how we can try to make sure it never happens again.
We are still humans, and just as susceptible as anyone back then, including the subjects of this video, at being coerced in these exact ways, despite so many often saying things like, “Well I would never have gone along with or done that.” Yes you would have in their shoes, in approximately the same ratios as the people then did.
In a future video we are going to cover some of the lesser talked about extreme and brutal atrocities by the Allies during WWII, and again, not just at the behest of Stalin, but from elements of military’s such as the United States and Britain, as well others. Because this, too, deserves to be remembered despite a seeming collective amnesia about that in those nations today. In the end, while popular history of a given nation always paints the Allies as the good guys in WWII, even when that’s on the balance comparatively correct as an oversimplification in this case, it doesn’t mean the good guys didn’t do horrible things too. And it’s just as important to study why and how to prevent that in future too, as well as to study the shades of gray concerning right and wrong in a given instance, which is rarely ever as black as white as it seems when you really dive in, even sometimes when it comes to the bad guys. For example, today you’re going to learn of a prominent Nazi who was absolutely the good guy in this particular story. And if all you ever learned of him was what we are discussing today, you’ll likely think of him as one of the great heroes of World War II and a great man, despite, you know, the whole prominent Nazi party member thing and all that implies… Nothing is black and white. Nobody is all good or all bad.
So, without further ado, here now is the little talked about story of the so-called “Japanese” or “Asian Holocaust” and why, outside of the regions negatively impacted the most by it, popular history seems to have a blind spot for that it ever happened at all, and certainly has forgotten a lot of elements of it, even when it’s mentioned. Not just because the Japanese government was inclined to cover it up directly after the fact. But arguably even more so because the United States government at the time wanted to cover it up too, and meticulously helped make sure that certain elements of it were swept under the rug, at least at the time. Even making sure many of the architects of the worst of the atrocities, which occasionally made the Nazis look like amateurs, went free and blameless.
So let’s dive into it, shall we?
First, as a brief point of clarity as we are discussing an often titled “holocaust”, it should be noted that Japan, despite being a very loose ally to Germany during WWII, did not seemingly take part in what most think of when the term “holocaust” is invoked. As we noted before in our video Why Did Japan Join the Nazis? The Japanese seemingly had no problem with the Jews, even going so far as taking in Jewish refugees from German occupied lands during WWII. One of the few nations to so openly do so. Further, unlike Germany’s European allies during WWII, when the Nazis attempted to pressure Japan to join in on their anti-Jewish activities, the Japanese government not only didn’t listen, but even had official policy in place explicitly prohibited expelling any Jew from Japan or territories they occupied- a policy they maintained throughout the war, even as Jews who escaped from Nazi occupied regions continued to flood in to Japanese territories. Japanese Diplomat Yōsuke Matsuoka summed up, “I am the man responsible for the alliance with Hitler, but nowhere have I promised that we would carry out his anti-Semitic policies in Japan. This is not simply my personal opinion, it is the opinion of Japan, and I have no compunction about announcing it to the world.”
While some have claimed this was only so as not to antagonize the United States, and there may have initially been some truth to this, even after open war between the two nations, the Japanese policy towards the Jews did not change, much to the consternation of their so-called allies in the Nazis.
That out of the way, while many in the Western world consider WWI and WWII to be distinct events, in some ways they were actually the same war, just with a bit of a pause in between for many of the nations- the one inevitably led to the other. Not just because of how the events following WWI led to the rise of the Nazi party and all they did, but traveling further East, into the land of the rising Sun, events in Japan.
As the 20th century rolled in, Japan was only just establishing itself as an industrial nation and stretching its legs as it emerged from nearly three centuries of relative isolation. Following the Meiji Restoration in 1868, Japan modernized itself with a rapidity rarely seen anywhere else in history. By WWI, however, owing to Japan not exactly liking how various western countries were encroaching on Asian interests, including Germany, the two countries became explicit enemies, with Japan declaring war on Germany in 1914 and joining the Allies against them.
That said, Japan was at the time teetering on two paths- one embracing Western influence on their nation, another rejecting it outright and forging their own Empire independent of any such outside influence. This brings us to the Great Kantō earthquake of 1923, which helped put Japan on the path to WWII in rather surprising ways.
On this one, for a brief background that’s also relevant to Japan’s WWII era conduct in war. In 1910, following a long period of warfare and political pressure, Japan invaded Korea (For reference, Korea did not split into North and South until 1945). Japan’s reign was far from benign. In order to completely subjugate its new subjects, Korean culture was attacked on a massive scale. Students were forbidden from speaking Korean, Japanese became the enforced national language, and 20,000 Korean historical documents were destroyed. 100,000 Japanese families settled in the new land and 725,000 Korean’s were sent the other way –forced to work in mainland Japan and its colonies. Thousands of Korean women were inducted into military brothels, and the Korean royal palace was largely destroyed. Religion, too, was strictly controlled, with the natives made to worship the gods of Imperial Japan.
During the immediate aftermath of the Kantō earthquake, an atmosphere of fear and distrust boiled over. Rumours spread just as swiftly as the flames, carrying tales of Korean immigrants poisoning water supplies, possessing bombs and plotting to take advantage of the chaos to overthrow the Japanese government. Whilst untrue, the perceived threat rattled the already destabilized population. Bands of Japanese scoured the ruins in search of Koreans, and massacred them wherever they were discovered. Estimates put the ensuing death-toll at between 6,000 and 8,000 people. Crucially, amidst the turmoil, authorities also took the opportunity to crack down on left-wing political dissidents.
In the aftermath, post-disaster Tokyo was a scene of desolation. Of 2.26 million citizens, 1.38 million were declared homeless (781,000 in Yokohama). The destruction affected every part of society, and the economic damage was considerable. 7,000 factories were destroyed, together with a large number of banking offices. The area’s already-inadequate social services provisions were decimated. 33.4 million square metres of Tokyo had been crumbled out of existence. Martial law was swiftly declared, and army and navy personnel worked round the clock to repair infrastructure and deliver food, water and medical aid. By 24th September, temporary housing had been erected for 150,000 refugees.
International help, led by the United States, was not long in arriving. President Calvin Coolidge oversaw the dispatch of dozens of warships carrying food, gasoline and bedding. Tragically, the mood of mutual good-will was not to last long. Many Japanese expressed resentment toward the need for Western help, with the U.S. in return labelling Japan ‘ungrateful.’ Then came a significant turning-point. In the following days, leading Japanese figures interpreted the Kantō quake as a rebuke and a warning. As scholar J. Charles Schencking writes: “Many Japanese elites, including bureaucrats and politicians, religious leaders, social commentators, and journalists, publicly described the earthquake as divine punishment. They sought to strengthen the legitimacy of their previously expressed concerns about, and displeasure with, what they saw in 1920s urban Japan, namely decadence, selfishness, extravagance, frivolity, individualism, and the pursuit of luxury.” In essence, these commentators believed, or at least stated, that the quake had been sent from the gods to penalize Japan for allowing itself to be seduced by immoral Western lifestyles and values.
As Schencking further observes: “…the disaster nurtured a strong sense that Japan possessed an unparalleled opportunity not only to rebuild Tokyo, but also to reconstruct the nation and its people. The 1923 calamity fostered a culture of catastrophe and reconstruction that amplified discourses of moral degeneracy and national renovation.” Kenneth Pyle of the University of Washington concurred that conservative element, already dismayed by the drift towards democracy and Western influence, viewed the disaster as both a sign and an opportunity to reset society. Pyle states: “After the earthquake, there’s a measurable increase in right-wing patriotic groups in Japan that are really the groundwork of what is called Japanese fascism.”
Throughout human history, natural disasters have often been used by those in power, or who desire power, as an opportunity to promote change. In the case of the Great Kantō earthquake, discussion is still on-going regarding the extent to which the disaster swayed public opinion and political direction. It is inarguable, though, that the quake occurred at a pivotal moment in Japan’s history, when the country was struggling to choose a definitive path between complete acceptance of Western democracy and influence, and a rejection of it and continued military expansion. Following the events of the 1st of September 1923, Japan veered sharply towards the latter.
Not long before this, after WWI, Japan, which was then one of the Allies, was granted many of the holdings of Germany in Asia, but the leaders wanted more. While the public face of this often cited an altruistic desire for expansion- in particular to liberate Asia from influences like the British, French, and Americans, there was also a strong desire for the nation which, much like Germany, had missed out on the so-called Age of Exploration, to expand and take its place as a world empire like so many of the Western superpowers.
And so it was that under the banner of “Asia for Asians”, the Japanese government began in earnest to plan and execute their expansion- most brutally of all, into China which is where the tone of the war to come from the Japanese military side was set, and seemingly continued unabated until their surrender on September 2, 1945.
Perhaps nowhere was this more graphically illustrated than the Rape of Nanjing from December 13th 1937 and continuing on to around February of 1938. But the acts directly preceding it were seemingly no less brutal, if on a lesser scale.
Enter Japanese army medical doctor Hosaka Akira who, about a week before the massacre began, records a disturbing event in his journal. “At 10:00 on 29 November 1937 we left to clean out the enemy in Chang Chou and at noon we entered the town. An order was received to kill the residents and eighty (80) of them, men and women of all ages, were shot to death [at dusk]. I hope this will be the last time I’ll ever witness such a scene. The people were all gathered in one place. They were all praying, crying, and begging for help. I just couldn’t bear watching such a pitiful spectacle. Soon the heavy machine guns opened fire and the sight of those people screaming and falling to the ground is one I could not face even if I had had the heart of a monster. War is truly terrible.”
Lending credence to this account being more the rule than the exception at this point is a number of other similar accounts, such as private first class Makihara Nobuo who wrote in his journal, also on November 29, 1937, “Depart from the village at 9:00 a.m. Various units compete to enter the town… In contrast with yesterday, there are no traces of the enemy at all. Enter the town magnificently… Because Wu Jing is an anti-Japanese stronghold, we carry out “mopping up” [sōtō] operations in the entire town, killing all men and women without distinction. The enemy is nowhere to be seen…”
A week later, these events would seem like child’s play.
Leading up to the Rape of Nanjing, which saw the slaughter of some 200,000 civilians, the commander of the Shanghai Expeditionary Army (SEA) and ultimately the Japanese Central China Area Army (CCAA) as well, was one Iwane Matsui. When he was first put in charge, the elderly commander initially seemingly had plans not to brutally conquer, but to facilitate peace through brief use of force and then establishing a democracy in China.
As Matsui, who in part seems to have been chosen because of his close personal ties with many prominent Chinese figures, stated, “I am going to the front not to fight an enemy but in the state of mind of one who sets out to pacify his brother.” Several years later, he would elaborate that Japan did not attack China “because we hate them, but on the contrary because we love them too much. It is just the same in a family when an elder brother has taken all that he can stand from his ill-behaved younger brother and has to chastise him in order to make him behave properly.”
Patronizing nature of that quote aside, he also stated one of his goals was “to make the Chinese people recognize that Japanese troops are the real friends of China.”
Perhaps not just for show, and seemingly being Japan’s initial intent given they put Matsui in charge in the first place (again, a relatively undistinguished commander, but with major Chinese leadership ties), Matsui was also a staunch supporter of Pan-Asianism, in a nutshell the idea being all Asian nations should unite together, particularly against Western powers. He also advocated for things like that when Japan took over Asian nations they should establish pro-Japanese democracies. Essentially, free them from Western influence and let them govern themselves, with the result likely being them grateful to Japan and looking to that, in his view, superior empire for needed leadership for the now relatively united Asian nations.
However, in the months before the Rape of Nanjing, the Japanese military had had a rude awakening, particularly during the Battle of Shanghai. Japanese soldiers, who had previously been indoctrinated (in some very brutal ways, which we’ll get into later) with their unrelenting superiority over neighboring forces, had expected to march into Shanghai and defeat the Chinese in a matter of days. Instead, they were demoralized after enduring one of the bloodiest battles of the Second Sino-Japanese War, lasting some three months from August 13 to November 26 of 1937, and ultimately seeing the deaths of an astounding near 200,000 Chinese and another 83,000 wounded, as well as approximately 20,000 Japanese dead, and another 80,000 or so wounded or sick.
Thus, what was supposed to have been a quick and easy resounding victory for Japan against China had turned out anything but. A few years later when discussing the potential to go to war with the West, this would lead an exasperated Emperor Shōwa (or, if you prefer, Hirohito) to exclaim to the chief of staff of the army Hajime Sugiyama, who claimed Japan could win an open war with the west, “At the time of the China Incident, the army told me that we could achieve peace immediately after dealing them one blow with three divisions … but you still can’t beat Chiang Kai-shek even today! Sugiyama, you were army minister at that time…. China is a vast area with many ways in and ways out, and we met unexpectedly… difficulties… You say the interior of China is huge; isn’t the Pacific Ocean even bigger than China? … Didn’t I caution you each time about those matters? Sugiyama, are you lying to me?”
Going back to directly after the Battle of Shanghai in late November of 1937, it was in this climate that a somewhat demoralized, though victorious, Japanese army set their sights on the capital city of China, Nanjing, some 300 kilometers away. Matsui had thought that in capturing it, it would result in the collapse of the Chiang Kai-shek’s government, and thus ultimate victory for Japan in the region. Afterwards, Matsui, once again, had hoped to help build a new democratic government, loyal to not just China, but Japan as well.
For reasons critical to some points later on, we should also briefly point out that on December 2nd, 11 days before the Rape of Nanjing began, command of the SEA would be transferred from Matsui to the Emperor’s uncle, Prince Yasuhiko Asaka. Though, in theory, Matsui was still technically in charge in the region, still commanding the CCAA, whether he or Prince Asaka actually was the other’s superior from a practical standpoint isn’t fully clear given Asaka’s appointment and status as a prominent member of the imperial family. Either way, the point of this is that Matsui AND Prince Asaka oversaw the atrocities that were shortly to come. So lock that away for later.
Now, Matsui was well aware that attacking and capturing the capital of China would put Japan in an international spotlight to much greater of a degree than it already was for what they’d recently done in China. Thus, he issued the following orders to his armies: “Nanjing is the capital of China and the capture thereof is an international affair; therefore, careful study should be made so as to exhibit the honor and glory of Japan and augment the trust of the Chinese people, and that the battle in the vicinity of Shanghai is aimed at the subjugation of the Chinese Army, therefore protect and patronize Chinese officials and people, as far as possible; the Army should always bear in mind not to involve foreign residents and armies in trouble and maintain close liaison with foreign authorities in order to avoid misunderstandings.”
Matsui had also ordered his commanders to advance their troops slowly. But his subcommanders ignored these orders completely, which would seem to be a theme and integral to the slaughter that was to come. Thus, they rushed on to take the city. As to why their extremely fast advancement on the city, according to one Japanese journalist following along with them at the time, this was, to quote, “due to the tacit consent among the officers and men that they could loot and rape as they wish.”
Before they got there, as Nanjing wasn’t terribly defensible, the Chinese army had withdrawn most of its forces and the government likewise fled, leaving the city largely undefended. So hasty was their rush to retreat that a Nazi businessman, one John Rabe, was eventually voted to be put in charge primarily because he was a Nazi and it was thought the Japanese would show more respect for him and be more likely to listen to what he said because of it. And while you might think putting a Nazi in charge was a surefire way to ensure the atrocities to come, it was quite the opposite, with Rabe ultimately credited with helping to save the lives of upwards of a couple hundred thousand people through his actions. Rabe would also go on to try to get Hitler to try to put pressure on Japan to stop these atrocities, with that going about as you’d expect, including Rabe eventually being arrested by the Gestapo for trying to show the world what the Japanese were doing.
As to how Rabe protected these people, he did so by establishing the Nanjing Safety Zone within the city- an area the Japanese military were partially willing to respect. In a nutshell, this was a well marked zone in which Rabe and co. agreed no Chinese military would be allowed safe haven within. And, thus, the Japanese could leave anyone inside alone, while they searched the rest of the city for any remaining soldiers. That said, some remaining troops did try to hide in the Safety Zone resulting in Japanese troops lobbing grenades in and occasionally entering, taking random men and women, and then leaving, with little Rabe could do about it other than double down on his own efforts to boot any Chinese soldiers found hiding inside out.
But we’re getting ahead of ourselves. Problems began almost immediately upon the Japanese arrival in the city, which only took a few days once there given it was so sparsely defended. And as for these defenses, of the soldiers left behind, many had taken to just going and getting drunk and awaiting their inevitable fate.
Now, important to point out here is that as a part of Matsui’s “Essentials for Assaulting Nanjing” addendum sent to all units on December 7th, he explicitly ordered to only allow one regiment at a time into the city. As to why, given the soldiers’ mood at the time after the Battle of Shanghai and the basically undefended city and its occupants, he foresaw something about what might happen if large portions of the army were allowed to flood the city. And he was very much concerned about creating an international incident. Yet for reasons not entirely clear today, his orders on this were also completely ignored. Further, in this Essentials for Assaulting Nanjing document, he also explicitly stipulated that all looting, arson, and any other criminal acts would be severely punished.
This, too, was ignored.
Of course, he didn’t exactly help matters when he insisted on entering the city himself with a victory parade only a few days after it had been taken and an unknown number of former enemy combatants were still hiding inside. This forced his subordinates to ramp up their efforts to root out any remaining troops before their commander waltzed through the city.
Matsui would soon after return to Shanghai and leave Nanjing to its fate, but upon his return in February and seemingly learning of the full extent of what had continued to happen in his absence, he reportedly chastised Prince Asaka and others of his subordinates for allowing, to quote, “a number of abominable incidents within the past 50 days”. A few days after this, Matsui was removed from his position and forcibly retired.
As for these atrocities, they were extreme, on a scale that would have made even most Nazis squeamish, outside of one group, see our video A Bunch of Wangers: The Nazi Unit Who Were so Awful, Even the Nazi SS Were Disgusted by Them.
As for Nanjing, Japanese soldiers flooded the city and almost immediately began gang raping and murdering as they went. Ostensibly some of this was in executing Chinese troops found there, but in reality, was largely indiscriminate. Rabe subsequently urged the Japanese leaders to rein in their soldiers. But, for whatever reason, it was not to be.
As Reverend James M. McCallum would write in his journal on December 19, 1937, “I know not where to end. Never have I heard or read such brutality. Rape! Rape! Rape! We estimate at least 1,000 cases a night and many by day. In case of resistance or anything that seems like disapproval, there is a bayonet stab or a bullet…. People are hysterical… Women are being carried off every morning, afternoon and evening. The whole Japanese army seems to be free to go and come as it pleases, and to do whatever it pleases.”
A surgeon at the university hospital in the Safety Zone, Robert O. Wilson would state, “The slaughter of civilians is appalling. I could go on for pages telling of cases of rape and brutality almost beyond belief. Two bayoneted corpses are the only survivors of seven street cleaners who were sitting in their headquarters when Japanese soldiers came in without warning or reason and killed five of their number and wounded the two that found their way to the hospital. Let me recount some instances occurring in the last two days. Last night the house of one of the Chinese staff members of the university was broken into and two of the women, his relatives, were raped. Two girls, about 16, were raped to death in one of the refugee camps. In the University Middle School where there are 8,000 people the [Japanese] came in ten times last night, over the wall, stole food, clothing, and raped until they were satisfied. They bayoneted one little boy of eight who [had] five bayonet wounds including one that penetrated his stomach, a portion of omentum was outside the abdomen. I think he will live.”
John Rabe himself would write in his journal, “Two Japanese soldiers have climbed over the garden wall and are about to break into our house. When I appear they give the excuse that they saw two Chinese soldiers climb over the wall. When I show them my party badge, they return the same way. In one of the houses in the narrow street behind my garden wall, a woman was raped, and then wounded in the neck with a bayonet. I managed to get an ambulance so we can take her to Kulou Hospital … Last night up to 1,000 women and girls are said to have been raped, about 100 girls at Ginling College…alone. You hear nothing but rape. If husbands or brothers intervene, they’re shot. What you hear and see on all sides is the brutality and bestiality of the Japanese soldiers.”
In another account, “On December 13, about 30 soldiers came to a Chinese house at No. 5 Hsing Lu Koo in the southeastern part of Nanjing and demanded entrance. The door was open by the landlord, a Mohammedan named Ha. They killed him immediately with a revolver and also Mrs. Ha, who knelt before them after Ha’s death, begging them not to kill anyone else. Mrs. Ha asked them why they killed her husband and they shot her. Mrs. Hsia was dragged out from under a table in the guest hall where she had tried to hide with her 1-year-old baby. After being stripped and raped by one or more men, she was bayoneted in the chest and then had a bottle thrust into her vagina. The baby was killed with a bayonet. Some soldiers then went to the next room, where Mrs. Hsia’s parents, aged 76 and 74, and her two daughters aged 16 and 14 [were]. They were about to rape the girls when the grandmother tried to protect them. The soldiers killed her with a revolver. The grandfather grasped the body of his wife and was killed. The two girls were then stripped, the elder being raped by 2–3 men and the younger by 3. The older girl was stabbed afterwards and a cane was rammed in her… The younger girl was bayoneted also but was spared the horrible treatment that had been meted out to her sister and mother. The soldiers then bayoneted another sister of between 7–8, who was also in the room. The last murders in the house were of Ha’s two children, aged 4 and 2 respectively. The older was bayoneted and the younger split down through the head with a sword.”
On the attacker side, Japanese soldier Shiro Asuma would disgustingly state, “At first we used some kinky words like Pikankan. Pi means “hip,” kankan means “look.” Pikankan means, “Let’s see a woman open up her legs.” …We looked. After a while we would say something like, “It’s my day to take a bath,” and we took turns raping them. It would be all right if we only raped them. I shouldn’t say all right. But we always stabbed and killed them. Because dead bodies don’t talk.”
Tang Junshan would later testify of what was done to pregnant women, “The seventh and last person in the first row was a pregnant woman. The soldier thought he might as well rape her before killing her, so he pulled her out of the group to a spot about ten meters away. As he was trying to rape her, the woman resisted fiercely…. The soldier abruptly stabbed her in the belly with a bayonet. She gave a final scream as her intestines spilled out. Then the soldier stabbed the fetus, with its umbilical cord clearly visible, and tossed it aside.”
And that’s about enough of that. You get the idea. Let’s just move on, shall we?
As to the why of it, we’ll get into all of this in much greater detail later on after covering a fuller scope of events throughout the war, but unlike many later massacres which seemed systematic and with orders from the top towards this end, this one seems to have just sort of happened, and then the commanding officers chose to not stop it or restore order among their men. As historian Jonathan Spence states, “[T]here is no obvious explanation for this grim event, nor can one be found. The Japanese soldiers, who had expected easy victory, instead had been fighting hard for months and had taken infinitely higher casualties than anticipated. They were bored, angry, frustrated, tired. The Chinese women were undefended, their menfolk powerless or absent. The war, still undeclared, had no clear-cut goal or purpose. Perhaps all Chinese, regardless of sex or age, seemed marked out as victims.”
Speaking of the commanders, despite that the atrocities continued for several weeks, even as early as December 18, General Matsui was lamenting events, stating, “I now realize that we have unknowingly wrought a most grievous effect on this city. When I think of the feelings and sentiments of many of my Chinese friends who have fled from Nanjing and of the future of the two countries, I cannot but feel depressed. I am very lonely and can never get in a mood to rejoice about this victory…. I personally feel sorry for the tragedies to the people, but the Army must continue unless China repents. Now, in the winter, the season gives time to reflect. I offer my sympathy, with deep emotion, to a million innocent people.”
Matsui would also write in his journal, “I could only feel sadness and responsibility today, which has been overwhelmingly piercing my heart. This is caused by the Army’s misbehaviors after the fall of Nanjing and failure to proceed with the autonomous government and other political plans.”
And yet, he still does not seem to have attempted to restore order. Or perhaps, as previously alluded to, he may have simply been powerless to do so, later claiming, for whatever it’s worth, he issued orders to his commanders to rein their troops in and discipline those who didn’t fall in line, but these were largely ignored.
But why? Especially given, at the time, such strict Japanese adherence to do whatever their commanders told them? Something that was literally brutally beaten into them. While nobody knows for sure, it’s speculated primarily because, as alluded to, Matsui was a relatively undistinguished and elderly commander, who was pulled from retirement for this gig. And not for his military expertise, per se, but rather because the original plan had been to secure a quick peace with China and the creation of a new stable Japanese favorable Chinese government. With Matsui extremely friendly with many in power in the country, he seemed a natural choice. However, this was all undone in that his subcommanders simply had no real respect for him, and didn’t see any reason to follow his orders where they didn’t care to.
Whether that is true as often speculated or not, after the war was over, he would be sentenced to death for his part in this event. And when speaking to his chaplain, Shinsho Hanayama, he stated, “The Nanjing Incident was a terrible disgrace … Immediately after the memorial services, I assembled the higher officers and wept tears of anger before them, as Commander-in-Chief … I told them that after all our efforts to enhance the Imperial prestige, everything had been lost in one moment through the brutalities of the soldiers. And can you imagine it, even after that, these officers laughed at me … I am really, therefore, quite happy that I, at least, should have ended this way, in the sense that it may serve to urge self-reflection on many more members of the military of that time.”
To his credit, and perhaps backing up his claims and sentiments here, after being removed from command, Matsui would make a substantial personal donation to a French humanitarian who was working on trying to set up a safety zone for Chinese civilians in Shanghai. He also tried to get improvements made to certain Chinese refugee camps. On top of that, he commissioned a statue of the bodhisattva for mercy, Kannon, named Koa Kannon (Pan-Asian Kannon) in honor of all Chinese and Japanese soldiers dying during the Second Sino-Japanese War. He also subsequently prayed in front of the Koa Kannon in the morning and evening for pretty much the rest of his life, before ultimately being sentenced to death for his part in the massacre. He otherwise spent his time pushing for the Pan-Asian movement, as well as advocating for Japan to not occupy, but give independence to each of the Asian nations they were supposedly “liberating”, then form alliances with them against the West.
As for the Emperor’s uncle, Prince Asaka who was also in charge? Well, he would at one point state no such massacre ever happened. He also claimed he did not receive any complaints during the occupation about any such behaviors by his army, nor did he have any knowledge of it. Unlike Matsui who was sentenced to death, Prince Asaka would be not only protected by, but named by the United States blameless. He then spent the next three and a half decades or so apparently mostly playing golf and designing golf courses until his death in 1981.
Par for the Course
Moving swiftly on, we have the Manila Massacre, which saw somewhere between 100,000-500,000 Flipinos civilians killed by the Japanese soldiers in only a one month span in February and early March of 1945. On the order for this one, it justified the mass extermination in a way we’d like you to also lock into your brain for some things we’ll be discussing later. The order stated,
“The Americans who have penetrated into Manila have about 1000 troops, and there are several thousand Filipino soldiers under the Commonwealth Army and the organized guerrillas. Even women and children have become guerrillas. All people on the battlefield with the exception of Japanese military personnel, Japanese civilians, and special construction units will be put to death.”
Beyond the deaths, as with Nanjing, mass rapes were common before murdering the women. James M Scott, in his book, Rampage: MacArthur, Yamashita, and the Battle of Manila, recounts the level of depravity in a disturbing gang rape of a young teen, which was concluded by the group of 20 soldiers cutting off her breasts, and then taking turns putting them on their own chests to mimic her for their own amusement. They then doused her in gasoline and set her on fire…
Tens of thousands more were murdered in Singapore in February and March of 1942 to eliminate anyone deemed having anti-Japanese ideals, though all evidence seems to be that the soldiers involved in the massacre usually didn’t bother to actually try to ascertain whether a given person they were killing was actually anti-Japanese or not, with all Chinese males in the region from 18-50 required to submit themselves. For example, historian Kevin Blackburn states, “At one screening center, all Chinese males who walked through one particular entrance were taken away in trucks to be shot, while those who happened to take another pathway were released.”
Although, we’re just guessing regardless of their opinions before, moments before their deaths 100% of them were probably anti-Japanese. In the end, while it isn’t known how many were killed in this one, estimates range upwards to about 70,000.
That said, according to Major Hayashi Tadahiko, it was actually less than that. He claims the original plan was to kill about 50,000 as a goal, but from a practical standpoint the screening and execution of so many was taking too long and too complicated. He states, “it had been found to be impossible to kill the whole of the 50,000 people, as after half that number had been killed an order was received ‘to stop the massacre.'”
Moving on from there, after Japan supposedly “liberated” Vietnam from France, about 1-2 million died of starvation in the Vietnamese Famine of 1945. This was primarily caused by three factors- French mismanagement of the situation, Allied bombings of roads and other means of mass transport in the region as well as warehouses and the like, and the Japanese confiscating grains and food supplies for their own use without compensation. Beyond a starving populace, open looting of all valuables and resources also seemed the name of the game for the Japanese military in Vietnam in the aftermath of supposedly “freeing” Vietnam. On this note, because of masacres being committed by the Japanese military in the region at the time as well, they began spreading rumors that it was actually the French doing all of this.
But in the end, as with China and other regions Japan was occupying at the time, indiscriminate raping, pillaging, and mass murder of civilians in the name of the Emperor and liberating Asian nations from the West seems par for the course.
Of course, not all the massacres were in the name of liberation. But some for revenge. On this one, a theme you’ll see as we discuss POWs shortly is that, beyond those of Asian nationality being treated insanely brutally by the Japanese, another group joined them- U.S. Airmen. This is not a coincidence. You see, Japanese attitudes towards captured Allied airmen were much harsher than many other captured Allied troops in response to American bombings of civilian targets in Japan- something that the Japanese people did not take kindly to as you’d expect.
The Doolittle Raids
Perhaps most famous of all on this one being the controversial Doolittle Raids whose aftermath kicked off one of the greatest massacres of the entire war. Also a byproduct of this and other such bombings of civilians, a few months later Japan would pass the Enemy Airmen Act in August of 1942, noting that any Allied pilot who bombed a non-military target that was captured would be subject to a trial and whatever punishment was deemed suitable for their act. This would violate the Hague Convention that Japan had signed, though the Allies bombing civilians wasn’t exactly earning anyone an International War Crime Gold Star either. That’s not to mention some other acts we’ll get to that, as noted by U.S. General Curtis LeMay of his own part in some of this, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”
But we are once again getting ahead of ourselves. Going back to the trials Allied airmen were subjected to if captured, as an example, with the Doolittle Raids, 8 members of that mission were captured, and during their trial they were not allowed to present any defense and were thus found guilty, with 3 executed. Yet, fascinatingly, the other 5 were only given life sentences. As the war progressed, at least 132 other Allied airmen who were captured were given similar kangaroo trials and executed. Countless others were also killed, but never made it to any trial, which seems to have been far more the norm as we’ll get into in a bit.
But before we do, as an interesting contrast to all we’ve been discussing, and as it caused one of the biggest Chinese massacres of the war, we do want to take a minute to discuss the Doolittle Raids. So what on Earth was the U.S. thinking bombing Japanese civilians?
Well, in a meeting with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff on December 21, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt pushed hard for attacks on targets on Japan itself as a way to boost morale, with the public still reeling from the recent attacks on Pearl Harbor. We’ll spare you the extreme effort and plane modifications needed to make this happen, but suffice it to say, the problem was solved and on April 18, 1942, the modified bombers were launched and attacked their targets in Tokyo and surrounding areas.
Then Lieutenant Colonel James Doolittle himself initially considered the mission a failure, and even thought he would be court-martialed. You see, beyond limited destruction of the targets, the bombers had taken out several Japanese schools, killing civilians and children, in total killing 87, with another 151 seriously injured, and 311 others sustaining minor injuries.
Rather than a court martial, however, instead he was promoted to Brigadier General, in the process skipping the rank of Colonel altogether. Roosevelt also presented him with the Medal of Honor. The Chinese government likewise bestowed honors upon the airmen for their attack on the Japanese capital, and all 80 were also awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross.
Further, back home the press and American people hailed Doolittle and his team as heroes. In Japan, however, they were labeled murderers, supposedly flagrantly attacking civilians, including having, as alluded to, hit 6 schools and a hospital, along with destroying some 52 homes, in addition to the actual intended strategic targets.
The truth, as ever, is not so black and white as either sides’ propaganda paints. Doolittle stated after, “Crews were repeatedly briefed to avoid any action that could possibly give the Japanese any ground to say that we had bombed or strafed indiscriminately. Specifically, they were told to stay away from hospitals, schools, museums, and anything else that was not a military target.”
As such, his 79 volunteers had trained extensively to recognize their strategic targets including military targets, power stations, etc. And what buildings and structures around them were as well in the hopes of avoiding civilian casualties. However, as Doolittle himself would state, even if the bombers’ aim was perfect, which wasn’t realistic, “It is quite impossible to bomb a military objective that has civilian residences near it without danger of harming the civilian residences as well. That is a hazard of war.”.
In this case, this was in no small part because Tokyo had, in some areas, a population density of 100,000 people per square mile, and 1 in 10 Japanese people at the time lived there. If they were going to bomb targets in such an area, civilian deaths were inevitable, as even in industrial areas many homes and shops are all jumbled together.
It is important to point out here that other targets could have been chosen instead to limit such civilian casualties even more, but an attack on Tokyo itself was deemed superior in no small part because the main points of the attack was not just to destroy vital enemy targets per se, but to boost morale back home, and for the Japanese side to sow a mistrust of their leaders in the populace. That the U.S. was capable of attacking them where they lived undermined much of Japanese leadership propaganda at the time.
As Doolittle would elaborate, “An attack on the Japanese homeland would cause confusion in the minds of the Japanese people and sow doubt about the reliability of their leaders. … Americans badly needed a morale boost.” He goes on, “It was hoped that the damage done would be both material and psychological. Material damage was to be the destruction of specific targets with ensuing confusion and retardation of production. The psychological results, it was hoped, would be the recalling of combat equipment from other theaters for home defense thus effecting relief in those theaters, the development of a fear complex in Japan, improved relationships with our Allies, and a favorable reaction on the American people.”
While material damage, in the end, had been largely a failure, the psychological aspect on both sides was a success.
So, yes, the U.S. military under the urging of President Roosevelt had ordered a strike on a target they knew well would guarantee the result in the deaths of an untold number of civilians, a rather morally questionable tactic. But it was deemed the ends justified the means.
The Catastrophic Response
As you might expect, the Japanese populace did not see it this way at all. And while the attack bolstered Allied morale and the airmen involved who survived to return home were declared heroes for their act, the results were catastrophic. Not for the Japanese. And not for the Americans. But for the Chinese.
You see, as alluded to, the Japanese military and citizens were incensed at what was viewed as a flagrant attack on civilians. As one captured Japanese sergeant stated under interrogation, “One father wrote to a leading daily telling of the killing of his child in the bombing of the primary school. He deplored the dastardly act and avowed his intention of avenging the child’s death by joining the army and dying a glorious death.”
Someone had to pay, and that someone was the Chinese.
As to why they were targeted, after the U.S. airmen had bombed their targets in Japan, they had limited fuel and needed a place to land. Thus, the planes flew to China where the pilots were received and ultimately Chinese civilians helped some of them escape the Japanese.
On top of their anger, the Japanese leaders also wanted to cut off that means of potential attack to Japan. Thus, the Japanese military’s response was swift and extremely brutal across the coastal regions of China, an area that included some 20,000 square miles.
As priest Father Wendelin Dunker who witnessed it noted, “Like a swarm of locusts, they left behind nothing but destruction and chaos…. They shot any man, woman, child, cow, hog, or just about anything that moved, They raped any woman from the ages of 10–65, and before burning the town [of Ihwang] they thoroughly looted it … None of the humans shot were buried either.”
The Japanese soldiers also reportedly forced civilians accused of giving food to the U.S. airmen to eat feces before lining them up against one another chest to back and then conducting a bullet contest to see who could kill the most with one bullet through many bodies.
In another case, during the massacre, one Chinese man, Ma Eng-lin was accused of allowing one of the U.S. airmen into his home. He was thus tied up, covered in kerosene, and his wife forced to set him on fire. In the end, upwards of 250,000 Chinese civilians and approximately 70,000 soldiers were killed in response to the Doolittle Raid as a part of the Zhejiang-Jiangxi campaign to try to cut off the United States’ ability to do this again.
General Chiang Kai-shek would send a cable to the U.S. afterwards summing up, “After they had been caught unawares by the falling of American bombs on Tokyo, Japanese troops attacked the coastal areas of China, where many of the American fliers had landed. These Japanese troops slaughtered every man, woman, and child in those areas… Let me repeat — these Japanese troops slaughtered every man, woman, and child in those areas.”
The list goes on and on and on with the massacres, and I believe we’ve more than discussed enough of them and brief accounts for it to be clear this sort of behavior was not isolated to a specific event, but seemingly par for the course for Japanese military conduct in these regions at the time.
The Rampant War Crimes Outside of the Massacres
So for now let’s move on from mass massacre and talk of other seemingly systemic war crimes and what on Earth caused them.
First, at this point we should briefly explicitly point out that while it is true that the Japanese had never ratified the Geneva convention, they had publicly stated they’d adhere to it, though critically “mutatis mutandis” (changing what has to be changed)… But, regardless, as alluded to, they had adopted the Hague Conventions which had elements discussing the treatment of, for example, prisoners of war, surrendering combatants, forbidding looting of towns, forbidding attacking undefended towns, forbidding forcing people into military service against their own country, protecting marked hospital ships from being attacked, as well as requirements to help wounded and shipwrecked sailors regardless of nationality, along with banning the use of “poison or poisoned weapons”- all stipulations Japan violated seemingly as a matter of course during the war.
That’s not to mention that Article 1 and 2 of the 1907 Hague Convention III, outlines that a nation cannot attack another without giving proper warning of this. For example, in Article 2, stating, “[t]he existence of a state of war must be notified to the neutral Powers without delay, and shall not take effect in regard to them until after the receipt of a notification…” Japan, however, failed to declare war on the U.S. before attacking Pearl Harbor, though had transmitted an approximately 5,000 word message about a half hour before seemingly intended very loosely as such, even though it never explicitly said the magic words as required by the Hague Convention. As to why, it would seem the Japanese officials were afraid their attack on Pearl Harbor would be put in jeopardy if the U.S. knew Japan eminently intended to go to war. That said, the commanders needn’t have worried about their specific wording of their message either way, as the message, which was received before the attack, took almost an hour and a half to transcribe and thus wasn’t delivered to U.S. officials until after anyway.
That’s not to mention Japan had also signed the Forced Labour Convention of 1930, the 1921 International Convention for the Suppression of the Traffic in Women and Children, among other acts, all of which were violated with abandon during the war.
It’s also noted that even beyond anything to do with international law, many of the war crimes committed by the soldiers broke Japanese military law itself.
However, once again, as with the Nazis, a distinction here between many other nations who saw such brutalities committed by their soldiers at times, which seems to have been more or less a universal in this war, was that in the Japanese’ case, this behavior seems to have been guided from the top. With, for example, an order down, according to famed Japanese historian Akira Fujiwara, from the Emperor himself that the constraints of the Hague Conventions should be ignored, and the captured soldiers were not to be called “Prisoners of War”, with all such constraints ordered removed on August 5, 1937.
So let’s now dive into POWs and the other side of the Asian Holocaust.
To begin with, in many cases, the Japanese forces seem to have had a disturbing policy of not taking POWs in the first place, a policy many Allied troops also adopted unofficially for a time, which we’ll get into in a bit. But as for the Japanese, for example, when the Merchant Navy ship SS Jean Nicolet was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine on July 2, 1944, passengers and crew all made it to the lifeboats without issue. At which point the crew of the Japanese submarine summarily executed 70 of them after taking their valuables, with the 30 that survived only doing so when an Allied Catalina flying boat flew overhead, causing the crew of the submarine to get back in their submarine and dive, leaving the remaining survivors swimming in the water. These survivors were ultimately picked up by the HMS Hoxa about 30 hours later.
In another account on March 26, 1944, radio operator James Blears aboard the Dutch Merchant ship Tjisalak states they were torpedoed, and the 103 aboard got into lifeboats. Blears states they were then all brought on to the Japanese sub foredeck, at which point, “One guy, they cut off his head halfway and let him flop around on the deck. The others I saw, they just lopped them off with one slice and threw them overboard. The Japanese were laughing and one even filmed the whole thing with a cine camera.”
Choosing to take his chances, Blears managed to get his hands free of his bindings and jumped into the water, where he spent the next several hours swimming around. He eventually found a lifeboat, and over time three others joined him with their own harrowing stories, including one Indian crewman who stated he was tied behind the sub along with several others and dragged under when the sub dived, though he managed to get himself free and return to the surface.
In another instance, a Japanese sub, I-158, sank the Dutch cargo ship SS Langkoeas, and then opened fire with machine guns on the lifeboats and their occupants, killing 79. Three of the crew were also subsequently interrogated and, when that was done, tossed back into the ocean, this time without their lifeboats. They floated in the ocean for hours, before spotting and swimming to a life raft. Four days later, they made it ashore the island of Bawean where they were helped by local fishermen. Surviving to tell the tale of what happened to them, unlike so many others.
As to whether these were isolated incidents or the norm, it would seem the latter, with one Japanese naval order on March 20, 1943 commanding, “Do not stop at the sinking of enemy ships and cargoes. At the same time carry out the complete destruction of the crews.”
What Happened to the POWs
Moving on to captured POWs that were taken in, at the time British and American POW’s in German or Italian camps had a 96% chance of surviving their captivity. Yet British and American troops held by the Japanese had almost a 1 in 3 chance of dying. Further, when crunching the numbers overall, 9 out of 10 U.S. POW’s who did not survive their captivity during WWII died in the Japanese POW camps.
If all of this isn’t shocking enough, there is one more thing that sounds at first glance that it couldn’t possibly be true. Yet has been well documented by the many Japanese historians who have led the way in uncovering all of these atrocities. On this one, in case you thought this piece couldn’t get any darker, we are now going to discuss cannibalism.
While you might think this was driven by a lack of supplies, and in some cases that’s true, particularly as the war progressed, in many documented cases there wasn’t actually a need. Yet many Japanese commanding officers either took part in such or ordered their troops to do this. As Hiroshima University historian Yuki Tanaka states of this practice, “cannibalism was often a systematic activity which was conducted by whole squads which were under the command of officers…I think it was to get a feeling for victory, and to give the soldiers nerves of steel.”
Others point out comments from some Japanese commanding officers of the time elaborating it was, to quote, “good medicine for the stomach”. There also seems to have been an element of dominating your enemy in the ultimate way by consuming some of his flesh as a delicacy. The liver was apparently very popular here. No word on if chianti and fava beans were also employed in such grizzly dinners.
Perhaps most disturbingly of all of this, as Dr. Tanaka points out, was how the known officer accounts of it generally treated it all very casually, as if it was nothing out of the ordinary for them to do.
Arguably the most famous case of this was the so-called Chichijima Incident in 1944. As to why this one still gets the spotlight over 100s of other documented instances, it’s because it peripherally involved then 20 year old future U.S. President George H.W. Bush. In this one, Bush was one of 9 Allied pilots shot down near Chichi Jima during one raid, an island about 600 miles south of Tokyo. Bush was the only one of the pilots to evade capture in a quite harrowing tale that’s worthy of its own video. But as for what happened to the other eight. All eight were captured, tortured, and executed. But at least four of them also had parts of their bodies eaten by some of the senior officers on the island, in this case again not because they needed the food, but more ritualistically, and noted as being prepared as a delicacy.
In the end, several of those involved, including Lt General Yoshio Tachibana, were later tried, convicted, and hanged, though because cannibalism wasn’t technically violating any international laws at the time, they were convicted simply for the murders and also noted “prevention of honorable burial”.
Moving on from there, another account of such cannibalism was by one Lance Naik Hatam Ali, an Indian POW, stating, “the Japanese started selecting prisoners and every day one prisoner was taken out and killed and eaten by the soldiers. I personally saw this happen and about 100 prisoners were eaten at this place by the Japanese. The remainder of us were taken to another spot 50 miles [80 km] away where 10 prisoners died of sickness. At this place, the Japanese again started selecting prisoners to eat. Those selected were taken to a hut where their flesh was cut from their bodies while they were alive and they were thrown into a ditch where they later died…”
Yet another account by POW Havildar Changdi Ram testified, “[on November 12, 1944] the Kempeitai beheaded [an Allied] pilot. I saw this from behind a tree and watched some of the Japanese cut flesh from his arms, legs, hips, buttocks and carry it off to their quarters … They cut it [into] small pieces and fried it.”
Moving on from death for the purposes of dinner, the march to the POW camps saw enormous numbers perish along the way from malnutrition and brutal treatment, perhaps most famously in the Bataan Death March. This saw thousands of POWs die or be killed along their march. One prisoner stated, “One of the POWs had a ring on and the Japanese guard attempted to get the ring off. He couldn’t get it off and he took a machete and cut the man’s wrist off and when he did that, of course the man was bleeding profusely. [I tried to help him] but when I looked back I saw a Japanese guard sticking a bayonet through his stomach.”
Torture of POWs also appears to have been common. Perhaps outlining it best, former Japanese officer Uno Shintaro would state of his experience in China and the atrocities he helped commit during the war, “The major means of getting intelligence was to extract information by interrogating prisoners. Torture was an unavoidable necessity. Murdering and burying them follows naturally. You do it so you won’t be found out.”
Of note here, one of the favorite methods of torture used was the relatively recently made famous practice of waterboarding, essentially pouring water over the victim’s head, potentially to the point of losing consciousness, and then reviving them. And repeating until the information desired is extracted.
As to the murder after the torture, in the WWII Japanese military’s case, in one documented instance in 1942, American airmen Bruno Gaido and Frank O’Flaherty were captured, tortured, and once that was done, they were attached to water weights and dumped into the sea. One of their companions, Wesley Osmus, was simply struck with an ax, and then tossed overboard.
Taking things to the extreme, there are many accounts of areas where, when the Japanese were forced to retreat from them, they mass executed the POWs in those regions just before pulling out. As for orders for such, we have the likes of The Commanding General of Military Police concerning Taiwan POW camps on August 1, 1944 stating that should such an extreme occur, the POW’s were to all be killed. Specifically, the order said in part, “Whether they are destroyed individually or in groups, and whether it is accomplished by means of mass bombing, poisonous smoke, poisons, drowning, or decapitation, dispose of them as the situation dictates. It is the aim not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not to leave any traces.”
An example of just this sort of thing happening was on the island of Palawan. In this one, about 150 POWs had been used for labor there for about two years during the war. However, when the U.S. taking the island became imminent in December of 1944, all but 139 of the prisoners were executed, with only a handful of survivors successfully managing to flee the carnage.
That said, it should be explicitly noted that contrary to what is often said, this seems to have not been a universal, either in executing POWs upon retreat or even their mistreatment in general at all. There are known camps where the Japanese military in charge of some installations treated prisoners more as you’d expect, such as at one camp in Changgi, Singapore, where the largely British and Australian POWs were treated very well based on journal entries and accounts from the POWs themselves. Further, the higher rank a POW had in many camps seems to have made a big difference in their treatment by the Japanese soldiers who respected such individuals to an extent they did not many others. However, in general, respect for captured enemy was extremely low among the Japanese soldiers at the time for reasons we’ll get into in a bit.
Speaking of prisoners, civilians and some POW’s alike were also taken into slave labor camps in the thousands, because apparently the Japanese military of the era didn’t want to lose out to Nazi Germany in War Crime Bingo. Perhaps most controversially here was the capturing of hundreds of thousands of civilians, including women and young girls forced into sexual slavery for the benefit of the troops. Note on this one, this was long denied by the Japanese government. However, in 1992 Japanese historian Yoshiaki Yoshimi uncovered official documents connecting the military to doing just this, helping to establish over 2,000 comfort women stations with over 200,000 women, some only in their early teens. The uncovering of these documents ultimately prompted an official apology and acknowledgement by the Japanese government.
Other captured peoples were put to work in hard labor in coal mines, factories, and the like. In all of this, particularly in the case of Asian POWs and captured civilians, often subjected to rather brutal treatment and malnourishment compared to others captured.
As for specific numbers in terms of death rates, this is impossible to ascertain. However, one Japanese report by Japan’s Foreign Ministry at the end of the war estimated that approximately 1 in 5 Chinese laborers brought to Japan itself during the war died by war’s end. Noteworthy, attempts were made to destroy this report, and almost successfully, with the one remaining copy of it only being discovered in 1994.
Unit 731 and Others Like It
Speaking of War Crime Bingo, while the Nazis had Doctor Josef Mengele, the “Angel of Death”, the Japanese had Unit 731, among a few other lesser talked about divisions like Unit 100, 516, 1855- the list goes on and on. As for Unit 731, it was initially created to find ways to benefit the Japanese soldiers via human experimentation and research, studying the effects of starvation, various diseases, chemical weapons, etc. The first subjects at Unit 731 were reportedly volunteers. This changed rapidly, however.
Put in charge of not just Unit 731, but a network of similarly-goaled units around was one Shirō Ishii who at his operation’s peak saw him coordinating the efforts of over 10,000 personnel. What they got up to next The Angel of Death would have felt right at home with, murdering several thousand prisoners FOR SCIENCE. Vivisection and amputations, all without anesthesia, testing biological weapons and diseases and the like were the name of the game. Some for study and genuine benefit to soldiers, and some just out of professional curiosity. As Japanese historian Nakagawa Yonezo laments, “Some of the experiments had nothing to do with advancing the capability of germ warfare, or of medicine. There is such a thing as professional curiosity: ‘What would happen if we did such and such?’ What medical purpose was served by performing and studying beheadings? None at all. That was just playing around. Professional people, too, like to play.”
Extensive blood experimentation was also performed, injecting people with various blood types to see the results, and even seeing what would happen when various animal blood was used.
On top of this, extensive experiments concerning frostbite treatment were conducted, doing things like freezing a person’s arm, carefully documenting everything every step of the way. Then various methods were utilized to try to thaw them, to see what was the best way to go about it. This included doing nothing, submerging in hot water after, using fire, etc. Ultimately what they concluded was that the best thing to do was submerge the frostbitten limb into water at around normal body temperature.
After such an experiment was complete, this limb would be amputated and another limb chosen, and the process repeated until the patient was left with nothing but their head and torso. Never ones to waste their subjects, the person may have then been used for other purposes, such as being infected with various pathogens, or used for surgical practice and the like.
In other experiments, they would subject people to prolonged x-ray exposure to study the results. In yet more, flamethrowers were used on people likewise to study the effects.
In yet more experiments subjects were infected with syphilis and gonorrhea, and then ordered to have sex with a non-infected partner or be shot, with the guards and scientists giving the nickname to the women infected “jam-filled buns”.
As to why they had a nickname for the females infected, they also took to frequently raping the female subjects, and thus the name was handy for referring to which were infected or not. As one account illustrated concerning the insane depravity of all of this, which we’d really like to drive home given that ALL of the heads of this unit got off scot-free as we’ll discuss in a bit, and why- “One of the former researchers I located told me that one day he had a human experiment scheduled, but there was still time to kill. So he and another unit member took the keys to the cells and opened one that housed a Chinese woman. One of the unit members raped her; the other member took the keys and opened another cell. There was a Chinese woman in there who had been used in a frostbite experiment. She had several fingers missing and her bones were black, with gangrene set in. He was about to rape her anyway, then he saw that her sex organ was festering, with pus oozing to the surface. He gave up the idea, left and locked the door, then later went on to his experimental work.”
Female subjects were sometimes also impregnated, to observe the effects of things like bullet and stab wounds, chemical weapon exposure, and a variety of diseases on a pregnant woman and her fetus. As for these fetuses, at some point the woman would be vivisected and her fetus extracted during the process to study both the effects of what was done on it, as well as just to study the development of human fetuses in general.
In yet more experiments, subjects were starved or dehydrated to observe the effects. Even in some cases reported to the point of self mummification when combined with heat and fans to make them sweat. Others were used as human crash test dummies, as well as to observe the effects of high G-forces on subjects, taking them to the limit and observing the effects and at what point they died and what specific injuries sustained.
One doctor who spent time at Unit 731 in his retirement as a farmer would state in an interview about his time there, “The fellow knew that it was over for him, and so he didn’t struggle when they led him into the room and tied him down. I cut him open from the chest to the stomach, and he screamed terribly, and his face was all twisted in agony. He made this unimaginable sound, he was screaming so horribly. But then finally he stopped. This was all in a day’s work for the surgeons, but it really left an impression on me because it was my first time.”
As to why he had been cutting this man up, the man had been intentionally infected with the plague, and they were researching what this had done to his organs.
In another account, a mother and a daughter were placed in a gas chamber to observe the effects on the poison gas, how long it would take to kill them, timing between convulsions, and when they stopped breathing. Both perished, with the mother having attempted to futilely shield her daughter from the gas by laying her body on her.
Speaking of poisoning people, Unit 731, among a few other units, also were tasked with studying such bioweapons, and how this might be utilized for the nation’s expansion efforts. It was felt that expertise in these areas would provide a powerful weapon against their enemies who not only had no such weapons in some cases, and in others agreed not to use them regardless. Unit 731’s research in this area proved invaluable in weapons soon designed and used against nations like China, including against civilians.
For example, in total, Japan’s germ warfare which included spraying plague carrying fleas over regions, as well as contaminating rivers, wells, etc with things like cholera, dysentery, typhoid and the like, is thought to have been used to kill over a half a million people, again mostly in China. At one point, they were even distributing food laced with various deadly microbes to Chinese civilians, along with chocolate laced with anthrax given to Chinese children in various communities. The Japanese military of the era were also known to have used things like mustard gas, chlorine, and phosgene against the Chinese as well, starting in 1938, with orders for such in some cases allegedly coming from the Emperor himself, though this is a matter of contention.
Of all this, Prince Mikasa, brother to Emperor Showa, was appalled at the atrocities the Japanese military was committing at the time, and ultimately gave a scathing public speech to Nanjing soldiers condeming the rape and massacres that were seemingly commonplace from what he saw in China. Unfortunately, this speech was ultimately covered up, with most of the copies of it destroyed by the army, and his appeals to the commanders to put a stop to it ignored.
Prince Mikasa also stated, despite what the Japanese leadership had been saying, the government they had setup in Nanjing was not for the “benefit of China or to help the Chinese form a unified state. Instead, it should be viewed as a makeshift trick in an attempt to cover up Japan’s policy of aggression.” In a later interview he would go on, “If one country intrudes into another nation’s territory, it is nothing else but an invasion. The entire problem began when [Japan] tried to justify that action.”
While anyone else who gave such a speech to the Japanese army at the time would likely have been executed for treason, as such criticism of the army during the war was considered such, Prince Mikasa states, “I could make such bold statements because of my status as a member of the imperial family.”
Prince Mikasa, who lived to 100 years old, dying in 2016 would later state in an interview, “I was really shocked when an officer told me that the best way to train new soldiers was to use living prisoners of war for bayonet practice because it gave them will power.” Going back to the illegal use of biological and poison gas weapons, the prince also toured Unit 731 and saw what they were doing there, including being shown films of Chinese prisoners who, to quote him, were “made to march on the plains of Manchuria for poison gas experiments on humans.”
We should explicitly point out here that the prince claims he showed Emperor Showa a video of various atrocities being committed in China by Japanese soldiers to appeal to try to put a stop to it, but this, too, was ignored. But yet another data point of countless that the Emperor was at the least not ignorant of what was happening.
Speaking of this type of biological warfare, as a brief aside, shortly before WWII ended, similar plans were drawn up, such as Operation Cherry Blossoms at Night, to level this against the United States, targeting in this case California. The plan was formulated at the tail end of the war when Japan had become extremely desperate. As noted by former Captain Eno Yoshio in an interview in 1977 about the plans, “This is the first time I have said anything about Operation PX (Cherry Blossoms at Night), because it involved the rules of war and international law. The plan was not put into actual operation, but I felt that just the fact that it was formulated would cause international misunderstanding. I never even leaked anything to the staff of the war history archives at the Japanese Defense Agency, and I don’t feel comfortable talking about it even now. But at the time, Japan was losing badly, and any means to win would have been all right.”
In a nutshell, a Japanese submarine was to transport a group of soldiers off the coast carrying plague infected fleas, as well as attempting to spread cholera, typhus, etc. in such areas as San Diego, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. The general idea here was not to defeat the U.S. with this tactic, but to instill extreme fear which would then, in their view, make American citizens more hesitant to continue to attack Japan…
However, thankfully, being a monumentally stupid idea given that reasoning, these plans were ultimately shot down by none other than one time Prime Minister Hideki Tojo, who we’ll get to his interesting fate in a bit. Tojo felt that such a biological warfare attack on the United States would not affect the inevitable outcome of the war, but would just incense Americans similar to Pearl Harbor, and result in brutal retaliatory strikes in revenge, potentially even bio weapons which the U.S. and the British as well were indeed developing, though he likely didn’t know this. At the time, of course, Tojo was also ignorant of the nuclear bombs soon heading Japan’s way regardless.
Further opposition was met by Chief of General Staff Yoshijirō Umezu, who stated, “If bacteriological warfare is conducted, it will grow from the dimension of war between Japan and America to an endless battle of humanity against bacteria. Japan will earn the derision of the world.”
Noteworthy, even after Japan surrendered, none other than the head of Unit 731 Shirō Ishii proposed to attack the occupying troops with diseases, with Ishii volunteering himself for a suicide attack of this nature. However, Umezu and Torashirō Kawabe advised he not do this and, instead he should, to quote, “wait for [the] next opportunity calmly.”
In any event, going back to Unit 731, unlike the Nazis who targeted very specific groups for such experimentation, the Japanese counterpart was much more indiscriminate. In fact, they even occasionally experimented on their own. And we don’t just mean other Japanese, but literally on some of their own researchers.
For example, one researcher working there, Yoshio Sudō, was accidentally infected with the plague. As a result, it was decided to make him a test subject. One Yoshio Tamura gives an account of what happened next, “Sudō had, a few days previously, been interested in talking about women, but now he was thin as a rake, with many purple spots over his body. A large area of scratches on his chest were bleeding. He painfully cried and breathed with difficulty. I sanitised his whole body with disinfectant. Whenever he moved, a rope around his neck tightened. After Sudō’s body was carefully checked [by the surgeon], I handed a scalpel to [the surgeon] who, reversely gripping the scalpel, touched Sudō’s stomach skin and sliced downward. Sudō shouted “brute!” and died with this last word.”
The same thing happened to one Mitsuo Hirakawa who was also working there and was accidentally infected with the plague, and likewise met the same fate as Sudo.
Incredibly important to some things we’ll also discuss in a bit is that many of these experiments were highly scientific in the way they were conducted, unlike a lot of similar experiments by these researchers’ Nazi counterparts in Europe. This is also why anesthesia wasn’t used in most of it. There was simply concern it would affect the results in some way if introduced.
Finally, we should likewise explicitly point out here for another important point later, that in all this, it also became popular for physicians throughout Japan to simply be allowed to come and practice surgeries on living prisoners, who would then be killed after the surgeons had gained their desired experience.
That out of the way- thankfully- let’s now look at totals. How and why certain key leadership got off scot-free and things were covered up, and then also, just, why on any of it? The Nazis had blaming all societal ills on the Jews and the like. But how did the Japanese leadership get such behavior and fanaticism from their soldiers and people? Especially in many of the regions they were doing this, where very explicitly they were there to liberate the region- Asia for Asians. Yet the groups they were most brutal towards were those very Asians.
As for the totals, estimates of the number of people killed by the Japanese during WWII in the so-called “Asian Holocaust” are almost impossible to nail down for a variety of reasons, but generally cited to be between 3 million at an absolute very unlikely bare minimum, to upwards of 30 million people, in either case most of whom were civilians, potentially eclipsing anything the Nazis did in Europe. For your reference there, estimates for the number of deaths the Nazis were directly responsible for generally run around 12-20 million with, beyond the 6 million or so Jews and hundreds of thousands of Romani and people with disabilities, the Poles and Soviet civilians the victims of the brunt of the brutality, including upwards of 7 million Soviets and close to 2 million Poles.
Beyond any cover ups and destruction of information about these deaths on the Japanese military side, historian Sterling Seagrave outlines much of the difficulty here:
“Arriving at a probable number of Japan’s war victims who died is difficult for several interesting reasons, which have to do with Western perceptions. Both Americans and Europeans fell into the unfortunate habit of seeing WW1 and WW2 as separate wars, failing to comprehend that they were interlaced in a multitude of ways (not merely that one was the consequence of the other, or of the rash behavior of the victors after WW1). Wholly aside from this basic misconception, most Americans think of WW2 in Asia as having begun with Pearl Harbor, the British with the fall of Singapore, and so forth. The Chinese would correct this by identifying the Marco Polo Bridge incident as the start, or the earlier Japanese seizure of Manchuria. It really began in 1895 with Japan’s assassination of Korea’s Queen Min, and invasion of Korea, resulting in its absorption into Japan, followed quickly by Japan’s seizure of southern Manchuria, etc. – establishing that Japan was at war from 1895 to 1945. Prior to 1895, Japan had only briefly invaded Korea during the Shogunate, long before the Meiji Restoration, and the invasion failed. Therefore, Rummel’s estimate of 6-million to 10-million dead between 1937 (the Rape of Nanjing) and 1945, may be roughly corollary to the time-frame of the Nazi Holocaust, but it falls far short of the actual numbers killed by the Japanese war machine. If you add, say, 2-million Koreans, 2-million Manchurians, Chinese, Russians, many East European Jews (both Sephardic and Ashkenazi), and others killed by Japan between 1895 and 1937 (conservative figures), the total of Japanese victims is more like 10-million to 14-million. Of these, I would suggest that between 6-million and 8-million were ethnic Chinese, regardless of where they were resident.”
Others think these are underestimates, particularly on the Chinese side. With British historian Mark Felton stating, “The Japanese murdered 30 million civilians while “liberating” what it called the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere from colonial rule. About 23 million of these were ethnic Chinese. It is a crime that in sheer numbers is far greater than the Nazi Holocaust. In Germany, Holocaust denial is a crime. In Japan, it is government policy. But the evidence against the navy – precious little of which you will find in Japan itself – is damning.”
But MOTHER OF GOD- WHY?!?
So why would they do any of this? And how is it that virtually everyone involved in, for example, Unit 731 got off scot-free, along with the entire imperial family, despite the likes of Prince Asaka himself overseeing the Rape of Nanjing and the Emperor seemingly in charge of it all.
As to the question of why such brutality and seeming lack of any humanity, on one hand, as with pretty much all nations during their respective empire periods and, indeed through much of history, there was a collective sense of superiority and righteousness to a cause. But this still doesn’t explain the level of atrocities. After all, you may think a dog is lesser than a human, but few humans would so comfortably brutally beat and mutilate a puppy. Let alone in the case of a human- rape and murder a pre-teen child, or rape and then slice open pregnant women’s bellies and stab their fetus in front of them. Or in the case of Unit 731, take newborn babies and freeze them to death, for science… What could possibly cause any human to do this to another? Because, once again, while we may all like to think we wouldn’t have done the same in their shoes, the truth is, in their exact circumstances, we would have in the same proportions as they did. Because we are humans too.
First, it should be pointed out that virtually all nations who have ever gone to war in any era see similar things happen, even when strictly forbidden by morals and rules of the age. As alluded to at the beginning of this piece, Allied troops were not blameless in such either. For example, U.S. Marines who landed in Okinawan, as accounted by historian Oshiro Masayasu, “Soon after the U.S. Marines landed, all the women of a village on Motobu Peninsula fell into the hands of American soldiers. At the time, there were only women, children, and old people in the village, as all the young men had been mobilized for the war. Soon after landing, the Marines ‘mopped up’ the entire village, but found no signs of Japanese forces. Taking advantage of the situation, they started ‘hunting for women’ in broad daylight, and those women who were hiding in the village or nearby air raid shelters were dragged out one after another.”
While such behaviors are inexcusable, what it’s like to be part of such war and what it can do to you mentally, even if just during the haze of the moment, is something few of us can relate to. Keeping your humanity and moral center when you see your friends killed next to you, and your task is to murder those across from you, who no doubt originally also didn’t want to be there any more than you. Again, how the stress and trauma of all of that can build up is something few of us can relate to. But while incidents similar to those committed by the Japanese military of the era exist in all militaries in war, again, in this case it seems part of the problem was that it was not just a thing that happened occasionally, but even encouraged by leadership at all levels and thus relatively widespread.
But going back to the first point, in part there was the superiority factor- seeing their enemy as lesser humans than themselves, to explain some behaviors. But beyond this, there was another critical cultural element that came into play, including with things like treatment of POWs, thanks to the Japanese military having at this point long pushed a corrupted version of the Bushido code. In his Military Trials of War Criminals in the Netherlands East Indies 1946-1949, Fred Borch sums up:
“As Japan continued its modernization in the early 20th century, her armed forces became convinced that success in battle would be assured if Japanese soldiers, sailors, and airmen had the “spirit” of Bushido. … The result was that the Bushido code of behavior “was inculcated into the Japanese soldier as part of his basic training”. Each soldier was indoctrinated to accept that it was the greatest honor to die for the Emperor and it was cowardly to surrender to the enemy. … Bushido therefore explains why the Japanese in the NEI so mistreated POWs in their custody. Those who had surrendered to the Japanese—regardless of how courageously or honorably they had fought—merited nothing but contempt; they had forfeited all honor and literally deserved nothing. Consequently, when the Japanese murdered POWs by shooting, beheading, and drowning, these acts were excused since they involved the killing of men who had forfeited all rights to be treated with dignity or respect. While civilian internees were certainly in a different category from POWs, it is reasonable to think that there was a “spill-over” effect from the tenets of Bushido.”
A Genuine ClusterF*&k
Of note on this surrendering factor, this is, in part, why U.S. soldiers in turn adopted the practice of simply killing any Japanese soldier that surrendered as a matter of unofficial policy. The issue was, while there were many Japanese who were willing to surrender rather than die at times, despite their indoctrination, there were also those who would wave a white flag and act as if they were surrendering, and then perform a ground based version of a kamikaze attack. For example, U.S. Marine D.A. Clark states, “I was on my first patrol here, and we were moving up a dry stream bed. We saw 3 [Japanese] come down the river bed out of the jungle. The one in front was carrying a white flag. We thought they were surrendering. When they got up to us they dropped the white flag and then all 3 threw hand grenades. We killed 2 of these [Japanese], but 1 got away.”
Yet another Marine stated, “They always told you ‘take prisoners’ but we had some bad experiences on Saipan taking prisoners, you take them and then as soon as they get behind the lines they drop grenades and you lose a few more people. You get a little bit leery of taking prisoners when they are fighting to the death and so are you.”
In Sam Eliot Morison’s book The Two-Ocean War, he elaborates, “There were innumerable incidents such as a wounded Japanese soldier at Guadalcanal seizing a scalpel and burying it in the back of a surgeon who was about to save his life by an operation; and a survivor of the Battle of Vella Lavella, rescued by [torpedo boat] PT-163, pulling a gun and killing [an enlisted sailor] in the act of giving a Japanese sailor a cup of coffee.”
Another Marine summed up the ultimate stance of many in the region about taking Japanese prisoners after several incidents like this, “The idea of taking prisoners was swept from our minds. It was too dangerous.”
Thus, many troops simply adopted the practice of killing any Japanese soldier seeming to surrender, without bothering to see if he really was or not.
Of course, as is a constant theme in all facets of life, once again, nothing is black and white. This wasn’t all there was to this, seemingly more the justification the soldiers used for their actions, especially given how things changed when the higher ups decided to put a stop to it. You see, by accounts, seemingly strongly aiding in this absolutely horrible situation on all sides was an apparent rampant opinion by Allied troops in the Pacific Theater that the Japanese were subhuman, along with a pretty extreme hatred of them after so much bloody and brutal fighting.
Thus, this also seems to have extended to simply killing some prisoners that truly had surrendered, but the effort of taking them where they then needed to go was deemed too much. As noted by one Army interrogator, Captain Burden, often the captured Japanese prisoners were simply shot while being transported as it was, to quote him, “too much bother to take him in”.
British historian Niall Ferguson would also ring in that in 1943, “a secret [U.S.] intelligence report noted that only the promise of ice cream and three days leave would … induce American troops not to kill surrendering Japanese.”
The issue from this was that this killing of any captured and surrendered Japanese, beyond being morally extremely questionable, even given the circumstances, was that it was hurting U.S. intelligence gathering efforts. You see, the captured prisoners to dead Japanese soldiers was at about 1 for every 100. While you might again attribute this to the Japanese legitimate propensity to not go quietly into the night, and thus it just wasn’t possible to take more in. We’re going to stop you right there with the next figure.
When Allied commanders began cracking down in late 1944 on this practice of killing surrendering Japanese, within 6 months, that ratio dropping from 1 in 100 captured to dead, to 1 prisoner for every 7 dead, seemingly without a corresponding spike in deaths of those capturing the surrendering Japanese- strongly calling into question the stated necessity previous to this in killing them for the Allied troops’ own safety, or that it simply wasn’t possible to take a Japanese POW.
Yes, many allied troops used it as their justification. And yes there were many instances of this and some truth to it. But the reality seems to have been far more inline with similar justification the Japanese themselves were using in their own killing of their enemies, just perhaps with a lot less fanaticism.
That said, even then, on top of this issue of killing captured Japanese soldiers, many Allied servicemen also took to trophy collection in the form of body parts, something that was explicitly banned in September of 1942, but still occurred anyway, with President Roosevelt himself at one point being gifted a letter opener made from the bone of a Japanese soldier’s arm, a present from U.S. Representative Francis E. Walter in 1944. To his credit, Roosevelt ordered the bone be given a proper burial.
All of this just fed in on the whole cycle on both sides in the Pacific Theater, as it was also the general notion of many Japanese soldiers that if they surrendered to the Allies, they’d just be killed anyway, as that’s what U.S. soldiers did to you when you surrendered. Which, again, for a time wasn’t really wholly propaganda. Further, one picture in Life magazine of a woman with a Japanese skull trophy got picked up by the Japanese media and spread about, labeling the Americans as barbarians, and to quote “deranged, primitive, racist, and inhumane” for such acts and human body part trophy collection.
Something U.S. Army Judge Advocate General Major General Myron C Cramer concurred on, issuing a memorandum in June of 1944 stating that “such atrocious and brutal policies [are] repugnant to the sensibilities of all civilized people.” Not to mention this violated the Geneva Convention. Yet the practice continued anyway much to the consternation of Allied higher ups who seemed unable to completely stamp it out.
Going back to the Japanese side, likewise they seemingly saw little benefit to extending mercy to enemy soldiers who extended no such to them. On top of this, as previously alluded to, because of the stigma against surrendering in the first place among the Japanese, soldiers who did so, be they from any nation, even Japanese, were, once again, treated with contempt. They had no honor and whether they died or not at that point didn’t really matter. Any perception of Japanese superiority already existing was thus amplified against those who found themselves captured and willingly gave themselves up.
In short, the whole Pacific Theater was, to put it as frankly as we can, a cluster-fuck of awful on all sides. Not in the slightest aided by the Japanese soldier fanaticism that had been instilled in them.
The Beatings Will Continue Until Morale Improves
Speaking of this fanaticism, these precepts were not just indoctrinated into soldiers in a sort of propaganda way, though elements of that were a thing. But in many cases, they were brutally beaten in, even at the top. For example, General Hideki Tojo was known for slapping his subordinates upside the face as a matter of course to help instill the Bushido code into them.
One pilot trainee, Irokawa Daikichi, also describes part of his training, writing he was “struck on the face so hard and frequently that [his] face was no longer recognizable… I was hit so hard that I could no longer see and fell on the floor. The minute I got up, I was hit again by a club…” This manner of training was to help instill a “fighting spirit” into Japanese soldiers and unquestioned loyalty to orders and the Emperor.
Severe beatings from the top were thus often passed down to one’s subordinates and on down the chain, more and more brutal as it went. And any divergence from this twisted version of Bushido ideals or lack of ultimate devotion to the Emperor was punished severely until all soldiers quite literally had it beaten into their brains.
It’s also interesting to speculate how such brutal training, with it being normal to abuse your own so badly, might affect those soldiers’ treatment of captured enemy, and what would then seem naturally acceptable.
Further, in Emiko Ohnuki-Tierney’s work, Kamikaze Diaries (accounts by the so-called “student soldiers” of Japan from their writings during the war- many of the prospective kamikaze volunteers were these “boy-pilots”), it stated one of the first things student soldiers learned was “to use his toe to pull the trigger [of his rifle] while pointing the gun precisely at a certain point under his chin so that the bullet would kill him instantly. He was supposed to use this technique if he was trapped in a cave or in a trench surrounded by the enemy. If he did not kill himself but tried to escape, he might be shot from behind, because his superiors and some comrades believed in the state dictum that one must never be captured by the enemy.”
Effective, kamikaze pilot Hayashi Ichizo states, “It is easy to talk about death in the abstract, as the ancient philosophers discussed. But it is real death I fear, and I don’t know if I can overcome the fear. Even for a short life, there are many memories. For someone who had a good life, it is very difficult to part with it. But I reached a point of no return. I must plunge into an enemy vessel. To be honest, I cannot say that the wish to die for the emperor is genuine, coming from my heart. However, it is decided for me that I die for the emperor.” So he did.
But in the end, it was thought by the military leaders that instilling these ideals to the core of their soldiers via these brutal methods would ensure victory, even in cases of overwhelming odds. As General Tojo himself would outline in 1934, if Japanese soldiers were trained to not only not fear death, but see death in battle fighting for their Emperor as glorious, their superior willpower would ensure victory over, for example, the Russians, who would prioritize their desire to live in battle. Similar reasoning was leveled against why Japan would be victorious against the United States soldiers who were too individualistic and thus more afraid to die.
Not just this, another advantage of this indoctrination of the nation and soldiers was that major defeats could now be glorified, such as during the Battle of Attu in 1943, when of just shy of 3,000 Japanese soldiers there, all but 28 were either killed or committed suicide. In Japan at the time, this was presented as an inspirational story and showing the superiority in some ways of the Japanese soldiers, rather than what it actually was- yet another major and very critical defeat that the nation shouldn’t be celebrating, but be extremely concerned about.
Perhaps outlining it best, going back to the aforementioned Japanese officer Uno Shintaro discussing the rampant torturing of Chinese POWs for information, he also stated how he justified the torture and murder in his mind, “I believed and acted this way because I was convinced of what I was doing. We carried out our duty as instructed by our masters. We did it for the sake of our country. From our filial obligation to our ancestors. On the battlefield, we never really considered the Chinese humans. When you’re winning, the losers look really miserable. We concluded that the Yamato [Japanese] race was superior.”
And on top of this as to murdering Chinese civilians, beyond being indoctrinated to consider them an inferior race, there was also seemingly pervasive use of commanding officers explicitly telling their soldiers that many civilians were simply, as one put it, “enemies pretending to be local people.” Again a point we’d like to strongly emphasize for something we’ll discuss in a bit. The continual justification that even the civilians are your enemy despite how they might appear.
Now, to be fair on this one, the Chinese military at the time did frequently try to mask their military forces as civilians, at least giving enough truth to the situation to perhaps make it even easier to convince their soldiers these sorts of mass murders were necessary. But, you know, they were also killing children and babies…
The Troublesome Contrast
No such justification could, perhaps, be so easily leveled against the brutal mass murder of women and children. And yet, how many people justified the mass murder of tens of thousands of civilian women and children using similar reasoning- of both it was the only way to stop them because they are all our enemy and will fight to the last man, woman and child, and thus that these civilian deaths prevented more deaths than they caused- when discussing the nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki?
While potentially correct on the point of putting a very abrupt end to the war and thus, perhaps, saving an untold number of lives, it was, even if that is correct, at the price of intentionally brutally killing a couple hundred thousand non-combatant civilians. And as some point out, it’s not so black and white as to use the bomb or not, but also many other possibilities, such as that demonstrating the power of a nuclear bomb over Japan needn’t have happened via dropping them over cities. Dropping it several miles outside of a major city where citizens of the city would still see it, but over a more sparsely populated section would have likely been sufficient to accomplish the same goal and just as rapidly, without nearly the mass killing.
We are not here to argue the rightness and wrongness of those bombings, though this would be an interesting topic to explore and discuss in depth all sides of the argument another day. Just pointing out that that while we all universally condemn the Japanese soldiers murdering similar amounts in certain massacres in their own war, few on the other side ever do the same when discussing the between about 130K-230K mostly civilians in Hiroshima and Nagasaki who died via commanders using similar justification as some of the Japanese commanders.
Lest you think hyperbole here, U.S. Colonel Harry F Cunningham, in a statement eerily similar to so many used by Japanese commanders to justify the mass slaughter of civilians in the areas they were attacking, stated on July 21, 1945 in an intelligence review, “The entire population of Japan is a proper military target … There are no civilians in Japan. We are making war and making it in the all-out fashion which saves American lives, shortens the agony which war is and seeks to bring about an enduring peace. We intend to seek out and destroy the enemy wherever he or she is, in the greatest possible numbers, in the shortest possible time.”
Winston Churchill would also ring in, advocating for the argument that the ends justified the means. Killing many tens of thousands of foreign civilians was justifiable in war if it in theory would save the lives of Allied military personnel. Churchill stated, “I am surprised that very worthy people… should adopt the position that rather than throw this bomb, we should have sacrificed a million American and a quarter of a million British lives.”
Of course, this argument only tenuously works if it DID save lives. While this was the common refrain, many of the most prominent Allied commanders did not agree. For example, Dwight D Eiesenhower later stated, “I had been conscious of a feeling of depression and so I voiced to him my grave misgivings, first on the basis of my belief that Japan was already defeated and that dropping the bomb was completely unnecessary, and secondly, because I thought that our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.”
General Douglas MacArthur, Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy, Brigadier General Carter Clark, the commander in chief of the Pacific Fleet Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, Fleet Admiral William Halsey Jr, and Major General Curtis LeMay who was in charge of all air operations against the Japanese home islands also concurred with Eisenhower’s assessment.
As Fleet Admiral Chester W. Nimitz would state, “The Japanese had, in fact, already sued for peace. The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military point of view, in the defeat of Japan.”
Fleet Admiral William D. Leahy would go on, “The use of [the atomic bombs] at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan. The Japanese were already defeated and ready to surrender because of the effective sea blockade and the successful bombing with conventional weapons… The lethal possibilities of atomic warfare in the future are frightening. My own feeling was that in being the first to use it, we had adopted an ethical standard common to the barbarians of the Dark Ages. I was not taught to make war in that fashion, and wars cannot be won by destroying women and children.”
Perhaps harshest of all was Fleet Admiral William Halsey Jr who would state in 1946, “The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment … It was a mistake to ever drop it … [the scientists] had this toy and they wanted to try it out, so they dropped it.”
Further, a strong argument can and has been made that the use of nuclear bombs in the way they were on multiple fronts violated international law the U.S. had agreed to. Noteworthy on this one, famed scientist Leo Szilard, who worked as a part of the Manhattan project, probably correctly notes, “Let me say only this much to the moral issue involved: Suppose Germany had developed two bombs before we had any bombs. And suppose Germany had dropped one bomb, say, on Rochester and the other on Buffalo, and then having run out of bombs she would have lost the war. Can anyone doubt that we would then have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them?”
Going back to General Curtis LeMay, who was the one to relay the order from the President to drop the bomb, as previously mentioned, he likewise concurred, stating, “If we’d lost the war, we’d all have been prosecuted as war criminals.”
Yet he relayed the order anyway because his commander and chief told him to…
As for that commander, Truman would note in his diary of the decision to target Nagasaki and Hiroshima, curiously glossing over the fact that neither of these were in any way a purely military targets, “This weapon is to be used against Japan between now and August 10th. I have told the Sec. of War, Mr. Stimson, to use it so that military objectives and soldiers and sailors are the target and not women and children. Even if the Japs are savages, ruthless, merciless and fanatic, we as the leader of the world for the common welfare cannot drop that terrible bomb on the old capital [Kyoto] or the new [Tokyo]. He and I are in accord. The target will be a purely military one.”
After the fact, and despite the mass civilian casualties, on the civilian side in the United States, the majority were not only in favor of having dropped the bombs, but according to a 1945 Fortune magazine pole, a full 23% of Americans wished that the war had not ended so abruptly so that more atomic bombs could have been leveled against other Japanese cities and civilians.
The point here, once again, is not in this video to really argue one way or the other that the use of the nuclear bombs was justified or not, and we have specifically not covered the argument here comprehensively on purpose, as mother of god this one’s already long enough and we assure you THAT piece here on TodayIFoundOut will likewise be extremely lengthy and comprehensive on all sides of the argument.
What we are more hoping to illustrate is this. Many of the leaders of the U.S. military felt that the use of the nuclear weapons against civilian targets was not only not needed or of any real benefit to the war effort, but wouldn’t save any lives as is so often stated, and some even explicitly felt doing so was a war crime on par with anything the Nazis or Japanese had done. YET, some of them directly took part anyway, and the rest who disagreed let it happen. Because their commander and chief ordered them to do it.
On top of that, the majority of the Allied populace all around at the time thought it was a great move, despite arguably by international law being a major war crime on a scale with some of the worst of war crimes committed by the Japanese or Nazis. And in the U.S., again, about 1 in 4 wished the war could have gone on longer so more Japanese cities could have been leveled in this way. And it didn’t even take fanaticism beaten into them to get them there. Humans are gonna human. Sometimes we are the best. But circumstances and propaganda also very quickly can make us the worst. But we rarely ever think of ourselves as the bad guy in any scenario. There are always justifications to be clung to.
The Distinction- What Do YOU Think?
In any event, while the Japanese and Nazis and Stalin and the like arguably win the WWII War Crimes Bingo game overall, all sides did horrific things in this war. The distinction seems to more have been the prevalence and scale, seemingly because in the case of the Japanese at the time, this sort of thing was encouraged by leadership and commanders. Whereas outside of certain things like the nukes dropped on Japanese cities and the like, in most cases many of the atrocities committed by the Allies were not done as a matter of policy, and in fact, often quite the opposite, even if in many cases covered up after the fact all the same, or in some cases the commanders unable to prevent their troops from doing horrible things in the moment.
But this all does bring up an interesting point of discussion and to think about. Google simply the city name “Nanjing” and you’ll get countless results referencing the “Rape of Nanjing” or the “Nanjing Massacre”. But Google just the city name “Hiroshima”, and results abound about the bombing and even the tragedy of it, but nobody calls it the “Hiroshima Massacre”. Even googling “Hiroshima Massacre” specifically will come up with almost nothing outside of one Japanese survivor’s account titled “The Slaughter of Hiroshima”.
But, isolated from any rational or justification, just looking at the act itself and our respective reactions to it. Our aforementioned accounts of the brutality on the individual level and sheer numbers no doubt shocked you, as it did us. But mentioning Hiroshima and Nagasaki doesn’t have nearly the same effect for most. Is one man pushing a button to drop one bomb to knowingly indiscriminately wipe out tens of thousands of civilians, including babies and children, really less morally reprehensible than several thousand men doing the same one human at a time using guns, knives, and swords?
This is a genuine question we have for you, our dear audience. What do you think? What is the difference?
And then, when factoring in exact events and rational all humans use to justify our own acts to never seem the bad guy- both killed an obscene number of non-combatants in horrific ways for their own reasons- was the Rape of Nanjing and the way those atrocities were committed still worse or not than the other when all reasoning and facts factored in?
Is there a level where such massacres are justified? Because whether we commonly call it that or not in the case of something like Hiroshima or Nagasaki, the literal definition of massacre is, according to Webster’s, “the act or an instance of killing a number of usually helpless or unresisting human beings…” So, can a massacre be justified? If so, where is that line? And where did one side, or both, cross it? Or not?
How Did Unit 731 Justify Their Acts to Themselves?
Moving on from the massacre justifications, as for Unit 731. How did they do what they did? Again, nobody thinks of themselves as the bad guy. So how did they justify it to themselves?
As for the Nazis, at the least, once again, you can point to their misguided ideas that the Jews and certain others were lesser beings and the cause of all societal ills. Still a tenuous reasoning, but something to cling to to understand how they could do what they did. Afterall, few get overly upset about Pavlov’s treatment of his dogs, which the high school textbook version of that certainly glosses over the details that would have made John Wick take him out right quick. For a very brief synopsis, because it’s super interesting and there are parallels here, while Pavlov conducted countless experiments doing all manner of things to the dogs, when talking his more famous experiments, the animals were given an operation wherein their esophagus was severed and pulled through their neck, such that no matter how much the dog ate, no food would reach its stomach. This allowed Pavlov and his colleagues to study the effects on the digestive system of the dog tasting or merely smelling or seeing food. Pavlov next cut holes in the dogs’ sides and attached short tubes to various digestive organs such as the stomach, pancreas, gallbladder, and salivary glands. These tubes were connected to small bags or vials so the precise amount of digestive juices excreted could be measured. To prevent the dogs from moving and tearing out the tubes they were kept restrained in special harnesses mounted in wooden frames. Further, Pavlov even removed some of the dogs’ cerebral cortexes – seat of their higher mental functions – in order to turn them into purely reflexive beings. He also experimented with other sensory stimuli, not just food, such as heat, shapes, flashes of light, touching the dogs in various places, and electric shocks.
Further, at the time, pepsin – a digestive enzyme found in gastric juice – was a popular treatment for indigestion, being mixed into all sorts of consumer products from soft drinks to chewing gum. Being free of food particles and other contamination in this case, Pavlov’s pepsin was of higher quality than anything on the market, prompting him to create a “gastric juice factory”. To get as much juice as possible, “An assistant was hired and paid thirty rubles a month to oversee the facility. Five large young dogs, weighing sixty to seventy pounds and selected for their voracious appetites, stood on a long table harnessed to the wooden crossbeam directly above their heads. Each was equipped with an esophagotomy and fistula from which a tube led to the collection vessel. Each ‘factory dog’ faced a short wooden stand tilted to display a large bowl of minced meat.”
By 1904, the lab was selling more than three thousand litres of gastric juice per year, allowing it to increase its budget by nearly 70%. In the Bonus Facts later on, we’ll also get into a rather humorous anecdote of what happened when Stalin sent someone to Pavlov’s lab to get rid of him and any others at the lab who continued their anti-communist stance. Note on this one, Pavlov had a reputation for being a bit of a dick to basically everyone from his wife to colleagues, with an extreme temper, and he also wasn’t shy about telling Stalin what he thought of him leading to the humorous incident we’ll get into later.
But still, his research and many other scientists performing hundreds of thousands of experiments like it using animals of various levels rarely causes much consternation. Yes, in modern times things are done much more humanely than in the past, but in many cases the animals still die and have bizarre things done to them. So if you truly perceived another human as an animal and perhaps the cause of all the ills in the world, and had been indoctrinated to believe all this to your core, it’s a path to understand how someone might be manipulated into being able to do some of these unspeakable things to other humans, despite being human.
But Unit 731, while it may have included many Asians the Japanese involved saw as lesser, also as noted seemingly happily did experiments on their own fellow scientists who mere hours or days before had been working right alongside them. So seeing them as lesser couldn’t have been the only reasoning.
You might instead say it was simply that a group of psychopaths were given power and license to play for the benefit of the empire, and simply did so. Except, again, as noted, doctors from all over Japan, not just at Unit 731, would travel to China where they were allowed to practice surgeries on captured individuals. As one Dr. Ken Yuasa would state in a later interview, after medical school he went to China for just this purpose, practicing all manner of surgeries from appendectomy, to amputation, etc. Once the various practice surgeries were complete, the patient would be killed. This became routine for Japanese doctors in China at the time, not for research, but to increase their skills.
Also noteworthy is that while Unit 731 often gets all the attention, Dr. Yuasa would state that he, who had no connection whatsoever with that Unit, was also at one point asked to cultivate typhoid germs to later be used for infecting villagers in China.
But for most of these outside doctors, they were just there to practice their craft. And many of whom were presumably otherwise good and moral individuals- perhaps even getting into the profession, as many doctors do, to learn to help people. Exceptionally few humans embrace narratives that paint themselves as the bad guy in any act, so they must have had some justification in their minds as to why these acts and subsequent murders were morally acceptable.
In the case of these physicians coming for training, one possible answer is perhaps pointing back to that while an individual death may have been regrettable, the benefit to all of Japan via these now more experienced doctors perhaps outweighed the cost or moral reservations towards it. And mostly using other nation’s lesser people to do it was agreeable enough. In fact explicitly, the general feeling seems to have been that these prisoners would have been executed anyway. So using them for research to benefit others by the way they were executed was actually morally superior.
Going back to experimenting on their own researchers at times who were accidentally infected, this reasoning would likewise be inline with all of this and certain Japanese beliefs at the time- if one citizen’s death could benefit the empire and all of its people, it was worth it. Beyond Japan, in most societies and stories, those who volunteer to sacrifice their lives for the good of their people are generally considered great heroes. Of course, in these cases with Unit 731, at least past the very beginning, these weren’t volunteers. But the general thought process is similar. Along with the seeming reasoning that for most, they’d have been killed anyway. So why not make their deaths a benefit?
Whatever the case there, this brings us to how they largely got away with it all, including the head of Unit 731 himself Shirō Ishii, and the Emperor who was seemingly, contrary to some accounts, aware of and at least on some level in charge of everything, getting off scot-free for their acts after the war, unlike so many Nazi scientists and leadership who were, I think most of us can agree correctly, given no such mercy.
In the days leading up to Japan’s surrender going all the way back almost 8 months before, the writing was on the wall. Even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, advisors to the Emperor were telling him to start seeking peace as the war was lost, and the sooner the peace talks commenced, the greater leverage Japan would have in such negotiations. One of the problems was not, as is often stated, that the Emperor or Japanese brass were blind to the fact that they were losing and/or wanted to fight to the last man- simply that many were WILLING to fight to the last man if the Emperor and their commanders ordered them to. Yet many of the commanders still advised for a surrender. But, in the end, it seems to have been up to the Emperor.
And as for Emperor Showa, he reportedly was for a time fixated on the military achieving a stunning victory in order to enter surrender negotiations from a stronger position. This was despite that, once again, his commanders were advising this was not possible. However, as it was ordered, they attempted anyway, with crushing defeat after defeat being the only result of these last ditch offensives, much to the exasperation of the Emperor.
That said, by June of that year, the Emperor had begun to change his tune, noting to his ministers, “I desire that concrete plans to end the war, unhampered by existing policy, be speedily studied and that efforts be made to implement them.”
That said, when the Allies issued the Potsdam Declaration demanding Japan’s surrender just a month later, the Emperor declined, finding the terms untenable.
Ultimately, after the destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and a much less talked about, but arguably just as critical thing in the Soviets almost simultaneously declaring war on Japan, it was over. Japan had lost almost any hope of a strong negotiating position when the enemy had such a weapon at their disposal, let alone that the Soviets and the rest of the nations leveled against them could more conventionally crush the nation just as well at this point even without such nuclear bombs.
That said, the Japanese did, at least at first, try to ascertain how many such weapons the U.S. had. For example, via torture, they extracted the following information from one P-51 pilot Marcus McDilda. While McDilda initially correctly stated he didn’t know anything about the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, after extensive torture, he would change his tune. Telling his torturers, the U.S. had about 100 of these bombs, and how they worked. Stating, “As you know, when atoms are split, there are a lot of pluses and minuses released. Well, we’ve taken these and put them in a huge container and separated them from each other with a lead shield. When the box is dropped out of a plane, we melt the lead shield and the pluses and minuses come together. When that happens, it causes a tremendous bolt of lightning and all the atmosphere over a city is pushed back! Then when the atmosphere rolls back, it brings about a tremendous thunderclap, which knocks down everything beneath it.”
Perhaps illustrating the downsides to torture as a means of extracting information, it nonetheless helped convince leadership that further resistance was not just futile, but could be catastrophic to the nation beyond the war, even potentially wiping it out completely.
And so it was Emperor Showa finally relented, giving a rare speech to his people stating in part on August 15, 1945, “…the enemy has begun to employ a new and most cruel bomb, the power of which to do damage is, indeed, incalculable, taking the toll of many innocent lives. Should We continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization. Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.”
Given the insane amount of war crimes committed by the Japanese military during the conflict, as you might imagine, from the point of the ceasefire to a couple weeks later with the arrival of American troops, a mass effort was put into destroying as many records of such events as possible. And boy were they thorough. As Japanese history professor Yang Daqing states, “While it is standard practice for governments to destroy evidence in times of defeat, in the two weeks before the Allies arrived in Japan, various Japanese agencies—the military in particular—systematically destroyed sensitive documents to a degree perhaps unprecedented in history. Estimates of the impact of the destruction vary. Tanaka Hiromi, a professor at Japan’s National Defense Academy who has conducted extensive research into remaining Imperial Japanese Army and Navy documents in Japan and overseas, claims that less than 0.1 percent of the material ordered for destruction survived.”
Yet destroying some records is not all. And official records or not, many well known events often spoke for themselves. On these, leading up to Japan’s defeat, the Allies, including the United States, had been blaming the Japanese Emperor for well known atrocities such as the Rape of Nanjing. Yet Emperor Showa lived to the ripe old age of 87, dying on January 7, 1989. So, how was he not tried for his crimes?
Well, when General Douglas MacArthur was tasked with occupying Japan, the question of what to do with Emperor Showa was not an easy one. Once again, before the war, the Allies had painted Emperor Showa in the same brush as Hitler for commanding his nation and troops to commit the mass atrocities they had. So it would seem clear what should be done.
…Except, at this point, the Emperor was still revered by most Japanese people, and even technically considered at the time a living god, though he would shortly after the war ended be forced to give up this god status explicitly. Regardless of Japan’s defeat, and in the stunning way it was accomplished and with up until not long before the Japanese people largely being fed lies about the endless victories Japan was achieving abroad, the Emperor was still extremely important to many, and it was generally thought that his removal would see uprisings, resulting in thousands of more needless deaths than the war on all sides had already taken.
Not only that, as one of MacArthur’s mandates was to help establish a pro-Western democracy in Japan after the war, keeping the Emperor partially in place could not only help avoid any further bloodshed, but also acquire a nice, potentially very grateful and extremely influential ally in forming such a new government, getting the Japanese people to accept it, and rebuilding Japan even quicker. And if he didn’t play along? Well, we’re just guessing his trial would not have gone well for him or certain members of his family.
Thus, it was ultimately decided to allow not just him, but members of his immediately family, even Prince Asaka partially in charge of the Rape of Nanjing, off scot-free. Towards this end, immediately upon this decision being made, all talk of the Emperor being on the level of Hitler and Mussolini was ended, and instead, the U.S. switched to painting him as a simple figurehead, who had no power over anything, and no real knowledge of the events that had transpired. In short, under no circumstances was the man who seemingly had helped orchestrate all of this and had seemingly always had the power to end the war at any point, be implicated in any of it.
In fact, in the subsequent Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal, which were more or less the equivalent of the Nuremberg Trials, while countless Japanese War Crimes were prosecuted, extreme effort was made by the United States, via General Douglas MacArthur and General Bonner Fellers, to ensure no witness said anything that connected any atrocities back to any member of the Imperial family.
A controversial move to this day, many of the records destroyed and testimonies not allowed, make it difficult to determine what involvement the Emperor had at the time in any of it. Yet evidence that has survived seems to paint a VERY different picture than the one the U.S. pushed after the war. And certainly the likes of Prince Asaka and Prince Mikasa knew well the atrocities occurring, as they witnessed a lot of the worst. And Prince Mikasa even seemingly openly discussed them with the Emperor given Mikasa’s extreme opposition to them.
Similarly, historians also still debate that even if the Emperor knew of all the atrocities and the conduct of his military in expanding the empire, whether he had any real ability to stop it, even if he wanted to. Yet accounts like towards the end of the war him continually pushing his military to secure a smashing victory for him to have better negotiating position to end the war, and them doing it even though crushing defeat each time was inevitable and they seemingly knew it, would indicate he had a great deal of control and power over their actions. Further, once again, for months many of his military leaders were pushing him to have Japan surrender, yet they did not. Because the Emperor did not want to at that point.
In the end, the United States’ decision here didn’t just let the alleged top most leader off, it also had other effects in coming decades. Historian Herbert Bix notes of this, “MacArthur’s truly extraordinary measures to save [the Emperor] from trial as a war criminal had a lasting and profoundly distorting impact on Japanese understanding of the lost war.”
Who’s to Blame?
Still, SOMEONE needed to be punished for some of the more well known atrocities that couldn’t be dismissed or covered up.
Thus, as we alluded to in the beginning of this, enter the likes of Iwane Matsui, who, along with the Emperor’s uncle Prince Asaka, oversaw the Rape of Nanjing. Asaka was, once again, left blameless at the trials and, as noted, went on to design golf courses for fun apparently, while Matsui was sentenced to death.
Moving on from that massacre, in the aforementioned Bataan Death March, General Masaharu Homma and two of his subordinates were sentenced to death for allowing this. This list goes on and on. But perhaps most prominently of all, Prime Minister Gen. Tōjō Hideki was made to shoulder the bulk of the overall blame.
As for Tojo, according to the written report of Shūichi Mizota, interpreter for Admiral Mitsumasa Yonai, Brigadier General Bonner Fellers met with Yonai on March 6, 1946 and stated, “It would be most convenient if the Japanese side could prove to us that the Emperor is completely blameless. I think the forthcoming trials offer the best opportunity to do that. Tojo, in particular, should be made to bear all responsibility at this trial.”
For his part, Tojo seemed happy to accept this role to protect the Emperor, outside of a brief slip at one point in which he admitted that the Emperor had ultimate authority, which saw the prosecution, led by the U.S., to see that Tojo was further coached by one General Ryūkichi Tanaka to change his testimony on that point.
Tojo ultimately gave a speech: “It is natural that I should bear entire responsibility for the war in general, and, needless to say, I am prepared to do so. Consequently, now that the war has been lost, it is presumably necessary that I be judged so that the circumstances of the time can be clarified and the future peace of the world be assured. Therefore, with respect to my trial, it is my intention to speak frankly, according to my recollection, even though when the vanquished stands before the victor, who has over him the power of life and death, he may be apt to toady and flatter. I mean to pay considerable attention to this in my actions, and say to the end that what is true is true and what is false is false. To shade one’s words in flattery to the point of untruthfulness would falsify the trial and do incalculable harm to the nation, and great care must be taken to avoid this.”
He would later apologize for what the Japanese military had done, and was subsequently sentenced to death and hanged on December 23, 1948.
Thus, the Emperor was saved. Once again delving into that nothing is black and white, in this case, preventing possibly many thousands of future deaths by allowing the Emperor to live and retain some level of position was deemed a greater priority than having him and certain members of his family answer for apparent extreme war crimes committed under his rule and allegedly with his knowledge- a handful of people were allowed to live and go on with their lives and escape justice, so countless more wouldn’t have to die, and efforts to rebuild Japan would go more smoothly, and in all helping to ensure the new government aligned with U.S. interests, and that the Japanese people would accept that government.
And so it was that both at the time and for decades to come until around the death of Emperor Shōwa in 1989, bringing up any of these matters in Japan in connection with the Emperor was something of a taboo subject for many, with things only changing to an extent in the 1980s and after his death, though some say not yet enough, despite efforts of countless Japanese academics pursuing the subject with rigor, and very publicly publishing their research.
Further, outside of any discussion of the Emperor, all the way back in September of 1972, Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka stated, “[t]he Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious damage that Japan caused in the past to the Chinese people through war, and deeply reproaches itself.”
Much more recently, in 2019, shortly before becoming Emperor of Japan, Naruhito, grandson of Emperor Showa, stated with regards to Japan’s conduct during and preceding WWII it is “important to look back on the past humbly and correctly.” And that, they needed to “correctly pass down tragic experiences and the history behind Japan to the generations who have no direct knowledge of the war, at the time memories of the war are about to fade.” He also stated, “I hope this year will be an opportunity to take the preciousness of peace to heart and renew our determination to pursue peace.”
That said, even to this day there is still some controversy about how this is all taught in Japanese schools and history texts, despite that Japanese academics at the University level have long since been the ones leading the charge at uncovering and documenting the atrocities, as well as spreading the word about them.
But, as we feel compelled to point out once again as we did at the start of this piece. While it is indeed extremely important to study these matters for so many reasons, not the least of which to try to make sure they never happen again, some who often push this point with regards to school texts do so from the stance of not so much the benefits of the knowledge, but assigning blame. Yet, once again, there is very likely no one, or exceptionally few, alive today who bear any responsibility whatsoever for any of these events now some 80+ years ago. And while absolutely history textbooks should reflect the reality of events, let’s just say there is not a single nation on Earth who fully accurately reflects their own history to their children in their history texts. When it comes to WWII, Germany perhaps does the best of all of us. But not Britain. Not the U.S. Not France. Not Japan, or any of them, do a terribly good job at that level of education on many points. An extremely accurate view with all the nuance and atrocities tends to more be the realm of higher level academics, which the Japanese academics on that level on the whole, once again, tend to be the ones researching and reporting on all of this.
That said, when it comes to high school ages and the like level history, we here at TodayIFoundOut are hugely in support of a switch on this to more accuracy and more comprehensive coverage for students. One, because it’s way more interesting than the way most school history books present things. The real stories bring it to life in a way filtered high level accounts just don’t. Thus, instead of history being thought of by most students as one of the most boring subjects, it would quickly become one of the more interesting. Two because kids are capable of understanding far more than most adults give them credit. And three because most of those kids grow up with a skewed perception of things and never learn any different. And especially when it comes to things like what we covered in this video on all sides, it would be best if society as a whole understood a lot more, and in more depth and the nuance of it all.
Of course, we kind of make our living talking about a lot of things people aren’t taught at younger ages of school, or not given a full, nuanced view. So… hmmmm.
But in any event, so what, dear viewers, do you think about all this? Was the U.S. justified in their position with regards to the Emperor? Afterall, convicting the Emperor couldn’t have brought back any of the dead or undone any of the atrocities, but it could save the lives of many thousands and help smooth over relations with Japan going forward to help their nation rebuild as rapidly as possible, and to the benefit of nations like the U.S. long term, who were the ones largely making the decision on all this. On the flipside, if such a benefit could have been had by allowing Hitler or Mussilini to stay in power after the things done under their watch, it would seem likely few would have been ok with that, regardless of benefit. Was Emperor Showa a special case? Or did he just seem a special case because propaganda and efforts after the fact wanted us to think of him this way? And did the pros outweigh the cons from a practical standpoint regardless?
Why Did Unit 731 Officials Get Off Scot-Free?
This finally brings us to the fate of those of Unit 731. If you’ve been paying close attention over the course of this piece, you already know the vast majority involved here got off scot-free. But- mother of God, HOW? Afterall, they had no such protection as the Emperor enjoyed of a populace loyal to them.
Well, much like with the importing of countless Nazi scientists to Allied nations that could get their hands on them after the war, and the rather sweeping forgiveness of any and all crimes they may or may have not committed during the war, in a word, it all came down to data. No, not our loveable Star Trek friend, but information. These Japanese researchers had it. The U.S. wanted it.
Further, unlike some of the Nazi medical scientists, the Japanese scientists were a bit more savvy about what they had. As noted in the paper United States Responses to Japanese Wartime Inhuman Experimentation after World War II: National Security and Wartime Exigency by Dr. Howard Brody et al, “The Japanese scientists were more astute than the Germans, both in banding together to plan their response to the American investigations and in realizing that the American interest in their data gave them a powerful bargaining chip. Like Scheherazade in the Arabian Nights tales, the Japanese interrogees became adept at revealing just enough in each interview, leaving what was yet unsaid as a tantalizing demonstration of how valuable their continued freedom would be to U.S. interests.”
Thus, very quickly, what the U.S. did know was that this information about bioweapons and their effects on humans and designs, along with all manner of human research in extreme wartime scenarios, could potentially be used to save U.S. soldiers’ lives and give a leg up to the U.S. in future conflicts if such weapons were deployed. Further, making any of this more publicly known would also have the potential downside of ensuring that the data would also fall into Communist hands. WWII was over, but the U.S. was already gearing up for a potential next one with their former allies in the Soviets.
So what to do with the Unit 731 scientists and their research given the ethical questions involved, which were extremely troublesome. And given that if the wider public found out they let these people off, and where this information came from, let’s just say there would be controversy.
The Soviet Union on the surface called for access to the scientists to determine the truth of what they’d done and potentially punish them for their crimes. On this one, the Soviets did get their hands on 12 of the scientists, and they did uncover exactly what went on at Unit 731. They even published their findings to try to pressure the U.S. to reveal all. To which the U.S. officials claimed the Soviets were making it up as a part of communist propaganda against Japan.
That said, despite the seriousness of the crimes the Soviets were correctly accusing the scientists they did get their hands on of, all of them mysteriously were given relatively light sentences, including all but 2 allowed to return to Japan by the 1950s. As for the two who weren’t, this was simply because one killed himself in his cell, and another died while in jail, leading most to conclude that those scientists had likewise made some sort of deal similar to the ones the U.S. had possession of.
As for the U.S., who even had Shirō Ishii himself, well, they ultimately granted the researchers blanket immunity in exchange for their research. It was also noted that the U.S. paid the equivalent in modern dollars of about $200,000 as well for some of the data the researchers had compiled on the backs of thousands of brutal and extremely unethical deaths.
As investigator Dr. Norbert H Fell would note in his June 24, 1947 report, “At a conference yesterday at which the Chief of the Chemical Corps and representatives of the War, State and Justice Departments were present, it was informally agreed that the recommendations of the C.inC., FEC [Commander-in-Chief, Far East Command, i.e. General Douglas MacArthur], and the Chief, Chemical Corps would be accepted, i.e. that all information obtained in this investigation would be held in intelligence channels and not used for ‘War Crimes’ programs.”
Deal struck, a massive amount of information was handed over to the U.S. Military. Including countless reports, over 8000 pathological slides, hundreds of drawings, etc.
The final report by Dr. Edwin Hill and Dr. Joseph Victor on this in December of 1947 further stated, “Such information could not be obtained in our own laboratories because of scruples attached to human experimentation….It is hoped that the individuals who voluntarily contributed this information will be spared embarrassment because of it and that every effort will be taken to prevent this information from falling into other hands.”
Some wrangling did still need sorted, but ultimately the Joint Chiefs sent the final order on March 13, 1948 among other things ordering the ceasing of any prosecution against Ishii and his subordinates at Unit 731.
What Ishii whiled away his years doing after this is a mystery, with it variously claimed he for a time traveled to the United States to consult on bioweapons, to that he opened a free clinic in Japan. Whatever the case, what is known is that he died of cancer in 1959 at the age of 67. A researcher to the end, he took meticulous notes of his own demise. Then shortly before his death converted to Catholicism, was baptized and took the name Joseph. His daughter Harumi would state of the aftermath of the baptism and being accepted into the church, “It seems to me that my father felt relieved somehow.”
In the end, thanks to this active suppression of what happened at Unit 731, it wasn’t until journalist John Powell in 1980 blew the whistle on it all after acquiring various U.S. government documents on Unit 731 via a Freedom of Information Act request that the wider public became more aware of both the activities there, as well as the the United States’ apparent trading of data for pardons and cover up of Unit 731’s activities.
And so our final question to you, was this justified? Did the pros of the value of that research which could not be acquired any other way than the Japanese had done it, justify allowing these scientists immunity from their mass murder and brutal crimes? Once again, after all, nobody dead could be brought back to life. But the price for allowing the researchers to go on with theirs could potentially save countless thousands later, thereby even perhaps giving some legacy for the dead. That their deaths weren’t fully pointless. Humanity, as a whole, could benefit.
Or, much like with Nazi research, is how the information was gathered, and allowing such extreme injustice in these individuals like Shirō Ishii to walk free after committing some of the most heinous crimes one human can do against another, simply never justified in terms of the United States’ military leadership decision here. In essence, by allowing such, weren’t these leaders simply making the same decision the Japanese leaders had done- the benefits to these brutal acts to their society outweighed their brutality. With the only distinction here perhaps being, what’s done was done and couldn’t be undone at that point. So they might as well benefit from it. But either way, did this then make the U.S. leaders like General MacArthur complicit in these crimes, at least on some level?
Inquiring minds want to know, dear viewer. On all of this. What do you think?
To end this piece on a slightly lighter note, as I think we could all use that right about now. Let’s go back to Pavlov’s temper and Stalin’s humorous attempt to purge Pavlov’s laboratory of political undesirables. When Vladimir Lenin took over in 1917, Pavlov and his collaborators were treated like any other Soviet citizens, their laboratory funding being confiscated as property of the state. For three years they struggled to keep warm and fed, with some of Pavlov’s assistants dying of starvation and hypothermia…. Wait wait wait, we promise this gets mildly humorous at the end. You’ve come this far, just stick with us a little longer.
Finally, in 1920, Pavlov wrote to Lenin seeking permission to emigrate from Russia and continue his research elsewhere. Lenin immediately grasped the public relations implications of losing the country’s most celebrated scientist, and saw to it that Pavlov and his staff received virtually unlimited funding and carte blanche to pursue their research. It didn’t hurt that the Soviet leadership saw Pavlov as psychology’s answer to Karl Marx, and his behaviourist theories as a real-world manifestation of dialectical materialism. And while Pavlov actively rejected this interpretation of his work, this misunderstanding allowed his laboratory to prosper at a time when many intellectuals were being rounded up as suspected enemies of the state.
While most scientists in Pavlov’s position would have kept their heads down and tried not to rock the boat, Pavlov was vocal in his denunciation of the Communist regime, declaring in one public speech:
“Of course, in the struggle between labor and capital the government must stand for the protection of the worker. But what have we made of this? That which constitutes the culture, the intellectual strength of the nation, has been devalued, and that which for now remains a crude force, replaceable by a machine, has been moved to the forefront. All this, of course, is doomed to destruction as a blind rejection of reality.”
This outspoken opposition carried on well into Stalin’s reign of terror, with Pavlov even writing the Soviet leader to declare that his purge of intellectuals made him “ashamed to be called a Russian.”
And so it was that Stalin sent an agent to purge his laboratory of political undesirables. While most would have ended up dead at this point or pled for their life. Pavlov’s response was a bit different. When said purging agent came a knocking, Pavlov proceeded to, quite literally, kick said agent down the stairs and intimate in the strongest verbiage, said individual should consider not returning.
Whether Pavlov was astoundingly brave or, being well into his 70s, had simply run out of fucks to give, we shall likely never know. But while a man with less Kremlin-sized balls would have been immediately arrested and shot or shipped off to the Gulag, amazingly Pavlov got away with it, with Nikolai Bukharin, Stalin’s right-hand man, grudgingly admitting: “I know that he does not sing the ‘Internationale,’ but despite all his grumbling, ideologically (in his works, not in his speeches) he is working for us.”
Under the protection of the Soviet State, Pavlov built the Institute of Experimental Medicine into a world-renowned centre of physiology and psychology research, and continued to make important discoveries up until his death from pneumonia on February 27, 1936. Still considered a hero of the Soviet Union despite his anti-communist rhetoric and flagrantly flaunting being a puppy killer, his funeral was attended by around one hundred thousand mourners.Expand for References
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