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Prisoners of war, or POWs, were military personnel who had surrendered and were entitled
certain protections under the Geneva and
Conventions. Only lawful combatants were entitled to these
protections. Persons who engaged in combat while not wearing
distinctive insignia visible from a distance; who were not
part of a chain of command
to a legal sovereign; or who did not bear arms openly or abide by
the laws and customs of war, were unlawful
combatants and had no protection under international law. They
generally executed as bandits by both Axis
and Allies if taken
POWs were theoretically entitled to the same rations, medical
and pay as their captors. Enlisted men could be required to
nonmilitary work for pay, but officers
could not be required to work.
Punishment for attempted escape was limited to 30 days solitary
confinement. POWs charged with more serious offenses were entitled
trial by military tribunal in the presence of a neutral observer. This
was usually a representative of a protecting power acting as an
intermediary between the belligerent powers. On
conclusion of hostilities, POWs were required to be repatriated
a reasonable time frame. In practice, these protections were
observed between the
western Allies and the European Axis.
These rules regarding prisoners of war were adopted for both idealistic and realistic reasons. Properly guarding, transporting, and caring for prisoners of war consumed significant resources that might otherwise have been available for military use. Nations that accepted this obligation made a powerful statement that upholding certain basic rules of humanity was important enough even to risk defeat in time of war. However, there were also pragmatic reasons for proper treatment of prisoners, not least of which was the likelihood that mistreatment of prisoners would become known and would deter enemy troops from surrendering. There was also the likelihood that mistreatment of prisoners would provoke retaliation in kind. Prisoners were also potential sources of intelligence, and, to some extent, prisoner labor could replace drafted civilian labor.
It may seem strange that men engaged in the business of killing
other men and destroying their works should be expected to behave
humane manner towards enemy captives. However, the right to
(the opportunity to surrender) established by the Conventions was
an important check on wartime violence. An army is not just a
mob; it is an instrument of state policy that must remain under
control to prevent it becoming no more than a murderous
Rules regarding wartime conduct generally, and rules regarding
prisoners of war in particular, were an important aspect of
||Prisoners of war
||Number of deaths
Japan signed both the Geneva
Hague Conventions but ratified only the Hague Conventions, which
had less to say about prisoners of war. The failure to ratify the
Geneva Convention was due to pressure from the Japanese Army,
undergoing a profound shift in its attitude towards conduct on the
battlefield. In previous conflicts, such as the Boxer Rebellion,
Russo-Japanese War, and the
First World War, the Japanese Army had been
notably correct in its treatment of prisoners of war. Of the 4,592
prisoners taken by the Japanese during the First World War, only
died in captivity, primarily from the 1918 influenza pandemic.
the desire to establish Japan as a respectable member of the
international community in equal standing with the Western powers.
However, by 1929, Japanese Army leaders had become convinced that
Japan's national aspirations would never be satisfied within the
existing international order. This eroded support for compliance
international standards of military conduct, as did the growing
emphasis on absolute obedience to the Emperor. Japanese Army
officers at distant posts on the Asian mainland, particularly with
were influenced by their proximity to the brutal warlord struggles
in China, and their attitudes
propagated throughout the Army.
The Japanese had insisted on unconditional
surrender of Allied forces in the Philippines and
Asia in the first months of the war, and they took the position
unconditional surrender meant that even the Conventions did not
Navy Minister Shimada
Shigetaro told the Cabinet on 20 March 1942 that Japan would
respect the Second Hague Convention with regard to prisoners of
the grounds that Britain had waged "extreme warfare based on
retaliation and hatred" (Browne 1967).
as characterized by samurai professor Inazo Nitobe in
1907, captives were to be treated with mercy, but this injunction
it into the code of the modern Japanese Army. During the Pacific
prisoners of war were
regarded by the Japanese as completely dishonorable and were
appalling treatment. It did
help that discipline within the
Japanese Army itself was brutal, and many of the prison camp
were Korean conscripts
who were at
of the military pecking order. Lieutenant Geoffrey Adams, a
British prisoner on the infamous Burma-Siam Railroad,
became acquainted a Korean guard, nicknamed "Kaneshiro" ("The
Undertaker") because he was the camp coffin maker. "Kaneshiro"
engaged in petty fraternization with the prisoners, and, possibly
in retaliation, he was confronted by a Japanese non-commissioned
officer for a trivial violation of regulations and beaten
unconscious. Mistreated by
their Japanese NCOs, the Korean guards mistreated Allied prisoners
in turn, a pattern
that one Japanese critic has described as "transfer of oppression"
(quoted in Hicks 1994). An anecdote from Hastings (2007)
Ito had been constantly brutal. The POWs had no inkling that he spoke English until suddenly he addressed a terse question to Abbott: "Homesick?" ... He asked curiously what Abbott thought of the Japanese, and received a cautious reply: "I don't know them very well, so I cannot answer your question." The guard persisted: "How do you think of what you know? How do you think of me?" Abbott said: "In our army, we do not strike and beat people as punishment. Ito is always doing so, and this blackens my thoughts about him." The eyes of the little Japanese widened in amazement. He asked how the British Army punished wrongdoers. Abbott explained that physical chastisement was unknown. Ito never hit a prisoner again.
Tojo set the tone for much of the treatment of prisoners of war on 25 May 1942, declaring that (Hoyt 1993):
The present situation of affairs in this country does not permit anyone to lie idle, doing nothing but eating freely. With that in view, in dealing with prisoners of war, I hope you will see that they are usefully employed.
He elaborated shortly afterwards to prospective POW camp commanders:
In Japan we have our own ideology concerning prisoners of war which should naturally make their treatment more or less different from that in Europe and America. In dealing with them you should, of course, observe the various regulations concerned and aim at an adequate application of them. At the same time you must not allow them to lie idle doing noting but enjoy free meals, for even a single day. Their labor and technical skill should be fully utilized for the replenishment of production, and a contribution thereby made towards the prosecution of the Greater East Asia War for which no effort might be spared.
Tojo's statements were superficially innocuous. Under the
international conventions, it was permissible to require enlisted
(but not officers) to work. They could not be required to perform
of immediate military value, such as arms production, but they
put to work on food production, railway construction, or other
activities of indirect military value. However, Tojo's statement
license for local commanders to make slaves of POWs, who were
paid nor given sufficient food to remain physically fit. Tojo's
admonishment not to allow POWs to rest for even a single day meant
POWs worked seven days a week, and working hours were brutal,
exceeding 18 hours a day. Worse still, Tojo's instructions led to
practice of refusing food to POWs who were too sick or injured to
Assignment to prison camps was considered demeaning, so it is
that camp commanders represented the worst of the Japanese officer
corps. Many stole the Red Cross food parcels that were sent in
numbers for the prisoners, while others withheld hundreds more
Red Cross parcels until after the final Japanese surrender.
from family members were also withheld. One camp commander on the
Burma-Siam Rairoad ordered the
prisoners' band to play the dwarves'
work tune from the animated film, Snow
White ("Hi, ho, hi, ho, it's off to work we go") as the
inmates were mustered into work details each morning. The
commander at Camp O'Donnell on Luzon,
Tsuneyoshi Yoshio (known as "Baggy Pants" to the prisoners),
received survivors of the Bataan
Death March with an angry tirade that included the declaration
would be hanged once Japan had occupied Washington, D.C. At age
Tsuneyoshi, a graduate of the Japanese military academy, had not
advanced beyond the rank of captain. Tsuneyoshi's
incompetence was too much even for the Japanese, and after a few
he was sacked and the prisoners sent to other camps. Postwar he
sentenced to 6 years' imprisonment, but was released in a general
The Japanese almost invariably executed prisoners of war who
attempted to escape. In some camps, the prisoners were coerced
signing agreements that they would not attempt escape, allowing
Japanese to apply the legal fiction that prisoners who attempted
were being executed for mutiny or desertion.
Military discipline tended to disintegrate among Allied prisoners of war, though some captive commanders, such as Maltby, were able to restore a measure of discipline. Maltby forbade individual escapes on the grounds that the Japanese would retaliate by withholding food, endangering the lives of the remaining prisoners. On the other hand, Maltby seriously considered organizing a mass escape in spite of predictions that a third of those escaping would perish. These plans never came to fruition. The Japanese eventually separated senior commanders from their officers and officers from men, which aggravated discipline problems.
The International Red Cross proved ineffective at applying pressure on the Japanese to improve camp conditions. Red Cross officials who visited the Hong Kong POW camps cabled back reassuring reports that gave no hint of how terrible conditions were. One of the officials later claimed that the Japanese were censoring his reports, and anything close to a candid evaluation of conditions would never have passed scrutiny. This official also claimed that the Kempeitai were searching his office and residence weekly for anything incriminating.
Incredibly, some POWs held in countries with a sympathetic local population were able to establish contact with Allied authorities. A group of escaped prisoners from Hong Kong organized the British Army Aid Group, which passed messages to the prisoners via Chinese truck drivers bringing supplies to the camps. In one camp, an electronics technician was able to construct a radio transmitter. The prisoners sent back reports on conditions in the camps and on Japanese activities in Hong Kong harbor. The Kempeitai were able to uncover some of these operations and executed three British officers for espionage.
Allied prisoners at Cabanatuan
were able to construct clandestine radio receivers using
extra parts obtained on the pretense that they were being used to
repair their captors' radios. These receivers were able to pick up
powerful broadcasts from San
and kept the prisoners informed on the progress of the war as seen
the Allied side. The prisoners were also able to establish ties
the underground network
outside the camp, which was able to smuggle in
vitally needed food to keep the prisoners from starving.
Allied authorities were reluctant to believe that the Japanese
treated their prisoners as badly as they did. Japanese POWs
under interrogation that
Allied POWs were well treated, perhaps out of fear of retaliation,
perhaps because they believed their own propaganda. As
late as January 1945, the British
Political Warfare Committee suggested that mistreatment of Allied
was the exception rather than the rule, taking place mainly in
areas far from Japan where local military authorities were less
controlled. Such illusions were shattered within months as large
of POWs were released in the Philippines and Burma. Their stories
that the Allied governments sometimes censored them for fear of
own citizens' reactions. In particular, American authorities
that stories about Japanese atrocities would undermine the "Germany First" policy.
Hell Ships. The Japanese attempted to move large numbers
of POWs from southeast
Asia to Japan. The prisoners were packed into the holds of
merchant ships under appalling conditions, and the ships were not
marked in any way to indicate that POWs were aboard. As a result,
of these "hell ships" were sunk by Allied submarines and aircraft. The
Japanese made little effort to rescue the survivors, although a
were picked up by American submarines.
In one notorious incident, Lisbon
Maru was sunk by U.S. submarine Grouper
on 1 October 1942 off the China
coast. The ship was abandoned by the Japanese, who left 1,816
POWs locked below decks with inadequate ventilation. When the
broke out of the hold, five Japanese guards who had been left
fired on them. At about this time the ship finally foundered in
water, and the prisoners found themselves in the water with four
Japanese gunboats shooting
them. Some 843 were shot or drowned
before the survivors were finally rescued. The captain of Lisbon Maru, Kyoda Shigeru,
later sentenced to seven years' imprisonment by a British military
Mortality rates tell the story as well as anything. Whereas 4% of
western POWs held by the Germans
died in captivity, 27% of western POWs held by the Japanese
perished in the prison camps. The contrast is particularly great
the Americans: Of 24,992 American soldiers captured by the
8,634 or 35 percent died in captivity, whereas just 833 or 0.9
of the 93,653 American soldiers captured by the Germans died in
captivity (Frank 1999).
The Japanese evidently considered killing all their prisoners of
rather than let them be repatriated by the Allies in the event of
an invasion of Japan. On 16
August 1945, the Japanese Navy Ministry sent out an order that
included the following:
All papers relating to prisoners and interrogation (particularly those such as the ones published in December 1944 which refer to interrogation of American pilot prisoners), and confiscated ——, together with this dispatch are to be immediately and positively disposed of in a manner that will offer the enemy no pretext.
This order strongly hints that the Navy Ministry had previously issued orders to execute prisoners of war, which orders were subsequently destroyed. A Marine sergeant in a prisoner of war camp outside Himeji testified (Frank and Shaw 1968):
In 1944. . . Tahara came to me and advised "I am very sorry — we must all die." Tahara told me that orders had been issued by Tokyo which would require, the moment the first American set foot on Japanese soil, that all POWs be killed and that the camp authorities then commit suicide.
Shortly afterwards, the Japs began daily drills. A platoon of Japs would arrive at our camp from Himeji barracks (they were required to move on the double for the 11 kilometers), hastily set up their machine guns to completely encircle the camp and execute other maneuvers clearly indicating a plan they wished to execute without mistake. Their arrival, their maneuver, their critique, and their departure took place two or three times each week. The . . . authorities made mention that the soldiers were being trained to protect us from irate civilians who might wish to harm us if U.S. troops started to invade. On one occasion, I made a point blank statement to the [Japanese second in command], Sgt. Fukada, that it was regrettable that we should have to die after so long a term in prison camp — he agreed and stated he would have liked to have lived after the war was over, perhaps the country would some day be a good country again.
I believed that orders directing massacre of the prisoners had been issued and am still of that opinion.
A number of captured airmen in Japan were in fact murdered after the Emperor broadcast the surrender. On the other hand, Major General Matsui Hideji released his prisoners of war before retreating from Rangoon; those in hospital were found by the DRACULA invasion force. Regrettably, those released prisoners who attempted to walk to the British lines were wearing old-style khaki uniforms resembling those of the Japanese, rather than the newer British jungle green uniforms, and were attacked by Allied aircraft that mistook them for a Japanese column.
China. The war in China produced few prisoners of war on
either side until
the mass surrender of Japanese troops at the end of the war. The
Japanese released only 56 Chinese prisoners of war at the end of
hostilities, after eight years of fighting a Chinese army whose
strength peaked at around 6 million men. This was in spite of
Japanese records showing the capture of thousands of prisoners,
including 9,581 in the Wuhan campaign alone (Peattie et al.
2011). It is faintly possible that some Chinese prisoners of war
were given their paroles or were impressed into puppet forces, but
it is much more likely that captured Chinese troops were generally
shot or beheaded out of hand.
The Japanese military ethos regarded surrender as completely
dishonorable. The 159 Japanese soldiers captured at Nomonhan in 1939 and
the Soviets were severely
by their own army. Enlisted men were assigned to penal units and
officers were ordered to commit suicide.
The message was clear, and prisoners of war constituted not more
3% of Japanese casualties
in the final campaign at Okinawa.
Those who did offer surrender sometimes engaged in perfidy,
their would-be captors with a grenade
Some Allied units became reluctant to offer quarter, with the
did not survive their attempt to surrender. Captain John Burden, a
former physician working with Japanese immigrants in Hawaii who
first Japanese language officer on Guadalcanal, reported that on
"several occasions word was telephoned in from the front line that
prisoner had been taken, only to find after hours of waiting that
prisoner had 'died' en route to the rear. In more than one
there was strong evidence that the prisoner had been shot and
because it was too much bother to take him in" (quoted in Straus
However, those Japanese POWs who made it to the rear were usually treated humanely, in part because Allied intelligence officers considered prisoners to be valuable intelligence assets. The Japanese did nothing to prepare their men for the possibility of capture, since that possibility was unthinkable, and Japanese prisoners tended to talk freely with their captors if treated well. Many Japanese prisoners begged their captors to allow them to remain in Allied countries and to not inform their government of their capture rather than face the dishonor of returning alive to their families. These requests were refused, since such notification was required under the Conventions, although fully half the prisoners gave false names to interrogators to avoid shaming their families. Many of the prisoners felt that by being taken captive they had ceased to be Japanese, and some prisoners even helped the Americans draft propaganda leaflets.
The Americans interned captured Japanese at Camp Paita in New
Caledonia, though most were eventually transferred to seven
the U.S. mainland. Spain acted as the protecting power for
prisoners of war in the United States until April 1945, when the
massacre of the Spanish consulate at Manila caused Spain to break
relations with Japan. Japanese captured by
Commonwealth forces were interned at Camp Bikaner in present-day
Pakistan; Camp Cowra, Camp Hay, and Camp Murchison in southeast Australia; and Camp
Featherston near Wellington,
Prisoners thought to have particularly valuable information were
to either Fort Hunt or Camp Tracy, where they were kept in
rooms and subject to thorough interrogation. Even here, however,
was little or no use of duress to extract information.
Sometimes Japanese prisoners of war did not remain
broken. There were two instances of riots at Allied prisoner of
where the actions of the Japanese prisoners suggest that they had
decided it was better to regain their honor by being shot while
attempting escape than to continue to endure the shame of
The riot at Camp Featherston on 25 February 1943 took place when
prisoners refused to
report for work, the situation escalated, and 48 prisoners and one
guard wound up dead. The mass breakout at Cowra on 4 August 1944
resulted in the escape of 359 prisoners, all of whom were
either recaptured, killed while resisting recapture, or committed
suicide. The Cowra breakout ultimately cost the lives of 231
and four guards. A third planned riot at Camp Piata was exposed by
informer, and the ringleaders promptly hanged themselves in their
Both riots were led by a hard core of "true believers", prisoners
who maintained a deep faith in the ultimate victory of Japan. At
Featherston the ringleaders were petty officers from cruiser Furutaka,
while those at Cowra were noncommissioned officers upset that they
going to be separated from their men. The ringleader at Piata was
Senior Petty Officer Sato Mitsue, who was "a dyed-in-the-wool
Japanese Navy warrior type — 'self-confident, dignified, exuding
authority'" (Straus 2003).
However, while many POWs professed to interrogators that they
to be killed, relatively few seemed to really mean it.
sometimes became so annoyed with requests from POWs to be killed
they invited the prisoner to make a run for it so that he would be
by the military police
while attempting escape. None took the interrogators up on the
Japanese prisoners of war feared the worst when they returned to
Japan after the war. For the most part, their fears went
and they were able to reintegrate into Japanese society relatively
smoothly. One ex-POW even rose to flag rank in the postwar
Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force.
Few Japanese were taken prisoner by the Chinese prior to August
1945. One recent estimate is that about 8300 Japanese had been
prisoner by Chinese forces by 15 August 1945. Both the Japanese
and the Chinese generally executed captured enemy soldiers out of
hand. However, the Japanese
capitulation led to the mass surrender of some 1.2 million
troops in China. Expecting vicious retribution from the Chinese,
Japanese instead found their treatment by the Chinese to be
"magnanimous" (Straus 2003). The Kuomintang were primarily
concerned with ensuring that the Communists did not
gain any advantage from captured Japanese weapons, from the power
vacuum in formerly Japanese-controlled areas, or by directly
surrendered Japanese troops against the Kuomintang.
Russia had not signed the Conventions, and both Russian prisoners and prisoners of the Russians were treated with great brutality in the European war. The brief Russian campaign in Manchuria in August 1945 resulted in the capture of numerous Japanese prisoners, who were generally also treated quite poorly. Some were not repatriated until 1956. American researchers estimate that the Soviets captured 2,726,000 Japanese nationals during the campaign, of which only a third were military. Of these, 2,379,000 eventually returned to Japan. Some 254,000 were confirmed dead, and the remaining 93,000 were presumed dead. However, this 13% death rate, while appalling, was far less than that of either German prisoners in Russia or Western prisoners of the Japanese.
Frank and Shaw (1968; accessed 2012-6-15)
Hickman (2009; accessed 2012-4-14)
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