A Brief History
On April 22, 2005, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi issued an apology regarding Japan’s conduct during World War II, saying, “In the past, Japan, through its colonial rule and aggression, caused tremendous damage and suffering to the people of many countries, particularly to those of Asian nations. Sincerely facing these facts of history, I once again express my feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology, and also express the feelings of mourning for all victims, both at home and abroad, in the war. I am determined not to allow the lessons of that horrible war to erode, and to contribute to the peace and prosperity of the world without ever again waging a war.” This speech was not the first Japanese apology about World War II and would not be the last, and today we examine why such apologies are necessary. Just what did Japan do that demands apologies?
Without trying to list every single instance of brutality or violation of either international law or norms, we cite some of the most egregious examples of callous Japanese disregard for basic humanity. Remember, these are but a few of the instances of horrible things Japan did to people during World War II.
1. Pearl Harbor and British territory attacks.
International law and normal conduct of nations is such that neutral nations shall not be attacked or invaded without cause or without warning. Japan did not issue any such warning or ultimatums before launching surprise attacks on American and British territories in the Pacific, resulting in violent and deadly commencement of hostilities in a most un-diplomatic manner. Such waging of “aggressive war” is considered a war crime.
2. Bataan Death March.
When Japanese forces defeated the American and Filipino forces defending the Philippine Islands in 1942, the prisoners (60,000 to 80,000) were forced to march 60 to 70 miles to a POW camp under the harshest of conditions. Food and water were not provided, wounded men that could not walk were beaten and killed, others were killed just for sport and by the end of the grueling march as many as 650 Americans and as many as 15,000 Filipinos were dead. The Japanese commanding general, General Homma, was convicted of the war crime and sentenced to death in 1946 when he was executed by firing squad.
3. Executing and torturing prisoners.
The systematic and virtually universal abuse of Allied prisoners of war by the Japanese took many forms, including often summarily executing American airmen that had been shot down or crashed after bombing Japanese positions (including 3 of the Doolittle Raiders). Any slight against a Japanese guard or person could easily result in a severe beating or execution, and prisoners were regularly tortured for information, as punishment for “offenses,” or just for the amusement of the Japanese captors. Water boarding was a common torture, and another was to leave a prisoner dying of thirst in the hot sun in sight of water sources. Mutilation of prisoners while they were still alive resulted in the extreme reluctance of US Marines to take Japanese prisoners alive. Post war interviews of Japanese officers and men indicated the Japanese felt the Chinese and other Allied prisoners were sub-human and undeserving of humane treatment. Japanese policy was to prevent prisoners from being liberated by the Allies, and that those prisoners whose freedom was imminent should be killed. (Not all Japanese captors followed this directive.) As a comparison, about 40% of American captured by the Japanese did not survive the war, but about 96% of Americans captured by the Germans did survive the war!
4. Using prisoners of war as slave labor.
Under internationally recognized rules of war, military prisoners of war are not to be used as slave labor, especially in any war related industry. Civilians in occupied lands are also forbidden from being used as forced labor. Japan completely ignored this basic rule of conduct and utilized Allied prisoners as slaves, spurring the work with beatings, torture, threats and executions. The well known Hollywood movie Bridge on the River Kwai depicts such an instance (although the movie is highly fictionalized) and Americans were used to mine coal in miniature mine tunnels the prisoners had to crawl on their bellies in. An estimated 100,000+ war prisoners and civilians died building the Burma-Siam railway for Japan. The Japanese used literally millions of slave laborers in Indonesia and China as well as other countries, including Japan itself. While prisoners of war are permitted to perform labor for certain tasks, such as constructing their own barracks and tending their own farms and gardens, those ranking sergeant and above are forbidden from labor and those that are working are to be provided adequate rations and water. All these normal conventions were ignored, and prisoners used as forced/slave labor died by the thousands.
5. Korean “comfort girls.”
One of the more insidious and odious forms of slave “labor” inflicted on captive people was the forced sexual slavery of Korean girls detailed to provide “comfort” for Japanese soldiers and officials. The number of such girls and women used for sexual slavery is estimated at about 200,000 and includes other nationalities such as Chinese and Indonesian as well as the better known Korean girls. In 1992 Japan finally acknowledged the horrible practice, but in 2007 the serving Prime Minister Shinzo Abe denied Japanese culpability and was later forced to apologize under pressure and documentary evidence that the practice did take place.
6. Rape of Nanking.
Also called “The Nanking Massacre” due to the 40,000 to 300,000 (American estimate is 200,000 while the Chinese estimate is 300,000) unarmed civilians murdered during the carnage, this six week long wanton rape and murder spree started in December of 1937 in what was then the capital of China. When the victorious Japanese army rolled into Nanking, the soldiers were permitted free rein to loot, pillage, destroy and murder as they pleased to terrorize and cow the population of China. Many people were killed just for the amusement of the Japanese in most horrific and contemptible ways. While China and other Asian nations consider the Rape of Nanking to be a horrible impediment to normal relations with Japan, the Japanese have consistently claimed the death toll and damage inflicted are both highly exaggerated and in some cases some Japanese have denied the event. Most Japanese today admit the massacre happened, but only through revisionist goggles. Japanese newspapers in 1937 reported a contest between 2 Japanese army officers with the goal of who could be the first to kill 100 Chinese civilians with their sword! Both of those officers were then reported to conduct a second “competition” to see which could kill 150 Chinese first. Both these criminals were convicted of war crimes and executed after the war.
7. Rape and Ruin of Manila.
In 1945, as the Allied forces (i.e., Americans) inexorably marched through the Philippines reconquering the islands as General MacArthur had promised, the Japanese garrison of the capital city of Manila was ordered to retreat to the mountains to continue defense of Luzon by their commander, General Yamashita. Unfortunately, about 10,000 Japanese fanatical Marines refused to follow the orders and remained in Manila, murdering, raping and destroying all things civilian before fighting the invading Americans to the death. About 100,000 innocent Filipino civilians were killed and a beautiful historic city was destroyed for totally unnecessary military reasons. Even patients in hospitals were massacred, and one hospital was used as a designated rape center! Despite his efforts to evacuate the city, General Yamashita was tried and convicted of war crimes concerning the Rape of Manila and was hanged after the war.
8. Unit 731.
Japan’s original target in China was what they called Manchukuo (Manchuria), seized as a new Japanese province in 1932. The Japanese capital of Manchukuo was Harbin, and there was located the infamous Unit 731, officially called the harmless sounding “Epidemic Prevention and Water Purification Department of the Kwantung Army.” Despite its mundane official name, this outfit was as evil as any outfit anywhere in the world, then or at any time! Their real “work” was developing chemical and biological weapons and testing those weapons on living humans. Much like the psychopaths in Germany (Dr. Mengele, I presume?), Unit 731 also tested human endurance under various conditions and human reaction to a variety of injuries, weapons, and chemicals. About 3000 hapless test subjects that the Japanese referred to as “logs” were used each year, mostly Chinese. The sickening activities and torture/murder of thousands of people was made that much worse by the United States government giving the principles of the infamous unit immunity from prosecution after the war to gain their cooperation in sharing whatever data they had compiled in their human experimentation! In this regard the Soviets were actually the moral standard bearers, as they tried and convicted Japanese participants in Unit 731 that were captured by the Soviets. The US denied accounts by victims and downplayed the situation for decades after the war. General Douglas MacArthur was complicit in the decision to give the Japanese criminals immunity.
9. “Killing policy.”
Japanese soldiers and occupying forces purposely committed genocide against various people during the war, including Chinese Muslims. In China alone a probable 3.9 million people were murdered by Japanese conquerors (and this does not count those killed by combat operations), with a total of around 6 million Asians in conquered territories overall. Numerous instances of massacres of civilian populations in Japanese held locations have been documented.
10. Cannibalism of Prisoners of War.
As Japanese outposts became isolated and supply lines were cut off by Allied interdiction, starving Japanese garrisons in many cases have been documented as selecting prisoners for slaughter and consumption of human flesh. The highest ranking officer convicted of the war crime of cannibalism was a Japanese Lieutenant General (pictured above preparing to sign documents surrendering the Bonin Islands). Numerous cases of cannibalism of prisoners executed for the express reason of eating them were witnessed. In other cases, civilians held captive were chosen for slaughter and eating by selecting the most healthy people to kill and eat.
Question for students (and subscribers): After reading the list, do you still feel the US bombing of Japan was wrong? Please let us know in the comments section below this article.
Your readership is much appreciated!
For more information, please see…
Charles River Editors. The Rape of Nanking: The History and Legacy of the Notorious Massacre during the Second Sino-Japanese War. Charles River Editors, 2016.
Gold, Hal. Unit 731 Testimony. Tuttle Publishing, 2004.
Russell, Edward. The Knights of Bushido: A History of Japanese War Crimes During World War II. Skyhorse Publishing, 2016.
The featured image in this article, a map by 36ophiuchi (talk) of the German and the Japanese direct spheres of influence at their greatest extents during the Second World War in fall 1942, with arrows showing planned movements to an agreed demarcation line at 70° E, which was, however, never even approximated, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.