Satoko Kogure ‘I do understand why that girl could do such a brutal thing, because I myself treated people cruelly during World War II, without any hesitation,” says 82-year-old Masaichi Nishiguchi, a former military policeman (MP) in the Japanese Army.
When Nishiguchi first saw the news about U.S. soldiers abusing detainees at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, memories from over 60 years ago flash backed to him.
Nishiguchi, who is retired and living in Mie Prefecture, has openly confessed his actions during the war in the hope that his experiences can help to prevent the same tragedy occurring again.
“I’m so ashamed that I did such a thing, and I have felt so sorry for the detainees that I dealt with.
“I know how war can dehumanize people, and that is war. I experienced that. But I also know how cruel the remainder of their lives can be for those who have been treated cruelly and for those who have committed cruel acts.”
Nishiguchi was sent to the border of Manchuria, a former puppet nation established by Imperial Japan in China in 1942. There, his duty was to uncover spies from the former USSR. Nishiguchi and his comrades hunted down suspicious persons, capturing them, and then detaining and torturing them during interrogation.
“I hung a Chinese man by rope-handcuffs from a crossbeam and kept beating him with a bamboo sword until blood gushed out from all over his body. And having been tortured for a week, the strong man became deadly weak, and started to nod to the other MP’s leading questions.”
According to Nishiguchi, the clear order from higher officers to the MPs was “to find a spy.” Beyond that, such details as how they might “find” a spy became “unspoken orders” and “recognized by everybody from the top down.”
This unspoken order and “feeling” shared by everybody created the atmosphere for the abuse.”
“I perfectly understand what the situation must be like at Abu Ghraib. American soldiers tortured Iraqi detainees so that they could get any useful information from them, such as where Saddam was hiding and how the resistance force is operating. That’s how I worked in Manchuria,” he says.
“Now I deeply regret what I’ve done, but at that time I believed I was doing the right thing,” Nishiguchi says. “I thought I was performing my mission of eliminating enemies, and felt even proud of finding a ‘spy’ and being praised by a higher officer.”
But, he continued, “all the people concerned with the abuse at Abu Ghraib, including the young MPs and high-ranking officers, should regret what they’ve done for the rest of their lives, as well as fully take responsibility.”
Over sixty years ago, when Nishiguchi heard the shriek of tortured detainees for the first time, he was “hugely disturbed and couldn’t go asleep because of the disgusting feeling.”
However, over time he “ceased to care about it.”
While the Abu Ghraib tragedy reminds Nishiguchi of past experiences, today most Japanese don’t view the reality of detainee abuse as something that might happen to their own country.
Even though Japan is known to have committed war crimes against prisoners-of-war during WWII, and that generation that bore witness to it first-hand still carries those memories, younger generations of Japanese are hardly ever taught about this side of Japanese history, if at all.
However, Nishiguchi believes that “the possibility that these things might happen can’t be denied in any military at any time when faced with a war situation.”
Even as regards the SDF, “Japanese people should not view them as removed from this POW issue.”
Indeed, Japan, which is bound to a pacifist course by Article 9 of its Constitution, is already readying for a time when it will again be responsible for the treatment of POWs.
Last month, the House of Representatives passed a package of seven-security related bills to augment war contingency legislation enacted last year.
One of the seven bills, which received final approval yesterday, concerns measures to deal with prisoners of war. With the Diet also ratifying two protocols of the Geneva Conventions, the introduction of the POW law is to ensure that prisoners of war are treated according to international law.
As the SDF and the U.S. forces in Japan are expected to jointly defend the country, and in light of the Abu Ghraib affair, it is essential that the SDF be educated in and familiar with international humanitarian law in any situation.
However, since the law allows the two forces to hand over POWs detained by each force to the other, and is not designed to bind U.S. treatment of POWs, the SDF has an even greater responsibility toward detainees’ rights and must take the lead in defending them.
Although today’s situation in Iraq differs greatly from WWII, it is worth bearing in mind that the U.S. and its allies were so determined to uphold international humanitarian law that it charged 5,700 Japanese with war crimes and sentenced 984 of them to death. Among those sentenced to death were young soldiers who had had no idea about Geneva Conventions and just followed orders. While lawmakers rush to pass the security bills in order to prepare the country for a war contingency, it is crucial that the SDF, inexperienced in wartime situations, be prepared and taught to deny any policy which might breach international humanitarian law.
The Ground Self-Defense Force has reportedly made a videotape to educate members of SDF about international laws and regulations in wartime. The video does include some dramatized scenes showing how international humanitarian law must be applied in dealing with POWs. However, the SDF ought also to be educated about experiences like those of Nishiguchi’s, to be made aware of how easily ordinary men and women can be dehumanized in a war situation.
“Just having a law to protect POWs is meaningless,” Nishiguchi said. “We see that even the U.S., which once accused Japan of maltreatment toward POWs, ignores the law.”
What’s more important and more difficult is “whether we can actually adhere to that law in an abnormal war time situation.”