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Impermissible surrender and its consequences

by Jeff Kingston

THE ANGUISH OF SURRENDER: Japanese POWs of WWII, By Ulrich Strauss. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004, 282 pp., $27.50 (cloth) It is well known that in World War II Japanese soldiers rarely surrendered, and fought to the death rather than bring dishonor to their families. Their having been indoctrinated not to surrender or allow themselves to be captured alive accounted for the horrific death rates of military units.

The 1941 field service code, with Imperial sanction, decreed that surrender was impermissible. Soldiers knew that that if they were captured, they faced death upon returning home. Banzai charges and kamikaze attacks were the hallmark of the Imperial armed forces, tactics reflecting the force of seishin (spiritual power) in the military. Glorious death was preferable to ignominious surrender.

Ulrich Strauss recounts the relatively unknown story of the Japanese who did become prisoners of war. By the end of WWII there were some 39,000 Japanese POWs spread around the Pacific, compared to nearly 1 million Germans and half a million Italian POWs in U.S. POW camps. This does not include the 1.2 million Japanese troops who surrendered to the Chinese nationalist forces at war’s end nor the 600,000 who surrendered to the Soviet Union.

The former were treated rather well, while those taken prisoner by the Soviets remained in Siberian camps in grim conditions where some 60,000 perished over the years they remained in captivity after 1945.

Until now there has been little written about the Japanese POWs captured by the Allies. This fine book plugs that hole while relating with empathy how these young men coped with a situation for which they were mentally unprepared and found deeply shameful. Strauss has interviewed many of the former POWs, drawing on POW memoirs and U.S. archival documents to paint a rich and varied account of how the prisoners coped with their plight.

Individual case studies put a face on the POWs and succeed in conveying their confusion and despair. Before passing from the scene, these ex-soldiers have come forward to tell us their stories. Amid the many hellish accounts of Allied POWs held by the Japanese, it is illuminating to read that complaints of abuses are rare; most Japanese POWs recall how well they were treated. They marvel at being given the same medical care as GIs and at the easygoing ways of their captors.

It is apparent that many soldiers did not want to die in the Holy War, but found it difficult to surrender because their comrades were more gung-ho and U.S. troops were not initially taking many prisoners. However, the valuable intelligence provided by captured Japanese soldiers led to a shift in practices on the field and larger numbers of POWs. Rewards of three-day passes and ice cream for those who brought in POWs might also have helped. Nisei and soldiers with Japanese language training interrogated the POWs and found them surprisingly candid and forthcoming with valuable information.

Why would once fanatical soldiers so easily agree to help the enemy? Strauss suggests that the POWs were psychologically vulnerable and eager to reciprocate the generous gestures of their solicitous interrogators. The friendly humane treatment was unexpected, and it forged bonds that left most POWs feeling indebted. They may not have known that the information they were giving was valuable, but drawing their cues from the interrogators, and eager to please, most POWs told what they knew. This helps explain why the soft approach to interrogations prevailed.

There is more about uprisings and everyday life in the stockades. Happily, surviving POWs faced no serious retribution upon returning home after the war. Some received nasty letters, but in general a war-weary population that held the military in contempt for subjecting them to such suffering was forgiving of those who did not waste their lives in a lost and unworthy cause. After all, the Emperor had also surrendered.

The author concludes with an assessment of Senjinkun, the no-surrender policy. Not only did it magnify the carnage but it also put blinkers on the government. Since Japanese were expected not to surrender, the government refused to acknowledge the existence of its POWs, failed to inform their families and thus made the prisoners feel abandoned.

Placing them in such a situation made them ideal targets for interrogators.

Oddly, Senjinkun is something of a taboo topic in contemporary Japan, “part and parcel of an entire bundle of shameful war-related issues that many Japanese institutions and individuals still prefer to leave shrouded in silence.” Fortunately, this fascinating account lifts the veil and helps readers understand the wartime psychology of the Japanese that made the unimaginable far too common.