Remembering Japan’s ‘deserters’

by Gregory Clark

The Obon festival celebrated on Aug. 15 in many parts of Japan marks the alleged release of ghosts from past mythical sufferings. The Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan’s 1945 defeat also gives Japan’s dwindling band of progressive TV program producers freedom to confront the ghosts of Japan’s militaristic past. NHK excelled itself this year with three exposes.

One was on Tokyo’s wartime willingness to sacrifice the entire Okinawan population, then seen as lacking in love for the Emperor, by dragging them into a guerrilla war against U.S. invaders.

Another focused on Tokyo’s war-end surrender delays with a June 1945 offer by the United States of favorable surrender conditions (to head off a planned Soviet attack) being refused by the “fight to the bitter end” faction and by those with a naive belief that Moscow would act as intermediary to organize a favorable surrender (it was estimated that a further 600,000 died as a result of the three-month delay to final surrender).

Yet another focused on the way the wartime Japanese military executed its soldiers on desertion charges, many false, and how the authorities have refused any postwar rehabilitation of honor. NHK gave a figure of around 5,000 for formal records of those executed in the Southeast Asian fighting. Some have spoken of tens of thousands executed on the China front, many at the hands of sadistic officers who wanted to get rid of soldiers they didn’t like.

At the war’s end, the authorities set out feverishly to burn all records of those trials and executions, with the sky over central Tokyo turning black from the smoke, it is said. In most cases, all that remained was a notation of tekizen toubou (fleeing in the face of the enemy) against the names of those executed. But NHK was able to find a very detailed set of trial records preserved by the family of a military judge who had severe doubts about the justice of the system he saw in the Philippines and elsewhere. Many were executed without even the pretense of a trial, he complained.

NHK also chronicled the disgrace inflicted on the families of those accused of desertion, and the hopeless bureaucratic battle waged by the family of a man executed it seems simply because his English-language ability marked him as a possible spy. The family sought to restore his honor and the family’s right to a military pension. But to this day the bureaucrats say no, claiming they can do nothing because no written records exist.

In a court today, would a guilty verdict be allowed to stand if the prosecution complained it had lost all records? Of course not. If Japan really felt guilt or shame for its past military adventures it would retract all and every wartime prosecution whether for desertion or any other alleged crime against those adventures. But it still refuses to do so. Why?

The fate of alleged deserters among Japanese troops sent at war’s end to invade Bougainville Island to the northeast of Australia highlights the issue even more. Abandoned by Japan’s callous military authorities and with almost no food or weaponry remaining, most were being ordered by fanatical officers into suicide attacks against approaching Australian forces. The alternative was to starve to death, or head into the jungle to find food, hoping to survive until being rounded up and put into POW camps.

But within the camps worse was to follow. The Australians had handed over camp discipline to the very same fanatical Japanese officers who had ordered the suicide attacks. The fanatics then proceeded to organize kangaroo courts to sentence the jungle survivors for desertion. They were also able to persuade the Australian camp authorities that those they had sentenced had to be punished for breaches of camp discipline. So the Australians unknowingly ended up punishing the very people who had refused the order to kill them.

It gets even worse. For when the victims arrived back in Japan, they were made to continue to serve the sentences handed down by those kangaroo courts. Yet, even under Japanese military law, the sentences were illegal since the courts were operating after Japan’s formal surrender. Many died from prison mistreatment in Japan. And they too had their families tarred with the desertion stigma.

I became involved when contacted by the family of one victim, anxious to have the family honor restored and to receive the pension to which they were entitled. They asked me to find out whether the Australian military authorities had any record of the injustices that had been carried out in those POW camps under their very noses.

I did my best but I too got the bureaucratic run-around. Records not available I was told. At the time I wrote about the absurdity of Australia refusing to help the “good” Japanese while protecting the “bad,” but got no response.

Many in Japan today point to the injustices of the Tokyo tribunals that set out to punish Japan’s war leaders. But no one seems concerned about the far greater injustices suffered by those executed and dishonored for refusing actively to participate in a war whose legitimacy Japan today is supposed to deny.

Gregory Clark is a longtime Japan resident and a former correspondent for The Australian newspaper. A Japanese translation of this article will appear at www.gregoryclark.net