Japanese War Crimes

The month of August marks a series of tragic anniversaries in Japan. On August 6th and 9th, 1945, atomic bombs exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killing over 100,000 men, women and children in seconds. On August 15 that year, Japan finally surrendered to U.S. Forces and brought an end to the war in the East. The suffering that the Japanese military caused across East Asia during the 15 year war is incalculable. Rana Mitter, in his new book China’s War with Japan, reminds us that the outbreak of war in East Asia predated the war in Europe by several years. In fact, Japan’s Imperial expansion under Emperor Hirohito began in earnest with the invasion of the north east Chinese state of Manchuria in 1931.

From the beginning, the Japanese treated the Chinese population with savage brutality. In Horror in the East, Laurence Rees quotes one member of Japan’s secret military police, the Kempeitai, as being typical of the extreme racism of Imperial Japan, ‘We called the Chinese “Chancorro”. Chancorro meant below human, like bugs or animals… The Chinese didn’t belong to the human race.’[1]

When hostilities between China and Japan turned to full blown war, in July 1937, Japan began to use Chinese civilians systematically as ‘educational tools’ with which to train their soldiers. James Dawes, in his book Evil Men, recounts an interview with Japanese soldier Kaneko-san, who described how his superiors trained him to kill. “When they entered a village, they would bring over some villagers… They would tie them all up to trees… And then, ‘You guys, kill those Chinese civilians’, is the order we received. Then we charged in, and aimed for the left part, where the heart is…”[2] Such murders of unarmed civilians were an integral part of training for new recruits in China.

“Educational Tools”

Japanese authorities also used Chinese civilians as ‘educational tools’ to train their surgeons. Dawes relates an interview with another Japanese veteran, Yuasa-san. ‘When they got there, they were placed opposite four Chinese, and then the jailer, right before our eyes, fired two shots into the stomach of each of the Chinese. And then… we went to different rooms and practised surgery. We practiced removing bullets from the bodies. Our orders were to keep them alive until the bullets were removed.’[3]

Yuasa-san also recounts how Japanese surgeons regularly practised other types of surgery on Chinese civilians, performing multiple operations on their living victims before killing them when the practice session ended. After administering a general anaesthesia, ‘we did appendix surgery, and then internal sutures –surgery on the bowels – and limb amputation – we practised all those things.’ Having served their purpose as ‘educational tools’, the Chinese innocents were then left to die. Yuasa-san later recounted how this ability to treat human beings in such an inhuman manner proved that he had become ‘a full-fledged adult militarist’.

In what Laurence Rees has called one of the darkest crimes of the twentieth century, the Japanese also used Chinese civilians as human guinea pigs in experiments to perfect biological weapons. In September 1937, Emperor Hirohito authorised special chemical warfare units to be sent to China. Under the command of Shiro Ishii, Japan established a biological warfare research unit, Unit 731, on the outskirts of the Chinese city of Harbin.

More than ten thousand people, around 600 of whom were provided every year by the Kempeitai secret police, were subjects of the experimentation. The victims were referred to by Ishii and his peers not as people, but as “maruta”, which means “logs”. After the war, Japanese scientists who worked at Unit 731 explained that in order to cultivate plague bacteria at the highest toxicity it was necessary to use living bodies. It was also important to begin dissecting people while they were still alive[4]. The experiments conducted on civilians in Unit 731 also included vivisections, forced abortions, and simulated strokes, heart attacks, frostbite and hypothermia.

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Japanese Atrocities

Not surprisingly, given the inhumanity of their training, the mass murder of civilians was commonplace as Japanese forces conquered their way across China. As Ian Buruma writes, the barbarity of Japanese soldiers was justified by an ideology that taught them that killing an inferior race was in accordance with the will of their divine Emperor[5]. At the time, news of Japan’s savagery first came to light in the West through newsreel footage of the massacre in Nanjing.

Today, the Rape of Nanjing, as it has become known, is the best known of Japan’s war time atrocities. Between two and three times as many people died in Nanjing as in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined. But Nanjing was by no means unique. In the city of Suchow, for example, which few people now remember, only 500 people were left out of an original population of 350,000.[6] In the Philippine capital Manila, Japanese brutality equalled that perpetrated in Nanjing.

As Japan conquered nation after nation across South East Asia, the peoples of the Korea, the Philippines, Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaya, Indonesia and Burma were to suffer the full force of the Japanese army’s inhumanity.

One feature of Japanese occupation, unique in modern warfare, was the systematic enforced prostitution of up to 100,000 women across the occupied countries. These women and girls were subjected to repeated rape at the hand of Japanese soldiers, who referred to them as ‘public toilets’[7].

Despite this litany of horror, many in Japan remain reluctant to this day to face up to the atrocities its war-time government committed. Japan’s current Prime Minister famously remarked that comfort women were not coerced by Japanese authorities, implying that they had willingly subjected themselves to repeated brutal rape. Japan’s refusal to face up to its past means that tension between Japan and its neighbours remains high today. These tensions resurface most visibly during August, when Japanese leaders visit the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, in which some of the most psychopathic wartime leaders are enshrined.

Psychopathic Elite Remains Unnamed

Japan’s avoidance of its brutal history is facilitated by the actions the U.S. took immediately after the war ended. Hirohito was allowed to remain as Emperor, where he remained until his death in 1989. Incredibly, Hirohito’s funeral was attended by heads of state from around the world, including U.S. President George H. W. Bush, French President François Mitterrand, and The Duke of Edinburgh.

At war’s end Ishii and others at Unit 731 were also given immunity from war-crimes prosecution by U.S. authorities, in return for their full disclosure of the results of their barbaric human experiments. Today the names of Hitler and his Henchmen, Goring, Himmler, Heydrich, Hess, Mengele; and those of Stalin and his thugs Yagoda, Beria, Frenkel, Trotsky, Khrushchev, among many others, are well known. Hirohito, by stark contrast, has been absolved of responsibility for some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century. And most people outside of East Asia would struggle to name a single Japanese leader responsible for Japan’s wartime atrocities.

The consequences of this wilful forgetting go beyond Japan’s relations with its neighbours – most notably its contemporary relations with China. Japan’s evasion of history means that the Japanese people themselves do not understand what happened to their country in the middle of the last century. As occurred in Germany under Hitler, in the Soviet Union under Stalin, and later in China under Mao, Japanese society fell under the control of a ruthless pathological elite. This elite was comprised largely of psychopathic individuals, who once in power did what comes naturally to them. They subjected millions of innocent people to their murderous philosophy, indulged in their psychopathic dreams of conquest, and murdered, tortured and raped without limit.

In the end, as was the case in Germany, Russia and China, the Japanese people too became the victims of this psychopathic clique. The devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, like the remains at Auschwitz, and the crumbling ruins of the camps of Stalin’s Gulag, bring us face to face with the unimaginable suffering that psychopaths inflict on the societies they control. Today the debate should move beyond a singular focus on the suffering that Japan inflicted on East Asia, or the suffering that Germany inflicted on Europe, and recognise the suffering that pathological minority inflicted, and continue to inflict, on the majority of humanity.

If Yasukuni could become a shrine to all victims of psychopathic murderers, regardless of the victims’ nationality or the sacred cause the victims died for, then we would be a step closer to understanding what World War Two was really about.


[1] Horror in the East, Laurence Rees, BBC Books, 2011, p33
[2] Evil Men, James Dawes, Harvard University Press, 2013, p65
[3] Evil Men, James Dawes, Harvard University Press, 2013, p26
[4] Evil Men, James Dawes, Harvard University Press, 2013, p40
[5] The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan, Ian Buruma, Atlantic Books, 2009, p121
[6] Horror in the East, BBC Books, 2011, p38
[7] Horror in the East, BBC Books, 2011, p47
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