Japanese prisoners of war in World War II: Wikis


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A group of Japanese captured during the Battle of Okinawa

It has been estimated that between 19,500 and 50,000 Japanese military personnel surrendered to Allied forces prior to the end of the Pacific War in August 1945.[1] The number of Japanese soldiers, sailors and airmen who surrendered was limited by the Japanese military indoctrinating its personnel to fight to the death and Allied personnel often being unwilling to take prisoners.[2] Following the war the Soviet Union continued to hold hundreds of thousands of Japanese prisoners of war (POW) until the early 1950s.


Japanese attitudes to surrender

During the 1920s and 1930s the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) adopted an ethos which required soldiers to fight to the death rather than surrender.[3] This policy reflected the practices of Japanese warfare in the pre-modern era.[4] During the Meiji period the Japanese government adopted western policies towards POWs, and few of the Japanese personnel who surrendered in the Russo-Japanese War were punished at the end of the war. Prisoners captured by Japanese forces during this and the First Sino-Japanese War and World War I were also treated in accordance with international standards.[5] Attitudes towards surrender hardened after World War I. While Japan signed the 1929 Geneva Convention covering treatment of POWs, it did not ratify the agreement, claiming that surrender was contrary to the beliefs of Japanese soldiers. This attitude was reinforced by the indoctrination of young people.[6]

A Japanese soldier in the sea off Cape Endaiadere, New Guinea on 18 December 1942 holding a hand grenade to his head moments before using it to commit suicide. The Australian soldier on the beach had called on him to surrender.[7][8]

The Japanese military's attitude towards surrender was institutionalised in the 1941 "Code of Battlefield Conduct" (Senjinkun), which was issued to all Japanese soldiers. This document sought to establish standards of behavior for Japanese troops and improve discipline and morale within the Army, and included a prohibition against being taken prisoner.[9] The Japanese Government accompanied the Senjinkun's implementation with a propaganda campaign which celebrated people who had fought to the death rather than surrender in Japan's wars.[10] While the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) did not issue a document equivalent to the Senjinkun, naval personnel were expected to exhibit similar behavior and not surrender.[11] Most Japanese military personnel were told that they would be killed or tortured by the Allies if they were taken prisoner.[12] The Army's Field Service Regulations were also modified in 1940 to replace a provision which stated that seriously wounded personnel in field hospitals came under the protection of the Red Cross Convention of 1864 with a requirement that the wounded not fall into enemy hands. During the war this led to wounded personnel being either killed by medical officers or given grenades to commit suicide.[13]

Those who know shame are weak. Always think of [preserving] the honor of your community and be a credit to yourself and your family. Redouble your efforts and respond to their expectations. Never live to experience shame as a prisoner. By dying you will avoid leaving a stain on your honor.

While scholars disagree over whether the Senjinkun was legally binding on Japanese soldiers, the document reflected Japan's societal norms and had great force over both military personnel and civilians. In 1942 the Army amended its criminal code to specify that officers who surrendered soldiers under their command faced at least six months imprisonment, regardless of the circumstances in which the surrender took place. This change attracted little attention, however, as the Senjinkun imposed more severe consequences and had greater moral force.[11]

Japanese attitudes towards surrender contributed to the harsh treatment which was inflicted on the Allied personnel they captured.[14]

Not all Japanese military personnel chose to follow the precepts set out on the Senjinkun. Those who chose to surrender did so for a range of reasons including not believing that suicide was appropriate or lacking the courage to commit the act, bitterness towards officers, and Allied propaganda promising good treatment.[15] During the later years of the war Japanese troops' morale deteriorated as a result of Allied victories, leading to an increase in the number who were prepared to surrender.[16]

Prisoners taken during the war

A Japanese soldier surrendering to three U.S. soldiers in the Marshall Islands during January 1944

Estimates of the numbers of Japanese personnel taken prisoner differ.[1] Japanese historian Ikuhiko Hata claims that up to 50,000 Japanese became POWs before Japan's surrender.[17] The Japanese Government's wartime POW Information Bureau believed that 42,543 Japanese surrendered during the war,[13]; a figure also used by Niall Ferguson who states that it refers to prisoners taken by United States and Australian forces.[18] Ulrich Straus states that about 35,000 were captured by western Allied and Chinese forces[19] and Alison B. Gilmore has calculated that Allied forces in the South West Pacific Area alone captured at least 19,500 Japanese.[20]a

As the Japanese forces in China were mainly on the offensive and suffered relatively few casualties, few Japanese soldiers surrendered to Chinese forces prior to August 1945.[21] It has been estimated that at the end of the war Chinese Nationalist and Communist forces held around 8,300 Japanese prisoners. The conditions these POWs were held in generally did not meet the standards required by international law. The Japanese government expressed no concern for these abuses, however, as it did not want IJA soldiers to even consider surrendering. The government was, however, concerned about reports that 300 POWs had joined the Chinese Communists and had been trained to spread anti-Japanese propaganda.[22]

The western Allied governments sought to treat captured Japanese in accordance with international agreements which governed the treatment of POWs.[14] Shortly after the outbreak of war in December 1941 the British and United States governments transmitted a message to the Japanese government through Swiss intermediaries asking if Japan would abide by the 1929 Geneva Convention. The Japanese Government responded stating that while it hadn't signed the convention, Japan would treat POWs in accordance with its terms; in effect though Japan failed to meet any of the convention's requirements. Moreover, while the Allies notified the Japanese government of the identities of Japanese POWs in accordance with the Geneva Convention's requirements, this information was not passed onto the families of the captured men as the Japanese government wished to maintain that none of its soldiers had been taken prisoner.[23]

Allied troops were reluctant to take Japanese prisoners at the start of the war. US forces were generally unwilling to accept the surrender of Japanese during the first two years of the war due to a combination of racist attitudes and anger at Japan's sneak attack on Pearl Harbor and atrocities committed against Allied troops.[14] Australian soldiers were also reluctant to take Japanese prisoners for similar reasons.[24] Incidents in which Japanese troops booby-trapped their dead and wounded or pretended to surrender in order to lure Allied troops into ambushes were well known within the Allied militaries and also hardened attitudes against seeking the surrender of Japanese on the battlefield.[25] As a result, Allied troops believed that their Japanese opponents would not surrender and that any attempts to surrender were deceptive;[26] for instance, the Australian jungle warfare school advised soldiers to shoot any Japanese troops who had their hands closed while surrendering.[24] Furthermore, in many instances Japanese soldiers who had surrendered were killed on the front line or while being taken to POW compounds.[27] The nature of jungle warfare also contributed to prisoners not being taken, as many battles were fought at close ranges where participants "often had no choice but to shoot first and ask questions later".[28]

Two surrendered Japanese soldiers with a Japanese civilian and two U.S. soldiers on Okinawa. The Japanese soldier on the left is reading a propaganda leaflet

Despite the attitudes of combat troops and nature of the fighting, the Allies made systematic efforts to take Japanese prisoners throughout the war. Each US Army division was assigned a team of Japanese American personnel whose duties included attempting to persuade Japanese personnel to surrender.[29] Moreover, Allied forces mounted an extensive psychological warfare campaign against their Japanese opponents to lower their morale and encourage surrender.[16] This included dropping copies of the Geneva Conventions and 'surrender passes' on Japanese positions.[30] This campaign was undermined by Allied troops reluctance to take prisoners, however.[31] As a result, from May 1944 senior U.S. Army commanders authorised and endorsed educational programs which aimed to change the attitudes of front line troops. These programs highlighted the intelligence which could be gained from Japanese POWs, the need to honour surrender leaflets and the benefits which could be gained by encouraging Japanese forces to not fight to the last man. The programs were partially successful, and contributed to U.S. troops taking more prisoners. In addition, soldiers who witnessed Japanese troops surrender were more willing to take prisoners themselves.[32] Allied propaganda and demoralisation resulting from Japan's deteriorating position also contributed to an increased incidence of Japanese soldiers surrendering or deserting.[33] Nevertheless, the majority of Japanese military personnel did not accept that the Allies treated prisoners correctly, and even a majority of those who surrendered expected to be killed.[34]

Nevertheless, Allied forces continued to kill Japanese personnel who were attempting to surrender throughout the war.[35] It is likely that more Japanese soldiers would have surrendered if they had not believed that they would be killed by the Allies while trying to do so.[36] Moreover, fear of being killed after surrendering was one of the main factors which influenced Japanese troops to fight to the death, and a wartime U.S. Office of Wartime Information report stated that it may have been more important than fear of disgrace and a desire to die for Japan.[37]

The Japanese Government sought to suppress information about captured personnel. On 27 December 1941 it established a POW Information Bureau within the Ministry of the Army to manage information concerning Japanese POWs. While the Bureau catalogued information provided by the Allies via the Red Cross identifying POWs, it did not pass this information on to the families of the prisoners. When individuals wrote to the Bureau to inquire if their relative had been taken prisoner, it appears that the Bureau provided a reply which neither confirmed or denied whether the man was a prisoner. Although the Bureau's role included facilitating mail between POWs and their families, this was not carried out as the families were not notified and few POWs wrote home. The lack of communication with their families increased the POWs feelings of being cut off from Japanese society.[38]

Intelligence gathered from Japanese POWs

A US surrender leaflet depicting Japanese POWs. The leaflet's wording was changed from 'I surrender' to 'I cease resistance' at the suggestion of POWs.[39]

The Allies gained considerable quantities of intelligence from Japanese POWs. Because they had been indoctrinated to believe that by surrendering they had broken all ties with Japan, many POWs provided their interrogators with information on the Japanese military.[17] The value of this intelligence more than outweighed the cost of maintaining prisoners in POW camps.[40] Some Japanese POWs also played an important role in helping the Allied militaries develop propaganda and politically indoctrinate their fellow prisoners.[41]

Allied prisoner of war camps

Japanese POWs held in Allied Allied prisoner of war camps were treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention.[42] By 1943 the Allied governments were aware that their soldiers who had been captured by the Japanese military were being held in harsh conditions. In an attempt to win better treatment for their POWs, the Allied governments made extensive efforts to notify the Japanese government of the good conditions in Allied POW camps.[43] This was not successful, however, as the Japanese government refused to recognise the existence of captured Japanese military personnel.[44] Nevertheless, Japanese POWs in Allied camps continued to be treated in accordance with the Geneva Conventions until the end of the war.[45]

Most Japanese captured by U.S. forces after September 1942 were turned over to Australia or New Zealand for internment. The United States provided these countries with aid through Lend Lease to cover the costs of maintaining the prisoners and retained responsibility for repatriating them to Japan at the end of the war.[46] Prisoners captured in the central Pacific or who were believed to have particular intelligence value were held in camps in the United States.

Japanese POWs practice baseball near their quarters, several weeks before the Cowra breakout. This photograph was taken with the intention of using it in propaganda leaflets, to be dropped on Japanese-held areas in the Asia-Pacific region.[47]

Japanese POWs generally adjusted to life in prison camps and few attempted to escape.[48] There were several incidents at POW camps, however. On 25 February 1943 POWs at Featherston prisoner of war camp in New Zealand staged a strike after being ordered to work. The protest turned violent when the camp's deputy commander shot one of the leaders of the protest. The Japanese prisoners then attacked the other guards, who opened fire and killed 48 prisoners and wounded another 74. Conditions at the camp were subsequently improved, leading to good relations between the Japanese and their New Zealand guards for the remainder of the war.[49] More seriously, on 5 August 1944 Japanese POWs in a camp near Cowra, Australia attempted to escape. During the fighting between the POWs and their guards 257 Japanese and four Australians were killed.[50] Other confrontations between Japanese POWs and their guards occurred at a camp in Bikaner, India during 1945 and Camp McCoy in Wisconsin during May 1944; these did not result in any fatalities.[51] In addition, 24 Japanese POWs killed themselves at Camp Paita, New Caledonia in January 1944 after a planned uprising was foiled.[52] News of the incidents at Cowra and Featherston was suppressed in Japan,[53] but the Japanese Government lodged protests with the Australian and New Zealand governments as a propaganda tactic. This was the only time that the Japanese Government officially recognised that Japanese military personnel had surrendered.[54]

The Allies distributed photographs of Japanese POWs in camps to induce other Japanese personnel to surrender. This tactic was initially rejected by General MacArthur when it was proposed to him in mid-1943 on the grounds that it violated the Hague and Geneva Conventions and that the fear of being identified after surrendering could harden Japanese resistance. MacArthur reversed his position in December of that year, however, but only allowed the publication of photos did not identify any individual POWs. He also directed that the photos "should be truthful and factual and not designed to exaggerate".[55]


Japanese POWs at Guam bow their heads after hearing Emperor Hirohito announce Japan's unconditional surrender on 15 August 1945

Millions of Japanese military personnel surrendered following Japan's surrender. Soviet and Chinese forces accepted the surrender of 1.6 million Japanese and the western allies took the surrender of millions more in Japan, South-East Asia and the South-West Pacific.[56] In order to prevent resistance to the order to surrender, Japan's Imperial Headquarters included a statement that "servicemen who come under the control of enemy forces after the proclamation of the Imperial Receipt will not be regarded as POWs" in its orders announcing the end of the war. While this was successful in avoiding unrest, it led to hostility between those who surrendered before and after the end of the war and denied prisoners of the Soviets POW status.[17]

Repatriation of some Japanese POWs was delayed by Allied authorities. Until late 1946 the United States retained almost 70,000 POWs to dismantle military facilities in the Philippines, Okinawa, central Pacific and Hawaii. British authorities retained 113,500 of the approximately 750,000 POWs in south and south-east Asia until 1947; the last POWs captured in Burma and Malaya returned to Japan in October 1947.[57]

Nationalist Chinese forces took the surrender of 1.2 million Japanese military personnel following the war. While the Japanese feared that they would be subjected to reprisals, they were generally treated well. This was because the Nationalists wished to seize as many Japanese weapons as possible, ensure that the departure of the Japanese military didn't create a security vacuum and discourage Japanese personnel from fighting alongside the Chinese communists.[58] The nationalists retained over 50,000 POWs, most of whom had technical skills, until the second half of 1946, however. Tens of thousands of Japanese prisoners captured by the Chinese communists were serving in their military forces in August 1946 and more than 60,000 were believed to still be held in Communist-controlled areas as late as April 1949.[57]

Approximately 600,000 Japanese surrendered to Soviet forces in the last weeks of the war and after Japan's surrender. Unlike the prisoners held by China or the western Allies, these men were treated harshly by their captors, and over 60,000 died. Japanese POWs were forced to undertake hard labour and were held in primitive conditions with inadequate food and medical treatments. This treatment was similar to that experienced by German POWs in the Soviet Union.[59]

See also


^a Gilmore provides the following numbers of Japanese POWs taken in the SWPA during each year of the war; 1942: 1,167, 1943: 1,064, 1944: 5,122, 1945: 12,194[20]


  1. ^ a b Fedorowich (2000), p. 61
  2. ^ Bergerud (1997), pp. 415–416
  3. ^ Drea (2009), p. 257
  4. ^ Strauss (2003), pp. 17–19
  5. ^ Strauss (2003), pp. 20–21
  6. ^ Strauss (2003), pp. 21–22
  7. ^ "Australian War Memorial 013968". Collection database. Australian War Memorial. http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/013968. Retrieved 1 January 2010.  
  8. ^ McCarthy (1959), p. 450
  9. ^ Drea (2009), p. 212
  10. ^ a b Straus (2003), p. 39
  11. ^ a b Straus (2003), p. 40
  12. ^ Dower (1986), p. 77
  13. ^ a b Hata (1996), p. 269
  14. ^ a b c Straus (2003), p. 3
  15. ^ Strauss (2003), pp. 44–45
  16. ^ a b Gilmore (1998), p. 2
  17. ^ a b c Hata (1996), p. 263
  18. ^ Ferguson (2004), p. 164
  19. ^ Straus (2003), p. ix
  20. ^ a b Gilmore (1998), p. 155
  21. ^ Straus (2003), p. xiii
  22. ^ Straus (2003), p. 24
  23. ^ Straus (2003), p. 29
  24. ^ a b Johnston (2000), p. 95
  25. ^ Dower (1986), p. 64
  26. ^ Gilmore (1998), p. 61
  27. ^ Dower (1986), p. 69
  28. ^ Johnston (1996), p.40
  29. ^ Bergerud (2008), p. 103
  30. ^ Ferguson (2007), p. 550
  31. ^ Gilmore (1998), pp. 62–63
  32. ^ Gilmore (1998), pp. 64–67
  33. ^ Gilmore (1998), p. 8
  34. ^ Gilmore (1998), p. 169
  35. ^ Ferguson (2007), p. 544
  36. ^ Bergerud (1997), pp. 415–416
  37. ^ Dower (1986), p. 68
  38. ^ Hata (1996), p. 265
  39. ^ Gilmore (1998), p. 172
  40. ^ Hata (1996), p. 272
  41. ^ Fedorowich (2000), p. 85
  42. ^ MacKenzie (1994), p. 512
  43. ^ MacKenzie (1994), p. 516
  44. ^ MacKenzie (1994), pp. 516–517
  45. ^ MacKenzie (1994), p. 518
  46. ^ Krammer (1983), p. 70
  47. ^ "Australian War Memorial - 067178". Collection database. Australian War Memorial. http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/067178. Retrieved 25 December 2009.  
  48. ^ Straus (2003), p. 197
  49. ^ Straus (2003), pp. 176–178
  50. ^ Straus (2003), pp. 186–191
  51. ^ Straus (2003), pp. 191–195
  52. ^ Straus (2003), pp. 178–186
  53. ^ MacKenzie (1994), p. 517
  54. ^ Straus (2003), pp. 193–194
  55. ^ Fedorowich (2000), pp. 80–81
  56. ^ Straus (2003), pp. xii–xiii
  57. ^ a b Dower (1999), p. 51
  58. ^ Straus (2003), pp. xiii–xiv
  59. ^ Straus (2003), p. xiv




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