Japanese Treatment of World War II Prisoners of War (POWs)

Figure 1.--Leonard George (Len) Siffleet (1916 – 1943) was an Australian commando. He joined the Second Australian Imperial Force in 1941 and by 1943 had reached the rank of sergeant. He was posted to M Special Unit of the Services Reconnaissance Department. He was on a mission in Papua New Guinea when he and two Ambonese companions were captured by partisan tribesmen and handed over to the Japanese. All three men were interrogated, tortured, and later beheaded. A photograph of Siffleet's impending execution became an enduring image of the Pacific War. The Japanese executed quite a number of POWs in this way, but this is the only srviving photograph, The Japanese after 2 weeks took the captives down to Aitape Beach (October 1943). There on the orders of Vice-Admiral Michiaki Kamada, the bound and blindfolded men, surrounded by Japanese soldiers and native onlookers, were forced to the ground and beheaded. Japanese officers were very proud of their swordplay. Yasuno Chikao was the officer who beheaded Siffleet. He ordered a private to photograph him in the act as a souvnir. We note different accounts as to Chikao's fate. The photograph of Siffleet's execution was subsequently discovered on the body of a dead Japanese major near Hollandia by American troops (April 1944).

Japan did not sign the Geneva Convention. The Japanese martial code did not permit surrender and thus the Government saw no need to acceed to the Ruropean standards of warfare relected in the Geneva Convention. The Japanese treatment of POWs in World War II was barbaric. The most severe treatment was directed at the Chinese who were killed in large numbers by a variety of brutal means. American, Australian, and British POWs were starved, brutalized, and used for forced labor. The construction of the Burma-Thai railroad was a particularly horendous project in which malnourished British and Australian POWs were forced to do hard labor undervthe most extrene conditions. POWs were used as slave laborers, working in brutl conditiins, in many others areas such as Manchurian coal mines. Some were even used for medical experiments, including live vivisections and assessments of biological weapons. Some POWs were shot at the end of the War in an effort to prevent accounts of their mistreatment to become public. We are unsure how extensive such incidents were. We know of one such incident in the Dutch East Indies. The Japanese shot about 100 American contract workers on Wake Island.

Geneva Convention

Japan did not sign the Geneva Convention governing the treatment of POWs (1929). I am not sure why they refused. The Militarists by 1929 were becoming increasonly influential. Presumably as the Japanese martial code did not permit surender, they saw no need for adhering to the European standards of warfare reflected in the Convention. What we do not fully understand is that during the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05) and World War I (1914-18), Japan also took Western POWs. These POWs were not subjected to the horrendous treatment accorded to World War II POWs. The Japanese announced after the War began that they would adhere to some provisions of the Geneva Convention (1942). I do not have details on this decession. One would assume that it was a propaganda statement as Japanese treatment of POWs throughout the war was barbaric.


The Japanese treatment of POWs in World War II was barbaric. Most of the POWs were taken by the Japanese Army. The most severe treatment was directed at the Chinese who were killed in large numbers by a variety of brutal means. Few Chinese survived being taken prisoner by the Japanese. The numbers run into the millions. The killings were conducted in many ways including shooting, burrird alive baynoetting, beheading, medical experimentation, and iother methods. This was a fraction of the much larger number of civilians murdered by the Japanese Army. Western POWs were taken in much smaller numbers and usually were not killed outright like the Chinese. American, Australian, British, Canadian, and Dutch POWs were starved, brutalized, and used for forced labor. Most of the over 130,000 Western POWs were taken in the months immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 1941). The Japanese took 50,000 Australians and New Zealanders at Singapore, 52,000 Dutch and British in Java, and 25,000 Americans in the Philippines. [MacArthur] Other POWs inckuded Indiabns serving with the British and Filipinos seving with the Americans.

Forced Labor

The construction of the Burma-Thai railroad was a particularly horendous project in which malnourished British and Australian POWs were forced to do hard labor while being fed staevation wages under the most extrene conditions. POWs were used as slave laborers, working in brutal conditiins, in many others areas such as Japanese coal and copper mines and limestone quaries. Conditions were especially bad in Manchurian coal mines. There were Allied (mostly American) prisoners who were held at a forced labour camp near Hiroshima. Most survived the atomic bomb attack because they were deep underground in coal mines.

Camp Conditions

Despite the hard labor they were put to, the POWs were fed very poorly. Often it was rotten or magot-infested rice. As a result they contracted scurvy and diseases associated with vitimin defincies like pellagra and beriberi. POWs had to supplement their rations with what ever they could find, including scorpions, snakes, and rats. Sanitation conditions were also poor leading to cholera, dengue fever, diptheria, and dysentary. The Japanese set up many different POW camps throughout Southeast Asia, the Home Islands, Manchuko, and Korea. Considerable information has been collected on these camps.

Sandakan (Borneo)

Thousands of Australian and British POWs suffered and died at the infamous Sandakan camp established in the in the Borneo jungle. The Japanese forced the small number who survived on a tortuous 160-mile march. Any one who dropped out along the way was summarily shot. In the end only six escapees survived to report what the Japanese had done. [Tanaka]


The POWs were also subjected to savage treatment by the camp guards. Beatings with sticks and wire were common place. Guards devised a range of fiendish tortures. Lighted cigaretts butts were pressed to flesh and stick into noses and ears. There were crucifictions. Men were made to hold buckets filled with sand or water in the sun for hours on end. Men were forced to swollow gallons of water and then the guards kicked or jumped on their stomachs. There were also executions, including shootings and beheadings. One survivor describes his experiences as to how the Japanese guards disciplined POWs, "Their method was to strip you down, and then they'd put two buy behind you. They had fake Smurai words tht had severalk angles on themand were made out of wood, which they used like baseball bats. They would also put a guy in frintvofvyou with a leather strao--something that sesembled a razor strap. When they were ready they'd tell you how many times they were going to hit you. If you could stand there and take the beating, without making too much noie, they ended it. They'd give you the required number of swats and stop. If you fell down or if you yelled and screamed too loud, they started over." [Smith]

Escape Attempts

Escape from German POW camps have become a matter of Hollywood legend. Escape grom a Japanese POW camp is a topic virtually uncovered by both Hollywood and historians, in part because it was so rare and almost suicidal. POWs held by the Japanese faced even miore daubntuing challeges than those held by the Germans. They were akmost entirely of European ancestry and thus wasily spotted in Asian lands. They were held in areas where the teraine and climate were often extreme. Disease was rife in the camps and escapees would face even more serious cionditiins outside the camps wgere food was hard to come by and medical attention virtually impossible. Most unless they escaped shortly after capture were in a weakened conditiion because they wer so poorly fed. Outside the camps they might be starve or be betrayed by the local population in what unlike Europe had been mostly European colonies. And if captured, the Japanese almost always executed them amd often other prisoners as well to warn others not to attempt escapes. There were, however, despite the dangers escape attempts. There are reports from China (Hiong Jong and other palces), the Dutch East Indies (Borneo), the Phillipines, and Thailand. Many come from the Philippines where the local population tended to be sympathetuic to the Amerians. One historian describes an incident in the Philippines. "Once McCoy's party was out of view of the main gate they ducked into a nearby coconut griove and began to crawl towards a place where they had hidden their escape equipment in the jungle. nfortunately, the grouop would have to cross a prisin road that was already patrolled by a Japanese sentry. 'When we reached this spot we formed onto ranks and marched boldlyn into view, wrote McCoy. 'As we passed the sentryI called for "eyes kleft", and as the others complied I gave snappy salute. This we never didexceopt for an occasional guardwho was a little less severe than the others; in payment for his kindness we thus attemopted ti hive him "face" with his suoperiors.' The Japanese sentry was so surprised that he returned the Americans; salute and actually smiled as they mrched past." [Felton]

POW Relief Fund

The Allies mostly with American money set up a fund for the relief of Allied POWs forced to build the Burma-Siam railroad. The governments of the United States, Britain and Sweden (representing the occupied Netherlands) secretly agreed on a plan in which money from each country would fund a Swiss bank account. This money was to be transferred to the International Red Cross for the Allied POWs most urgently requuiring relief, namely the men laboring on the Burmese-Siam railway. The United States contributed 2.8 million Swiss francs to the account and Britain and the Netherlands added additional funds (August 1944). [Holmes, pp. 98-112.] Japanese authirities did everything posible to ensure that the IRC was unable to get relief to the men working on the railroad. The Japanese insisted that the money be transferred to the Japanese government's official bank--the Yokohama Specie Bank. The IRC did this. The Allies eventually transferred 98.5 million Swiss francs. Very little of this money ever reched the POWs. The Japanese tried to use some of the funds to purchase artillery from the Swiss. The order was not filled and it is unclear just how the Japanese planned to get artillery through the Allied naval blockade. Some of the funds diappeared. Most remained in the Yokohama Specie Bank gathering interest. Eventually the funds wre returned tonthe IRC. Muchof it was destributed as compensation to surviving POWs.

Allied Nurses

Among the POWs taken by the Japanese were Military nurses. The Japanese captured U.S. Army and Navy nurses on Bataan Corregidor (April-May 1942). They had become known as the Angels of Bataan or in some quarters the Battling Belles of Bataan. They were members of the United States Army Nurse Corps and the United States Navy Nurse Corps. One reasons Gen. Wainwright surrendered Corregidor was the Japanese threat to kill all who ciontuinyued to resist, including the nurses and wounded. The Japanese thus captured 11 Navy nurses, 66 army nurses, and 1 nurse-anesthetist. As far as we know, they were treated correctly by the Japnese and interned in camps set up in and around Manila. They continued to serve as a nursing unit in the various camps. A group of 65 Australian nurses and British soldiers were notv so fortunate. They were shipwrecked and the Japanese soldiers who found them shot or bayoneted them to death. The Japanese captured another group of 32 nurses on another island and sent them to Sumatra. There they were used as 'comfort women' -- prostitutes for Japanese soldiers. [Tanaka]

Medical Experiments

Some Allied POWs were even used for medical experiments, including live vivisections and assessments of biological weapons. The research was part of the Japanese effort to develop wapons of mass destruction. The Japanese developed biological weapons at Unit 731, a sprawling research favility at Harbin in Manchuko--Japanese occupied Mnchuria. The work included experimentation on live subjects. The numbers killed are not known with any precision, but may have totaled as many as 0.2 million civilians and military POWs. Most of the individuals used for the experiments wrre Chinese and Korean nationals, primarily because they were the people most accessable. People selected for these experiments included children. Some Pacific Islanders as well as Allied POWs were also used for the experiments.

Murder Orders (1944-45)

British signals sergeant Jack Edwards survived Japanese POW camps. After liberation he joined British and American war crimes investigating teams. They searched the remains of the Kinkaseki copper mine--POW Branch Camp No. 1, Formosa (Taiwan) (1946). The detailed records of German industrialists were captured by rapidly moving Allied invasion forces after they crossed the Rhine. The Japanese industrialists had more time to destroy or hide their incriminating records. [Holmes, pp 129, 135-136.] Among the burnt debris in the camp offices, Edwards found 15 handwritten transcriptions of broadcast orders dated April 1942 - August 20, 1945 from command headquarters in Tokyo. [Holmes] One of those documents was orders from the Japanese vice-minister of war to all POW camp commanders in the occupied territories and home islands (August 1, 1944). The orders were apparently in response to queries from the head of the POW administration on Formosa. At the time Formosa was believed to be a possible target for an American invasion force. [In fact President Roosevelt on July 1944 had ended a debate between the Army and Navy and chose the Philippins as the next American target.] The Taiwan commander asked for clarification as to circumstances under which he should act on his own, anticipating an American invasion and a breakdiwn of communicatiins with heafquarter in Tokyo. The Vice-minister authorized camp commanders to kill all the POWs they held if "an uprising of large numbers cannot be suppressed without the use of firearms" or "when escapees from the camp may turn into a hostile fighting force" and "not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not to leave any traces." [Holmes, pp. 115-116.] This order is of course prepostrous. The POWs by this time were emaciated and in poor health. Some were starving. The idea that these unarmed men could pose any kind of threat is absurd and both the officers who issued it and those who received it understood this fully. What this order was to kill the POWs before they were liberted so they could not testify against the Imperial Army and specific individuals, in essence a bloody cover up. An entry in the journal of the Japanese headquarters at Taihoku on Formosa (February 26, 1945) ordered “‘extreme measures’ to be taken against POWs in ‘urgent situations: Whether they are destroyed individually or in groups, or however it is done, with mass bombing, poisonous smoke, poisons, drowning, decapitation, or what, dispose of the prisoners as the situation dictates. In any case it is the aim not to allow the escape of a single one, to annihilate them all, and not to leave any traces." [Daws, pp. 324-325.] An official copy of the murder order was later found in the files of the Japanese Governor General of Formosa, Richiki Ando. [Holmes, p. 121.] Not only have these murder orders been found, but there are several instances in which they were actually carried out.


Most of the POWs the Japanese murdered were Chinese, the death toll is in the millions. Most were killed at the time of capture or soon after. The Japanese did not maintain POW camos for te Chinese. They simply killed them. The Japanese also murdered Allied POWs, but in must smaller numbers. There are many documented reports. This began almost immediated after the Japanese launched the Pacific War. Most of the Western victims were Americans and Australians. Most of the llied fatalities were more from benign neglect, denying the POWs food and medical care. There were, however, numerous actual incidents of flagrant murder. Reports indicated that the Japanese upon seizing the Dutch East Indies forced some Australian prisoners in basket and them took them out to sea and throwing them overboard (1942). There were murders during the Bataan Death March in which about 1,000 Americans perished (April 1942). The deaths included Japanese officers wielding their swords, in some cases trying to cut off heads from moving automobiles (1942). The American survivors on Wake Island were murdered (October 1943). Most of the murders came later in the War. Some but not all camp commanders for various reasons executed orders recived from Tokyo to kill surviving POWs. As instructed, they murdered all or almost all the POWs in their hands. [Holmes, p. 116-17.] In almost all instances this occurred in circumstances that there was no danger of attack. One of the best documented murder incident was on Palawan, a narrow island in the eastern Philippines. The Japanese 14th Area Army Commander was General Tomoyuki Yamashita. His men to prevent the rescue of the POWs on Palawan herded the remaining 150 prisoners of war at Puerto Princesa into three covered trenches (December 14, 1944). The trenches had been dug earlier as air raid shelters. One man who after noting there were no approaching planes refused to go into the trenches. A Japanese officer cleaved his head in two with his sword. The Japanese then poured aviation fuel into the trenches and set them a fire. The POWs who tried to escape the inferno were shot. Others attempted to escape by climbing over a cliff that abutted one side of the trenches. They were also hunted down and killed. Only 11 men escaped the masacre. [Wilbanks] A POWs survived and made it out and recounted the details to Army Inteligence. This and other reports is why the Americans were so concerned about what the Japanese would do with the POWs and civilians at the main camps on Luzon. Army officeres murdered Australian POWS on Borneo (June 1945).


Interestingly, most camp commanders hesitated to carry out the murder orders. In some cases rescue raids may have prevented additiinal murder. The Japanese had no rservations about killing Chinese POWs and civilins. There seem to have been some reservations about killing Allied POWs and civilians. We are not entirely sure why some camp commanders held back from carrying out the murder orders. We suspect that the major reason was that the Japanese by 1944 were clearly losing the War. And not all Japanese commanders were that excited about dieing. Many wanted to survive the War and understood that there would be repercussions. This seems to have been especially true at the larger, well documented camps. These camps commanders would not be able to hide the fact that they were in command if POWs and internees were murdered. We have not yet noted a scholarly discussions of why some Japanese commanders ignored the murder orders from Tokyo. Perhaps some readrs will have insights.

Survival Rate

Most of the Western Pows were taken taken in early 1942 and thus spent about 3˝ years in Japanese custody. As a result of the horrendous conditions and atrocities, 27 percent of the POWS perished. This compared with 4 percent of Germans in Allied POW camps. (The small number of Japanese POWs in American care do not provide a valid comparison.) Fully one-third of the deaths occurred among the POWs put to building the Thailand-Burma railroad that the Japanese constructed to support their invasion of India. After 3˝ years in Japanese camps, the surviving POWs were reduced to skeletons and in apauling condition. If the War had not ended when it did, the survival rate would have been much lower than the already horendous rate. While the srvival rate of Americans and Commonwealth troops was shocking. the survival rate of Chines POW was virtually zero. The Japanese killed almost all Chinese POWs.

Japanese Policy Toward Surrender

Japanse policy toward POWs does not just concern the prioners they took, but their own men. The Japanese soldier was no allowed to surrender -- under any circumstances. Even badly wounded soldiers were not allowed to surrender. It was seen as shammeful and not only dishonored the inividual, but his family as well. It was totally contrary to Japanese military doctrine and the doctrine imposed on the nation by th emilitary. Nationalists and militarists, usually one and the sane, sought inspiration in the past. They reached back to ancient myths about the nation and emperor. The Japanese came to see themselves and their empeor as being directly descended from the Sun Goddess, Amaterasu Omikami. The militarists demanded that the Japanese restore a past racial and spiritual purity that because of contmination by the West had been lost. Children were indoctrinated from an early age to worship the Emperor as a living deity. War was presented as a legitimate act which woild purify the self and the the nation. As part of this national ethos the supreme sacrifice of life was regarded as not only a small matter, but the purest of accomplishments. Soldiers wre told, "Do not live in shame as a prisoner. Die, and leave no ignominious crime behind you." This was all part of Japan's ancient samurai heritage. The revered samurai code of ethics was known as 'bushido'. It served as as the basic code for Japan's military during World War II. The main classic of Bushido is 'Hagakure'. It was begins with the words, 'Bushido is a way of dying' (early-18th century. Its central thesis is that only a samurai prepared to die at any moment can devote himself fully to his feudal lord. And the Japabese military did a very good job of inclcating this spirtit throughout Japan. it was not only the professional soldiers that came to believe this. The military managed to convince the millions of civilians drafted that surrender was not an option. The soldierswere told that the Americans were monsters and would torture them. Perhaps even more important was the idea of honor. surrender was seen as dishonorable. As aesult, nany of the Japanese soldiers captured were wounded and no longer capable of resistance. (Many attemoted suiside when they had recivered a little. Even Japanese soldiers cut off in isolated Pacific garrisons nd srarving were not allowed to surrender. And there are instances of Japanese soldiers holding out in the Pacific for years after the war. Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda continued fighting on the Philippine island of Lubang nearly 29 years after the end of the war (1974). The Japanese military even convinced civilians on Saipan and Okinawa to do the same. Not only were there virtually no survivors from the 30,000 strong Saipan garrison on Saipan, but 40 percent of the 22,000 civilians perished.

Modern Japan

Few young Japanese are aware of thes and other atrocities committed in Japan's name. Much of their concept of World War II centers on the Atmic boms dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the view as Japan as a victim of the war.


Daws, Gavin. Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific (New York: Morrow, 1994).

Felton, Mark. Never Surrender: Dramatic Escapes from Japanese Prisin Camps (2013), 208p.

Holmes, Linda Goetz. Unjust Enrichment: How Japan's Companies Built Postwar Fortunes Using American POWs (Mechanicsburg, Pennsslvania: Stackpole Books, 2001).

MacArthur, Brian. Surviving the Sword: Prisionors of the Japanese in the Fat East, 1942-45 (Random House, 2005), 458p.

Smith, Craig B. Counting the Days: POWs, Internees, and Straglers of World War II in the Pacific (2012), 288p.

Tanaka, Yuki. Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes In World War II (Transitions: Asia and Asian America).

Wilbanks, Bob. Last Man Out: Glenn McDole, USMC, Survivor of the Palawan Massacre in World War II.


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Created: 1:49 AM 7/26/2005
Last updated: 6:20 PM 2/8/2016