*** World War II : Japanese war crimes and attrocities

World War II: Japanese War Crimes and Attrocities (1931-45)

Japanese war crimes
Figure 1.--Most Japanese believe that the atomic bomb attacks were the great attrocity of World War II and places the United States on the same level as Japan in terms attrocities and war crimes. Seeing the image here, except for the church, one might think it is Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Actually it was whast the Japnese did to Manila (February 1945). They not only destroyed the city, but all the men, women, and children they got their hands on. This was what was left of central Manila (the Walled City).

The attrocities committed by Japanese soldiers defy the cognitive abilities of the human mind. It is difficult to believe that any nation could have carried out the barbarities perpetrated, mostly on innocent civilians. Japanese war crimes were not only unimaginably brutal and widespread, but they are without prescedent even in Japanese history. Some of the attrocities were official Japanese war policy. Many others were ordered by local commasndrs or committed by individual soldiers. NAZI war crimes and depravity are better known, but the Japanese in some ways were even more barbaric thasn the NAZIs if that can be imgained. Despite 8 years of War, there were no Chinese POWs to liberate--they had all been murdered. Japan in sharp contrast to Germany did not and does not today admit the full extent of its responsibility for launching World War II and the brutality of their soldiers during the War. Many Japanese attempt to hide the extent of their country's war crimes. Some claim that the decision to go to war was forced upon Japan. For the most part the Japanese prefer to view their country as a victim of the War. Japanese school childtren are largely tought briefly about the War with text books and school ceremonies that focus on the atomic bombs. The treatment by Japanese text books approved by the Ministry of Education has been a recurring issue affecting relations with China, Korea, and other countries occupied by the Japanese during the War. Virtually unknown to the Jaspanese people are the war crimes perpetrated aginstg their own people. The list of Japanese atrocities and war crimes is very long, involving the deaths of millions, mostly innocent civilians. The list in its entirity is too long to list here, but we need to mention some of the most grevious atrocities committed by the Imperial armed forces.

Origins of Barbarity and Military Inhumanity

Any assessment of Japananes barabrity during World War II toward soldiers and civilians alike is starteling to the modern mind. It is difficult to understand hiow this could have come about. NAZI and Soviet atrocities are also difficult to understand, but as both are a black artifact of Western Civilization, we have some basic understanding. Now some of the same factors affected Japan, but tgere weee major differences. Siocialism was not a factoir in Japan and Japan had many traditiinal asoects of its culture, including Confuscian infkluences. One scholar has looked athis question in some detail. He has isolated eight important threads that came tigether to create a military which developoed barabarity as a matter of policy after seuzung control of the Japanese state. These include: 1) Samurai Bushido culture, 2) Ultra nationalism, 3) Prussian influence, 4) Emperor worship, 5) Hostility toward the West including democracy and caopitalism, 6) Brutal military training, 7) Attitudes toward combatants and civilians, and 8) Concept of honorable death. [Felton]

Aggressive War

The primary war crime is the launching of aggerssive war first against China (1937) and then the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands (1941). This was one of the primary charhes at the Tokyo IMT trials. The decisin for Agressive War was taken by the Japanese Government influence or totally controlled by the Japanese military. Japan decided in 1939 to intensify its naval armaments program with a 6-year naval building plan. New battleships were ordered. Still unproven were the air craft carriers. The Imperial Navy by 1941 Japan had 13 carriers, three times as many as the American Navy. Japanese carrier pilots were superbly trained and flew the Mitsubishi Zero, superior to any fighter available to the United States and Britain.

Terror Bombing

The Japanese today focus on the American strategic bombing raids culminating on the dropping of the two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is most of what school children are taught about the War. Largely unknown to the Japanese is that their country's military routinely engaged in the terror bombing of civilian populations, mostly undefended Chinese cities such as Shanghai and Chunking. The first major Japanese terror bombing raid visited on Shanghai (1937). Raids escalated as Japan expanded its air force amd military assault on China. The Japanese began an expanded effort crush Chinese resistance by sustained bombing of every major city in Natioanlist hands. The strategy of air warfare was not yet worked out. Many air commanders, including the Japanese, believed that terror raids in civilians would force suurender. One estimate indicated that about 20,000 civilians were killed in the first 9 months of 1939 alone. [Gilbert, p. 239.] The Japanese bombing was at first virtually unopposed. The Chinese asked for American assistance and President Roosevelt approved plans for the American Volunteer Group (AVG) -- the famed Flying Tigers. The Flying Tigers reached Burma and China in 1941, a few months before Pearl Harbor.

Crimes Against Occupied Civilians

The vast majority of the terrible crimes the Japanese military committed against civiians were the awful atrocities perpetrated in China. This animus against tge Chinese began with the First Sino-Japamese War (1894-95) and was on display during the Boxer Rebellion. The Japanese military behaved relatively correctly during the Russo-Jaoanese War (1905-06) and World War I (1914-18). Civilians were not a major factor in either War. This change after World War I when Japan made clear its intentions to seize large sections of China. The result was growing anti-Japanese feeling among the Chinese. The firsr major Japanese move was to seize Manchurai (1931). This resulted in anti-Japanwse demonstrations throughout China, most prominently in Shangahi. The Japanese reacted britally. Then Japan launched the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937) by invading China proper. This began vurtually genocidal attacks on the Chinese peoole. The best known Jpanese attricutt is the Rape of Nanking (1937). But this was only one of countless Japanese mass rapes and massacres of Chinese civilians throughout the War. Japanese treatment of civilians in Southeast Asia after launching the Pacific War was less extensive than in China. This was because the populations were smaller and the territories they conquered were colonial possessions and some of the nationlist leaders saw the Japanese as a way of achieving independence. Only the Vietnanese Japanese occupation as in China meant massive deaths, but was primarily due to famines caused by econonic mismagaement and forced seizure of food,. The Chinese minorities throuhout Southeast Asia became targets. Oceania except for Indonesia and the Philippines was different. The small Pacific Islands were different. Thet had very small and primitive populations. Natives in New Guinea simply withdrew into the jungle. This was not possible on small islands. One group mistreated by the Japanese were the Chamoros, especially on Guam because they were seen as pro-American. The same occurred in the Philippines.

The Three Alls

The Japanese in China after occupying large areas of the country, but failing to decisesly defeat the Chinese Army, adopted the "Three Alls" (sankô sakusen) policy to subgegate the country. The Japanese policy was most agressively implemented in northeastern China. Details on the Japanese effort only emerged after the War as a result of a book published by a Japanese POW. The effort was initiated by Ryûkichi Tanaka (1940). The fullest implementation was in north China by Yasuji Okamura. He divided occupied northern China into pacified, semi-pacified and unpacified areas. The Imperial Army Headquarters issued order number 575 (December 2, 1941). Okamura as part of the strategy burned villages, confiscating grain to deny food to insurgents, and used Chinese peasants as alave work force to construct concentration hamlets. Other projects included trench lines, containment walls, moats, watchtowers and roads. These construction projects were conducted on a vast scale. The brutal treament of these Chinese workers resulted in deaths on a vast scale.

Starvation Famine Policies

While other Japanese war crimes have attracted more attention, it was Japanese food policies that accounted for the largest number of deaths in Asia during the Second Sino-Japanee War (1937-45) and the Pacific War (1941-45). The death resulted from both planned Japanese actions as well as incredible mismanagement of the occupied areas. The Japanese efforts to manage food production and distribution roved incredably mismanaged. It was the people in occupied areas that died in the largest numbers. The Japanese seized food in the occupied areas both to feed the militry and to ship back home to the Home Islands. This would have been bad ebough, but occupation policies also affected harvests, including the harvests in some of the richest agriculturl areas of Asia such as the Mekong Delta. Japanese policies were for every area to become self sufficient. As a result coastal vessels that usually carried rice from the Mekong Delta in the south to the heavily populated Red River Delta in thevnorth could no longer do so. They also attempted to control prices, causing farmers to reduce produc=tion. The result were terrible famines. Other famines ourred in China, the Dutch East Indies, and northern Burma. In addition to the local population, internees both civilian and POWs died from starvation. Less well reported are the number of Japanese soldiers who died from statvation as a result of military policies. And by the end of the War, the Japanese people themselves were nearing starvation. And if the occupied islands were populated, the Japanese, they died in large numbers after the Japnese seized the available food. The Andaman Islands are just one of the islands where the Japanese starved island populations. If th Emperor had not demanded that the military surrendr (August 1945), millions of Japanese civilians would have also died from starvation.

Use of Biologcal and Chemical Weapons

Japanese medical units in Manchuria experimented with biological warfare. More than 400 villagers died of bubonic plague in China's eastern Zhejiang province during September 1942. Japanese planes with bombs prepared by medical Unit 731 dropped germ bombs. Unit 731 was stationed on the outskirts of Harbin--the capital of the rich agricultural and coal region of Hailongjiang Province in what was known as Manchuria. The unit was active until August 1945 when the Soviet Union entered the war by invading Japanese-occupied Manchuria. The unit is known to have introduced typhus into the water supply flowing into Manchuria.

Mistreatment and/or Murder of Allied POWs and Civilians

The Japanese more than 10 years before launching the Pacific War were engaged in military operations in China. First inbading Mnchuria (1931). And than launching an outright invasion of China proper (1937). And along with military operations, Japan conducted massive operaions brutalizing and killing the Chinese people i unpesedented numbers. The initial targes of the Japanese militarists were the Chinese people. At first in China and evntually Chinese communities in Southeast Asia and Oceania. Western journalists reported on the carnage, but noting prepared the world for the Rape of Nanking (1937-38). And Japnse barbarism toward civilians in Nanking was not unique. The Japanese of all the World War II belligerants were the most brutal toward POWs. They killed all the Chinese prisoners they took as well as many Western prisoners. The POWs not killed were brutalized, starved and worked to death in fetid camps throughout Asia and the Pacific. Large numbers of POWs died in these camps. Allied civilians were interned in camps. Some ware killed ouright such as the Australian nurses. They were not brutalized to the same extent of the POWs. But there treatmentment was also barabaric, denied adequate food and medical care. Large numbers perished in these camps. Not only was the death toll in Japanese POW and internment camps astronomical, but many those who survived had serios health problems. Some took years to fully recover. Some neer did fully recover, Many had premature deaths because of the lingering impact of their treatment by the Japanese.

Specific Incidents

The Japanese military committed a long list of horendous atrocities that were without precent in modern times. Terrible atrocities begn in Mnchria and quickly escalated. The atrocities reached a fever pitch in Chima. The Rape of Nanking is the most widely known atrocity, largely because Nanking was the capitl of Nationlist China and there there were Western embassies there. This meant that there were many Western observers including many members of the international press. Thus unlike many other terrible atrocities it was observed and reported on in detail. And the Japanese were not particularly shy about taking photographs. The Japanese soldier at the time did not have the slighest idea that they could be defeated. They thought it was their right to sestroy any one who stood in their way or even civilins who were meerly in the city. It was rape, pillage, and sestruction such as was common in acncient times. Similar atrocities would be committed throughout China, Southeast aia, nd the Pacfic. Toward the end of the War, the idea of victory had long evaporated, but the Japanese behaved similarly in Manila. The Japanese victims included military and civilian including men and women, children and the elderly. Many of these murders were committed up close and personal, not only with guns, but often with swords and bayonets. Rape was commonly involved with cvilians, often followed by murder.

Slave and Forced Labor

NAZI Germany is wideky associted with the use of forced and skve labor durung Workd War II. It is generally associated with the Hiolocausust, but at least as many non-Jews were forced to work for the NAZIs in horific camps. Japan's use of forced and slavce labor is less reported, but may have even exceeeded that of the NAZIs. The NAZIs are believed to have exploited some 10 million slave laborers, commonly in brutal conditions. [Macintyre, WW II, p. 36.] Chinese sources estimate that Japan used some 15 million Chinese for slave labor during the War. [Leicester, p. A12.] The data for slave labor outside the Home islands is only rough estimates. [Ramsey, p. A2.] This is partly because the Japanese Government and the companies involved have not only not investigated what occurrd like their German counterparts, but have hid and destroyed evidence. Labor unions unlike the Government and corporations have pursued investigations. The other major problem was the Cold War and the victory of the Communists in China (1948). It does appear that the numbers of people enslaved by the Japanese for war work was twice as large as the NAZIs [14] This primarily occurred in East Asia (China and Korea). The largest number of enslaved laborors were in occupied Chinese Manchuria, at least 9 million workers [MaxIntyre, "WW II," p. 36.] The slave labor overseen by the Japbnese Army, such as the building of the Thai-Burma raiwat i the best known such operation. In fact it was the slave labor used by Japanese companies that accounted for most of the slave labor. Japan's important corporations were fully aware of Imperial Army operations. They actively encouraged Army commnders to round up workers for the mines and factories the operated in Manchuria. [MacIntyre, "WW II", p. 36 and United States v. Krauch] As the War went against Japan ans workers wre conscripted for military service, Japan began transporting Chinese workers to support the war economy. Some 40,000 workers were imported from China for slave labor on the Home Islands. Next to China, the next largest numbers of enslaved workers were Koreans. An estimated 4-6 million Korean workers were enslaved by the Japanese for war work. Most worked in Korea itself. Some 0.7 milliom were brought to the Homeislans, primarily fo hard labor in mines and construction sites. [Macintyre, "Fighting".] While China and Korea were the two countries most impacted by Japanese slave labor operations. Many other Asians were forced into slave lavor by the the Japanese. The Thai-Burma Railway was not just built with Allied POWS. Some 0.3 millipn Asiana were forced to work on the railway. [Macintyre, "WW II", p. 36. ] This was not just forced labor, the Japanese were so brutal that the death rate fir these workers exceeded 50 percemnt. [Daws] The Japanese also resorted to forced labor in Burma, the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Malaysia, and the Philippines. We are not sure about French Indochina (Cambiodia, Lais, and Vietnam). Smaller numbers were used on Pacific Islands, but often larger percentages of the population.


One striking difference between the Japanese and Germans was rape. The Germans behave barbasrically, especially in the East, but rape was no widespread. A factor here was race. The NAZIs did not want race 'pollution'. This was not the case with the Japanese. Much of the dicussiomn of Japanese rape deals with the Comfort Women, but the rape issue goes far beyonf the comfortt women. The Rape of Nanking received that name because of the Japanese Army proceeded to rape the women anf girls of Nanking with abandon. And if tghat in itself was not bad enough, the women sfter the soldietrs were thriugh with them were often beaten, mutilasted, and killed. And this sort of scti=vuty, alneit on a more limited scale occurred in cities and villages througjhout China. While Japane militaty incidents of rape orimarily occurred in China because of the length of the war and Japanese racial attitudes toward the Chinese, rapes in large numbers occurred where ever the Japanese army went. As far as we know there were no military procecutions for rape. One of the major incidents of rape outside China was Manila (February 1945). And almost all the women raped were killed asfter the soldies nd mrines were done with them.

Comfort Women

The Japanese forced large numbers of Chinese and Koreans into slave lavor. These were mostly men. The Japnese Army had a soecial use for women. They conscripted civilian women to serve as prostitutes for Japanese soldiers. Women from Korea, the Philippines and other countries were used. The Army sourced many of these women in Korea, Japan's second important colony. Korean women were not the only victims. The Japanee Army also used women in the areas they occupied. This included Dutch, Eurasian, and Indonesian women beginning in 1943. Many of the Dutch women were nuns, often working as nurses. Dutch military authorities strenously procecuted the cases involving Dutch women, but cases involving the other women were laregly ignored. [Tanaka. Japan's Comfort Women] Amazingly many Japanese people were unaware of the Comfort Women. It only became known in Japan when the surviving women in the 2000s began pressuring their givernments for ction and this was reported in the Japanese press. Today fior the most part the crimes are largely ignored in Japan. Some Japanese authors even claim these women volunteered for this work. The lack of knowledge of this and other war crimes has left the Japanese mistified when people in China, Korea, and other countries protest against the Japanese. Not all Allied nurses taken prisoner were used as comfort women. The Japanese took 78 American Army and Navy nurses prisoner on Correigdor after the fall of the Philippines (1942), but they were not molested. They were allowed to help care for the POWs in and around Manila. The nurses became known as the Angels of Bataan. Army cimmanders ordered the Australian nurses to be machine gunned after the fall of Singapore (1942). [Van Harl]


There are numerous reports of canabilism practiced by Japanese soldiers during World War II in the Pacific and the CBI theater. We are not sure about China proper. Perhaps most shocking of all it was not an attrocity practiced by just a few starving soldiers on isolated Pacific islands garrisons. It appears to have been a fairly common practice practiced by units that were not starving and carried out or condoned by unit commanders. And the Japanese targeted many natiuinalities in their canabilistic rites. One Indian source reporyts, " For the 10,000-odd soldiers of the Indian Army who endured extreme torture at the hands of their Japanese captors, cannibalism was the culmination. Evidence suggests the practice was not the result of dwindling supplies, but worse, it was conducted under supervision and perceived as a power projection tool. The Japanese Lieutenant Hisata Tomiyasu who was eventually found guilty of the murder of 14 Indian soldiers and of cannibalism at Wewak (New Guinea) in 1944 was sentenced to death by hanging." [Jayalakshmi K.]

Crimes Against Japanese Citizens

The Japanese military was not only brutal toward the people they conquered or attempted to conquer. They also committed terrible crimes aganst their own people. This included civilians. The first Japanse vivilians encountered in any number by the Americans were the Japanese colonists on the Marinanass. When it became clear that the Americans could not be defeated, the Japanese military encouraged the civilins to commit suiside and when they hesitated in many vases simply killedthe civilians. The same ccurred on Okinawa. Finally the military was prepared to do the same on th Home islands untilafter the two atmic bombs ad the siviet declarun of war, the Emperor intervened nd decided to surrender.

Crimes aginst the Japanese in the Marianas

Japanese World War II attrocities are generally see as heinous acts targeting the people imvading an occuied. Less well covered are the attrocities targetting the Japanese people. This began as far as civilans are concerned in the Marianas, mst promonently on Saipan whivh had the largest population f Japanese settlers. Japan acquired the Marianas durin World War II and had two decades to settle a sizeable number of civilians on the islands, displacing many Chamoros on Saipan. The Japanese were well prepared for the American invasion. The American Central Pacific campaign had made considerable progress. After the Gilberts, Marshalls, and actions in the Carolines, it was obvious that the Marianas were next. The Japanese knew about the B-29 and that the Home Islands could be attacked from bases in the Marianas. Thus the Japanese authorities in the Marianas had pleny of time to bried civilians that the Americans were coming and what they could expect. We know what they were told, although it is not entirely clear who ordered it. We do not know if authorities in Tokyo ordered how civilians should be briefed. As far as we know at this time, local authorities just followed the Japanese propaganda line that the Americans were beasts and would torture and kill civians and rape the women. We are not entirely sure how this message was conveyd. We are not sure it was Tokyo based propaganda. Cetainly Tokyo demonized the Americans at every turn, but it was slow to admit that the Americans were having success in the war, esecially occupying areas with Japanese populations. The Japanese propaganda message at the tome ws that Japan was winning the War, so message about American behavior in occupied areas would seem to have been off message, but perhaps readers who know more about Japanese propaganda can tell us more. The message seems to hve been delivered locally, in many cases informally. We are not sure that higher ranking officers really believed this. There was no actual information to sunstantuate it. But this is what civilians were told and most seemed to have believed what they were told. Once the Americn invaded, the civilians hid in the many caves, odrering sheltr from the air raids and fighting. This was done in desperation. The Japanese pre-positiond food and water for soldiers, but not for civilians. And cuvilins do not seem to have done this on their own. Unlike Okinawa where the Americans also encountted Japanese civilians. Japanese soldiers on the Marianasa do not seem to have forced civilans to commit suicide or even just killed them. After establishing their beachead, American marines and soldiers advanced inland through valleys of sugar cane fields, swamps, and finally reaching jungle-covered mountains. his was the most difficult terrain feature on Saipan for the Americans. Hundres of natural caves honeycombing the island. These caves could conceal Japanese snipers, artillery, or terrified civilians seeking to survive the fierce fighting. It was the first time Americans encountered any substantial numbers of Japanese civilians in the Pacific War. In addition to misinforming their civilians, the Japanese soldiers actually used their own cibvilians as bait for ambushes or as human shields. his of course suggests that at least the officers knew that what they were tellng the civilians were lies. What ever the case, it was effective. Civilins continued to hise in caves evcen when starving. And finally as the Americans soldiers drove th Japanese to the northern corner of the island, womn started commiting suisud, jumping fom high cliffs into the sea, many with their babies in their arms. They ignored pleas by Japanese speakking Americns to surrender. The smesenario unfolded on Guam and Tinian, albeit with smallr numbers of Japanese civilins. [Shimazu]

Crimes against the Okinawan people

In addition to the Japanese troops on the island, there were some 450,000 civilians. This was much larger than the small Japanese population ncounteed on Saipan. Okinawa included n ethnically diverse group of people. Many Okinawans had multi-ethnic origins in contrast to the Japanese. Okinawa was a relstively recent addition to Japan. Japan seized the islands at an early point after the Mejii Resoration (1875). They immediately began a process of 'Japanization'. Becaise of their mixed sncestry, the Japanese looked don on the Okinawans and treated themn as second-class citizens. One historian writes, "With their greater racial 'deviance' than Koreans, Okinawans were made to suffer even more grievously for their failure to be pure Japanese, that most valued national quality." The Japanese had evacuated sime civilians, but most were still on Okinawa when the Americans landed. From the beginning, civilins were caught ijn the crossfire. Trapped Japanese soldiers commonly urged or even forced civilians to commit suicide with them. Civilians were often ordered to commit mass suicide, although Japanese sources, especilly the Ministry of Education, seek to deny this. Okinawan sources want the truth told. In the final phase of the battle, what was left of the Japanese 32nd Army abandoned the Shuri Line south to Mabuni where they planned to make a final stand. Some civilians terified of the advancing merivans becaus of the storie told them by the Japanese militry, followed the Japanese solders south. The tiny corner of the island became a chaotic mass of Japanese soldiers, American soldiers, and civilians caught in a deadly crossfire. Not only were the two armies fighting, but there was also intense air and sea nbommbardment. The civilians tht fled with the Japsnse not only had the deadly fire to contend with, but were let without food, water, or shelter. Horific tales emerged. One journalist writes, "Clutching a hand grenade issued by the Japanese Imperial Army and driven by tales of what U.S. soldiers would do with a pretty young woman, Sumie Oshiro recalled,she fled into the forests of Okinawa during the World War II battle known here as the 'typhoon of steel'. No one knows precisely, but some historians estimate that some 100,000 to 150,000 Okinawan men, woman, and children perished in the 3 months campign for Okinawa. It is probably a template for what would have happened on the Home Islands had the United States been forced to invade.

Crimes aginst the Japanese people

World war II historians almost exclusively discuss the crimes committed by the Japanese military against POWS and civilians in other countries. Rarely do they discuss the crimes Japanese soldiers committed against their own people and even less against their own soldiers. Western historians generally ignore this topic and Japanese historians, perhaps for perceived patriotic reasons, almost uniformily refuse to discuss it. Japanese military authorities in areas where there were Japanese civilians (primarily the Marianas and Okinawa) spread information that the American soldiers were monsterous barbarians who would rape, plunder, torture, and kill. Civilians were incouraged to commit suiside rather than be captured. The Japanese military code forbid soldiers to surrender, but there was no such code for civilains. Even so civilians were incouraged not to do so. U.S. Marines on Saipan were confronted with the horrifying spectacle of civilians hurling themselves off rocky cliffs, including mothers with children in their arms (May 1944). The same thing occurred on Okinawa, only the Okinawans were often ordered to commit suiside and in some cases actually hearded into caves and killed by the soldiers (June 1945). For the Oknawan people (etnically destinct from the Japanese), Imperial soldiers proved more dangerous than the American invaders. The same was being prepared on the Main Islands to ward off the anticipated Amnerican invaasion, although here the Japanese military took it one step further, civilians were not only being told to commit suiside, but first to actively resist the invasion force, an effort called Ketsugo. We are not entirely sure to what extent the idea of incourging civilians to commit suiside or killing their own civilians was a policy ordered by local commanders or directed by higher authorities in Tokyo. Ketsugo we know was approved by the High Command. This is something on which we hope to obtain further information. Not only did the Japanese military commit these crimes against civilians, but they also were responsible for the deaths of hundreds of thosands of their own soldiers. The Japanese military from the very beginning of the War given the limited food resources on the Home Islnds planned to provision its troops with supplies sized from the enemy. This worked in Malaya, Singapore, and Burma where the Japanese seized large quantities of British supplied. Elsewhere it proved an unmitigated disater. In the failed Japanese invasion of Assam, India (1944), much of the attacking army fied of starvation and starvation-related illnesses. This may be attributed to military incompetence, but what occurred in the Pacific was a clear war crime committed against the counties own soldiers. The Japanese on Guadalcanal, New Guinea, and countless Pacufic islands after the Battle of Midway and the steady losses in its already inadequate Maru fleet ordered isolated garisons to adopt a policy of 'self sufficency'. [Collingham, p. 290.] The Japanese High Command knew very well this was nonsence. Large garrisons on small islands could not possibly feed themselves. They needed supplies to be deliverd. And because of the growing power of the U.S. Pacific Fleet, this was impossible. Self sufficiency was in effect an order to starve to death and commanders it Tokyo knew it. And this is exactly what hindreds of thosands of Japanese soldiers in the Pacific did, and estimated 15 percent of Japanese miliary deaths. The death toll would have been much higher if Japan had not surrendered (August 1945). One historian writes, "Whatevere the scale of their war crimes against foreign nationals, the Japanese chiefs of staff should havev been condemedv by their own peoplefor crimes against their own soldiers, but this was unthinkable in such a conforist society." [Beevor, p. 619.] And starvation in the Pacific led to another rarely discussed war crime--canibalism. This was not ordered by higher authorities, but Japanese soldiers in the Pacific not only ate foreign civilians and POWs (called 'white pigs'), but in many cases their fellow soldiers as well. [Beevor, p. 619.] This practice was much more widespread than is commonly reported. Some authors describe it as ceremonial, but in most cases it was the response of starving troops to hunger and starvation. While not ordered, it did not take much thought to realize that this was inevitable. There were also an increasingly desperate food situation on the Home Islands. And the Japanese High Command was prepared at the end of the war to commit the ulimte crime against their own people, allowing millions to die in a mass famine during winter 1945-46.

Coutry Trends

The Japanese did not just target Westerners in the Far West they encountered as they launched their offensive after Pearl Harbor. While pursing a propaganda line of 'Asia for Asian' they conducted brutal occupation policies and opoerations that harmed he local people. This occurred throughout the Japanese occuoied areas. Thev largest bnumber of people were brutalized in China and Korea, but terrible incidents occurred where the Japanese went throughout the War from the borders of India east to the South Pacific. Here there was a combination of causes. First was the basic brutality of the Imperial Army. Second was incompetent magament of the local economies which they now controlled. The most serious problem here is that the the Japanese adopted the policy here that each area of their new empire should bcome self sufficent. We are not entirely sure why they set this policy, but it probanly relates to their inadequate maru fleet and transport capability. But for wghatever reason it meant dsaster for areas that before the War were food importing areas. That meant especially northern Indiochina (North Vietnm) and areas of the DEI (Indinesia) where terrible famines occurred. Other smaller areas were also affected. It was not all the seklf suffuency rukle. Economic policies like price controls and Army seizues of harvests affected food production even in the rice bowl areas of Southeast Asia.

Dutch-East Indies (Indonesia)

The Japanese in a proaganda gesture offered independence to the Indonesia people. Indonesia had been the Dutch East Indies colony . The Japanese released Indonesian politicians that had been jailed by the Dutch. In fact they turned no real power to the Indonesians. The Japanese occupation while timulted he independence movemnt was a disaster for the Indonesian people. Large numbers were conscripted for forced labor and because of the brutal treatment and poor conditions, many died. Even worse, the Japanese seized food supplies and their attempts to regulation food production and distribution disrupted farming, causing a terrible famine. In all some 2.5 - 4.0 million Indonesians died due to starvatio during the Japanese occupation.


Nauru is a small island located between New Britain and Tarawa. It was at the time of World War II an Australin Trust Territory. The island has one important resource--phosphate, mined by the British Phosphate Commission (BPC). BPC took over the rights to phosphate mining and started exporting phosphates to Australia and New Zealand to be used for producing munitions and as fertilizer. The Japanese passed over tge island in its initual offebsive, byt seized it (Seotejnber 1942). They operared the mine for a while, but as the American Cntral and Southrn Pacific campaigns began, they garrioned a subtantial firce on the island. Whn the Americans began bombing, the Japanese executed the five Australians in the island, beheading some. Bombing infuriated the Japanese throughout the Pavific. The Japanese ekentlssly bombed unprotected Chinee cities for several years. However when the american began bombing Japanese targts, they were furious. Apparently many Japanese believed that bombing was something Japanese did o others, not whatv was done to them. Because food was inadequate and labor was neded elsewhre, many Naurans were coinsrioted for slave labor on other islands. Many perished there, dying from srarvation. These losses were paicukarly grevious given the island's very small population. The Japanese also murdered the lepers on the iusland.


The Japanese committed terrible war crimes in the Philippines from the very onset of the War, most notably the Baatan Death March (March 1942). The treatment of Ameriacn POWs and Filipino soldiers as well as American civilian internees has been widely reported. The American internees were the largest number of American civilains held by any Axis power. There were reports of unbelievavle crulity and near the end of the War, the Japamese killed a group of Americamn POWs on Palawan by burning them to death. The primary problem was food. As the War went against the Japanese, food became a major problem both on the Home Islands and Japanese field armies. Japanese Army regulations mandated that the Imperial soldies had the first priority for available food stocks, then the local population, and finally the POWs and civilain internees. If the Japanese had managed the situation reasonably, there should have been sufficent food throughout Southeast Asia. Unfortunately they did not manage the food situation reasonably and terrible famines occurred in the Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), Vietnam, and other areas. These were food exporting areas before the War. The situation was not as bad in the Philippines, but by 1944 the POWs and internees were beginning to starve. And unlike the Germans, the Japanese did not allow Red Cross parcels through to the POWs and internees. Filipino civilians had better access to food, but were targets of the most savage atrocities imaginable. The situation escalated when President Roosevelt acceeded to General MacArthur's demand that after the Marianas, the next target would be the Philippines and not Formosa (Taiwan) (July 1944). Formosa actually made more strategic sense. The decession saved the lives of many POWs and internees hovering near death by starvation, but it put the Filipino people in a war zone and the Japanese turned very vindicative knowing that most Filipinos were strongly pro-American. The Filipinps no doubt were delighted when the Americans began landing on Leyte (October 1944), but few Filipinos or Americans for that matter understood the barbarity that the Japanese would unleash on the Filipino people. Japanese propaganda had little impact on the Filipinos. Unlike Dutch, the Amerivans were in the process of granting independence when the Jpanese invaded. And Japanese behavior during the occupation only futher alienated the Filippino people. This was especially the case of the people of Manila where the Imperial Marines and others in the Manila garison refused to surender and decided to take every civilian in their grasp with them, often after raping the women.


The Japanese largely through mismanagement and a total lack of concern for the local population caused one of the most horific famine of the War in Indo China. Millins died in the Red River Valley (North Vietnam). Before the War, the needs of the population in the North was met by ship,entd fropm the Mekong Delta (Souith Vietnam). Tghe Japanese, however fecrteed that each region should become self sufficemt. And in the south, Japanese occupation policies resulted in abnormally low harvests. All through the deadly famine in the Morth, Japanese warehpuises were full of food seized from the starving peasantry, which could not be shipped due to the American naval blockade.

Emperor Hirohito's Knowledge

Thw question arose after the War of Emperor Hirohito's knowledge and support for Japanese attrocities and war crimes. The Japanese were able to destroy emense amounts of domunentation before the American occuption forces arrived. Also the generals refused to give evidence against him. There is no doubt that the mperor was fully complicit in Hapann's planning and execurion of aggressive war. It is not known that the E,peror gavehi approval for all majorgovernmental actions. It may be true that out of fear for his persona;l safety and the imperil system that until the atomic bombs were dropped, he hesitated to challenge the military That said, it was his responsibility as emperor to rue and act in the vest interest of the Japanese people. The next question is how much he knew about Japanese attrocities and war crimes and to what extent he authorized such actions. This is impossible to answer becuse if the destruction of documentation and the refusal of Japanese generals, including convicted war criminals, to give evidence against the Emperor. We do not know the extent of the Emperor's knowlege of attrocitis and war crimes, but we do know that he had sone detailed informtion. We know this because his brother, Prince Mikasa, provided him extensive information including personal observations from his service in China as well as film's concerning the infamous Unit 731. [Bix]


Daws, Gavin.

Feltion, Mark. "WW 2 Jaopanese military brytality explained".

Halewijn Brown, Emilie. "The Agonies of internment," The Washington Post (May 29, 2005), p. W11.

Leicester, John. "Chinese forced laborers are suing Japanese firms for compensation," Seattle Times (August 24, 2000), p. A12. Leicester quotes data compiled by Ju Zhifen, a researcher at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

Macintyre, Donald. "WWII: Imperial Japan on Trial," Asia Week (November 15, 1996), p. 36.

Macintyre, Donald. "Fighting for wartime retribution," Time Magazine (January 17, 2000), p. 19

Ramsey, Bruce. "No moves in Japan to pay Asians forced into labor in WWII," Seattle Post-Intelligencer (May 24, 1999), p. A2. Ramsey discusses how the Japanese Government instead of investigarinf both hid and destroyed evidence.

Scott, James M. Target Tokyo: Jimmy Doolittle and the Raid that Avenged Pearl Harbor (2015).

United States v. Krauch. Trials of War Criminals before the IMT Nuremberg Military Tribunals Under Control Council Law No. 10 at 1179 (1952).


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Created: 11:53 AM 10/6/2015
Last updated: 11:53 PM 11/30/2021