The Japanese Army

Any study of the Japanese Army in World War Two, even as cursory an assessment as this, is inevitably influenced by the atrocities carried out under the flag of the Rising Sun.  Mention of Wehrmacht complicity in Nazi crimes is still a very raw subject for some in Europe and the debate continues decades after the event.  The Japanese Army had no equivalent of an SS to absorb much of the blame, exonerating the common soldier from guilt.  The crimes committed colour recollection of the period to the detriment of any examination of such mundane matters as tactics and I cannot write these pages without adding my unsolicited and completely personal comments.

There is one striking difference between the accounts of British, American and Commonwealth soldiers who fought the Germans and those who fought the Japanese.  In the West, it is fair to say there was no underlying hatred of the Germans by the average soldier.  There were of course thousands of exceptions to this generalisation.  Many soldiers were of a particular descent which meant they had family under Nazi occupation in Europe.  Others had developed personal vendettas to be settled after suffering the loss of comrades and loved ones.  But for the most part, once the ordinary German soldier surrendered to the ordinary Allied soldier in the West, both were surprised to find they actually got on.  The same cannot be said of the men serving in the Far East or Pacific.

There is a distasteful thread of racism which runs through the conflict in the East, only to be found at the same intensity in the Russo-German conflict in the West.  Likewise, it ran through both opposing sides.  The Western Allies were guilty of a total disregard for the emergence of Japan as a military power.  That was partly based on glib racial assumptions that those of a different colour were incapable of achieving the same goals.  Once it became clear that the Japanese were more than capable combatants, on land, at sea and in the air, that contempt turned to hatred.  The obvious physical differences between the Asian and Caucasian man provided a field day for the propagandists.  It was difficult to vilify the Germans in quite the same way, particularly in America.  A great many loyal citizens who fought and died for the Colours against the Germans were themselves of German origin.   There was a conscious effort not to alienate them, or the equally proud Italian population who perhaps could truly feel they were liberating their Motherland from tyranny.

For the Japanese immigrant though, there was less respect.  Japanese did serve with distinction in the US Army, providing I think at least one Infantry Regiment, but it could not stop the demonisation of the Japanese Army in the eyes of the West.  And yet the greatest contributing factor to this view was the actions of the Japanese Army itself.  

If the West were guilty of underrating the Japanese military because of their race, then the same must be said in return for the Japanese opinion of the West.  Japan had a long, ingrained history of isolationism.  That trade and foreign influence was forced on them by gunboats was never quite forgotten.  In late 1941 the Western powers in the Pacific and Far East looked decidedly shaky.  The opinion was that the soft European and American soldiers would provide only a minor obstacle to Japanese expansionism.  To their credit, they provided more than that, but the distance from their various homelands meant that, inevitably, they could not sustain the struggle.  And that was when the true horror began.  

There are many accounts of German soldiers firing to their last round, then putting hands up and surrendering to the same men they were trying to kill only moments before.  The assumption was they had done their duty and, no longer being able to resist the advance, could surrender with honour.  This was not a concept understood by the Japanese.  In their eyes, duty meant not simply putting up a fight and then stopping when the ammunition ran out.  It meant dying for their country, their Emperor.  All soldiers accept death as a likely consequence of their service, but the Japanese system actually embraced the idea to the extent that not dying was a dishonour.  It was a completely alien notion to the Allied soldiers who marched into captivity.  Too late, they realised that not only did the Japanese expect their own men to die before capture, they also expected their enemies to as well.  That they had surrendered meant they were not be treated as soldiers.  It meant they were not to be treated as human beings.

The torturous existence inflicted upon those soldiers and civilians made prisoners of the Empire beggars belief.  In the West, it is all too easy to dwell upon the misery of captives of European origin.  The reality was it was a contempt meted out to any and all non-Japanese who fell within their dominion.  Few Westerners will admit to the fact they have little knowledge of the differences between Japanese, Chinese and Koreans, even more so sixty years ago.  But racial tensions were equally manifest in the war on the Chinese mainland where at least as many Chinese died against Japan as Soviet citizens died against Germany.     

The confluence of these factors meant the war against Japan was prosecuted with a far more virulent hatred of the foe than the war against Germany.  Everything the people heard convinced them the Japanese were somehow set apart.  The willingness to lay down ones life was applauded among Allied soldiers, yet in the Japanese it was portrayed as pathological fanaticism.  The degradation inflicted upon captives was given as proof positive of inferiority, yet only a fraction of the Russian and German soldiers captured fit and well on the Eastern Front were to see home again.  There was an almost palpable wish to wipe them off the face of the Earth.  Anyone who has seen the much maligned Operation Burma may recall a scene in which that exact view is expressed.

On the 6th of August, 1945, that desire was in small part brought to being.  In an instant tens of thousands of men, women and children were reduced to ash or condemned to a slow, lingering death from burns or radiation sickness.  It made the firebombing of Japan's wooden cities seem like child's play by comparison and all it took was one plane and one bomb.  Three days later, the unthinkable happened again.  Six days later, the War was finally over.  

The casualties endured by the Commonwealth forces in the Far East and the US Marines in the Pacific convinced the Allies that the final assault on the Home Islands would lead to an unprecedented slaughter.  The kamikaze attacks had grown from a handful of volunteers to conscript formations whose sole duty was to die in flames.  The scales were weighed, and the bombs were dropped.  That two such events were needed to persuade the Japanese Government to surrender is almost proof enough of the validity of Allied fears.  Over 1,200,000 Japanese soldiers, sailors and airmen died during the conflict, along with a further 672,000 civilians at home.  Had the ground war been carried to the islands of Japan itself, these figures would have risen beyond belief.

Yet perhaps the only way that Japan could pay for its atrocities in the eyes of the world was to itself suffer an unprecedented horror.  I doubt those who perished in or after those apocalyptical moments would agree, but finally getting what they had wished for and seeing its unspeakable results purged a good deal of the hatred in the West.  And for the Japanese, having the same random brutality visited upon their homeland as they had brought to so many others finally allowed them to move out of their past and into the 'family of nations' envisioned before the Cold War descended.

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