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Saturday, May 25, 2019
Max Hastings on Japan's Treatment of POWs
The Japanese maltreated captives as a matter of policy, not necessity. The casual sadism was so widespread, that it must be considered institutional.
There were so many arbitrary beheadings, clubbings and bayonetings that it is impossible to dismiss these as unauthorised initiatives by individual officers and men.
A people who adopt a code which rejects the concept of mercy towards the weak and afflicted seem to place themselves outside the pale of civilisation. Japanese sometimes justify their inhumanity by suggesting that it was matched by equally callous Allied bombing of civilians.
Japanese moral indignation caused many US aircrew captured in 1944-45 to be treated as "war criminals". Eight B-29 crewmen were killed by un-anaesthetised vivisection carried out in front of medical students at a hospital. Their stomachs, hearts, lungs and brain segments were removed.
Half a century later, one doctor present said: "There was no debate among the doctors about whether to do the operations - that was what made it so strange."
Any society that can indulge such actions has lost its moral compass. War is inherently inhumane, but the Japanese practised extraordinary refinements of inhumanity in the treatment of those thrown upon their mercy. Some of them knew it.
In Stephen Abbott's camp, little old Mr Yogi, the civilian interpreter, told the British officer: "The war has changed the real Japan. We were much as you are before the war - when the army had not control. You must not think our true standards are what you see now."
Yet, unlike Mr Yogi, the new Japan that emerged from the war has proved distressingly reluctant to confront the historic guilt of the old. Its spirit of denial contrasted starkly with the penitence of postwar Germany.
Though successive Japanese prime ministers expressed formal regret for Japan's wartime actions, the country refused to pay reparations to victims, or to acknowledge its record in school history texts.
I embarked upon this history of the war with a determination to view Japanese conduct objectively, thrusting aside nationalistic sentiments. It proved hard to sustain lofty aspirations to detachment in the face of the evidence of systemic Japanese barbarism, displayed against Americans and Europeans but on a vastly wider scale against their fellow Asians.
In modern times, only Hitler's SS has matched militarist Japan in rationalising and institutionalising atrocity. Stalin's Soviet Union never sought to dignify its great killings as the acts of gentlemen, as did Hirohito's nation.
It is easy to perceive why so many Japanese behaved as they did, conditioned as they were. Yet it remains difficult to empathise with those who did such things, especially when Japan still rejects its historic legacy.
Many Japanese today adopt the view that it is time to bury all old grievances - those of Japan's former enemies about the treatment of prisoners and subject peoples, along with those of their own nation about firebombing, Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
"In war, both sides do terrible things," former Lt Hayashi Inoue argued in 2005. "Surely after 60 years, the time has come to stop criticising Japan for things done so long ago."
Wartime Japan was responsible for almost as many deaths in Asia as was Nazi Germany in Europe. Germany has paid almost £3billion to 1.5 million victims of the Hitler era. But Japan goes to extraordinary lengths to escape any admission of responsibility, far less of liability for compensation, towards its wartime victims.
Most modern Japanese do not accept the ill-treatment of subject peoples and prisoners by their forebears, even where supported by overwhelming evidence, and those who do acknowledge it incur the disdain or outright hostility of their fellow-countrymen for doing so.
It is repugnant the way they still seek to excuse, and even to ennoble, the actions of their parents and grandparents, so many of whom forsook humanity in favour of a perversion of honour and an aggressive nationalism which should properly be recalled with shame.
The Japanese nation is guilty of a collective rejection of historical fact. As long as such denial persists, it will remain impossible for the world to believe that Japan has come to terms with the horrors it inflicted.
• Abridged extract from Retribution: The Battle for Japan, 1944-45 by Max Hastings (2008)