Reality Check (1): ‘The Japanese’

Like all writers on the Pacific War I have to use the term ‘the Japanese’. In many cases this phrase is followed by the description of unreasonable or cruel behaviour If these statements are accurate, I have no hesitation in making them. But three things I would not wish to do are: 1) give the impression that there is a Japanese national or racial character that, throughout history, has been marked by cruelty; 2) encourage the slightest prejudice against today’s Japan and its people; 3) suggest that even in WW11 ‘the Japanese’ were a monolithic entity who behaved uniformly badly. Simply to mention the peaceful and constructive development of Japan since 1945 should be enough to dispose of the first two points, so it’s the third that I want to address here.  William Allister was one of the young Canadians sent at the last moment to reinforce the Hong Kong garrison. After the surrender, he was held in inhuman conditions at a camp at North Point and then in Shamshuipo. Finally he was transported to Japan to work as a labourer on starvation rations, painting freighters from scaffolding hung high above the China Sea and constantly in fear of a plunge to his death. This is what he has to say about the civilians he was working alongside, Japanese people who at first feared and despised the foreign ‘giants’:  We were adopted as part of the work force, not exactly one of them but – like the Koreans, the students, the reform-school kids – united in a common family. For our part, aware of the good and bad among the Japanese, we sensed that as a people their moral ratio was no different from our own.[1] Other Hong Kong POWs sent to work in Japan had women throwing them bread as they were marched through the streets to work – the guards beat these women , but that didn’t stop them (see Arthur Gomes, Newsletter, April 1, 2001, page 5).  When banker Andrew Leiper was kept uninterned in Hong Kong to help the Japanese loot his bank, he was well-treated by the civilian ‘liquidators’ who supervised his work. When one of them slapped him, apology and redress soon followed. When Leiper was sent to Stanley, one of them sent him in a parcel – even though it was paid for from bank funds, Leiper was grateful because he understood that providing any help at all to the enemy was a risky business, and years later in Japan he expressed  his thanks in person. In fact, Leiper, who stayed out for about 18 months, longer than almost everybody else, doesn’t often report an unpleasant encounter with any Japanese not in uniform. [2]  I am not of course denying that sometimes Japanese civilians acted with meanness and brutality towards enemy prisoners, but claiming that we need to make a distinction between the Japanese military forces and civilians because the general standards of behaviour were very different.  There’s no doubt that the Japanese soldiers were brutalised by the harsh treatment they themselves received – some sources claim the navy, many of whose officers had done some training in England, behaved better, but I don’t know enough to comment on this. There were plenty of soldiers, though, who are recorded as showing fairness and even compassion to the defeated. Captain Tanaka, who took charge of the Exchange Building on December 26 as Thomas Edgar and his fellows waited anxiously to learn their fate, is a case in point.[3] Three separate sources, including Thomas himself (verbally and in writing), testify to his good treatment of the defeated (Update: I now have more sources that show what a decent man he was.; one of them ,Staff-Segreant Sheridan’s Memoir, is the most detailed account yet – parts of htis can be read on Gwulo). When after months of brutal torture, three British officers, Newnham, Ford and Gray, were sentenced to death, the Japanese NCO taking them back to prison, who had always treated them humanely, was so upset he burst into tears. In one of those moments when the beauty of which the human spirit is capable suddenly illuminates skies of apparently unrelieved darkness, Colonel Newnham comforted him with the words, ‘Come on, cheer up, we aren’t dead yet’.[4]  The story of Kiyoshi Watanabe, the heroic interpreter who risked his liberty and life so often for the sake of the POWs and internees, is well known. But what is also clear from the accounts given by Liam Nolan and Ellen Field is that his activities were known to the Japanese authorities,[5] who abused him and eventually sacked him, but left him unpunished. On one occasion, Watanabe was caught by a sergeant smuggling medical supplies into Shamshuipo; he waited in trepidation for the summons to interrogation, which never came.[6] The former pastor put this down to miraculous intervention, but the most obvious explanation is that the officer either approved of what he was doing or didn’t disapprove enough to turn a fellow Japanese over to the gendarmes for it. Even more brutal than the rest of the Japanese Army was the Kempeitai, the military police. In Hong Kong they were in a more dominant position than in any other part of the Japanese Empire, using their power to outdo their fellow soldiers in rapacity and brutality. The other Japanese were afraid of them, and they were responsible for the torture and death of uncountable numbers of Chinese. Grim was the fate of almost all of the relatively small number of Europeans unfortunate enough to fall into their hands. Yet even here occasional acts of kindness by individual gendarmes are recorded. One of their number, Mr. Kawata, a warder at Stanley Prison, shared his rations with the prisoners and risked his life to help Dr. Selwyn-Clarke attend to the sick. After the war he was presented with a watch by Selwyn-Clarke and Major Charles Boxer in thanks for all he had done.[7] The Foreign Affairs Office, which was responsible for the Allied civilians in town and in Camp, and the Japanese Stanley Camp Commandants in 1942-43 (before Stanley was transferred to military control) seem to have generally tried to do the best they could for the internees, but were powerless to cross either the army or the Kempeitai. The first head of Foreign Affairs, Oda, was moved to tears when he visited Stanley by the sight of a former taipan reduced to onion peeling, and, more usefully, he sometimes lent the ‘stay-outs’ money from his own pocket.[8] At some risk to himself he’d arranged behind the backs of the Kempeitai for my parents’ best man, Owen Evans, to go to Macao to talk to the British Consul there about relief funds for Hong Kong (I don’t know if this trip ever took place). I don’t want to give the impression of going to the other extreme: I find it  incomprehensible that Emily Hahn, in an interview with Philip Snow (Fall of Hong Kong, 141), should have called the Japanese rule in Hong Kong ‘very mild’. It seems from the context that she was talking  about the handling of the Allied civilians left outside Stanley, and not about the treatment of the Chinese population, which no-one could possibly consider in the slightest bit ‘mild’.  By my calculation, those ‘Stanley stay-outs’ who were still in Hong Kong in February, 1943 when the Kempeitai crackdown began, had, if male, at the very least a ten percent chance of being arrested over the next year. If this rate were applied to adult UK males today roughly 2 million of them would be in prison, and the Home Secretary would not have to worry about being criticised for excessive mildness. Furthermore, the phrase ‘in prison’ could suggest a misleading equivalence of experience; I don’t share the Daily Mail view that our prisons today are no more than holiday camps, but there is a world of difference between being held in the kind of cell appropriate to the penal system of a civilised society and in the crowded, verminous, stinking holes provided by the Kempeitai. If the poor wretches held in such places, trying to survive on rations even lower than those in the Camps, received no more than a severe beating when they were being interrogated they could count themselves very lucky indeed. In fact, two of the ‘free’ Europeans died of malnutrition and medical neglect, and, as four more were executed, the number of deaths in contemporary UK prisons would have to be well over a million to match this ratio! Of course, absolute numbers count as much or more than relative numbers, and the Japanese were at war – by the time the arrests began American planes were attacking Hong Kong’s military and economic infrastructure, and submarines were taking a heavy toll of Japanese shipping, and the authorities were right to think that Allied civilian espionage was helping in all this. My point is that it is possible to make the opposite kind of error to the one I’m trying to avoid in this post.  Whatever their good intentions, moreover, Oda and his successor Hattori were presiding over a regime that was slowly starving to death over 2,500 men, women and children. It’s a telling fact that the Japanese tried to give criminal prisoners of their own nationality – who were at least as well fed as the internees – Wakamoto vitamin pills for as long as these were available,[9] yet gave the internees nothing. To its immense credit, the Red Cross sent some pills openly into the Camp, while Selwyn-Clarke and others risked their lives smuggling them in.  No, the Japanese occupation was brutal as regards the Allied nationals and unimaginably horrific as regards the Chinese. Nothing I’ve said is meant to deny that. It is not the actions of individuals but the systems of government and administration that must be judged, and, if one source is correct, the rules of that system, at least with regard to the dangerously low level of rations given to the POWs and internees, came right from the top, from Prime Minister Tojo himself.[10] The point of this post is that a clear judgement of wartime behaviour should not be accompanied by prejudice, stereotyping or over-simplification.


[1] William Allister, Where Life and Death Hold Hands, 1989, 130.
[2] G. A. Leiper, A Yen For My Thoughts, passim.
[4] Ralph Goodwin, Passport To Eternity, 189.
[5] Ellen Field, Twilight In Hong Kong, 216.
[6] Liam Nolan, Small Man Of Nanataki, 63-64.
[7] Selwyn Selwyn-Clarke, Footprints, 106.
[8] Philip Snow, The Fall Of Hong Kong, 2003, 140.
[9] China Mail, April 10, 1947, page 2.
[10] John M. Carroll, A Concise History of Hong Kong, 122.
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3 responses to “Reality Check (1): ‘The Japanese’

  1. Pingback: Thomas and Tanaka (2): The Man In The Photo | The Dark World's Fire: Tom and Lena Edgar in War

  2. Barbara Anslow

    In recent years I’ve come to realise that in general the Japs treated us internees in Stanley fairly well. Yes the rations were inadequate, they didn’t provide clothes, bedding, etc., but we only had to parade for outside roll calls once a week, we were allowed to hold concerts, and perhaps the biggest concession of all, to go swimming fairly often. A posse of 2 or 3 Jap soldiers often loped round the camp – no problem as long as you bowed as you passed them.

  3. Thanks for this very interesting comment, Barbara.
    I’d like to know the answer to an unanswerable question. Without 1) the money, food, vitamins and medicines provided by the Red Cross and Mr. Zindel in particular and 2) the money, food, vitamins and medicines smuggled into the camp by Selwyn-Clarke, the bankers and a Chinese associate of Dr. Herklots – how many internees would have survived the war?
    As you know, the Japanese allowed the first (although with major obstructions) and punished the second severely.

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