United States Air Force Academy
"If I become a prisoner of war, I will keep faith with my fellow prisoner's. I will give no information or take part in any action which might be harmful to my comrades. If I am senior, I will take command. If not, I will obey the lawful orders of those appointed over me and will back them up in every way," This is Article IV of the United States Armed Forces Code of Conduct, part of the rules American soldiers memorize in case they are captured and become POWs. As a cadet at the United States Air Force Academy, this message is engrained in my head as we were forced to memorize it starting from Basic Training under the pressure of cadre yelling at us and making us do calisthenics. At the time, it was something I was forced to do, but after reading the stories of American POWs in Japanese prisoner camps, I realized the significance of the training I was undergoing and was inspired by the soldiers before that had lived through such great hardships.
On the other side of things, I was also an exchange student to Japan when I was a freshman in high school, so Japan has been a country that I have experienced on its peacetime side. Because of my limited Japanese speaking ability at the time, I didn't get into many deep conversations about US-Japanese relations and the perception of War World II. There were two occasions though when I was shocked by some of the things said. Once, my host father sat me down and told me that there were two types of people, farmers and warriors. He said that the Japanese people are and were farmers and that Americans were warriors so we would never understand each other. I was astounded that such a stereotype could lead him to believe that we would never truly get along. I had always thought the exact opposite. To me the Japanese were the samurai or the kamikaze and Americans were the farmers. The other experience I had was talking to a schoolmate's grandmother about World War II. She knew I didn't understand much Japanese, but she just kept going on and on about the war and bombs. I could only understand the word sensou which means war, and her gesture for an explosion, but she really seemed to want to release whatever she had been talking about. Later I learned that her late husband had been a prisoner of war and that she was only comfortable to tell me because she knew that Americans value their POWs while Japanese look down on them.
From these experiences plus educating myself about the experience of American POWS of Japan and the Japanese perception, I've come to the conclusion that conversation between our countries and education about the situation is needed to improve relations and our understanding of each other. Some Japanese might have a dislike of the United States because we dropped the Atomic bomb on their country and some Americans may dislike Japan because of the attack on Pearl Harbor and the Bataan Death March. As a new generation of Japanese and Americans replace the old generation who went through the war and remember these events, the atrocities should not be forgotten because it embarrasses or disturbs us; it should be embraced so that we do not commit the same crimes against humanity and we can move on together with stronger relations.
In the book, The Fallen, by Marc Landis, the Japanese crimes committed to a pilot, First Lieutenant Martin S. Walkins, and his crew were revealed. Upon crashing in the Japanese countryside and being picked up by the military, this group of American soldiers faced many hardships and all but the pilot ended up dead. The crew was killed in terrible medical experiments by the medical staff at Kyushu Imperial University where they would take out there body parts for lectures and surgery demonstrations while the men were alive and well. The medical atrocities were publicly trialed in Case 420, but none the less I had never heard of it until reading this harrowing story. The pilot on the other hand was sent to the Kempei Tai headquarters in Tokyo for questioning and detainment since he was a pilot who they believed they could get to admit for the dropping of the Atomic bomb. The Kempei Tai were the elite of the Japanese military and would strip their prisoners of all human characteristics and make them like animals. Lieutenant Martin and fellow POWs were housed in the Emperor's former horse stables where they were severely mistreated. The conditions were horrifying: no sunlight for months, a box for a toilet, torture methods, lice, mites and infected wounds, restricted from standing, force to crawl on all fours and eat off the ground, and the list goes on. Martin eventually was freed from the hands of the Japanese after being liberated by the surrender of Japan, but even afterwards he was scarred forever. This book was quite the eye-opener to me. Such terrible inhumane events were occurring in Japan, that haven't been apologized for and haven't even been taught to the public. This ignorance could severely hurt the growth of both our cultures. If we don't know what happened in the past, how are we going to prevent it in the future? Most Americans have heard of the Nazi detention camps, but hardly anyone has heard of the events that occurred in Japan to POWs and nor have the Japanese come forward about these events.
Another side of the story that we definitely don't hear about is the Japanese prisoners of war of the Allies which I think ties into the reason behind some of the atrocities committed to the American POWs of Japan. Japanese soldiers were trained from middle school to adore the emperor as their father. As new enlisted they were taught to have blind loyalty as they got smacked across the face by superiors for trivial transgressions, a practice called binta, and also received group beatings with baseball bats for not finishing assignments on time (Straus pg. 36-37). The Japanese culture skewed to believe that to die for your country was an extreme honor that should be wished for (pg. 38). The Japanese army's field service code, Senjinkun, comparable to the United States Code of Conduct explained what Japanese were to do if they became prisoners of war, and that was to kill yourself. The Code specifically stated, "Never live to experience shame as a prisoner. By dying you will avoid leaving behind the crime of a stain on your honor (pg 39)" This indoctrination lead to the kamikaze soldier; more willing to die in battle than come back alive. It also lead to numerous Japanese who got taken as POWs to commit suicide in their POW camps. The Japanese prisoners were treated under the Geneva conventions guidelines at the Allies POW camps. They got medical help, proper food, and proper shelter, but nonetheless they were miserable because they had been so indoctrinated to be shameful of the position as a prisoner of the Allies yet they still had the will to live. On December 1945, Japan started repatriating their POWs, but they had quite the difficulties upon going home. Almost all of the POW families had been informed that their sons died honorably so to have them come back alive was either a disappointment or shock.
The Japanese in World War II didn't care about the treatment and humanity of American POWs; they didn't even care about the lives of their own soldiers. This indoctrination of blind loyalty and service to the state of Japan brought about many atrocities ranging from the medical experiments on live American soldiers to lynching of their own troops. If discussions about the causes of horrific events are not discussed, then they can not be prevented in the future. Both of our countries need to learn together to respect humanity, and I hope this is something we choose to never forget.
Landas, Marc. The Fallen: a True Story of American POWs and Japanese Wartime Atrocities. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley and Sons, Inc., 2004.
Straus, Ulrich. The Anguish of Surrender. Seattle and London: University of Washington P, 2003.