What the POW Issue Tells Us

Akina Kobayashi 
Hosei University, Graduate School


I have been studying at graduate course about Prisoners of War held in the USSR after WWII. In Japan they are called “Siberian and Mongolian Internee (POWs)” and a lot of their experiences have been published. Regrettably, at the end of 2006, our government concluded the compensation for them by offering them a travel ticket worth of 100,000yen, and what was worse, they did never recognized them as the “POWs”.

I became interested in this theme “POWs”
 because of a trip I made boarding the Trans Siberian Express. When I was twenty, I was studying Russian in Moscow and I had a chance to go to Novosibirsk by train during a vacation. Being in the train for 2 days looking through the window, I was impressed with the soundless environment that had nothing common with the city of Moscow. The outside was forest in a blizzard and, there were some lights from the houses which were different from the apartment compounds in cities. Through this impressive trip, I knew that more than 600,000 Japanese people were in the labor camps of the USSR after WWII.

I would like to point out that the general issue of POWs has a long history, which has long been discussed and in which some changes were made through various arguments. In the medieval Europe, war broke out between monarchies, lords, city-states and churches.
Therefore, handlings of POWs, such as paying ransom, were managed between the individuals who captured them. Since the era of the Absolute Monarchy, the war became conflicts between the Kings who had their kingdoms, and it became kings who were responsible for the POWs, paying ransom or compensation for the liberation of them. Through the Thirty-Year War in Britain, the American War of Independence and the French Revolution, and so forth, war changed into conflicts that broke out between nation states that consisted of citizens. The POW’s rights were brought into consideration under such influence as the French citizens’ Declaration of the Human Rights. During the second half of the 19th century, human beings finally adopted the Hague Convention and the Geneva Convention as common laws for POWs. However, what happened in the situation of the two world wars easily shattered these ideals, because many POWs got inhumane treatments as work force for the economic growth of their captors.

Dealings of POWs went through such significant changes in human history, from those by individuals, through absolute monarchs to that by nation states. However, I regret that even if the Conventions existed, they were trifled by the Powers. Some people had to undergo the limit of their physical strength, died suffering mentally, or managed to come home with their bare life.

In WWII, the Japanese Army that promoted nationalism under the propaganda of creating a Great Asian Sphere of Co-Prosperity, did a lot of atrocities and inhumane deeds. There are survivors’ voices who experienced them, criticisms against Japan by other countries, problems Japan has between Asian countries, and law suits against the Japanese Government that are going on in Japan. Events such as the “Bataan Death March” as well as the “Death Railway”, still remain vividly in the memory of people. In
Japan those days, there was the Field Service Code, which included the instruction, “Do not meet the humiliation of being captured alive.” That was a thought for justifying death by calling it  more honorable than becoming a POW, and it also implied the idea that those who became POWs could naturally be looked down. Under this concept, the Japanese Army must have done atrocities to the white POWs of the US, Australia, Britain, and Holland.

In the website of US-Japan Dialogue on POWs, there is a story by Lester Tenney, who survived the Bataan Death March. A Japanese soldier ordered two POWs to bury alive the two POWs who couldn’t move because of malaria, and when they refused, he shot to death one of them. This is one example of a lot of emotional and merciless deeds committed by Japanese soldiers, caused by distorted thoughts like nationalism and the instruction in the Field Service Code. The POW issue inspires a lot of other issues, of which the first is the Human rights that still is problem of today. Have the Japanese rightly faced the deeds of the Japanese Imperial Army, which ignored the human rights, and learned from the past? Secondly, it gives us insight into the question of how to live, and man’s vital energies that lie in us without being aware of. I was impressed with the words of Ray Hap Halloran, who had survived the adversities, of which I read among the POW stories in the homepage of the US-Japan Dialogue on POWs. Looking back at his experiences, he says he can “appreciate how small some of the things we actually worry about really are.” He says, “As I look at myself today, I know I have a far greater appreciation of life.” His words, who experienced the extremity of life or death, teach us “meanings” of life.

Recently in
Japan, the number of suicides has rapidly increased, and more than 30,000people killed themselves in 2005. However, reading the stories of American POWs and Siberian Internees, I have recognized that behaviors of the survivors were different. They did eat anything edible, enjoyed music of home even in the awful environment, encouraged each other with their buddies, and even sacrificed their lives fro their friends. Some had constantly prayed to the God, others who could not make it home, left their wills with their friends. Their act throws us a question, “What is man’s pride?”

Even 61 years after the end of WWII, the voices of POWs have strength that appeal to and overwhelm the listeners. We should share time with them, not with one-sided empathy, but try to digest each of  their experiences within ourselves, and make efforts to form our own voices to pass on to the next person in grass-roots activities.

What was the WWII? I would like to ask those who are not interested or doesn’t know it well to pay a good attention to this question. People now seem to concentrate only on their busy life, disinterested in the past. However, I wonder if they really know the present. I wish them to consider in their everyday life how the present has come to exist, as we all live in a process of history. I believe our today exists on the sacrifice made by those who were involved in WWII.

Awful experiences as the POWs are one of the sacrifices made in the wartime. This issue tells us misery of war, weakness and stupidity of human beings and simultaneously what a marvelous vital power man has.