Horror in the East: Japan and the Atrocities of World War II









Japan and the Atrocities
of World War II



Laurence Rees





To Benedict Rees and Ann Cattini

Copyright © 2001 by Laurence Rees.

All rights reserved.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system,
or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording,
or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
Printed in the United States of America.

First published in 2001 by BBC Books, an imprint of BBC Worldwide Publishing,
BBC Worldwide Limited, Woodlands, 80 Wood Lane, London W12 OTT.
(Published to accompany the television series
Horror in the East
, first broadcast on
BBC 2 in 2000.) Writer and producer: Laurence Rees.


Photo Section 1:
Mainichi, Tokyo; Mainichi; NARA; Popperfoto; Hulton Getty; NARA; Hulton Getty;
Hulton Getty; Hulton Getty; Hulton Getty; Mainichi; Imperial War Museum.

Photo Section 2:
Hulton Getty; Hulton Getty; Jan Ruff; Masayo Enomoto; Popperfoto; Imperial War Museum;
Naruto House; Imperial War Museum; Hulton Getty; Australian War Memorial;
Australian War Memorial; Bill Hedges; Hulton Getty; NARA.

Photo Section 3:
Kenichiro Oonuki; Hulton Getty; Hulton Getty; NARA; Ralph Crane/Timepix; Hulton Getty;
Yoshiko Hashimoto; Ishikawa Kiyoko; Ishikawa Kiyoko; NARA; Hulton Getty;
NARA; Michael Witowich; Hulton Getty; Corbis.

Cataloging-in-Publication data for this book is available from the Library of Congress.

First Da Capo Press edition 2002
Reprinted by arrangement with BBC Worldwide Ltd.
ISBN 0-306-81178-2
eBook ISBN: 9780786746897

Published by Da Capo Press
A Member of the Perseus Books Group

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1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9—06 05 04 03 02



an history be shared?
This is the key question Laurence Rees raises in this important book.
And the book gives a resoundingly affirmative response to that question.

There is a temptation to view a nation’s past primarily, if not entirely, in the national framework: to consider its history as
sui generis
, a product of its own culture, to be understood in the context of its own indigenous development.
A recent school textbook in Japan — one that has aroused a storm of protest from Korea, China, and other countries — states that there are as many histories as there are nations, with the implication that a country’s history must be comprehended, appreciated, and judged in terms of its people’s ideas, interests, and values.
Defenders of this sort of self-centred nationalism — and such people are found everywhere — believe that a given people ‘understand’ their history better than other peoples, and that foreigners should not stand in judgment over it.

Horror in the East
, both as a documentary and as a book, takes the opposite view.
It has been produced on the assumption that the past must be shared, that it is open to anyone to examine, and that the quest for historical understanding knows no national boundaries.
Japanese, Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, Australians, Americans, British, and others who appear in the book (and in the documentary film) all seek to understand, whether as participants in past dramas or as contemporary commentators, the human tragedy that was the horror in Asia during the Second World War.

To speak of’horror’, of course, implies moral judgment.
But the judgment is not necessarily that of one nation condemning another nation, for no nation is free of moral culpability.
Rather, the judgment is, first, the application of universal human standards to specific deeds of barbarism committed by individuals; it is, second, an effort to understand why atrocities of such magnitude were perpetrated at specific moments in time; it is, finally, an act of linking the present to the past in which today’s generation speaks to an earlier generation.

The book is rich in detail, containing some episodes the BBC team discovered in dust-covered archives in Japan, the United States, Britain, the Netherlands, Australia and elsewhere.
The interviews, especially of Japanese veterans, are vivid reminders of what it was like to live, and to face certain death, in ‘the valley of darkness’, the term that is often used to describe the war years.
There are no taboos in the story; Rees, for instance, asks pertinent questions about the role of the emperor and examines them dispassionately, avoiding dogmas and emotional rhetoric.
Above all, the book succeeds in putting Japan’s wartime policies and behaviour in the context of a conformist society under pressure.
As one who grew up during the war — I was in fifth grade when the war ended — I can attest to the truth of this argument.
The power of conformism, the ardent wish not to be different, a misguided sense of honour which dictates that dissent will disgrace the nation, the family, and yourself — these traits still exist in Japan, and in many other countries, today.
But the book suggests that there are others, those who are willing to speak candidly about the past, not merely among themselves but also with people from other lands.
To the extent that
Horror in the East
reveals the existence of such people, the book points to the emergence of an international arena where memory and history may be shared and openly discussed, where what the author aptly refers to as ‘a common thread’ transcending national or cultural differences may be found.



Professor Akira Iriye
Harvard University




nscrutable’ — that is the adjective most often used to describe the Japanese.
And on the face of it, what could be more ‘inscrutable’ than their actions during the Second World War?
Their attack on Pearl Harbor, their worship of their emperor as a God, their willingness to die in kamikaze attacks, their appalling treatment of Allied prisoners of war, their war crimes against women and children in China — all these actions and more are hard, if not impossible, for Westerners to understand.

I fully expected to run into this concrete wall of’inscrutability’ in our quest to understand why the Japanese acted as they did during the war — just as I had when, years before, I had asked an intelligent, sophisticated Japanese friend what she knew about the most infamous atrocity committed by the Imperial Army, the Nanking massacre of 1937.
‘Ah,’ she replied, smiling, ‘I did study history at school, but you must understand, Japanese history is many thousands of years old and very complex.
It’s a very, very big book we have to study.
And, of course, we start at the beginning of the history and study hard and in detail.
So, unfortunately, by the time I left school we hadn’t finished the whole history....I think perhaps we stopped at the end of the nineteenth century.
We just didn’t get around to looking at the Nanking massacre.’

The desire of many Japanese to answer uncomfortable questions in a similarly evasive way, and so preserve the harmony of their society, is intense.
No one spends more than a few weeks in Japan without discovering the Japanese desire to ‘fit in’ to their society, to preserve the
as they put it, the solidarity of the group, by reaching consensus and by obeying the rules.
Most Japanese are concerned, to a degree unheard of in the West, about how others perceive them; there is even a word for the phobia,
taikinkyofusho —
the fear of what other people think of them.

But unlike the majority of Japanese our interviewees did decide to act against the
, the consensus of the group, and I am profoundly grateful to them for that decision.
For if this book has a value, it lies in the first-hand testimonies of those whom we questioned.
Academic historians rarely have the inclination or the training to trace war criminals and cross-question them about their actions, so this is an area in which the techniques of journalism can help historical understanding.
Whilst the period covered by this book (from the Japanese aggression in China in the 1930s through to the dropping of the atomic bombs in August 1945) is so long that, inevitably, not all of the detailed history could be covered, the testimony we gathered does, I believe, offer a valuable insight into the mentality of those who took part in this terrible war — an insight that scholarly works sometimes lack.

I was astonished at the depth of the material we did eventually obtain from our Japanese interviewees.
From the son who murdered his mother in a suicide pact to the self-confessed rapist; from the doctor who performed medical experiments on Chinese prisoners to the guard who shot Allied prisoners on a death march, our interviewees were for the most part open and frank.
Perhaps the most revelatory interview is that with a kamikaze pilot — cheated of death by the mechanical failure of his aircraft — who explains convincingly why he simultaneously believed that the suicide mission he was asked to embark on was a crazy idea, and yet still felt compelled to volunteer for it.
The straightforward — often self-incriminating — manner in which these veterans answered our questions was in many ways extraordinary, given the cultural imperative in Japan that dissuades many from speaking openly and critically about the war.

Our Japanese interviewees chose to talk to us for a variety of reasons; some were clearly persuaded because they trusted the BBC not to misuse their words, others because they had a genuine desire to try to make foreigners understand why they had acted as they did.
Still more — having already been imprisoned by the Chinese for their crimes — felt free to incriminate themselves with impunity.
But the overwhelming reason why many were willing to be questioned so provocatively about their actions was because they are coming to the end of their lives and want to put on record, warts and all, their part in what happened.

This inquiry into the mind-set of those who took part in the Pacific War is the last in a trilogy of projects I have written and produced on the Second World War, and in the Postscript at the end of this book I explore some of the ways in which meeting so many veterans from different nationalities has altered my thinking about the conflict.
It is sufficient here to record that, after listening to many of our Japanese interviewees, I came to realize that they were not so very different from the German and Russian veterans I had met before.

It turns out that the Japanese are not ‘inscrutable’ after all.
A combination of cultural belief and geographical and historical circumstance caused Japanese society to evolve, in the first half of the twentieth century, to a point where the very human desire to belong, to fit in, to be part of the group had been elevated to an all-embracing quasi-religion.
It needed only a group of ardent militaristic nationalists to make of this society a powerful and fanatical weapon, able to produce an army capable of great crimes.

The truth is that we should be concerned about what the Japanese did during the Second World War and the years that immediately preceded it not because they are somehow utterly ‘alien’, but because their history tells us how dangerous it is to be human and to long, at all costs, to conform.



Laurence Rees
April 2001



ccording to popular myth the infamous behaviour of the Japanese during the Second World War has one basic cause: the Japanese were a uniquely cruel people, brainwashed after centuries of adherence to a warrior code that celebrated atrocity and encouraged torture, and conditioned by universal emperor worship.
The surprise, so this comfortable theory goes, is not that so many prisoners of war were mistreated, but that the toll of misery was not even higher.
In short, the Japanese were (and perhaps still are) an inhuman people from an inhuman culture.
The great advantage of this prevalent myth is that it renders any real study of the history of Japan in the twentieth century unnecessary.
But this theory does have one disadvantage — it is demonstrably wrong.

During the First World War the Japanese fought on the same side as the British and captured some 4600 prisoners of war in the German colony of Tsintao on the Asian mainland.
If the popular myth is correct, these European soldiers ought to have become victims of the inherent Japanese cruelty.
But they were not.
Far from it.
‘They were treated as guests at that time,’ says Hans Kettle, whose grandfather was one of the German prisoners of war in Japan.
‘They had a lot of free time in the camp.
They made their own sausages, they had a gymnastic club, they did a lot of musicals.’
Herr Kettle summed up his grandfather’s experience of imprisonment at the hands of the Japanese in one simple phrase — ‘I think he had a nice time.’
Far from forming the view as a result of his years as a prisoner of war that the Japanese were a cruel people, his grandfather stayed on in Japan after his release and married a young Japanese woman.
His grandson still lives there and runs a successful German restaurant in Tokyo.

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