Chapter 5: IJA Occupation and POW Policies

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IJA Occupation Policy


The Occupation Policy of the Imperial Japanese Army in the Second World War is the saga of failed military objectives contrasted with an ultimately successful political program. In an ideal policy these two objectives would work hand in glove. The reality was that these two objectives often worked at cross purposes.
The reasons for the failure of the Japanese to achieve their military objectives rest primarily in their misreading of Allied reactions to Japanese aggression and in their unprepared ness to deal with the fruits of their aggression.
Japan came late to the colonial when compared to the western powers she came to blows with. In practical terms this meant that Japan had neither the experience nor the needed apparatuses to administer colonies. This inexperience in colonial administration is significant because after the first six months of the Japanese offensive she had added over a million square miles of land, 150,000,000 new subjects, and 150,000 western prisoners of war. The totals were staggering, 300,000,000 subjects in China alone and a further 140,000,000 in South East Asia.

These acquisitions presented significant challenges even though Japan had formed the Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere (GEAC-PS) as early as late summer 1940. And it is with this GEAC-PS that the split in objectives occurred. Tojo stated that the official reasons for the initiating of the conflict. “The objective in the Greater East Asia War is founded on the exalted ideals of the founding of the Empire and it will enable all nations and peoples of Greater East Asia to enjoy life and to establish a new order of coexistence and co-prosperity on the basis of justice with Japan as the nucleus”
While these noble sounding aspirations did represent the official political goals they did not fully represent the military goals undertaken to buttress these political goals. From a military perspective the war was about securing a free flow of raw economic material resources. Which when coupled with an aggressive and successful military operation would force the Allied powers to the table for a negotiated settlement.

This is an important idea to grasp. Japan’s plan mandated and relied on a negotiated settlement rather than the protracted struggle for conquest which in fact occurred. As the hoped for settlement began to fade in blood and fire the Japanese began to switch from her avowed political goals and hastened to extract resources to meet the realized long term fight for survival. This meant in practical terms that Japan was forced to adopt the roll and methods of the colonial powers she had just ousted.
The Japanese, though hopeful in the beginning for a settlement, were at the same time realists about their situation. This realism actually led to her initiating the hostilities which occurred. As a result of the US lead embargo over Japan’s China policies she had only about six months reserves of petroleum and other vital war material on hand. The Japanese felt that to be capable of finishing the war in China she needed the resumption of trade in raw materials. Japan choose to strike now and negotiate from a position of strength while she still had it rather than a position of ever increasing weakness. Given the vastness of Japan’s rapidly expanded empire in the pacific region an even more critical shortage was in the realm of merchant shipping. Japan’s military planners estimated that they would need 13,000,000 tons of shipping to maintain both the homeland and their military machine. Yet, at the start of hostilities Japan only had 7,000,000 tons of merchant shipping available and as the war progressed, the Allies were sinking the merchant fleet faster then Japan could replace the losses.

So it is evident that the seeds of Japanese military failure were present from the very beginning in their misreading of Allied reactions.
This quick overview leads us into the actual methods and applications of Japanese policy in regards to its occupation of new lands and peoples. The first general statement to be remembered is that there was no practical uniform approach. Policies varied from colony to colony depending upon who was in charge, what resources were available, what level of resistance was offered to Japanese occupation and whether you were a native or a westerner.

Since the Japanese lacked adequate, in terms of training and numbers, colonial administrators and that they did not even form a colonial administration bureau until November of 1942, it was decided in November of 1941 to let the local military field commanders exercise control until an effective administration could be set up. One of the effects of this policy of letting local military field commanders have absolute control was unevenness in administration. There was also a standing Japanese military tradition of non-interference in local affairs by higher authorities. So the effectiveness of the administration and the treatment of the locals were fully dependent on the character and whims of the local commander as opposed to official government policies.
The notable exception to this was in Siam. Siam had declared itself a full partner and ally of the Japanese and so were rewarded with a regime of politeness. In general one can say that local Japanese commanders found as a whole brutality to be much easier then understanding which went a long way towards souring the initial wide spread enthusiasm of the Japanese pronouncements of Pan-Asianism. The locals were therefore answerable ultimately to the Japanese military which because they spoke for the Emperor were answerable to no one. It was entirely a closed moral loop. This closed morality loop would have dire effects for allied POWs which we will discuss more in detail later.

When looking at Japan’s occupation policies one is struck by a double standard. This double standard was in the way the Japanese treated the Chinese as opposed to the rest of their Asian subjects. Japan had been embroiled in China for almost a decade by the time she initiated wider hostilities. And in China the policy used was based on the principal of collective responsibility. As things and events became more serious elsewhere this policy would eventually be applied in varying degrees elsewhere as well. Though Japan had tried to inject a statement in the charter of the League of Nations against racism she did exhibit a policy of racial bias against the Chinese. This manifested itself in 1942 in the “Three All Campaign” (Loot All! Burn All! Kill All!). This “Three All Campaign” was aimed primarily against the Chinese Communists though it did spill over into other areas as well. The intent of the campaign was to free up targeted areas for the extraction of natural resources with any form of hindrance.

Because of Japans long embroilment in China there developed a great degree of frustration amongst the troops because of constant casualties for little gain. There developed amid the troops in China severe disciplinary problems including rampant drunkenness and overt acts of brutality as early as 1939. Western observers commented that the excessive brutality seemed to be the Japanese soldiers way of taking vengeance in advance of their own impending death.

As most Japanese soldiers used in the Southern offensives had some degree of experience in China these had feelings vis-à-vis the Chinese remained in their hearts and manifested themselves against those ethnic Chinese the encountered out side of China.
It was common knowledge amongst the Japanese that those Chinese outside of china had eagerly supported their homeland in its struggle against Japan. This would cost those ethnic Chinese in Singapore dearly. In mid February, 1942 over 5,000 native Chinese were killed outright by the Japanese occupation forces merely on the suspicion that the Chinese harbored “anti-Japanese attitudes.”
The Chinese in Singapore were not the only ones to feel the wrath of Japanese frustration in the early stages of the conflict. In Dutch Borneo the Japanese found that the vital oil wells had been set ablaze. Their inevitable retort was to kill al of the Europeans in the area. In Tjepu, Java the Japanese also lashed out, killing all Caucasian males and mistreating the women.
Surprisingly despite a Japanese policy of decolonization which included the destruction of all vestiges and monuments of the former colonial powers the fate of most captured European civilians was not so harsh. In general they were rounded up, interned in make shift camps and then left to fend for themselves.

Natives were split in their views of the Japanese humiliation of their former colonial overlords. Most tended to be elated, caught up in the Japanese propaganda of Asia for Asians. Others, most notably in the Philippines, where there was an on going resistance movement against (upwards of 350,000 Filipinos were involved) the Japanese forces were outraged. Many of these natives would risk their own and their neighbors lives to help out their former overlords.

The plight of the natives how ever worsened as the military situation began to turn against Japan. Many had in the beginning, great hopes believing that prosperity and better times were just around the corner. As the situation worsened some were apt to joke that the Cp-Prosperity Sphere had become the Co-Poverty Sphere. I n their zeal to establish an Asia for Asians the Japanese sought a total overhaul of local governments building to the establishment of friendly native administrations. Their methods of accomplishing this were wide in scope and often counter productive.

The Japanese banned all political parties, public assembly and were notoriously harsh towards those who spread “fabulous wild rumors”. They also gagged the local press, mandated that only Japanese radio programs be listened to, and banned western music, movies and the speaking of western languages. Local schools were immediately closed until a new Japanese approved curriculum could be taught. This curriculum taught history from an Asian point view, forced students to learn Japanese and mandated that all dates be kept by the Japanese calendar system.

Besides these methods the Japanese predictably instituted Identity papers and check points. They also made people wear arm bands which denoted the level of trustworthiness of the wearer in the eyes of the Japanese. Which of course the natives could never judge because they were ordered to bow in respect before the presence of any Japanese. The Japanese merged all banks into the Southern Regions Development Bank. This lead to a devaluation of currency and in turn a 50% decrease in real wages when compared to pre-war standards under the colonial powers. The economy was further hamstrung by Japanese industrial concerns annexing all lucrative businesses which in the end did very little to help the war effort. As a result natives began to complain about the lack of available food stuffs and consumer goods. The Japanese tried to divert responsibility on to the west for breaking off trade relations with the colonies.

The natives situation was further exacerbated by the Japanese invasion logistics policy of having troops live off of the land. This decimated many localities, stripping them of food stuffs and other goods. Many of these localities would not recover to pre-war levels. This situation was made direr by the Japanese use of locals for forced labor. Upwards of at least 100,000 men were taken for labor and as many as 10,000 women were put into Japanese military brothels as comfort women.

Over all the ad-hoc nature and uneven handling of the natives and the resources failed to render the promised economic gains that the Japanese planners had envisioned. From a military industrial point of view the policies failed to support at adequate levels the Japanese war effort. This desire for the extraction and use of natural resources for the war effort played out against the political backdrop of the GEAC-PS which ultimately, after the war, did in fact prove successful, though to late to be of any assistance to the Japanese Empire.
The lynch pin of this political maneuvering was the GEAC-PS which was formed by the Japanese in mid 1940. It was however, not until November, 1943, that there was held the Tokyo Conference of the GEAC-PS. As a prelude to this conference Burma declared independence on the first of August, 1943, causing the Japanese administrator GEN Masakazu Kawabe to order the withdrawal of Japanese military administration. In exchange Burma dutifully declared war on both the United States of America and the United Kingdom. Burma was not alone, the Philippines declared independence on the 14th of October and a week later on the 21st of October, 1943 a provisional government of Free India was declared.

The November Fifth conference was chaired by Tojo who proclaimed “ … a new order of common prosperity and well being”. Under Tojo’s chairmanship were delegations from China, Japan, Siam, Manchuko, The Philippines, and Burma. Indonesia was not granted a seat at the table as the Japanese felt that the Indonesians were not capable yet of handling all of the vast natural resources they had.
In his diaries Tojo noted that this was the happiest time of his life. Tojo was at heart an ardent Pan-Asianist. This obvious enthusiasm Tojo projected for Pan-Asianism caused great concern to members of the Imperial Japanese Army who felt that Tojo would sell them out in favor of his Pan-Asiatic leanings.

The conference was filled with high sounding and impassioned rhetoric and in the end by unanimous vote issued a proclamation which called for an order of common prosperity and well being based on justice, respect for each others independence, sovereignty and traditions, efforts to accelerate economic development on the basis of reciprocity and an end to all racial discrimination.
Previous to the declaration Japan had admitted that at times its occupation policies were oppressive and arbitrary though never racially biased.

Treatment of POW’s

This arbitrary nature of conduct was very much in evidence along with varying degrees of racism in the Japanese treatment of Allied POWs. All total the Japanese administered some 676 POW Camps. 176 in the home islands and 500 in occupied lands. The majority of these camps were located near native villages. This was done as a psychological warfare tool in order to win the hearts and minds of the natives. The Japanese wanted to degrade the formally all powerful Westerners in the eyes of their former subjects. This was done by degrading prisoner parades and simply by showing Asians (the Japanese) constantly in positions of power over the westerners. These camps held 150,000 White Allied POWs. The Japanese additionally captured and interred as POWs 180,000 Asian troops. These Asian troops were mostly Pilipinos fighting with the Americans and Indians in service to the English crown. The vast majority of all POW’s captured by Japan were taken in the first six months of fighting. Though some camps were harsh and other were notably lax fully 27% of all Allied POWs in Japanese captivity died there.

Perhaps a Japanese Engineer Regimental Commander said it best “It is necessary that subordinates be trained so that in the future they will be capable of dominating white-men and putting them to work”
Underlying all of this was the Japanese attitude towards the Geneva accords of 1929. the accords and their regulations were never a part of Japanese military instruction. The Japanese did sign the Accords but as they repeatedly pointed out, they were never ratified by the Diet. In response to Allied inquiries about adherence to the Accords the Japanese foreign Minister, Shigenari Togo, stated that Japan would adhere to the Accords “though with necessary changes. One of the changes that Tojo indicated in 1942 after the Doolittle raid was that henceforth captured Allied airmen would not be treated as POW’s but rather as war criminals and automatically subject to the death penalty.

These “necessary changes” were further worsened by Japanese attitudes towards POWs. This attitude towards POWs also carried over towards their attitudes about handling and guarding POWs. To the Japanese this type of work was almost as dishonorable as being a POW. As a result of these cultural conditioning only drunkards, criminals, and other misfits were assigned to these duties. In addition the Japanese recruited thousands of Koreans to act as camp guards. The Japanese treated the Koreans meanly and the Koreans in turn wreaked there revenge for their treatment on the Allied POW’s.

This sense of dishonor was coupled to a system with no external moral authority. The relationship of law, society, and religion was focused inexorably on the person of the Emperor-God. He was the embodiment and apex of belief and authority both in the here and now and in eternity. Therefore at the individual level when an officer spoke, and he spoke in the name of the Emperor this was the pinnacle of moral authority itself. In effect the soldier operated in a closed moral loop with no external checks or balances except for the command of the Emperor himself.

The case against the Japanese was made in the War Crime Trials known as The International Military Tribunals for the Far East. In the end though many Japanese in the lower echelons would receive an amnesty the wheels of justice allowed for some 920 executions of former Japanese soldiers. This worked out as a ratio of one Japanese executed for every 250 Allied POW murdered by the Japanese.


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