1940-1949 | Convicts | Japanese POWs

Indiscriminate reprisals against Japanese soldiers

Japanese POWs cleaning street drainage in Singapore – © IWM (SE 4870).

5 September 1945

On 5 September 1945, following the surrender of Japanese forces in Singapore the previous day, British officers and soldiers were infuriated to discover the brutality with which their own countrymen had been subjected as prisoners of war and they began to inflict equally barbarous reprisal punishments on the Japanese soldiers stationed on the island. Sometimes this was understandable, as when a former prisoner of war slapped a Japanese officer in the face as a watching crowd cheered, but at other times the reprisals seemed motivated solely by a sadistic desire to punish and humiliate every Japanese soldier. One of them, Shikimachi Gentaro, later recalled how he was kept a prisoner in appalling conditions for two years and forced to ‘dredge by hand the dead rats and human excrement that flowed down the sewers,’ adding that ‘if we disobeyed our captors at all we were beaten with rifles and kicked.’   Many of his Japanese comrades died from malnutrition, but despite the nightmare he didn’t bear any grudge against the British. ‘War,’ he observed, ‘makes all of us lose our humanity.’1

Historians Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper note that the British ‘regarded the Japanese with cold racial contempt and hatred’ and that ‘Japanese prisoners were made to kneel in front of their captors, to beg for food and to carry out filthy jobs on under 1,600 calories a day, half the amount that should have been fed to POWs.’2  The overwhelming majority of these men were not even suspected war criminals. They were merely ordinary Japanese soldiers.

In the two years before the last Japanese servicemen were finally repatriated to Japan, it is estimated that some 8,931 lost their lives, most of them from poor nutrition, harsh demands on their labour and from diseases such as amoebic dysentery and malaria. Some hung themselves in sheer despair.3  The number of Japanese fatalities even exceeded in total the number of British POWs who had died on the infamous Death Railway in Thailand,  yet unlike the British victims of the brutal Japanese occupation, the Japanese victims of British imperialism have been expunged from history.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Cited in Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire, Allen Lane, London 2007, p. 53.
  2. Ibid., p. 271.
  3. There is no record of the number who committed suicide but occasional references appear in the British press to Japanese POWs who had hung themselves including a brief reference in the Yorkshire Post, 5 October 1946, p. 1.

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