In the last issue of Tactical and Technical Trends an article appeared on
the methods of dealing with German prisoners of war as reported in a personal
letter written by a British Intelligence Officer in the North African desert. Some
interesting observations on this question concerning Japanese PW are brought
out in the report which follows.
* * * *
Though it is true that the experiences gained from interrogating Japanese PW have
not been as numerous as in the case of the Germans or Italians, nevertheless, it
has been possible to indicate a pattern of behavior. However, no hard and
fast rules can be made, since the problems of interrogation are as varied
as human nature itself, and each case has to be treated on its merits. National
and personal idiosyncrasies must be taken into account, and it is almost literally
true that one PW's food is another's poison.
Such a contingency as capture by the enemy is not recognized by the Japanese military
authorities. It is carefully inculcated into the Japanese soldier that to allow himself
to be captured is a disgrace worse than death. Indeed, to some extent, he even welcomes
the chance to die for his country. "Meet you at Yasukuni" is a popular parting
expression used by a Japanese soldier to a comrade when leaving for the front. Yasukuni is a
shrine in Tokyo where the ashes of "fallen heroes" are enshrined and paid homage to by
millions every year.
The Japanese is therefore a difficult fish to catch. He will resist to the
last... Moreover, unauthenticated reports from Malaya mentioned cases of Japanese
pilots who made successful forced landings, but blew out their brains before they
could be disarmed.
According to the account of one Japanese PW, the Japanese troops who
had been captured in Russia during the Nomonhan incident in 1939, and
afterwards returned to Japan, were given a knife with which to
commit "hara-kiri." Names of "missing" Japanese soldiers are officially
reported as "killed," and their names removed from the family
registers. Indeed, urns containing cremated ashes may be sent to their
next of kin as proof that the "missing" are no longer alive.
Schooled in the code of honor which requires suicide rather than capture, the
Japanese cannot easily be taken prisoner. Even after capture under circumstances
entirely beyond his control, (e.g. a pilot who has crashed, and regained
consciousness only in hospital), the well-trained Japanese officer may still
demand a pistol to shoot himself, though this attitude then smacks somewhat of a
theatrical flourish to save face. But once beyond the reach of help and the
immediate opportunity of self-destruction, a complete mental reconstruction
is not uncommon.
The following incident shows the typical attitude of the PW as soon as the
self-destruction phase passes.
One Japanese interrogated in Melbourne said he had no desire to return to
Japan. He believed that his former friends would have nothing to do with
him because he had been taken alive by the enemy and that he would be unable
to get back into the army. He preferred to stay in Australia.
Coupled with the comparative leniency of his captors, this conviction
induces in the prisoner a pliancy unusual in PW's from other nations, say, Nazi
Germany. The self-justification is: "Officially, I am dead; legally, I
am stateless: why not talk if I can thereby mitigate or improve my position with
In other words, his security has been more a matter of external training than of
inner conviction. In an entirely new environment the traditional supports
of his loyalty fall away and leave him ready to answer most questions, though
he does occasionally salve his conscience by showing unwillingness to
reveal matters which, in his own words, he describes as "firing a bullet at
the heart of the Emperor." The names of his superior officers are revealed with
The above remarks apply particularly to Japanese officers, who have been given
some instruction on security. So far as the rank and file are concerned, they
do not seem to realize that by talking they may be betraying their comrades. This
serves to emphasize the necessity of segregating officers from other troops, as
soon after capture as possible. Segregation should be arranged immediately and
prisoners sent back to the next higher echelon under separate guard.
Aside from officers, information has been forthcoming from straight-forward
interrogation. Although the Japanese soldier may prefer death to
capture, yet, when captured, he has been a valuable source of information.
This should be pointed out to all troops, and the importance of preserving and
sending back documents captured with the prisoner should also be stressed. The
Intelligence Officer's task is greatly facilitated if he has been able
to examine relevant documents before he does his interrogation. As regards
the treatment of prisoners when captured, it is very understandable that
troops in the heat of battle cannot be expected to be overgentle, but
if it is explained to them that prisoners are more amenable when treated
well, they will be prepared to cooperate. They should be made to realize
that from the intelligence point of view one live Japanese is worth more
than fifty dead ones.
One PW disclosed that he had been told of the capture of a British pilot
who, though subjected to an intense interrogation, had refused to talk at all. When
asked as to what measures the Japanese would be likely to take with a
prisoner of this description, he said he was certain that no attempt would be
made to extract information by third-degree methods, as the Japanese nature
was such as to admire reticence on the part of a soldier. (Comment: It is
evident that this particular PW was indulging in some artful practices in order
to secure better treatment for himself).