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"Japanese Prisoners of War" from Tactical and Technical Trends

The following intelligence report on Japanese prisoners of war in World War II was originally published in Tactical and Technical Trends, No. 10, Oct. 22, 1942.

[DISCLAIMER: The following text is taken from the U.S. War Department publication Tactical and Technical Trends. As with all wartime intelligence information, data may be incomplete or inaccurate. No attempt has been made to update or correct the text. Any views or opinions expressed do not necessarily represent those of the website.]


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.

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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 my captors."

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 reluctance.

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).


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