[These reviews appeared in Conservative Review, May/June 1995, pp. 35-37.]

An Enemy Among Friends

by Kiyoaki Murata

Kodansha International, Tokyo, 1991

 

Prisoners of the Japanese: POWs of World War II in the Pacific

by Gavan Daws

William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1994

 

Reviewed by Dwight D. Murphey

 

            Mid-1995 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the end of World War II, and there is much to remember about that war. The atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, which heralded the end of the war with Japan, should be just part of those recollections. There is reason to fear, however, that the bombings will be centered on and that their anniversary will become yet another occasion for "America bashing" by those who, as Jeane Kirkpatrick so insightfully observed a few years ago, "always blame America first." The Smithsonian Institution, with its many unbalanced drafts of its planned exhibit on Hiroshima, has led the way.

            It is in this context that we wish to draw readers' attention to the two books being reviewed. The war has long since been over, and nations and peoples move on from war to alliance, from enmity to friendship; and accordingly it is painful to find it necessary to rehearse past events relating to the war. But necessary it is, if for no other reason than to retain a proper sense of perspective.

An Enemy Among Friends

            Kiyoaki Murata lives in Tokyo and is a professor of international communication at Yachiyo International University. Until his retirement from journalism in 1982, he was the editor-in-chief of Japan Times.

            Murata tells a remarkable story. Born in Japan in 1922 and raised there, he came to the United States as a young man in June 1941 to perfect his understanding of English, which he had studied in school. As he left Japan, he carried a small Rising Sun flag in his pocket as a reminder that "I was not to lose my Japanese soul while in a foreign country." His intention, he says, was to "complete my study in the United States as quickly as possible so that I could come home to serve in the Army."

            Starting in July 1941, he attended an American school, the Drew School in San Francisco. As war clouds gathered in the summer and fall of that year, he yearned "to serve Japan at the front," but did not return home, believing that "I could not return home without completing my own mission." The consequence was that he was a student in California at the time of the December 7 attack on Pearl Harbor. Although he soon went to live with Japanese relatives in San Leandro, working in a nursery, it wasn't long before he returned to Drew School. Throughout this period--as indeed throughout the war--, he found Americans warm and friendly, treating him as an individual rather than as an enemy alien. He was not arrested by the FBI, but was simply given an alien registration number.

            In mid-March 1942 after President Roosevelt had signed the executive order that led to the evacuation of all Japanese-Americans from the west coast, Murata again went to live in San Leandro. He was given a chance to be repatriated to Japan, but chose to stay in the United States. His aunt's family east to Visalia, California, and in August 1942 he was moved by the Army, along with the other family members, to the Colorado River War Relocation Center in Poston, Arizona.

            A matter of significance in the book is his description of the relocation center, which is one of those that are now described in a prolific literature as "America's concentration camps." He writes that "the camp was not the prison I had expected it to be. I have since heard accounts of camps with high barbed-wire fences and rifle-bearing MPs threatening to shoot any evacuee attempting to escape. Poston Unit Three was not at all like this. At first there was a token stretch of barbed wire fence around the camp, but it was gone in a few months. And I did not see one helmeted MP by a guard post...I even sauntered into the mesquite woods without [a lone, black MP] showing any sign of disapproval. Within a few days, he was no longer to be seen." He became a member of the Adult Education Department, teaching English.

            In January 1943 Murata received a letter from the Immigration Service saying that it would be all right for him to attend school and have part-time employment. In April, the War Relocation Authority, for its part, began allowing evacuees to leave the camps for employment elsewhere. "The WRA began encouraging the evacuees to either relocate themselves in the Midwest or farther east," and a list of prospective employers was provided. Murata's application for indefinite leave was approved, and he traveled first to Salt Lake City and then to Chicago, with WRA approval, when he said he thought he could get a job there. He was turned down for admission to Northwestern University because of a war-related project going on at that university, so he became a student at the Central YMCA College. He had jobs first in the YMCA Hotel coffee shop and then as an attendant at a mental hospital. "Nowhere I did encounter open hostility on a personal basis." In September 1944 the FBI called him in for questioning, but allowed him to continue living as before. At the beginning of the fall semester in 1944, Murata transferred to Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota. He attended the University of Chicago (which he could then enter because the Manhattan Project was no longer located there) during the summer of 1945. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Carleton College in early 1946, and went on to obtain his masters from the University of Chicago. He returned to Japan in May 1948. Murata's account is important not only as a testimonial to the fundamental decency of people toward one another even while their nations are a war, but because it so clearly contradicts the "facts" that have come to be accepted about "the United States' mistreatment of the Japanese-Americans."

            This reviewer must admit, however, to a certain ambivalence about his account. It does not seem credible that the Japanese government would have allowed a healthy military-age Japanese man to go to the United States in mid-1941 and not to order him home later, unless there were strings attached. Nor does it seem credible that he could, while professing continuing loyalty to his home country, feel it his primary duty to "continue my personal task, of learning English, to the end," staying here while hundreds of thousands of his peers in Japan were fighting and dying in the war. Neither does the United States government's willingness to allow him to roam freely during the war make sense. And neither do I understand how it was that he was welcomed back to Japan, to become successful as a journalist, after the war, in light of his having stayed away while everyone else endured the war. Maybe the Japanese aspects of these things are explained by an enormous cultural gulf between Japanese ways of thinking and ours, but they seem inexplicable. Whether they damage the credibility of his account is something each reader will need to decide.

Prisoners of the Japanese

            More than 140,000 Americans were prisoners of war of the Japanese during World War II. Historian Gavan Daws, who for fifteen years was the head of historical research on the Pacific region at the Australian National University's Institute for Advanced Studies, has written an account of their captivity based on extensive interviews with survivors combined with a study of archives.

            It is a story of unspeakable brutality, which Daws frankly acknowledges as having occurred on both sides in a knock-down, drag-out struggle to the death. As "politically incorrect" as it sounds today, he says that "race war was the way the conflict was understood on both sides...." The brutality of the Japanese treatment of the POWs (and of countless others, including Asians impressed into slave labor) and of the American response must certainly be taken into account in understanding such events as Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Another reason the story needs telling, as Daws points out, is that the POWs received virtually no mention in the official histories written after the war.

            In a brief review, it won't be possible to tell more than a few of the specifics. The entire book is needed to obtain the complete picture, and even then Daws must certainly just scratch the surface. As an illustration, I will quote his passage about the execution of five prisoners aboard ship as those captured on Wake Island were being transported first to Yokohama and then to a camp in China. Five men, "two marines and three navy men," were selected to be killed. Before an assembly of Japanese on deck, a Japanese lieutenant read a statement: "You have killed many Japanese soldiers in battle. For what you have done you are now going to be killed--for revenge...." Daws says "the five were blindfolded, and one after the other they had their heads chopped off...The Japanese applauded, even if the blow was botched and the head was not chopped off properly and the swordsman had to make a second chop or even a third. When all five heads were finally chopped off, other men took the swords for the sport of trying to cut the corpses in two with a single stroke, like warriors of the old samurai times in Japan."

            On Bataan, "at night the Japanese pushed closer and closer, and the noise of butchery was frightful in the dark: they were bayoneting the dying, hacking at the corpses with their swords...Anyone who had been out on patrol on Bataan had seen men strung up by the thumbs, their guts trailing, and bodies lying on the ground, their mouths stuffed with their own penises." During the Bataan "death march" that followed the American surrender, "they chopped the fingers off officers to get at their gold West Point rings. One captain had some Japanese money, and for that they chopped his head off." Daws tells of one occasion of which three or four hundred Filipino prisoners were bound with wire and bayoneted.

            Of the total of 140,000 American prisoners taken during the war, Daws says that "something approaching one in three died in captivity at the hands of the Japanese, starved to death, worked to death, beaten to death, dead of loathsome epidemic diseases that the Japanese would not treat." A tragic fact is that one-third of these died from allied bombs and torpedoes as the Japanese transported them in unmarked ships. Some of the most graphic scenes in the book are of slave labor and of the diseases, ulcers and amputations that accompanied it.

            The Japanese rationale for the war in Southeast Asia was that Japan was liberating Asians from European colonialism. But Daws points out that eventually they had "hundreds of thousands of Asians yoked to slave labor, and eventually millions. The name for them was romusha." The treatment they received was no better, and in fact even worse, than that given to allied prisoners of war.

            Daws is especially outraged by the medical experiments conducted on prisoners in Pingfan in Manchuria. Some "were cut up alive to see what happened in the successive stages of hemorrhagic fever...Others were shot, burned with flamethrowers...electrocuted, dehydrated, frozen, boiled alive."

            There are several subtexts in the book, many of them unfavorable to the American side. Daws' interviewees included a great many enlisted men, and this is reflected in a strong animus against Gen. Douglas MacArthur and officers in general. He is incensed that a deal was made at the end of the war to take no action against those who conducted the medical experiments in exchange for receiving the medical information. He reports with some bitterness how few war criminals were actually gone after. In another vein, he reports that although the Japanese held a strong belief against surrendering, "on the Allied side of the war, from the beginning to the end, doctrine and practice were against taking Japanese prisoners, at least beyond the bare minimum needed for interrogation...There were American bomber pilots and submarine commanders who would sink a Japanese ship and then be just as happy to machine-gun the survivors in the water as leave them to drown." After the Japanese massacred Australians early in the war, "the one ambition of the Australians was to exterminate all Japanese, kill them like snakes."

            There are many facets to the argument over whether the atom bomb should have been dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but a least one relevant fact stands out from Prisoners of the Japanese. It is that "time was of the essence" in forcing Japan's surrender; the Japanese had demonstrated a policy of killing all prisoners "well ahead of actual invasion." Ninety-six Americans had been retained on Wake Island, and they were all machine-gunned after American ships shelled the island in October 1943. Prisoners were killed on various islands, including at Tarawa, at the merest hint of invasion.

            Taken in all, the book is both a testament to the horrors of war, recounted as the men who went through it as prisoners remember it, and a reminder of the brutalities and passions that made it so complex an affair. Above all, it stands out that the war is not something that should become subject to that naive, self-abasing sentimentality with which twentieth-century Americans have become accustomed to seeing issues of the past.

            As with the Murata book, I have reservations. An imperative regard for those who were victims demands that we inform ourselves about and care deeply about atrocities. We also know, however, if we care about truth and about not being manipulated by propaganda, that nothing should be taken with greater skepticism than atrocity reports, which have been subject to enormous abuse in the twentieth, as in earlier, centuries. I know of nothing that requires more careful scholarship, with each fact cross-checked against independent reports and against archival materials. Because of this, I am dismayed to read Daws' paragraph in which he says that "in the early months of the war, Japanese who were residents in the United States--aliens, naturalized citizens, and citizens by birth; men, women, and children--were rounded up and interned. They lost their liberty and their property. There were held in miserable camps under military guard. Without question their human rights were grievously abused." Even though the reason he says this is in order to point out that allied prisoners of war were treated much worse, Daws' willingness to accept, without question, bogus history on such a matter as the treatment of the Japanese-Americans in the United States gives us reason to worry about his scholarship. This is unfortunate, since the prisoners whose story he tells deserve the best that the world of scholarship has to give them.

            Subject to the reservations I've expressed, each book is important and well worth the reading.