The savagery of the Imperial Japanese military cannot be explained by reference to Nazi Germany and the USSR

The savagery employed by the Japanese towards the people of every race conquered by them between 1937 and 1945 is not easy to explain. In the acclaimed British BBC television documentary "Horror in the East" (2001), and the book based on it, Laurence Rees attempts to explain the countless atrocities committed by the Japanese in the course of their military aggression by reference to what he calls a "situational ethic". In plain language, what he appears to be saying is that standards of behaviour are often shaped by context. If people live in a culture that is brutal and repressive, most of them will tend to conform to the standards of that culture. Rees then links the savage behaviour of the Imperial Japanese military between 1937 and 1945 to the brutality exhibited by the Nazi SS of Adolf Hitler and the communist armies of Josef Stalin.

This grinning Japanese soldier holding a severed head is participating in the massacre that followed the fall of Nanking (now Nanjing). Japanese troops were encouraged by their officers to invent new and hideous ways to slaughter Chinese civilians and prisoners of war after the fall of the capital. This photograph was smuggled out of China.

However, I feel that his analogy with Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union does not provide an adequate explanation of the extraordinary savagery of the Imperial Japanese military. Those comparisons do not explain the murder and eating of captured American and Australian prisoners of war by the Japanese military in the Pacific region. Imperial Japanese troops did not hesitate to slaughter babies in any of the countries that they conquered. After raping foreign women, Japanese soldiers frequently mutilated and murdered them. It is necessary to read the books listed at the end of this chapter to appreciate that the Imperial Japanese military behaved like wild beasts of prey, not only towards the Chinese whom they despised as vermin, but towards the people of every country that they conquered.

Although Rees mentions briefly the brutal treatment of recruits within the Imperial Japanese army after 1930, I do not believe that a culture of brutality in the Japanese military, although relevant, is sufficient in itself to explain the extent and horror of Japanese atrocities. The answer almost certainly lies in the deeply militaristic and authoritarian character of Japanese society prior to 1945, and the culture of extreme brutality, fanaticism and racism that was deliberately encouraged in the Japanese military during the 1930s. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of this indoctrination was the teaching that Chinese were "chancorro", or sub-human, and that the killing of Chinese was of no greater significance than the killing of vermin. It would have been no great leap from a belief that Chinese were vermin to a belief that all non-Japanese were vermin!

This is not the place for an in depth historical study, but certain key factors can be mentioned.

Entrenchment of militarism and respect for authority in post-Shogunate Japan

The samurai warrior class dominated the government and cultural life of Japan during seven centuries of military dictatorship until this class was abolished in 1869 following the restoration of Emperor Meiji as supreme leader of Japan in 1868 . The samurai warrior lived by a code called bushido that required unquestioning loyalty and obedience to his feudal lord, strict self-discipline, and fearlessness in battle. It was dishonourable for a samurai to be taken alive by an enemy, and samurai were expected to commit suicide rather than surrender. The code of bushido as practised by the samurai encouraged compassion for a defeated enemy, and did not sanction the murder of babies by samurai warriors or the rape and murder of women.

The values and attitudes incorporated in bushido did not die with the formal abolition of the samurai class because the emperor's key advisers were samurai themselves. After the restoration of the emperor, bushido was adapted as an ethical code for the whole population with the emperor replacing the feudal lord, or daimyo, as the object of loyalty, obedience and sacrifice.

The samurai code of bushido was also adapted to educational philosophy. The new education required that children be taught reverence for, and unquestioning loyalty to Emperor Meiji and, of course, to his imperial government. The curriculum followed the authoritarian Prussian education model and was designed to foster national unification, loyalty to superiors, obedience to authority, and patriotism.

The Shinto religion encouraged emperor worship, racism, and military aggression

Emperor Meiji's samurai advisers saw the emperor as a logical focal point for achieving national unity. To this end, they decided to re-establish and revitalise the ancient Shinto religion with its gods and goddesses as the official state religion of Japan. Three tenets of Shinto were especially relevant to the aims of the emperor's advisers. Shinto held the emperor to be divine because he was deemed to be a descendent of the sun goddess Amaterasu. This provided justification for requiring the emperor to be worshipped and obeyed. The second tenet held that Japan was not just a populated geographical feature in the Pacific Ocean, but a land and people created by the sun goddess, and accordingly, specially favoured by the ancient gods. Finally, Japan was possessed of a divine mission to extend its rule and enlightenment to less fortunate races.

It will be apparent that Shinto was strongly nationalist and racist in character. Combined with the traditional militarism of the samurai warrior class, it was a dangerous cocktail with a strong potential for encouraging fanaticism and support for war as a means to secure what were perceived by the emperor's advisers to be Japan's national interests.

As militarists and extreme nationalists increasingly dominated Japan's Imperial government during the 1930s, this extremism was reflected in Japan's foreign policy, education, and military culture. The Imperial Japanese military purported to follow the samurai code of bushido after the restoration of the emperor in 1868, but the code that they followed was a perversion of bushido. For the imperial Japanese military, bushido meant dedication of their lives to the emperor; defeat was viewed as shameful; surrender was dishonourable; those who surrendered were worthy only of contempt; and compassion for defeated enemies, male or female, the elderly, or tiny children, was weakness. The last view was definitely not part of the traditional samurai code of bushido. This perversion of bushido was used to justify countless instances of rape, and the murder of prisoners of war, women, and even tiny children, in countries conquered by the Imperial Japanese military.

Establishment of a culture of brutality, racism, and fanaticism in the Japanese military

In the 1930s, Japanese military recruits began to be subjected to intensive indoctrination in the tenets of bushido and Shinto. A culture of extreme brutality was also encouraged within the military itself. If a Japanese colonel was displeased with one of his majors, it would not be unusual for the colonel to strike the offending major a blow across the face to reinforce his reprimand. The major chastised in this way would be expected to strike one of his captains who had incurred his displeasure. This brutality would be passed down the line from the Japanese officers to their own enlisted men who would then be expected to beat each other up. At the end of this chain of brutality were the men perceived by the Japanese to be the lowest of the low, their enlisted Koreans and Taiwanese, who received the worst beatings. The disgruntled Korean and Taiwanese camp guards had no one but the prisoners of war to beat up, and they were viewed by many prisoners as being the most brutal of their guards.

The apparent aim of this indoctrination and brutality was to produce fanatics who would sacrifice their lives without hesitation for the emperor. It was also calculated to produce brutal and racist soldiers.

Although they did not understand that it was normal behaviour in the Japanese military, one of the few bright moments in the bleak lives of Allied prisoners of war was the sight of their Japanese guards beating up each other instead of them. Dr Frank Mills, an Australian prisoner at Sandakan, tells how much the prisoners enjoyed watching this sight:

"I have seen funny occasions when the NCO beat up the young soldier, the lieutenant beat up the NCO, the captain beat up the lieutenant - it went right to the top, beating each other up quite publicly. We used to applaud it. They took no notice. It was some of the only fun we got when the Japs started to beat themselves up."

From "Horror in the East" by Laurence Rees, published 2001 by the British BBC, at page 84.

After Japan invaded China in 1937, Japanese troops were encouraged by their officers to embark on an orgy of murder, rape, and looting that shocked the civilised world. The depravity of the Japanese troops is not surprising having regard to their being taught that Chinese were "chancorro", or sub-human, and that the killing of Chinese was of no greater significance than the killing of vermin. Chinese civilians were rounded up on the slightest pretext to provide Japanese troops with bayonet practice. Millions of Chinese, both civilian and prisoners of war, were brutally murdered in the course of Japan's undeclared war on China between 1937 and 1945.

The culture of fanaticism and extreme brutality encouraged in the Japanese military between 1930 and 1945 was calculated to produce troops with the emotional coldness of psychopaths. Add instilled contempt for other races, and one can begin to understand how easy it was for the Japanese Imperial military to commit the atrocities that shocked the civilised world. It appears unlikely that the products of such an appalling military culture would be able to behave any differently when Japan's military aggression was extended to the Pacific and South-East Asia in 1941.