Appendices - Hirohito's War
D: THE JAPANESE EMPIRE - FROM CO-PROSPERITY TO TYRANNY
Slave Labor in Japan and in the Field: In the early months of 1942, with Japan’s conquering army suddenly faced with an unexpectedly large influx of Allied prisoners of war (POWs), it seemed logical for them to use captured troops as slave labor. Not being signatories to the Geneva Convention there was no legal restraint on Japanese actions.
Burma’s railways, made famous by the movie The Bridge on the River Kwai  were not the only ones to be built by POW labor. In the last year of the war some 5,000 British and Dutch servicemen were put to work on Sumatra along with 30,000 natives coolies. Death rates over the course of the year were 12 per cent for white soldiers but an astonishing 80 per cent for native workers. The railway was never used.
POWs were often shipped from place to place to perform slave-gang work. Though working conditions were often appalling, being transported was usually worse. On 17 September 1944, Allied troops were ordered aboard a small steamer, the Maros Maru. Inside prisoners were battened down and the new prisoners were lashed together as deck passengers to face the ravages of sun and sea. Flight Lieutenant W.M. Blackwood recalled, “Day after day, men who were grievously ill lay on the hatch cover fully exposed to the pitiless sun.”23 At the Celebes Islands, a further 150 prisoners were shoved on the preposterously packed decks: “Tongues began to blacken, raw shirtless shoulders to bleed, and all vestiges of sanity deserted many,”24 recalled Blackwood. At Macassar where some cargo was unloaded the steamer remained at anchor for forty days – during which time some 159 soldiers died. By the time that the Maros Maru reached Java only 325 of the complement of 650 POWs were left alive.
On the Mayebassi Maru carrying Allied troops from Singapore to Burma, 650 POWs had to occupy a lower hold that was 75ft by 48ft. It was even worse than the journey from Java to Singapore aboard the King Kong Maru, which they had considered an intolerable inferno. “From the bottom of this pit the patch of daylight at the top of the hatch seemed as remote as the clouds from the depths of the Grand Canyon…”25 For the next fifty-four hours the ship remained motionless in Keppel Harbor. The soldiers fried. The entire journey from Moulmein took seventeen days. Hundreds died. The journey for the 1500 Dutch prisoners coming from Java was even worse. There was an outbreak of dysentery and by the time their ship had reached Rangoon after twenty-two days, 200 were dead and 450 could not walk.
At least there was no storm. The POW ship, Byoke Maru, was caught in a typhoon. Chief Petty Officer Ray Perkins recalled, “Men fell into helpless paroxysms of sickness… The sounds were those of wordless animals, forced out – half screech, half scream – by the violence of the muscular contraction… the noise of some 200 sick men sometimes rose louder than the storm.”26 The dead would be tossed overboard in rice sacks. Some prisoners envied them. The smell of shit, urine and vomit made every moment a living hell. Many went insane aboard the hellships; their screams adding further torture to the inmates. Men would kill to get water. There were always fights during rail squalls as men fought to get water dripping from the hold covers. There are numbers of recorded instances where the insane drank pales of urine thinking it was water. If they were fortunate, Japanese guards left open the hatches to let in air; but some times entire voyages were conducted with the hatches closed. At port stops, guards would sometimes take away the sick under the pretence that they were to be taken for medical treatment. Usually that meant execution by bayonet or beheading. The lives of the sick were worthless if they could no longer work.
Arguably the worst recorded journey was that of 1,6191 American POWs from Manila to Fukuoka on Kyushu Island. Starting on 13 December 1944, the journey took 49 days aboard three ships. American bombers hit one of them, the Enoura Maru. Hundreds were killed. Some were machine gunned by the Japanese as they attempted to escape the stricken ship. Most however died on the journey from dehydration, starvation and disease. When they finally docked less than 500 men had survived. Of these a further 235 would die in Japanese prison camps within weeks. Over 80 per cent of this group of POWs perished.
There were other dangers at sea. Notably sinking by Allied submarines. On 1 October the Lisbon Maru, carrying 1,800 POWs in the hold, was struck by a torpedo and started to sink. Some 2,000 Japanese troops aboard were taken off while the prisoners were left to go down with the ship. A British officer begged for the hatches to be left open but Nimori, a Japanese translator shouted down, “You have nothing to worry about, you are bred like rats, and so can stay like rats.”27 Eventually many POWs were able to escape from the sinking ship but were gunned down on deck and in the water. Over half the POWs, some 970 of them were drowned or were killed. Some POW ships suffered a worse fate. Usually they were unmarked. In July 1942 the Montevideo Maru sailing from Rabaul was sunk. All 1,000 POWs and civilian internees were drowned in the crammed holds. Meanwhile in 1944 two torpedoes hit the Rakuyo Maru taking 1,248 POWs from Singapore to Formosa; 971 of the prisoners were killed. By not showing Red Cross signs as required by the Geneva Convention, Japan’s slow moving POW transports were floating death-traps for their unfortunate inmates.
In Japan, far from receiving better treatment, POWs from Asia discovered conditions that were often much worse. Already emaciated Allied soldiers who had arrived in even worse condition on the ‘hellships’ found that they were worked even harder in mines, quarries or foundries. Twelve-hour shifts were the norm though every five days they had to endure an eighteen-hour shift. They were not helped in 1944-1945 by the harshest winter on record with temperatures falling as low as -20 degrees Fahrenheit. Death rates in Japanese camps were 36 per cent on average but there were significant variances. At Zentsuji on Shikoku Island a model camp was built to show off to the Red Cross and international delegations. Other terminal destinations for POWs from Southeast Asia included Taiwan; at the Kinkaseki mines every man was forced to move between 9 -15 tons of rock per day. After 814 day only 89 of 524 Australian POWs were left alive.
Public concern about the issue of ‘comfort women’ is a relatively recent phenomenon. It was not for example an issue raised during the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. This silence was not because Allied soldiers did not come across comfort women; it was that simply that regimental brothels and camp followers have always been a part of military culture, western and Asian. Nor should it be overlooked that, after the US occupation of Japan in 1945, local authorities in Japan connived with General MacArthur’s administration to recruit women for the task of servicing GIs. Indeed, it would seem that the main concern at the time was that many Japanese women were fearful of the legendary size of the geijin penis; fortunately for the Japanese ‘onri won’ ladies these rumours proved to be inflated.
The issue of comfort women in the Pacific War only became a public debate and scandal after investigative reporting by Kako Senda for Mainichi Shimbun in 1962 revealed the vast scale of the sex slave operations. Using much of this research work a Korean activist, Kim Il-myon published The Emperor’s Forces and Korean Comfort Women . In the 1980s, Seiji Yoshida, an administrator in the wartime National Labor Service Association became the only Japanese witness to come forward and give evidence about recruitment and management of comfort women.
Pressure gradually mounted for full disclosure and in May 1990 South Korean President Roh Tae-wu’s visit to Japan brought an official request for information. Japanese officials blamed local entrepreneurs (pimps): “They (comfort women) were just taken around the military forces by private entrepreneurs, so investigations of them were not possible.”28 In response to this official obfuscation the Korean Comfort Women’s Problem Resolution Council made six key demands including admission, apology, compensation, and inclusion of the truth in historical education. The response of the Japanese embassy was to refer to the Japan-Korea Basic Treaty , which they argued settled all outstanding issues between the two countries. Anger at the response spurred Kim Hak-sun to become the first comfort woman to come out openly to speak of her experiences. Others followed and court proceedings regarding compensation began in earnest. A hotline set up to find information in Tokyo received 240 substantive calls as well as 24 in Urawa, 91 in Kyoto and 61 in Osaka.
As a result of this increasing cascade of information, a fuller picture has now emerged. Firstly there was a clear War Ministry Directive: “The psychological influence received from sexual comfort stations is most direct and profound and it must be realised how greatly their appropriate direction and supervision affect the raising of morale, the maintenance of discipline, and the prevention of crime and venereal disease.”29 Throughout the newly acquired wartime empire, the setting up of comfort women operations became remarkably ubiquitous – even in remote parts such as Chichijima in the Bonin Islands, Rabaul on New Britain (New Guinea) and Ishigaki in the Ryukyus.
The Tokyo hotline alone revealed 79 comfort units in China, 56 in Manchuria, 36 in Southeast Asia, 22 in the western Pacific, 23 in Japan and 6 in Korea. Other hotlines also revealed significant operations in Malaya, the Philippines, Burma, the Dutch East Indies, Taiwan, Indochina and Thailand. The numbers of women involved in the operation were vast with official documents revealing that one woman was provided for 30 to 50 troops. Typically research has shown that women ‘serviced’ up to 100 men per day. In total it is estimated that there were in the order of 100,000 comfort women on the Japanese Army’s books at the height of the war. In aggregate it is estimated that, over the course of the war, as many as 200,000 women were forced to become sex slaves.
Apart from Japanese women who tended to be reserved for officers, their most common nationality was Korean, followed by Chinese, and Filipino. However virtually all races were represented including White Russians and Dutch. There are well-documented cases of forced prostitution of Dutch internees in Semarang and Java. Some women were forcibly recruited as punishment for perceived anti-Japanese views, some simply seized from the countryside, while some were volunteers lured by the promise of good pay. In other cases young girls were purchased from their families. 30 Yen per month, which was considered a norm, was twice the pay of a regular soldier. In general Japanese women were paid a premium. However, pay that was often given in military scrip was worthless particularly when there were no goods to buy. Of course, after the war the scrip had no value. Hopes that some women had of saving for the post-war world were usually dashed. Conditions varied. Some comfort stations were virtual prisons while at others comfort women were allowed a relatively free and open life. For many, however, life was constrained by the need to follow the army into battle. Comfort women were even shuttled up to troops in pillboxes on the front line – even being provided with pistols for defence or suicide.
A shortage of condoms meant that venereal disease became rampant. Syphilis within the ranks of the Japanese Army was rampant. It did not help that many soldiers did not disclose a condition that prevented career advancement. However illness was the least of the problems for comfort women. Significant numbers died from bombing or were killed in the cave and tunnel fighting of the desperate battles to the death of the Japanese soldiers that they served. On Saipan many joined in the mass suicides of civilians in cliff top leaps. Others simply died in crossfire. In Burma, a group of seven Korean women were found to have killed themselves with a grenade. Others took potassium cyanide. At Truk Atoll seventy women were found massacred by machine gun. When starvation beckoned some comfort women were eaten.