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The Pacific War had deteriorating impacts on civilians. Following the Japanese invasion in China, people were buried alive while fathers were forced to engage in sexual affairs with their daughters. Besides, boys were forced to engage in similar sexual practices with their mothers. Many people were beheaded. The committed acts of cannibalism targeted the prisoners of war. According to Iriye, Japanese soldiers also engaged in indiscriminate raping.1
Women were coerced to utilise the available Japanese military brothels. However, the brothels turned out to serve other purposes, as opposed to being commercial sex centres. They were places where women were forced into sex. Many of them died in the process. In line with Hotta’s views, the Pacific War emerged from Japanese quest to invade Indonesia and other regions that had large deposits of natural resources, including oil reserves, to avoid reliance on imported natural minerals, especially metals and oils, to run Japanese industries.2
The reliance has threatened the capacity of Japan to run its economy and/or sustainably feed its people due to high population growth. The attacks in China would culminate into World War II and the Japanese declaration to withdraw from the war after 140,000-240,000 Japanese civilians were left dead through two nuclear bombings. As the paper confirms, the Pacific War featured new and brutal connections between race, violence, and captivity. In the first section, this paper discusses this proposition in an attempt to relate the war with race and violence. The second section discusses the brutality faced by captives
Race and Violence during the Pacific War
During the Pacific War, the imperial Japanese army and its allies together with the US and its collaborators committed various atrocities that led to large-scale human sufferings. While no evidence is available on where the senior officers who led the armies commanded such atrocities that fuelled the war, it may be inaccurate to hold all the combatants responsible for the atrocities at random.
However, Matsumura asserts, “some early foreign coverage of atrocities, such as the mass killings and rapes that occurred in the Chinese capital of Nanjing in 1937–1938, described IJA officials as embarrassed and determined to conceal the significant fact of continued insubordination of Japanese troops”.3 This claim suggests the collective responsibility where such atrocities were committed with strong and unconditional allegiance to the army.
Nevertheless, irrespective of who was responsible for the violent activities such as nailing people on walls, beheading, rape, indiscriminate shootings, bombings, burring people alive, and using iron hooks to hung people by their toques, an emerging scholarly question is whether such atrocities selectively targeted people based on some preconceived biasness, for instance, race.
Some parts of the administration’s leadership and the Japanese armed forces regarded western authorities as being committed to ruining the nation. The western powers, including American allies and the Europeans, contributed significantly in controlling the Pacific Asian region. Therefore, Japan considered itself being surrounded by colonialists. To make the situation more severe, the US introduced some new set of immigration laws, which Japan largely considered discriminatory to the Asian race. To add insult to this situation, Duus reveals how English nations made a declaration that sought the ratification of the Anglo-Japanese alliance.4
Hence, although Japan did not engage in the 1937 Asia Pacific War that aimed at executing violent race-based attacks, perceptions of racial inferiority that the western power imposed on Japan and the ability to control the Asian Pacific region were key to getting into war. The goal was to prove to these nations that Japan had the capacity to control the region and/or obtain oil and other natural resources that were necessary to support its employment sector, including feeding its growing population.
As Twomey asserts, the unrelenting non-inclusion of Japan in taking a key role in the leadership of the Asian region and the limited accessibility of natural resources and oil continued to create circumstances that exorbitantly compelled Japanese planners to consider military confrontation with neighbouring nations, especially China and the Soviet Union.5 Indeed, even before the Pacific War broke following the invasion of China in 1937, Japan had shown incredible interest in controlling the Manchuria province of China because of its rich mineral resources.
Japan disguised its interest as economic development. This situation led to the establishment of Kwantang Army that had 80, 000 people. The implication here is that Japanese foreign policy towards China even before the war broke did not uphold racial discrimination, but pure economic interest. However, racial aspects in the pacific war emerged when Japan attacked the US’ Pearl Harbour in Hawaii.
Before the pacific war broke towards the end of 1941, the United States had not taken a decision to help China in fighting Japan. Nevertheless, according to Kit-ching, the nation had already put economic pressure as a way of expressing its displeasure with Japans’ attacks on China.6 The embargoes and trade sanctions became even more severe when the US convinced Holland and Britain to reduce resources that were expatriated to Japan in an effort to wage war.
After Japan moved to occupy Vietnam by cutting oil and other supplies to Japanese industries that were manufacturing war equipment and weapons, the US was sure that Japan would run short of supplies when its reserves were fully utilised and consider withdrawing from the war. Although Japanese people shared a similar sentiment, another way was devised to ensure that Japanese war machines would not run out of oil supplies.
The established option involved apprehending Malaysia. After being convinced about this possibility by the British Prime Minister (Churchill), President Roosevelt warned Japan that in case it continued to expand further into Southeast Asia, it would face the American military interventions. Therefore, until 1940, evidence was inadequate that the progress of Pacific War had racial stereotypical mindset.
Japan remained vigilant and stuck on Malaysian rich oil deposits. Its planners knew about the possibility of the US intervention. However, it decided to capture Malaysia with the view of using the acquired oil in supercharging war in China, thus concluding it. The next strategy was to deploy the acquired oil in Indonesia to collaborate with China to help it to develop the Chinese human resource potential fully. As Duus reveals, this plan would lead to the creation of a very strong co-prosperity sphere in East Asia that no nation could challenge.
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Therefore, the US would only seek negotiations to help in concluding the war. However, for these strategies to work, Japan had to challenge the Pearl Harbour in Hawaii by attacking it. Although it successfully attacked it to the extent of causing significant losses to the US, Japan faced severe consequences due to its mistakes.
When Roosevelt first learnt about the attack, his immediate reaction was that German pilots were flying the planes that attacked the pacific fleet since the Japanese people could not possibly launch a successful attack on the US. In the attempt to magnify the psychological implications of the attack, the white American race-focused commentary emerged, as Whitfield reveals, suggesting, “Little yellow men with buck teeth and thick glasses who make toys and trinkets”7 did not have the capacity to successfully launch an attack on the US.
Pictures 1 and 2 from the Pacific War: Japan’s Revolt against the West depict the depiction of racial characteristics by the Japanese people in the white American mindset.8 Hence, the Pacific War took a different perspective that involved racial underestimation of the capacity of Japan. The US declared its resolution to engage in the Second World War with the view of showing the ‘yellow’ men that they were militarily insignificant to America. Indeed, America succeeded in this quest. Apart from launching successful aerial bombings on Japan to the extent of almost incapacitating its (Japan) military operations, the climax was marked by nuclear bomb attacks in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Japan had no alternative, other than declaring defeat and seeking withdrawal from the war.
Captivity in the Pacific War may be studied in a bi-dimensional manner. The first approach involves the prisoners of war. The second dimension encompasses all other forms of captivity such as comfort women or Japanese army brothels. The brothels had people from different nations, including Korea. The discussion of captivity in the Pacific War also warrants the consideration of the prospects of captivity.
For example, confinement was something that characterised the nature of fighting and treatment of enemies by the Japanese, Americans, and their allies. However, each of the participants in the Pacific War applied this principle in different ways. For example, while Americans respected the Geneva and Hague conventions on prisoners of war and civilians where possible, this strategy did not apply in the case of the Japanese armies.
The Pacific War led to the emergence of a large violence against its target adversaries. The violence translated into captivity. A key indicator of captivity effects of the Pacific War that remains fresh in the memories of China was raping of Nanking. This experience was not just a sexual captivity. Rather, it was the Chinese version of holocaust orchestrated by the Japanese armies. Kingston supports this assertion by adding, “Nanking should be remembered not only for the number of people slaughtered but for the cruel manner in which many met their deaths”.9 Chinese men became tools that were used during bayonet practices. They were also utilised in decapitation contests.
Jungmin approximates that 20,000 to about 80,000 Chinese women were raped.10 Yoshida also informs that men were not only castrated but also had their organs curved out while people were roasted.11 On the worst scale, Stevens confirms how diabolical tortures were executed, including “hanging people by their tongues on iron hooks or burying people to their waists and watching them get torn apart by German shepherds”.12
This insight of experiences at Nanking illustrates that the Pacific War did not just involve military confrontation in the battlefield but also led to immeasurable violence that targeted innocent civilians. Human rights that were anchored on the League of Nations pacts were broken. However, the breaking of these laws was anticipated. Japan had already withdrawn from the pacts when China raised questions over the legitimacy of Japan in occupying the Chinese territories.
The Japanese emperor was unwilling to prevent his people from engaging in armed conflict. Japan simply declined the demands of the anglicised systems of rules, for instance, those of the US, especially when the issue in question was a concern to Asia. Japan believed that Asia was to be under its leadership and that no compromise was acceptable even if violence was the justifiable way of demonstrating its pride and right of rule. Indeed, the consequence of the attempts to secure China under its emperor system of rules was the emergence of violence that even amazed Nazis in the city. Roger supports this assertion by claiming that the Nazis in the metropolitan were shocked by the levels of violence channelled towards the Chinese that they claimed the mass execution was achieved by ruthless technologies. 13
The Japanese war codes did not consider surrendering an important factor in putting violence towards an enemy to a halt. Captives were treated accordingly. Japan did not adhere to the Geneva and/or Hague principles, which had established rules on defending battle hostages and civilians during combat. Allen recounts how captives in Kanchanburi were thoroughly beaten to the level that some suffered broken jaws, ribs, and arms while others died.14
This beating was done in a prejudicial manner since no trial was done. However, even in cases that involved other nations such as Britain and the US, prisoners of war were a normal form of captivity during the Pacific War. Upon the declaration of war in the Pacific region by Japan, the initial victory was devastating.
For example, when Singapore fell, the British rule that was operational in Asia also fell. To this extent, Nathan and Economy assert, “fighting in New Britain, Bougainville, Borneo, and the New Guinea mainland saw Australia alone lose 22,000 men to prisoners of war camps–8,000 of which were to die in captivity.”15 Indeed, Noble and Sobocinska maintain that throughout the time in which the Japanese armies occupied the newly conquered regions, many incarcerated troops had to experience years of hardship coupled with physical torture in captivity.16,17
All wars have brutality as their common characteristic. However, the level of brutality in the Asian Pacific War was extremely high since many non-combatant people died in captivity. Hostilities coupled with racist attitudes fuelled the war. The paper has argued that the invasion of Chinese and other Asian Pacific nations such as Malaysia had economic motives, rather than racial attitudes. Nonetheless, racial attitudes were common where America and its allies such as Britain intervened and/or where the US was an active participant in the Asia Pacific War.
For example, the arrogant white Americans presented Japanese adversaries as ‘yellow’ pigmented having buck-toothed Orientals. On the other hand, Japanese warriors regarded colonial Europeans as supernatural demons who their emperor had commanded holy war upon them. After several months of groundwork to participate in an foreseeable battle on China, Japanese armies engaged in confrontation with immense cruelty as manifested in the manner in which they handled captives of war and non-combatant ordinary citizens. The soldiers had been ordered not to surrender since such a move would dishonour the armies coupled with their parents.
Allen, M., ‘Ghostly remains and converging memories: Yushukan and the Australian war memorial exhibit the pacific war’, Asian Studies Review, vol. 39 no. 3 (2015), pp. 430-446.
Duus, P., ‘Imperialism without colonies: The vision of a greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere’, Diplomacy & Statecraft, vol.7 no. 1 (1996), pp. 54-72.
Jungmin, S., ‘Politics of memory in Korea and China: remembering the comfort women and the Nanjing massacre’, New Political Science, vol. 30 no. 3 (2008), pp. 369-392.
Hotta, E., Pan-Asianmism in the Co-Prosperity Sphere’, Pan-Asianism and Japan’s War 1931-1945, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007.
Iriye, A., Japan and the Wider World, Abingdon, Routledge, 1997.
Kingston, J., ‘Awkward talisman: War memory, reconciliation and Yasukuni’, East Asia, vol. 24 no. 5 (2007), pp. 295–318.
Kit-ching, C., ‘Symbolism and Diplomacy: the United States and Britain’s China policy during the first year of the pacific war’, Diplomacy and Statecraft, vol. 16 no.1 (2005), pp. 73-92.
Matsumura, J., ‘Combating indiscipline In the Imperil Army: Hayo Torao and Psychiatric studies of the crimes of soldiers’, War in history, vol.23 no.1 (2016), pp. 79-99.
Nathan, A & Economy, E., ‘Asia Pacific’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 93 no.1 (2014), pp. 205-207.
Noble, R., ‘The Australian prisoner of war experience and national identity’, Australian Defence Force Journal, vol.165 no.4 (2005), pp. 23–33.
Pacific War: Japan’s Revolt against the West, Chadwyck-Healey, Cambridge, UK, 2008.
Roger, J., ‘Victims or victimisers? Museums, textbooks, and the war debate in contemporary Japan’, The Journal of Military History, vol. 69 no. 2 (2005), pp. 149–154.
Sobocinska, A., ‘The language of scars: Australian prisoners of war and the colonial order’, History Australia, vol. 7 no.10 (2010), pp. 3–19.
Stevens, K., ‘A Token Operation: 204 Military Mission to China, 1941–1945’, Asian Affairs, vol. 36 no.1 (2005), pp. 66-74.
Twomey, C., ‘Emaciation or emasculation: Photographic images, white masculinity and captivity by the Japanese in World War Two’, Journal of Men’s Studies, vol.15 no.2 (2007), pp. 295–311.
Whitfield, S., ‘The theme of indivisibility in the post war struggle against prejudice in the United States’, Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 48 no.3 (2014), pp. 223-247.
Yoshida, T., ‘Whom should we remember? Japanese museums of war and peace’, The Journal of Museum Education, vol.29 no.2/3 (2004), pp. 16–20.
- A. Iriye, Japan and the Wider World, Abingdon, Routledge, 1997. p. 73.
- E. Hotta, Pan-Asianmism in the Co-Prosperity Sphere’, Pan-Asianism and Japan’s War 1931-1945, New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2007, p. 199.
- J. Matsumura, ‘Combating indiscipline In the Imperil Army: Hayo Torao and Psychiatric studies of the crimes of soldiers’, War in history, vol.23 no.1(2016), p. 80.
- P. Duus, ‘Imperialism without colonies: The vision of a greater East Asia co-prosperity sphere’, Diplomacy & Statecraft, vol.7 no. 1(1996), p. 54.
- C. Twomey, ‘Emaciation or emasculation: Photographic images, white masculinity and captivity by the Japanese in World War Two’, Journal of Men’s Studies, vol.15 no.2 (2007), p. 297.
- C. Kit-ching, ‘Symbolism and Diplomacy: the United States and Britain’s China policy during the first year of the pacific war’, Diplomacy and Statecraft, vol. 16 no.1 (2005), p. 77.
- S. Whitfield, ‘The theme of indivisibility in the post war struggle against prejudice in the United States’, Patterns of Prejudice, vol. 48 no.3 (2014), p. 223.
- Pacific War: Japan’s Revolt against the West, Chadwyck-Healey, Cambridge, UK, 2008, p. 5.
- J. Kingston, ‘Awkward talisman: War memory, reconciliation and Yasukuni’, East Asia, vol. 24 no. 5(2007), p. 298.
- S. Jungmin, ‘Politics of memory in Korea and China: remembering the comfort women and the Nanjing massacre’, New Political Science, vol. 30 no. 3 (2008), p. 369.
- T. Yoshida, ‘Whom should we remember? Japanese museums of war and peace’, The Journal of Museum Education, vol.29 no.2/3 (2004), p. 17.
- A. Stevens, ‘A Token Operation: 204 Military Mission to China, 1941–1945’, Asian Affairs, vol. 36 no.1(2005), p. 67.
- J. Roger, ‘Victims or victimisers? Museums, textbooks, and the war debate in contemporary Japan’, The Journal of Military History, vol. 69 no. 2 (2005), p. 152.
- M. Allen, ‘Ghostly remains and converging memories: Yushukan and the Australian war memorial exhibit the pacific war’, Asian Studies Review, vol. 39 no. 3 (2015), p. 435.
- A. Nathan & E. Economy, ‘Asia Pacific’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 93 no.1(2014), p. 206.
- A. Sobocinska, ‘The language of scars: Australian prisoners of war and the colonial order’, History Australia, vol. 7 no.10 (2010), p. 4.
- R. Noble, ‘The Australian prisoner of war experience and national identity’, Australian Defence Force Journal, vol.165 no.4 (2005), p. 27.