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Japanese use of POW labour

With enormous numbers of its own men in uniform, the Japanese used POWs to fill an extreme labour shortage to maintain their war effort. This was forbidden by The Geneva Convention, and POWs initially tried to refuse these tasks but under extreme threat of beatings or worse, they accepted. Low level sabotage was the only way left to resist this forced labour. Officers frequently acted as an interface between captor and captive often receiving terrible treatment for their efforts.

Some major projects were prosecuted with inhuman zeal because of their strategic importance and the belief by the Japanese military that their absolute duty was to serve the Emperor God Hirohito. This fanatical commitment led to appallingly high POW death rates and an absence of the common humanities which were required under international law. After their great military victories and their belief in their own invincibility, they tended to regard other races as inferior or subhuman. This attitude was reinforced by the part of Bushido that was respected, to fight to the death and never surrender. The Japanese were not prepared for the large numbers of prisoners who surrendered nor did they understand how true soldiers could surrender.

The following address illustrates this attitude:

Address by Lt. Colonel Y Nagatomo, commander of 10,000 prisoners working on the Burma-Siam Railway, upon their arrival

It is a great pleasure to me to see you at this place, as I am appointed Chief of War Prisoners' Camp in obedience to the Imperial Command issued by His Majesty the Emperor. The great Asiatic War has broken out due to the rising of the East Asiatic Nations whose hearts were burnt with the desire to live and preserve their nations, on account of the intrusion of the British and Americans for the past many years.

There is therefore no other reason for Japan to drive out the anti-Axis powers of the arrogant and insolent British and American from East Asia In co-operation with our neighbours in China and East Asiatic nations and to establish the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere for the benefit of all human beings and to establish everlasting peace in the world.

During the past few centuries, Nippon has made extreme endeavour and made sacrifices to become the leader of the East Asiatic nations who were mercilessly and pitifully treated by the outside forces of the American and British; and Nippon without disgracing anyone has been doing her best for fostering Nippon's real power.

You are only a few remaining skeletons after the invasion of East Asia for the past few centuries and are pitiful victims. It is not your fault, but till your Government do not wake up from the dreams and discontinue their resistance all of you will not be released. However I shall not treat you badly for the sake of humanity as you have no fighting power at all. His Majesty the Emperor has been deeply anxious about all the War Prisoners and has ordered us to enable opening of War Prisoners' camps at almost all the places in the southward countries. The Imperial thoughts are unestimable and the Imperial favours are infinite and as such you should weep with gratitude at the greatness of them and should correct or mend the misleading and improper anti-Japanese ideas.

Living manners, deportment, salutation and attitude shall be strict and according to the rules of the Nippon Army, because it is only possible to manage you all who are merely rabbles, by the order of military regulations. . . . My biggest requirement from you is escape. If there is a man here who has at least one per cent of a chance of escape we shall make him to face the extreme penalty. If there is one foolish man who is trying to escape, he shall see big jungles toward the East which are absolutely impossible for communication, towards the West he shall see the boundless ocean and above all, in the main points of South and North our Nippon Army is staying and guarding. . . .

At the time of such shortness of materials, your lives are preserved by the Military, and all of you must reward them with your labour. By the hand of the Nippon Army railway works to connect Thailand and Burma have started to the great interest of the world. There are deep jungles where am railway no man comes to clear them by cutting the trees. There are also countless difficulties and sufferings but you shall have the honour to join in this great work which was never done before and you should do your best efforts. . . . In conclusion I say to you "Work cheerfully" and from henceforth you shall be guided by my motto.

Reproduced from Behind Bamboo, by Rohan D Rivett, published by Angus & Robertson 1946

It is likely that, on average, one in three POWs died (the comparable figure for German POW camps is less than one in twenty five) although this varied hugely in Sandakan, there were 2434 deaths, almost 100% - only 6 escapees survived; in the Moluccas, 45%; the Burma-Siam Railway greater than 20%. In contrast, in Japan, later in the war, rates were much lower.