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Japanese treatment of POWs

LAURENCE REES: Why were British prisoners treated so badly by the Japanese?

SIR MAX HASTINGS: The Japanese treatment, not only of their military prisoners but also civilians, represented this very fundamental aspect of Japanese military culture that far from displaying respect or mercy for the weak, the weak deserved to be treated with contempt. Only strength was valued, only strength was admired. In some ways this was a cult not very dissimilar from that of the SS, the belief that people who were weak enough to surrender and especially who had been weak enough to surrender without even putting up much of a fight deserved to die and deserved to be treated as animals and as slaves. In their own terms they were very foolish because they might have got an awful lot more out of their prisoners if they treated them just a little bit better, not in the prisoners' interest but in their own. But another thing that we’re very prone to forget, is that the number of civilians of the South East Asian nations who died in Japanese hands was vastly higher than that of British and Australian and American prisoners.

We tend in the west always to be obsessed with the cruelties and sufferings inflicted by the Japanese on our own people, but at least a million people died in South East Asia in Japanese captivity, and the Japanese treated entire populations terribly, who in many cases had, when they first arrived in 1942, been prepared to treat them as deliverers from colonial oppression. Well they found out pretty soon that even if the British had not behaved very wonderfully running Burma and Malaya, the British were Sir Francis of Assisi on the hoof compared with the way that the Japanese ran things, and it was the cult of cruelty that is still very difficult to understand. Just as we find it even harder to understand, to this day, the fact that the Japanese will not come to terms with it, and even in the year 2008 the Head of the Japanese Air Force has to be obliged to resign his post because he wrote an essay about the Second World War which appears to not only to ignore all these things but to declare defiantly that none of them ever took place.