Laurence Rees: The Japanese war against the Chinese was one of the dirtiest, bloodiest parts of the whole Second World War. And as a young recruit, Hajime Kondo took part in this horrendous struggle. He’d been told from a young age that the enemy he was to fight in China were scarcely human.
Words of Hajime Kondo: They were labelled as an inferior race. We were told from elementary school that the Chinese were poor and that they were an inferior race... But the Japanese people – a divine people – are the most superior race in the world. But the Chinese were below pigs. That was the mentality we had.
Laurence Rees: Kondo arrived in China in the spring of 1940, after a brutal period of military training during which he and the other recruits were often beaten. Now, on Chinese soil, their training was to continue – only this time they were to be toughened up by being called upon to attack defenceless human beings.
Words of Hajime Kondo: There was a big square, and all the rookies were summoned to it. The Chinese were tied to trees. We didn't know what all this was, but the boss said, ‘You are going to do bayonet training.’ And then I had a bayonet and two of us were ordered to stab, run and stab. And I understood that we were killing, stabbing a live human being, and I was shaking. And I ran and stabbed and it was easy. It was easy. Before the stabbing I was scared, but after the stabbing I realised I could do it. You can kill a person so easily. And I didn't think anything about the man who was killed. A Chinese man. I had no guilty feeling. Just before the stabbing, because I had to kill a person, psychologically I was shaky, but after it was done I didn't feel anything. We had a feeling that in the enemy area we could do anything. We were not taught officially that we could do anything, but we learnt from other soldiers that we could do anything there. So there was no individual sin, guilty feeling, because in the military we do it as a group. In the military there is no individual responsibility, but rather group responsibility. Most things are group responsibility.
Laurence Rees: Once his training was complete, Kondo was sent to a unit who were ordered to clear the Chinese province of Shaanxi of Communist soldiers.
Words of Hajime Kondo: In Shaanxi province the people are Communists, so that everybody is a Communist there, so those people should be killed for the Emperor. That was the thinking of the ordinary soldiers. So that during a military operation you can do anything. If you kill a person, then that was good for the Emperor. That was the simple-minded thinking that I carried. It's too good to kill a Chinese with a gun or sword - just a stone will be okay for Chinese. The Japanese soldiers would first go into a village and go into the houses and rob money and food, and then search for women. Then they have group rapes. Ten to thirty soldiers do the raping. One woman was raped by the group and usually these women who were raped were killed after that. But this time this woman was not killed and was taken, naked apart from her shoes, with her baby to the next base camp. And then onto the next march. And because Shaanxi province is mountainous, we would go up and down hills and this woman got tired. And before the noon break, two or three metres away from me the soldiers were talking, because the woman is weak. Suddenly one of the soldiers stood up and grabbed her baby and threw it over a cliff which was thirty to forty metres high. Then instantly the mother of the baby followed, jumping off the cliff, and when I saw what was happening in front of me I thought what a horrible thing to do. I felt sorry for them for a while, but I had to carry on marching.
Laurence Rees: Such atrocities were almost commonplace. No one knows for sure how many Chinese civilians died at the hands of the Japanese in this war – but it is certainly many, many millions. And after he had been fighting in China for several years, Kondo directly participated in committing an atrocity himself.
Words of Hajime Kondo: The soldiers caught a woman in the room and one by one they committed the rape. And I was in the third year in the army, and the older, the fourth year soldier, called me, ‘Kondo, you go and rape her.’ And you couldn't turn it down. Maybe if you are in the battlefield for a year, you can bear it. But we were there for two or three years, and you go crazy. I mean, your mind will be so sick that you do such embarrassing things. But that's the mentality created after a stay in the battlefield. In peacetime I can’t imagine this, because in the battlefield it's so abnormal. In every battlefield the same kind of thing happens, but especially when human beings are thrown into an abnormal battlefield – then everyone becomes beasts. Unless you’re highly educated, maybe a selected few can behave rationally, but I wasn’t educated.
Laurence Rees: In the spring of 1945 Kondo left China and was sent with his unit to the island of Okinawa to fight against the Americans. And his initial sight of the US Marines astonished him.
Words of Hajime Kondo: When I saw them for the first time, the tank and the infantry companies, they were chewing gum. They looked as though they were coming on a picnic.
Laurence Rees: But Kondo soon discovered that these Americans would fight fiercely. And he realized that since he was forbidden to surrender he would have to fight to the bitter end, here on Okinawa.
Words of Hajime Kondo: In China we were fighting bravely, there it was like dying like a dog. And we knew we would die but we had to go. There’s never thought of surrender. There is a solidarity within the military. The fifth year soldier is the top of the group, so we were fifth year soldiers, and if the senior soldiers said anything then the solidarity would be broken. In hindsight and thinking about it now, it's abnormal. But then, at that time, five years after enrolment into the army, I completely believed in this code of conduct for a soldier. Every soldier had this line, that to become a prisoner of war is to defame the family. Even though you have survived, even though you've survived, you cannot come home. To become a prisoner of war is the last thing you can do. We felt shame for the POWs. So we decided to do a banzai suicide attack. We thought we’d run, but because we were physically very feeble I fell and stumbled, and the Americans caught me. So I thought I was going to be killed because we killed all the POWs. But I was asked what I wanted. So I gesture that I'm thirsty and the soldiers gave me water from a canteen. And another Japanese soldier asked for a cigarette and the American soldiers gave him a cigarette, and then I realised that American soldiers are kind. Because we were not like that in China.
Laurence Rees: Ultimately, looking back on his wartime journey – the killings, the rapes, all that horror – Hajime Kondo takes away one simple lesson.
Words of Hajime Kondo: It is very important that each individual has the power to think and behave as an individual. I'm only an uneducated, silly man, but this is my conclusion.
Originally recorded in Japanese, this transcript is taken from a simultaneous translation.