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Recommended Reading


Singapore, 1942: Britain's Greatest Defeat


Forgotten Armies: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945
 

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Island of Death
Island of Death
by Ken Wright

In December 1937, the Japanese army swept into the ancient city of Nanjing [Nanking] which was then the capital of China, and within weeks one of the most brutal atrocities in world history occurred. More than 300,000 Chinese civilians, men, women and children of all ages were systematically raped, tortured and murdered and the defenceless city was looted and burned. This atrocity, one of the worst in world history is still being denied by the Japanese Government.

A Japanese soldier, who took part in the Nanking Massacre when asked by an American journalist at the end of WW2 whether he felt any compassion for those he slaughtered, replied;

'I was a young soldier when our troops occupied Nanking. Our officers told us we could kill and rape as many of 'the Chinese enemy' as we pleased. There were some of us however, who did not like the idea, including myself. When we did not join the others in shooting and bayoneting the civilians, we were ridiculed and made fun of. Our troops were holding competitions among themselves to see who could shoot or bayonet to death the most Chinese within a specific time. Eventually, I was persuaded to join them. A sergeant told me with a laugh, 'Killing a Chinese is just like killing a dog! You'll feel nothing! Try it and you'll see!' My first victim was an old Chinese woman. I aimed my rifle at her head. I pressed the trigger. I saw her brains splatter on the brick wall behind her. The other soldiers cheered and encouraged me. After that I killed many Chinese of all ages, even children. I did not feel any remorse. I also raped young girls before killing them. I became involved in the frenzy of killing and everything else that was going on.'[1]

This was only one isolated example among thousands in the long saga of Japanese barbarism during the years of Japan's undeclared war on China, from 1931 until 1945. After World War Two was over, western historians have tended to focus writing extensively about the brutal treatment of Allied prisoners of war by the Japanese. The summary executions, death marches, forced labour in inhumane conditions, and to a lesser degree, about the torture and rape of civilians in Japanese occupied areas. Sadly, there is a lack of historical presentation about the fate in general of the Asian civilians and conscripted slave labour under Japanese domination.

Japan had been at war with China since 1931 and the years of brutal and costly warfare had instilled in the Japanese a hatred of the Chinese. As the cancer of the Japanese army spread from Japan through Korea, China, Thailand, Malaya, Singapore, Burma, the Philippines, Indonesia and down throughout the Pacific islands to New Guinea, so did the atrocities carried out in the name of the Emperor. One generally unknown incident occurred on the island of Singapore three days after Lieutenant General Arthur Percival's surrender of all British forces on Sunday, 15 February, 1942 to Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita and his victorious 25th Army. It became known as the 'Sook Ching ' massacre. In Chinese it meant, 'purification by purge'

The Singaporean Chinese had supported the war against the Japanese by supplying both money and men and they also fought along side the British military forces as members of the Straits Settlements Volunteer Force in the battle for Singapore. In China the Japanese military had conducted large scale atrocities against any opposition, either real or imaginary and they were certainly not going to put up with any anti Japanese elements in Singapore. To rid the country of dissenters, a purification purge through elimination had already been planned before Singapore fell. It had been proposed during the Malaya campaign by Lieutenant Colonel Masanobe Tsuji, Chief Planning Officer attached to Lt-General Yamashita's HQ staff.

The days following the fall of Singapore were filled with chaos, fear and panic. Shops were closed, decomposing bodies littered the streets and amongst the debris of war. Civil administration had broken down as had most of the public utilities. Looting was rampant. Many frantically searched for missing loved ones amongst the rubble. Some survived the destruction that rained down on Singapore, many did not. Added to the already confused situation, the normal population of Singapore had swollen by the thousands who fled the advancing Japanese army from Malaya to take refuge in the 'impregnable' British island fortress. It was into this nightmare of uncertainty, the first Japanese military units to arrive in Singapore ahead of the main force. It was a garrison known as 'Keibitai'. It was a mixture of Kempitai, the dreaded military secret police and the Hojo Kempeitai, an auxiliary military force of the 2 Field Kempeitai . Because the organisation and completion of the job was going to be so large, units of the Konoye Imperial Guards were called in to assist. Within three days after the surrender, the Japanese began their systematic purge of all Chinese civilians in Singapore with the intention of eliminating all opposition to their occupation.

Singapore was renamed 'Syonan ' [Light of the South] clocks were changed to Tokyo time and as Singapore was destined to play a large part in their Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere, dissenters had to be eliminated. Local police were ordered to inform every Chinese male between the ages of 15 and 50 to report to twenty eight designated registration points throughout the island. Everyone had to be assembled by midday 18 February. The island was divided into four sections and orders had been issued from HQ to the four section commanders that the screening process should be completed by 23 February. This deadline proved impossible and was extended to 3 March.

At these points, the unsuspecting Chinese were questioned and those unable to satisfy the Japanese examiners were taken to holding areas. The military were looking for anything they considered anti-Japanese: Communists, Nationalists, members of secret societies, English speakers, school teachers, English employed civil servants, ex-soldiers and criminals. However, it did suit the Kempeitai to use criminals to denounce their fellow countrymen or act as informers. The selection process was not always conducted methodically. Many were carried out in a random or haphazard fashion. Anyone with a tattoo was classified as belonging to some anti-Japanese secret society such as the Triads. It was convenient to forget that a great many Chinese males had a tattoo purely as a fashion decoration. In the main, the selection process was carried out with ruthless efficiency. Those who were fortunate enough, for whatever reason, to have passed the examiners test, had stamped on their clothes, faces or arms the word 'examined'. It was not an absolute guarantee one was safe from further examination at a later date, but at the time it was a pass to live. To be without one meant death.

In fairness, not all Japanese soldiers or civilians participated in the purge. There were many decent ones who refused be involved. One such man was a young civilian Senior Special Foreign Affairs Officer attached to the Japanese Defence HQ. His name was Mamouru Shinozaki . At considerable risk, he managed to alleviate the suffering and mental stress of many of the Chinese residents. He had printed between 20,000 to 30,000 special cards and personally signed each one which allowed the bearer to go about their daily life unhindered by the military. Those cards were to save the lives of thousands of Chinese.

As the screening was taking place, those who had already been marked as undesirable were herded to various points then transported to lonely beaches to be executed. For the purpose of the operation, the selection of the victims, the time, place and method of execution was left up to the discretion of the four section commanders. The general method of execution was to force the victims to walk into the sea and machine gunned them. Others had their hands tied either individually or in groups and were bayoneted, machine gunned or decapitated. Another method was to throw them overboard from small boats and shoot them. The mass killing went on day and night for two weeks. The favourite killing grounds were Changi beach, Ponggol foreshore and Tanah Merah Besar beach which is now part of the present day Changi airport. A few plantations were used as killing grounds and as mass graves, but the beaches were favoured as the tide would carry the bodies out to sea. Some time after the massacre, bodies were found scattered on the beaches of the neighbouring islands, along the coast of South Johore and even on the islands in the South China Sea off the East Coast of Malaya. It is not unusual for remains to be discovered even now. It is impossible due to the lack of records, to estimate just how many Chinese were executed during the Sook Ching massacre. The Japanese defendants at the war crimes trials after the war put the figure at 5,000 but local estimates suggest between 25,000 and 50,000. When the massacre was finally brought to a halt, the Kempeitai continued to install fear amongst the residents of Singapore. Their methods of torture gained them infamy and hatred. The name Kempeitai was synonymous with cruelty, terror and death.

Why? What possible reason could there be for so much organised death by one race against another. After the war, most Japanese on trial for war crimes recited the usual, 'I was only following orders' excuse used by soldiers in a similar situation throughout the world. In the case of the Japanese military there is a certain amount of truth in that statement. One soldier who returned to China in 1987 to apologise to the Chinese people for his actions described how he and his fellow soldiers impaled babies on bayonets, buried prisoners alive, ran over them with tanks, gang raped women aged from twelve to eighty and executed them when they were beyond satisfying their sexual needs. He explained what they did was not in a fit of uncontrolled, undisciplined rage. They did it on orders from superior officers.

The Japanese military training methods and the Japanese belief in their divine superiority played a major part in the dehumanisation of other races and cultures. They were taught that they were the supreme race and they only lived for the Emperor. The military deliberately indoctrinated their soldiers into believing what they were doing was ordained by their Divine Emperor and was Japan's destiny. This combined with the cruelty senior officers inflicted on the average armed service recruit as a training method to instil loyalty and unquestioning obedience turned the Japanese military serviceman into a fanatical warrior. Their fighting abilities won the admiration of all who fought them but their treatment of civilians and prisoners of war earned them universal condemnation. WW2 Allied troops attitudes would harden. The only good Jap is a dead one.

A Japanese soldier was taught he should die fighting and only cowards surrendered and should be killed. If he was taken prisoner, it brought great shame to the Emperor, his country and his parents. He should kill himself to wipe away the stain of capture. Only then could his spirit enter the heroes Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. It was not surprising that the average Japanese soldier had shown only contempt for the Allied soldiers who having done their best in battle, could see no dishonour in surrender. The Emperor was a god and the natural ruler of the world and the Japanese people were racially superior to the rest of the world. Another factor was the strict hierarchical nature of Japanese society. As for the Chinese, they were considered subhuman, so were held in contempt. 'Killing a Chinese is just like killing a dog. You will feel nothing.' The Germans adopted the same untermenshen [sub human] attitude towards the Russian people when they invaded Russia in 1941. It was a policy that was to have disastrous effects early in the war. If the Nazi's had adopted a benevolent attitude towards the civilians, they might just have won their war in Russia with popular support from those people who hated the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. The Japanese might also have gained far greater support for their 'Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere' from other Asians if they had treated them correctly instead of murdering them.

In September, 1943, approximately 57 Western civilian internees in Singapore's Changi prison were tortured by the Kempeitai because of their suspected sabotage activities. It was called the 'Double Tenth' incident. After the Japanese capitulation in 1945, the trial of war criminals began.

In his opening speech for the prosecution in the 'Double Tenth' trial which opened in Singapore on 18 March, 1946, Lieutenant Colonel Colin Sleeman of the British army summarised in a very legalistic statement the Kempeitai defendants. He could also have been making a summary in his speech about the overall Japanese attitude to both soldiers and civilians of other races during their wars of conquest. He said;

'It is with no little diffidence and misgiving that I approach my description of the facts and events in this case. To give an accurate description of the misdeeds of these men, it would be necessary for me to describe actions which plum the very depths of human depravity and degradation. The keynote of the whole of this case can be epitomised by two words- unspeakable horror. Horror stark and naked permeates every corner and angle of this case from beginning to end, devoid of relief or palliation. I have searched, I have searched diligently amongst a vast mass of evidence to discover some redeeming feature, some mitigating factor in the conduct of these men which would elevate the story from the level of pure horror and bestiality and ennoble it, at least upon the plane of tragedy. I confess I have failed'.[2]

Much as been made of Hitler's European holocaust or the millions killed during Stalin's purges against his own people, but was this an Asian holocaust? Approximately 15 million Chinese, Indo-Chinese, Burmese, Indonesian, Filippino, Malay, Pacific Islanders and allied prisoners of war were killed or died of neglect. During the European conflict with Nazi Germany, the death rate of Allied soldiers in captivity was 9,348 or about 4% of the total captured or surrendered. The death rate in Japanese captivity was 27%. Once the war had ended, the victorious Allies set up war crimes trials to prosecute those responsible for the atrocities that took place throughout all the Japanese held territories. It was impossible to bring every single individual who committed a crime to justice, but among the 135 Japanese war criminals hanged at Changi prison were the main high ranking officers responsible for the Sook Ching massacre except one.

The one above all others that should have been the first to feel the hangman place the noose firmly around his neck was Lt-Col Masanobe Tsuji. It was he who had master-minded the notorious death march from Bataan and Corregidor, the slaughter of the patients and medical staff at Singapore's Alexandra hospital, and the Sook Ching massacre among other things. He was the most insidious, calculating, coldly brutal and singularly successful mass murderer of all the Japanese war criminals. There were many evil Japanese but he was the worst and the most wanted but he never faced trial. After a period of hiding after the war to avoid prosecution, Tsuji returned to Japan. On 1 January, 1950 the United States officially lifted Tsuji's criminal status and now, free from possible prosecution, he became a popular author with his account of the Malayan campaign and other stories and even entered politics becoming a member of the Japanese Parliament. Due to his wartime atrocities being made public both in Japan and world wide by a fellow countryman, he prudently decided to quit Parliament and do a six-week tour of South East Asia. He was last seen on 10 June 1961 and from there on he mysteriously disappears from history. One can only hope he suffered a horrible fate.

Whilst the crimes committed against humanity by the Japanese military during the period 1931-45 in the name of the Emperor will forever stain the history of Japan, so must the victorious Allied Governments also take responsibility for a moral crime against humanity. Initially, the war crimes trials were allowed to be conducted with zeal and by dedicated people who believed in justice and or retribution for those who paid the ultimate sacrifice. It was the least their countries could do.

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Show Footnotes and Bibliography
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Copyright © 2006 Ken Wright

Written by Ken Wright. If you have questions or comments on this article, please contact Ken Wright at:
wright9w@optusnet.com.au.

About the author:
Ken Wright lives in Melbourne Australia and served 5 years in the Australian army in an Armoured Recon Unit. He has worked as a book sales rep and correctional officer. He is married with two children, three dogs, and two cats. He retired early and began writing 4 years ago and has written numerous published articles published for military magazines in Australia, the UK and the US.

Published online: 01/21/2006.
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