|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
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.'
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
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
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'.
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.
Show Footnotes and Bibliography
. Ralph Modder, The Singapore Chinese Massacre, Singapore: Horizon
Books, 2004, p.21.
. Colin Sleeman and S C Silkin, The Trial of Sumida Haruzo and Twenty Others,
London: William Hodge and Company Ltd, 1953, p.324.
Singapore. Britains Greatest Defeat. Alan Warren. Talisman. 2002.
The Knights of Bushido. Lord Russell of Liverpool. Cassell. 1958.
The Singapore Chinese Massacre . Ralph Modder. Horizon Books Pte Ltd,
Synon-My Story. The Japanese Occupation of Singapore. Mamoru
Shinozaki. Times International Books., Singapore. 1975.
The Rape of Nanking. Iris Chang. Penguin Group USA.1998.
Fortress Singapore-The Battlefield Guide. Major Yap Siang Yong/ Romen
Bose/ Angeline Pang. Time Books International, 1953.
Kempeitai-Japans Dreaded Secret Police. Raymond Lamont-Brown. Budding
Hirohito-Behind the Myth. Edward Behr. Villard Books, New York. 1989.
Betrayal in High Places. James Mackay. Tasman Archives, New Zealand.
The Trial of Sumida Haruzo and Twenty Others. Edited by Colin Sleeman
and S.C. Silkin. William Hodge and Company Ltd. London.1953.
Copyright © 2006 Ken Wright
Written by Ken Wright. If you have questions or comments on this
article, please contact Ken Wright at:
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.