… we had no training whatever in the handling of prisoners. Instead, everyday we had beaten into us the military spirit, the glories of the Japanese Army, the necessity for absolute obedience, and the code of military conduct. Everyday we were beaten a few times, and after two months training we were sent to Southeast Asia.
[Yi Hak Nae, 'The man between: a Korean guard looks back' in Hank Nelson and Gavin McCormack (eds.), The Burma–Thailand Railway: Memory and History, St Leonards, NSW, Allen & Unwin, 1993, 121.]
Around 12 000 Japanese and 800 Korean soldiers worked on the Burma-Thailand railway as engineers or guards. They were some of over five million soldiers who served with the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II.
The appalling experiences of Allied prisoners of war (POWs) on the railway and throughout the Asia–Pacific region created an image of Japanese soldiers as uniformly and deliberately cruel. Indeed many—but not all—guards resorted to brutal physical punishment. The fact that the Japanese were unable or unwilling to provide adequate food and medicine, or to relax the pace of construction along the railway, caused thousands of deaths among Allied prisoners and Asian workers.
The massive loss of life among the railway workforce was the result of many factors. The Japanese perception of prisoners of war, their own conception of duty, the structure of the Japanese Army and the pressures of war, all played a part.
Every Japanese commander was under pressure from above and the Japanese culture of unquestioning obedience transferred this stress down the command chain. In the years before World War II the Japanese state had become highly militarised and hierarchical. All authority stemmed from Emperor Hirohito and obedience was expected without question. POW Albert Coates recalled a conversation with a Japanese guard Kumanda:
If he was ordered to do so by his commanding officer, he would fill me up with rice, then a gallon of water, and jump on my stomach … Kumanda was quite serious, that though he knew and liked me, he was bound to carry out the orders of his officer.
[Albert Coates and Norman Rosenthal, The Albert Coates Story, Melbourne, Hyland House, 1977, 108.]
The Japanese relationship with POWs was also conditioned by their attitude towards surrender. The conduct of all Japanese soldiers was governed by the Senjinkun or Combatants' Code which stated that a soldier was expected 'not to survive to suffer the dishonour of capture'. The opportunity to die for the emperor was considered an honour.
Allied prisoners therefore seemed not worthy of respect: they had failed in their duty to continue fighting to the death. Assuming that they themselves would forfeit their rights to humane treatment if they surrendered, the Japanese believed that enemy prisoners should be treated with disdain.
The Japanese government had signed the 1929 Third Geneva Convention, which guaranteed prisoners of war minimum rights and humane treatment. However, they had not ratified the Convention and when war came they refused to observe its requirements. As a result many Japanese were tried for war crimes after 1945.
Japanese soldiers also accepted that physical punishment was a fact of military life. In the Imperial Japanese Army any soldier could beat his subordinate. When confronted with prisoners, who were on the lowest rung of the military hierarchy, the Japanese did not hesitate to inflict what would be considered in Allied armies to be cruel and demeaning punishment.
For the Koreans who served as guards on the railway, POWs represented the only men lower than them in this hierarchy of punishment. Cho Mun-San, a Korean guard later charged with war crimes, wrote after the war that:
One of the instructors at the training camp at Fuzan instructed us that we were to treat POWs like animals; otherwise they would look down on us
[Cho Mun-San, cited in Gavan McCormack, 'Apportioning the blame: Australian trials for railway crimes' in Hank Nelson and Gavin McCormack (eds.), The Burma–Thailand Railway: Memory and History, St Leonards, NSW, Allen & Unwin, 1993, 99.]
No country uses its best troops to guard prisoners. Presumably some Japanese, particularly those who were not professionally challenged by the engineering complexity of the railway's construction, felt diminished by their being posted to this duty. Thousands of kilometres from their homes, which they knew were under attack by the US Army Air Force, they took out their frustrations on those who were lower than them in the military order.
Another factor influencing the Japanese treatment of prisoners was the deep cultural and language gulf between prisoners and guards. Japanese and Koreans were given little training in dealing with prisoners and misunderstandings were common.