Treatment of prisoners

Japanese military discipline was sadistic, because they administered instant or Japanese punishment. This was carried out on their own troops, but when it was administered to prisoners it was particularly vicious and brutal.

[Tom Uren, Straight Left, Milsons Point, NSW, Vintage Australia, 1995, 40.]

Japanese soldiers are widely remembered as being cruel and indifferent to the fate of Allied prisoners of war and the Asian rǒmusha. Many men in the railway workforce bore the brunt of pitiless or uncaring guards. Cruelty could take different forms, from extreme violence and torture to minor acts of physical punishment, humiliation and neglect.

However, it should be recognised that Japanese behaviour varied from place to place and from person to person. Some prisoners recounted instances of compassion by the Japanese and even a sense of sharing a burden.

The reasons for the Japanese behaving as they did were complex. The Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) indoctrinated its soldiers to believe that surrender was dishonourable. POWs were therefore thought to be unworthy of respect.

The IJA also relied on physical punishment to discipline its own troops. Allied prisoners and rǒmusha formed the bottom rung of the military hierarchy and could be punished by any Japanese soldier.

Physical punishment was meted out for even minor infractions, such as failing to salute a Japanese guard — something that caused the Japanese to lose face. The most common form of punishment was face-slapping, often done with a hard instrument, such as a bamboo stick or a shovel.

More severe beatings were also common. The Australian surgeon Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. ('Weary') Dunlop described a Japanese beating prisoners who had missed work (some of whom had been in hospital) over a period of hours:

blows with a fist, hammering over the face and head with wooden clogs, repeatedly thrown to the ground … kicking in the stomach and scrotum and ribs etc ... When the men fell to the ground, they were somehow got to their feet by such painful stimuli as the above and the dose was repeated.

[E.E. Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1989, 249]

The Japanese used many types of physical punishment. Some prisoners were made to hold a heavy stone above their heads for many hours. Others might be forced into small cells with little food or water. Tom Uren described how a young Aboriginal soldier was made to kneel on a piece of bamboo for a number of days. The bamboo cut into him, causing gangrene and the eventual loss of his legs.

On the work site guards would throw jagged stones at prisoners working in cuttings below and beat anyone they thought was working too slowly. Sometimes they simply laughed at the misfortune of their captives.

The unpredictability of the guards made their prisoners particularly vulnerable. An action that could attract a savage beating one day could elicit a laugh and a cigarette the next day. Ray Parkin noted in his diary the 'fatal impulsiveness as the Japs can so readily show'.1

The Japanese military police, or Kempetai, was particularly feared by prisoners. They used torture in order to gain information from prisoners, particularly those who had been caught trying to escape or in possession of an illegal radio.

The Japanese attitude to sick prisoners was perhaps the most hated of all. Dunlop's diaries are full of accounts of the Japanese insisting on meeting their quota of workers, regardless of whether the prisoners were well enough to work or not. Stan Arneil remembered:

If they wanted 200 men they had to have 200 men. The guards would deliver 200 men even if perhaps thirty of them might be on the backs of their mates. We would carry them back at night. Usually one would die during the day.

[Stan Arneil in Hank Nelson, Prisoners of War: Australians under Nippon, Sydney, ABC, 1985, 48.]

The POWs found it hard to resolve the contradiction between the Japanese demanding that the railway be completed quickly but then making no effort to protect the health of their workforce. The Japanese respect for the dead also seemed to the prisoners to be contradictory. Treating the prisoners with such neglect that they died, the Japanese then allowed funerals to be conducted and cemeteries created. In early 1944 the Japanese even created a memorial near the bridge at Kanchanaburi to all those nationalities who died in the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway.

However, not every Japanese soldier on the Burma-Thailand railway was callous and brutal. Hugh Clarke remembered the English-speaking Lieutenant Sumi preventing his men from beating their prisoners while they worked on an embankment. When the work was completed, Sumi organised a meal of fish and a concert for the Australians.2

After the war the Japanese were held accountable for their maltreatment of the POWs. Australian courts tried almost one thousand Japanese and Koreans, of whom 62 were accused of war crimes committed on the Burma-Thailand railway.

  • 1Ray Parkin Into the Smother, London, Hogarth Press, 1963, 96.
  • 2Hugh Clarke, 'Of elephants and men' in Hank Nelson and Gavin McCormack (eds.), The Burma–Thailand Railway: Memory and History, St Leonards, NSW, Allen & Unwin, 1993, 38.

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) ( ), Treatment of prisoners, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 22 June 2024,
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