This story will have more impact after you have read about the people subjugated by the Japanese in WWII. Their treatment of their POWs and citizens of the countries they occupied was so horrific as to be incomprehensible. We hear so much about the tragedies of history, especially that time period, that it’s easy to be desensitized to them to some extent, but events such as the Rape of Nanking and Bataan Death March are so perverse, even otherworldly in their construction that they bypass any desensitization and render attempts to understand them futile.
Iris Chang committed suicide after researching and writing her seminal work, The Rape of Nanking, and that’s understandable after you read it. It starts with people trampling each other to death in the streets trying to flee the invading Japanese, and then it gets shocking. Fathers forced to rape daughters, mutilation of dead bodies, mutilation of living ones.
Events from this period will feature into this blog off and on, images, escape stories, survival stories, the fact that one of the true heroes of Nanking was a Nazi. Maybe I’ll even discuss the true story behind David Lean’s ridiculous depiction of Thailand’s Death Railway. Meanwhile it’s worth reading Ghost Soldiers by Hampton Sides, as well as Chang’s aforementioned book.
This story will have more impact after I’ve discussed those things more, but I’m posting it now because, over three years after I first read it, it still blows my mind. I found it in Max Hastings’s Retribution, and it recounts a conversation between an English solder and an educated Japanese guard on a ship to Japan.
The guard struck up a conversation with the officer, first talking about homesickness, but then asking what he thought of the Japanese. “I don’t know them very well, so I cannot answer your question.” “How do you think of what you know? How do you think of me?” “In our army, we do not strike and beat people as punishment. Ito (the guard) is always doing so, and this blackens my thoughts about him.” The Japanese response was, at this point, one of pure and simple surprise. Then he asked how the British army punished people, and the Brit reiterated that physical punishment was not used to maintain discipline. The guard never beat a prisoner again, to the officer’s knowledge.
This guard seems to have wanted to do what was right; it simply did not occur to him that the discipline the Japanese army was so proud of could be achieved without physical violence. It’s an amazing counterpoint to the surreal sadism of the other stories.