The World War II Multimedia Database

For the 72 Million

Japanese Prisoners of War in Allied Hands, 1941-1945

The cultural difference between the western notion of an honorable surrender and the Japanese notion of fight to the death was a big contribution to the ferocity of the Pacific War. Allied soldiers had trouble comprehending the Japanese will to fight on in the face of certain death, and Allied atrocities against surrendered Japanese was a function of the racism that infused the island fighting. This resulted in very few survivors of the pacific garrisons.

The small numbers of prisoners is shocking. On Tarawa in November 1943, only seventeen Japanese of 2,600 were taken; many of those surrendered only after being knocked unconscious by gunfire. 129 Korean laborers of 2,000 survived the battle. Many prisoners were only captured when they were unable to resist due to wounds or incapacitation. On many islands the entire garrison perished. Only as the war ended did Japanese start surrendering in large numbers; even they could see the war was lost, and resistance was futile.

Kazuo Sakamaki was Japanese Prisoner of War #1, having passed out in the surf near his midget sub on December 8, 1941. He failed attempting to drown himself, while his crew mate succeeded. He was alone until crewmen from IJN Hiryu were captured following the Battle of Midway in Jun 1942. Six months of solitary confinement made Sakamaki questionably mentally unstable; he burned himself with cigarettes. As an officer, he did not like to associate with the “Black Gang” enlisted survivors from the engine spaces of Hiryu. Sakamaki was so ashamed he was captured that he chose to leave Japan after the war and live in Brazil for decades. In 1991 he returned to the United States, and cried upon seeing his submarine, now in the Museum of the Pacific War in Fredericksburg, Texas.

Once captured, Japanese soliders and sailors were reported as dead to their families by the government and some Japanese POWs chose to aid the Allied effort. Prisoners provided the Allies with important information, and one even directed bombers against their former comrades in August 1945 in the Philippines, claiming that a speedy end to the war would ultimately limit casualties.

Once they had delivered all the information they could, or were recalcitrant, they were shipped to POW camps in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Their treatment in Allied hands was better than their Allied counterparts in Japanese prisons. Over 95% of Japanese POWs survived the war and went back to Japan, while only 49% of Allied POWs returned to their native lands. As the war ended its final year, more and more POWs were captured as the rank and file Japanese soldiers surrendered, recognizing the futility of fighting for a lost cause.

During the war, there were a number of suicides and breakout attempts. One of the most violent occurred in the United States, where POW leaders advocated an uprising in the Emperor’s name at Camp McCoy in Wisconsin in May 1944, but no fatalities occurred. Several thousand prisoners took part, but it was stopped with minimal casualties. Another breakout in Cowra, Australia in 1944 took weeks to round up all the POWs. The leaders hanged themselves before capture. No POW is known to have escaped and successfully returned to Japan.

At the end of the war, the Japanese POWs in Allied hands that were not accused of war crimes were returned to Japan. The Japanese in Soviet hands were held in Siberian camps and not returned for years. As late as 2006, Ishinosuke Uwano said he was a former Imperial Japanese Army soldier living in Siberia.

Some “holdouts” refused to surrender after the war. On some islands, Japanese and Americans fought to the death after the surrender, with casualties on both sides. The last known Japanese soldier in the Pacific surrendered in 1980, after thirty-five years. Some Japanese believe that there were still abandoned warriors living in the islands of the South Pacific at the turn of the twenty-first century.

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