Earlier this summer I saw a prepublication notice for Sarah Kovner’s book Prisoners of the Empire Inside Japanese POW Camps, where the Harvard University Press promotion called the book “A pathbreaking account of World War II POW camps, challenging the longstanding belief that the Japanese Empire systematically mistreated Allied prisoners.” I eagerly pre-ordered the book.
I was expecting an insightful addition to the Far East Prisoner of War (FEPOW) academic literature since it was by a Senior Research Scholar at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies and published by Harvard University Press. Prisoners of the Empire is profoundly disappointing. I hadn’t originally intended to write a review; I bought the book from personal and family interest. Up until now I have never blogged bad reviews, but in this case the problems of Prisoners of the Empire are, unfortunately, overwhelming.
The jacket blurb which says it is the “first portrait of detention in the Pacific that explains why so many suffered” is misleading to say the least. Little in Kovner’s book is new or pathbreaking; many other and earlier accounts whether by academics, journalists, popular historians or former prisoners themselves have already detailed (again to quote the jacket blurb) “Most of the worst treatment resulted from a lack of planning, poor training and bureaucratic incoherence rather than an established policy of debasing prisoners.”
Prisoners of the Empire contains glaring errors and serious omissions. While a reader cannot expect great detail in a book that is an overview of the situation for Allied prisoners of war across the Japanese Empire, more supporting evidence and accurate detail are critical if she is to support her argument. There is substantial information in Prisoners of the Empire, but that is lost because what Kovner has mostly produced is an unfocused mishmash that fails to fulfil her stated aim of “analytic rigour that academic historians have used to examine much less consequential subjects.”
I am a semi-retired journalist. Every first year journalism student or cub reporter is told at the beginning that if you get the names wrong, then the entire rest of the story is suspect.
When Kovner gives a brief account of the joint British, Canadian and United States statements early in 1944 on the ill treatment of Far East Prisoners of War , she says that the wartime prime minister of Canada was James Allison Glen. That left me wondering immediately who the hell was she talking about. After all, even if you are not Canadian, it easy to check on Wikipedia that the prime minister at the time was, of course, William Lyon McKenzie King. I had to check Wikipedia to find out that Glen was Speaker of the Commons at the time. In the Parliamentary system, the Speaker does not take part in the debates. Hansard, the record of Commons debates is available online and so it was easy to find the record for January 28, 1944 which shows that King was the one who gave the statement to the House.
My alarm bells began ringing even earlier in the book when Kovner wrote of the Singapore that:
The next day, Australian POWs, commanded by Lieutenant General Percival, were marched to Changi, a huge military installation on the northeast peninsula—now home to Singapore’s modern airport. They were joined by thousands of British, American and Indian soldiers from the Singapore Garrison.
Lt. General Arthur Percival was not the commanding officer of just the Australians; he commanded all allied forces in the Malayan campaign. The general nominally assigned to the Australian Imperial Force was the notorious Lt. Gen. Gordon Bennett who had already fled Singapore so, as he claimed, he could fight another day. Bennett came to be regarded by his imprisoned men and most Australians as a deserter. The officer actually in command of the Australians at the time was the newly promoted Major General C. A. Callahan. Bennett’s “betrayal” is found throughout the Australian academic literature on the war, both in military history and studies of prisoners as well as in dozens of memoirs by ex prisoners.
There were no American troops in the Singapore garrison that marched from the downtown to Changi. Why should there be? Singapore was part of the British Empire, while the Americans were concentrated in the Philippines and up until December 7, 1941 avoiding direct involvement in the war.
Why wasn’t this caught by Kovner, her numerous beta readers or the editor at Harvard University Press?
One reason for the lack of direction in the book is there are actually two focuses, competing with each other for attention and space which create the mish mash. The first is her contention that there never was a Japanese policy calling for harsh treatment, that it was unwitting cruelty brought about by logistical limits where “Japanese commanders did not necessarily consider the care and feeding of captives a priority,” adding “There never was a mandate for officers or guards to mistreat, exploit or shoot their prisoners.” The second focus which keeps interrupting the first is an almost obligatory bow to post modernism where she says, “I will examine war as a site of competition over rival masculinities, both within and between different national communities.”
In my view, she is only partially successful in proving her first case, not only because of an implicit bias against some of the available evidence, but because too often the writing goes off on tangents or abruptly changes the subject in the middle of a sequence. In any case, despite her claims to the contrary, none of what that focus on what ever the Japanese official mandate entailed is new and it is certainly not, to coin a phrase, “breaking news.” Her ideas of rival masculinities, gender, class and race deserve to be edited out as a lawyer in a criminal case might object that they are irrelevant and immaterial to the main specific case she is trying to prove. In Prisoners of the Empire, the masculinity argument never really amounts to more than an afterthought. It would be much better presented in a longer article in an appropriate journal or even another book.
Kovner says, “Only an encyclopedia could cover all the hundreds of camps and internment centers and the coverage would be all to thin.” She then goes on to say she concentrates on camps that “answer key questions.” As anyone who has struggled with what to include and what to exclude in a military history, whether academic, journalist or independent author understands, it is often a gargantuan task to decide. She writes that she wants to contrast the differences between camps in the Japanese home islands, Korea and what she says are the territories “farthest from the oversight of the central authorities.” She barely mentions the one region that was at the greatest extent of the Japanese Empire, the jungles of the border between Thailand and Burma where logistics and communications were often nearly impossible.
Up until now it has been left to academics turned popular historians, like Gavan Daws, author of Prisoners of the Japanese and journalists like the late Brian MacArthur, author of Surviving the Sword to name just two, who are not trapped in today’s academic silos to provide the overviews. There is a need for a rigorous updated academic history of the Far East Prisoner of War experience. Prisoners of the Empire doesn’t come close.
Some may believe that Prisoner of the Empire is pathbreaking because most of the academic papers are scattershot across dozens of books and probably hundred of papers. In today’s academic world, that emphasizes hyper specialization, scholars concentrate on increasingly narrow topics of wartime politics, strategy, combat and diplomacy. In the past decades, there were eclectic conferences that brought together academics, journalists, popular historians, witnesses and survivors from all sides that provided the overview. With most of the veterans, witnesses and earliest historians no longer with us, those conferences are no more. Most of the recent academic writing about the prisoner experience is through the prism of war crimes trials or studies of post traumatic stress disorder and medical consequences.
When, early in the introduction, Kovner says “English language accounts also tend to underplay the large proportion of POW deaths that resulted from friendly fire, such as air and submarine attacks on Japanese convoys and bombing raids on Japanese cities…” Anyone familiar with the history of Far East Prisoners of War knows all too well about what are called the hell ships, the submarine attacks and allied bombing, so they begin to wonder just how many books she has read and how much research she actually did.
Where Kovner does add new ground to the studies of Far East Prisoners of War, the roles of the International Red Cross and what diplomats call “Protecting Powers” that is largely lost in her overall tendency to skip from subject to subject even when her chapters are geographically focused.
Kovner’s main premise appears to come mostly from best selling fiction and Hollywood, not actual history or memoir. She cites movies and novels such as David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai, based on the novel by Pierre Boulle, the movie King Rat, (directed by Bryan Forbes) based on the novel by James Clavell ; J. G. Ballard’s novel Empire of the Sun which became a movie directed by Steven Spielberg and Laura Hillebrand’s best selling non fiction biography of Louis Zamperini, Unbroken which became a movie directed by Angelina Jolie. All the stories do have some basis in fact because all of the original authors were actually prisoners of the empire. All do reflect the experience of many other Far East POWs. The movies, of course, all fit into the requirements of a major motion picture, drama and a clear difference between good and evil.
When it comes to “best sellers,” other than Unbroken, she cites only one, Gavan Daws’, 1994 Prisoners of the Japanese, not any of the others whether memoirs or histories that have sold well over the previous decades.
She then says “The suffering of POWs in the Pacific is so familiar in popular culture that it can be invoked and immediately recognized without any context or explanation…” Popular culture is Kovner’s straw person. There is not a single FEPOW family for now up to three generations (my father was a prisoner on the Burma Thailand Railway) who doesn’t know that David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai, while a great Hollywood movie, did little to reflect the realities of the POW experience. The public believes that there was one bridge on the River Kwai, the tourist bridge at Kanchanaburi, Thailand, whereas in reality there were 688 bridges along the railway route.
For the complicated reaction of former prisoners and their families to the movie see my paper “Why former POWs and their families hate and love The Bridge on the River Kwai“ presented at the David Lean Centenary Conference at Queen Mary University in London in July 2008 and available on Academia.edu.
The question that Kovner never asks is why if the POW experience is so high in the public imagination why is it the families and descendants of POWs in all Allied counties, Australia, Britain, Canada, the Netherlands, New Zealand and the United States still struggle more than 70 years later for public recognition of the actual history, not to mention the neglect that the former POWs in all countries suffered through the decades without getting proper medical and psychiatric care, pensions and compensation?
Prisoners of the Empire has end notes but no bibliography. Kovner says on the first page of her book “memoirs, popular histories and literary accounts described how the Japanese systematically humiliated and abused their captives” and goes on to say that the “many accounts of Europeans, Americans and Australians rounded up in places like Shanghai, Hong Kong, Singapore and Manila” have shaped this largely good and evil public view of the prisoner experience. What 21st century reconciliation movements are telling us that it is crucial to actually listen to survivors.
The problem is that Kovner doesn’t cite a single prisoner memoir or biography, not even Unbroken, and only a few of the academic studies that do cite or analyze prisoner memoirs. There are several hundred prisoner memoirs and biographies published over the past 70 years, of varying quality, from former British, Australian, Canadian, Dutch and American prisoners, not to mention local survivors including those from Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand and the Philippines, plus Japanese accounts in translation. Read those books (and I have read at a couple of hundred over the years both out of family interest and for research purposes) and Kovner’s premise collapses. Many former prisoners whether officers or enlisted personnel did understand that behind the cruelty and oppression was not only a clash of cultures but a confused Japanese POW command with low status in the Japanese Army and Navy, an overall lack of policy by the Japanese government and army and the problem that time and time again the demands of the war on the Japanese overrode in any paper policy considerations for good treatment.
Those include the urgent necessity to build the Burma Thailand Railway at “speedo” and one area that Kovner does examine, the need for enslaved workers to keep the Japanese home front war effort going. Kovner calls this unwitting cruelty. That unwitting cruelty is something that senior POW officers had to deal with. Just two of the better examples are from Australian Colonel Sir Ernest Edward “Weary” Dunlop who wrote The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop: Java and the Burma-Thailand Railway, 1942-1945 and British Brigadier Sir Philip John Denton Toosey who was the subject of two books Peter N. Davies’ The Man Behind the Bridge: Colonel Toosey and the River Kwai and Julie Summers, The Colonel of Tamarkan. Philip Toosey and the Bridge on the River Kwai by Julie Summers. Both take place on the Burma Thailand Railway. All three in depth books give convincing detail of the how Japanese policy and that unwitting cruelty had to be dealt with on a day to day basis. Dunlop, it should be noted, was both a doctor and the commander of prisoners in one camp. Of the more astute enlisted men (other ranks in British usage) who wrote memoirs, one was John Stewart Ullman, who later became a celebrity photographer writing as John Stewart in his book To The River Kwai, Two Journeys 1943, 1979, who summed everything up by saying, “It wasn’t a crime, it was a blunder,” referring to everyone British, Australian and Japanese.
The Japanese perspective is available in English in Kazuo Tomayama’s Railwaymen in the War Tales by Japanese Railway Soldiers in Burma and Thailand, 1941-47, published in 2005 which is both a history and a collection of recollections by the men in the Japanese railway regiments in Thailand Burma. Tomayama describes how bushido did lead directly to the exploitation of the prisoner labour.
All railway officers realized how important the Burma Thailand Railway was for the survival of the Japanese Army in Burma. So, they knew if the railway were delayed, their regimental commander was sure to commit suicide for the dishonour…. [Bushido] was the main factor which drove the officers to force POWs to complete the daily quota by all means as the daily quota was based on the minimum required to complete the railway on time. Thus, the prisoners were forced to work over the standard time even in miserable conditions.
Kovner criticizes previously published literature although it is uncertain how much she actually read, by saying “English language accounts usually lack an international perspective. Americans study Americans and Australians study Australians. Very few cite Japanese sources.” Kovner makes the same mistake she is criticizing. As an American scholar at an American institution and with an American publisher she concentrates heavily on the American experience and, unfortunately, barely covers the Burma Thailand Railway in no more than a few paragraphs scattered through out the book. If she had actually studied the railway more closely, she would have come a lot closer to proving her premise.
In my master’s thesis Command Ability and Command Responsibility (available here on Academia.edu ) and my follow up popular book, A River Kwai Story The Sonkrai Tribunal I point out the entire spectrum of the problems that faced F Force on the Burma Thailand border. An incompetent Japanese commander, Lt. Col. Hirateru Banno was matched by equally incompetent and far too collaborative Australian commanding officer Lt. Col. Charles Gus Kappe and his British counterpart Lt. Col. Alan Hingston, leaving the bulk of responsibility to junior ranks both Japanese and Allied. All the problems that Kovner is writing about are there: the demands from Tokyo that the railway be built to facilitate the offensive in Burma that often had little to do with conditions on the ground, poorly trained and Japanese troops, the role of the Korean gonzuku contractor guards, the cruelty both deliberate and unwitting. My work is concentrated on just one POW Force and a few camps. While I did a great deal of original research, the situation in other camps and with other POW forces along the railway was already documented in extensive academic and popular literature which outline often identical problems. The academic literature not only comes from Britain and Australia and Japan; it also comes from scholars in Singapore which adds a crucial perspective that is neither the Euro American nor Japanese. (Check out the bibliographies in my work, noting that the thesis was completed in 2003 and the book published in 2008 and there’s been a lot more published by scholars, journalists and individuals in the past decade and more).
Confirmation of Tamayama’s historical perspective can be seen in the order that actual commander Maj. Gen. Ishida Hidekuma issued to the POWs on June 24, 1943
I regret to find seriousness in health matters. It is evident that there are various causes inevitable for this but mainly due to the fact of absence of firm belief as Japanese. Those who fail to reach objectives by lack of health or spirit is considered in the Japanese Army most shameful deed… You are to understand this fundamental Japanese spirit and carry out the tasks given you with perfect ease of mind….
It is the author’s choice what to include and what to exclude, as I noted earlier. Excluding the Burma Thailand Railway is not just problem, that neglect undermines her arguments.
In her introduction, Kovner raises the postmodern critical theory issues of race, gender and class but like everything else in the mish mash writes a few obligatory paragraphs and then moves on. Class is nothing new even if it has become more of an academic vogue in the 21st century.
There is little discussion of class in the book. If she had actually read the memoirs she would have quickly realized the class divisions among prisoners were obvious from the very first books and magazines on the Burma Thailand Railway published beginning in the 1950s; mostly among the British but also in the stories from Australians. Those class divisions became even more obvious in the later “River Kwai” memoirs published in 1980s and 1990s. Even if she was going to concentrate on the United States, there is no mention at all of the class divisions within the US Army in the Philippines. For many of the enlisted men and the officers assigned to the Philippines, the posting was considered a career dead end compared to the few potential stars assigned to the islands, like Douglas MacArthur, where senior command was punching a ticket to better opportunities stateside and higher rank. It was because of those class divisions in the Philippines that the senior American POW officers often determined who were put on the first hell ships sent to Japan, those they wanted to get rid of, the men they considered to be undesirable and troublemakers, whether or not they actually were troublemakers (including men perceived to be gay).
It is in the account of the “hell ships”, one Kovner’s main points, that she makes her most serious omissions.
Outside the FEPOW communities, the hell ships are a little known aspect of the Pacific theatre in the Second World War—at least in that public imagination, Kovner keeps mentioning.
As pressure mounted on Japan, enslaved labour was needed in the Japanese islands to keep the war economy going mostly in factories. Thousands of prisoners, both military and civilian, were herded into often aging, rusty Japanese or captured freighters with little food or water. In many case, the up to two thousand per ship men were in crowded conditions where there was little or no room to stand up, locked in the hulls with little or no ventilation and inadequate, if any, latrine facilities. It is estimated about 62,000 prisoners were transported to Japan in at least 56 hell ships. Probably nineteen were sunk by Allied action, mostly by US Navy submarines. Overall, it is estimated that one third of those prisoners, more than 19,000 died either from being crammed into the ships, often with severe pre-existing conditions from their previous captivity or from “friendly fire.” Some of the prisoners who had built the Burma Thailand Railway simply exchanged one hell for a second one. The ships were not marked with any indication that they were carrying prisoners of war and thus were a valid target. There is nothing new or pathbreaking in the stories of the hell ships and the sinkings by Allied navies.
She does name a couple of the hell ships that did make it to Japan and then writes about the Arisan Maru a former troopship hastily built under war time conditions and only capable of travelling at seven knots. In October 1944, it was sailing from the Philippines to Manchuria carrying 1,782 prisoners. On October 24, the Arisan Maru was torpedoed by the submarine USS Shark. The Arisan Maru did not sink immediately and the prisoners managed to escape. The Shark was soon sunk by Japanese destroyers,. The destroyers then returned and rescued only the Japanese, leaving the Americans to drown, causing the largest single loss of life both for American POWs and an American sinking in the war. Only nine survived, five managing to get into a lifeboat and row to China, while four were later picked up by the Japanese Navy.
She also gives the account of the Oryoku Maru that carried not only 1,620 allied prisoners of war and 1,900 other passengers, mostly Japanese. The conditions on the ship were horrendous even for the Japanese. On Dec. 15, 1944, the Oryoku Maru was bombed in Subic Bay by war planes from the USS Hornet, killing 250 prisoners and a number of the Japanese passengers.
The United States had broken the Japanese naval codes and likely knew from signals intelligence about convoys. Perhaps there may have been intelligence about ships with prisoners on board. However, Kovner’s conclusion that “The primary reason that mortality rate was so high for the American decision to torpedo the ships regardless of the threat to POWs” is highly questionable. Even the author of the paper she cites concludes that while intelligence provided submarine command with convoy coordinates, “they were unaware of the presence of POWs on the marus.”
One of the two ships that Kovner doesn’t mention—and this is a serious omission—is the Rakuyō Maru which was part of a convoy carrying 1,317 British and Australian prisoners, mostly survivors of the Burma Thailand Railway. On September 12, 1944 a US Navy wolfpack consisting of the submarines USS Pampanito, USS Sealion and USS Growler intercepted the convoy. The wolfpack attacked the Rakuyō Maru and a second ship carrying POWs the Kachidoki Maru. Both ships were sunk. Many of the prisoners managed to get into the life rafts or lifeboats. The Japanese only picked up Japanese survivors. The survivors of the Rakuyō Maru rowed in one direction, and unluckily the survivors for the Kachidoki Maru in another. The Japanese later machine gunned the survivors of the Kachidoki Maru killing 350. On September 15, the Pampanito returned to the area, spotted survivors and started taking them on board. Later after the Pampanito broke radio silence, the Sealion and Growler also joined the rescue operation. (The Pampanito is now a floating museum in San Francisco.)
Pampanito took 73 men to Saipan where they were treated in a US Navy hospital for a few weeks, then transported first to Pearl Harbor and later to California before being repatriated to Australia and Great Britain. It was the survivors of the Rakuyō Maru that first provided any substantial intelligence to the United States and its allies of the conditions of Allied prisoners in Japanese hands and the hell ships.
Kovner’s second serious omission is that she doesn’t even describe the worst case of a hell ship sinking. On September 18, 1944, just three days after the Pampanito was rescuing the POWs in the Pacific, the British submarine HMS Tradewind torpedoed and sank the Jun’yō Maru, off the coast of Sumatra, with 1,450 Allied POWs and 4,200 enslaved Javanese on board. It is estimated that 5,620 people died. Most histories show that 680 POWs survived, many to die later as POW labourers. Only couple of hundred Javanese romusha (coolie or slave) are known to have survived. The crew of Tradewind did not find out until after the war of the horrendous consequences of the sinking.
Kovner fails to deal with two key questions which any military historian should answer. The first is how high a priority US Navy or Royal Navy intelligence would have given signal intercepts about convoys in the last half of 1944 when the movement of warships would have been more important? Second if you look at the timeline after the sinking of the Rakuyō Maru, it was just a few days later that the Jun’yō Maru was sunk killing thousands. A month later the Arisan Maru was sunk and two months later that the Oryoku Maru was sunk. The survivors from the Rakuyō Maru were not fully debriefed until they arrived in Pearl Harbor and later in California. That means any definitive actionable intelligence on the hell ships was probably not available at the time of the subsequent sinkings.
In light of that we see that Kovner’s contention that the Americans (not to mention the British) deliberately chose to ignore signals intelligence and thus torpedoed ships carrying POWS reveals an implicit bias throughout her book that goes beyond any available evidence. She is trying by any means necessary to knock that public perception of Japanese cruelty and put partial blame on the Allies.
Kovner casts doubt that there was a universal order by the Japanese to kill all the prisoners in case of an Allied landing whether in Taiwan, Singapore, Java and elsewhere. She dismisses as rumours the reports of the planned massacres because she uses the one single source she depends on too often for her criticism, Gavan Daws’ 1994 Prisoners of the Japanese. Many prisoner accounts, which again she probably hasn’t read, across the failing Japanese Empire report that they were told either by Japanese or Korean guards of orders to kill them all in the case of an Allied landing. That means that there was something to the order. After all, the Korean guards across the entire empire had no way of communicating with each other to help spread the rumours. The Japanese guards certainly had access to what their officers were discussing and possibly even contingency plans. She relies on a well known document from Taiwan from a camp HQ to “higher ups” as proof that “if there were a central order for a massacre there would have been no need for a camp HQ to inform higher ups.” Again she comes to a conclusion based on a single source.
She does mention an order from Vice Minister of War on March 11, 1945, saying the prisoners should be moved with no mention of killing them. Just how reliable was that order when Kovner herself has detailed the difference between orders from the highest levels in Tokyo and those lower on the chain of command?
What about the records of war crimes investigators? Japan accepted the Potsdam agreement and surrendered on August 15, 1945. The first occupying US Forces arrived on August 28. Douglas McArthur arrived in Tokyo on August 30 with Japan formerly surrendering on September 2. After that it took the United States several days and even weeks to gain full control of Tokyo and the rest of Japan. During that time, the war crimes investigators did discover that a large number of incriminating documents were burned (if they hadn’t already been destroyed in the fire bombing of Tokyo and military targets.)
The British certainly were aware of the “rumours” to kill the prisoners. Group E and Force 136 were special commando units, conducting guerilla operations across the Japanese Theatre, that were also assigned to assist MI9, the POW rescue intelligence unit which operated both in the European and Pacific theatres. Group E and Force 136’s POW rescue plans were a crucial part of Operation Zipper, the British plan to retake Malaya and Singapore, which included Operation Jurist in Penang and Operation Tiderace in Singapore. The Americans felt that a British invasion of Malaya would take resources away from the planned invasion of the Japanese home islands. The British wanted Operation Zipper not only to restore part of the British Empire but to ensure the safety of the thousands of Allied POWs held in Singapore.. After the atomic bomb and the Japanese surrender, Operation Zipper, since it had already planned for the known camps, was reassigned to finding and helping the prisoners. It became RAWPI (Recovery of Allied Prisoners of War and Internees) in Southeast Asia and Operation Mastiff in Java and Sumatra. Kovner does discuss RAWPI but not the unit’s origin. So again, through inadequate research, Kovner has failed to prove that there wasn’t an order to kill the prisoners. The Allies had certainly enough to worry that a massacre might happen given the Rape of Nanking, the sook ching killing of Chinese men and boys in Singapore and the ongoing killings of civilians in Manila throughout the Japanese occupation.
(Pierre Boulle repurposed Force 136 to Force 316 in his novel Bridge over the River Kwai. The moment of liberation at Changi that James Clavell described in King Rat is based on fact when a small team of Force 136 under the command of Canadian Lt. Col. Arthur Stewart “liberated” Singapore and Changi with a half dozen men.)
There are other problems with the book, ranging from the fairly minor to the substantial. The Union Jack in Singapore was not raised first when Lord Louis Mountbatten arrived on September 12, 1945 but nine days earlier, on September 3 in Changi along with the Stars and Stripes and the Dutch flag. In her brief accounts of the battle for Malaya she relies on Lionel Wigmore’s The Japanese Thrust, an official account of Australian operations published in 1957. Although The Japanese Thrust is considered a classic, there have been numerous books and papers over the ensuing 63 years by scholars of military history that have updated the information and reconsidered the operations, especially as more documents became available beginning after 30 years in 1975.
Then there is the issue of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder among POWs and the postmodern issue of “masculinity” especially among white males and the idea of “forbearance of men in the face of atrocious treatment.” The paper says, “tensions about masculinity could be seen in the self doubt and shame through which former POWs recalled their experience.” That is probably true of any defeated soldier in any culture in any time period. The early Roman Republic, for just one example, made their vanquished neighbors march under an improvised yoke signifying their defeat. Throughout history, up until the 19th century across the globe it was common for defeated soldiers to end up as slaves after surrender, if they were not summarily killed or sacrificed. The question here is why single out white males? What did the Japanese indoctrinated about bushido feel after their defeat? As John Stewart Ullman wrote, as he watched the former guards at Changi marched off into captivity, he overheard someone say. “Poor bastards. Now it’s their turn to be caught in the big fuckin’ machine.”
Kovner goes to great lengths to describe the Japanese concept of bushido and then by and large dismisses it as a factor in the prison camps yet is clear that the Japanese soldier was taught to feel more shame than their Western counterparts. Tamayama recounts the feelings of shame among the Japanese upon defeat. There is one crucial difference, the Potsdam Declaration guaranteed that all Japanese soldiers not wanted for war crime would be repatriated.
Kovner cites only three papers on the resulting psychiatric problems for Far East Prisoners of War when there is much more available. Especially significant is the work the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, which pioneered the treatment of what is now called PTSD as well as physical problems for British survivors beginning as early as 1947. Dr. Kamal Khan, originally from Pakistan, is a hero among the handful of surviving veterans and their families for his work beginning in 1975, both as a researcher at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and crucially as a “good listener” psychiatrist who treated PTSD patients who lined up for treatment for 20 years until his retirement in 1995. Khan did a pioneering study comparing the post war problems for British Far East Prisoners of War with veterans of combat in the Burma theatre that showed that 52 per cent of the former prisoners had what Khan called “chronic intermittent depressive illness,” (a term he coined before PTSD became widely used) compared to 30 per cent of Burma combat veterans.
Kovner touches on the need for collaboration between the prisoners and the Japanese but fails to cite a famous (at least to FEPOW families and scholars) essay on collaboration “The Myth of the Bridge on the River Kwai,” by one of the 20th century’s most distinguished scholars, Ian Watt of Stanford University, best known for Aspects of the Novel. Watt, himself a survivor of the Burma Thailand Railway, chose to publish the essay not in a peer reviewed journal but in the British Sunday newspaper the Observer on Sept. 1, 1968. (A tape of Watt discussing the Myth of the Bridge on the River Kwai is easily found and available from Portland State University. Watt’s personal papers are now available at Stanford, with extensive files on the “River Kwai” which were not cataloged and available when I was writing. I will leave it to future researchers to determine if academia was even interested in the subject in 1968).
There has to be a mention of the issue of race, important in an era when systematic racism is being examined. That there was racism by the Allies toward the Japanese and racism by the Japanese toward the Allies is fairly obvious and is well covered in memoirs (both those memoirs that are openly racist and those that are observing the racism). The issues of racism have been documented in academic papers for decades.
One example from Japan is a 2008 report for the Ministry of Defence “The Treatment of Prisoners of War by the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy Focusing on the Pacific War” by Kyoichi Tachikawa which highlights the racial animosity not only from the white prisoners but the from many in Japan at the time toward “Caucasians.” Kovner does cite that paper a couple of times, once describing the execution of pilots but mostly about how the Japanese bureaucracy handled prisoner of war issues. One has to wonder if not highlighting Tachikawa’s description of racism on both sides is another case of Kovner’s selective analysis. (Tachikawa makes the Japanese case more succinctly and accurately in 46 pages than Kovner does in the entire Prisoners of the Empire, including the “cultural” pressure on senior Japanese officers to complete the railway.)
So, what about the fact the plight of the non-Europeans has been neglected? That is certainly true, but Kovner makes her whole case on racism based on one book, Daws’ Prisoners of the Japanese. If Kovner had read a wider selection, she would have discovered that the plight of non-white captives was not “dismissed with an asterisk,” even if many accounts of non-white prisoners are not that prominent. (Daws did reduce the romusha to a footnote in his book). It is Kovner, after all, who fails to include the deaths of about 4,000 Javanese romusha on board the Jun’yō Maru.
What is not mentioned is the work done both right after the war and in recent years to redress the balance. British war crimes investigators in Malaya and Burma did make efforts to build a case against the Japanese who treated local labourers mostly from Burma even worse than the Japanese treated the POWs. There definitely was a racially charged colonial attitude by the POWs toward the romusha, the enslaved local labourers. On the other hand, prisoners often did the best they could with minimal resources to help out where they could. The Allied POWs everywhere, not just in Singapore, being military and in keeping with military bureaucracy maintained, as best they could, secret written records of everything that went on that were used first in the post war trials and later were a valuable resource for historians. One problem the war crimes investigators encountered is that there was no reliable way of finding out how many Burmese died on the Burma Thailand Railway. One semi-official estimate is that at least 175,000 were drafted, 87,000 to 90,000 reached the railway construction sites and at least 40,000 died, about 44 per cent. (There are some recent estimates that the death toll, which included women and children, might have been as high as 200,000). The discrepancy in the numbers comes from not knowing how many deserted and made it back to their home villages and how many may have died in the jungle trying to escape. The war crimes investigators could locate few, if any witnesses after the war—the survivors headed home as soon they could– either for depositions much less to testify in court. Across the region most of who survived were illiterate in their own language much less the languages of international law and scholarship. There have been books published in Singapore and Thailand in recent years, some in the local language and some in English but I have found that unless you actually go there and find the books in local stores, they are unknown to the rest of the world.
There is the case of the Japanese treatment of Muslim prisoners of war from the Indian Army who refused to desert the British (which Kovner does mention briefly) who were transported to the Pacific Island of then known as Babethuap. The Trial of Gozawa Sadiachi was published in a series of volumes of major Second World War war crimes trials, ( Video available online from the Imperial War Museum and a review here ) a series that included other trials in both Germany (including the Belsen Concentration camp) and the Japanese theatre. So, neglected yes, forgotten yes, an asterisk no.
It is out of the scope of Kovner’s book, but it is worth mentioning that there have been decades of reconciliation efforts, often a personal basis, both by the former prisoners and their former captors. In recent years there has been a multi-racial reconciliation effort in Singapore, which suffered greatly under Japanese occupation, although the individuals involved have struggled to get any form of recognition from the government in Singapore. As reconciliation worldwide gains more importance in the 21st century, these efforts are now gaining more attention in the academic world.
There is a potential contribution to the study of Far East Prisoners of War if Kovner actually expands and does further research, as I said earlier, on the actions of the International Committee of the Red Cross and the efforts “protecting powers” and the role of Allied, Japanese and neutral diplomats, a field where she has some previous expertise. It is an area where there are probably a lot of misconceptions and that has been neglected in the overall history of the prison camps, confined mostly to the lack of Red Cross parcels and whether or not they arrived at camps, whether the Japanese confiscated them and the conditions of the parcels if they actually arrived at all.
The double focus, the mistakes, omissions and too often spotty and narrow research certainly make it a much weaker book than it could have been, despite eight research assistants, two anonymous peer review referees and three book beta readers as well as thirteen chapter beta readers. There are some contributions in the book to the overall study of the prisoners of the Japanese Empire, but they are lost in the book’s many flaws.
These days the few major commercial publishers left constrain the page count to a marketable level, but university presses should be more flexible. Prisoners of the Empire deserved stronger research and more specific detail, from the better POW memoirs and decades of academic studies providing more substance to many of the chapters. Most important the book needed rigorous fact checking. (One question is was the book rushed into production to meet marketing goal of release on the 75th anniversary of VJ Day?)
Kovner is just as guilty as the popular accounts she criticizes by concentrating solely on the culture of bushido when it came to surrender and not examining how bushido actually did contribute the exploitation of the prisoner labour.
Kovner says “By taking gender, race and class into account professional historians have recently advanced our understanding of some of the most important aspects of twentieth century history.” If the work is to be credible, professional historians (just like journalists and authors of popular history) should make sure that they get names of prime ministers and generals right. You don’t advance the understanding of history by cherry picking submarine operations that only advance your argument or not including accounts by Japanese researchers about racial animosity. One has to ask how much work in 2020 by “professional historians” is actually a timely and sorely needed all inclusive expansion of a neglected or ignored historical record and how much of it are tales of sound and fury (especially fury).
All in all, I must conclude that the weakness of Prisoners of the Empire means that Kovner has failed to prove her case strongly. She can’t provide a proper balance between her hypothesis about neglect, poor planning and the incoherent policy on both the Japanese and Allied sides and the deliberate debasing of the prisoners, which actually did occur. That idea awaits a stronger, more solid book by another scholar.
1. Books. My father Fred Rowland who as a prisoner on the Railway in H Force, would occasionally buy histories or memoirs of the Burma Thailand Railway. When I began my research first for my master’s degree and later for the book A River Kwai Story, I consulted books not only about the railway but the Pacific war. I purchased books in Canada, the United States, Singapore, Australia, Britain and Hong Kong. When I decided to retire and move from Toronto to British Columbia, I donated the entire collection to the library of the US National World War II Museum in New Orleans so anyone wanting to see how varied the collection is should contact the museum library.
2. Disclosure: I am acknowledged in two of the books Kovner cites. I met Gavan Daws when he visited Toronto as part of his world research tour for Prisoner of the Japanese where he interviewed me over dinner, and I supplied him some of the research material I had the time. I also answered emails form Allan Ryan when he was writing Yamashita’s Ghost.
3. Conferences. During my research I attended three conferences which mixed the academic with the interested public. The first was Sixty Years On The Fall of Singapore Revisited at the National University of Singapore in February 2002. It was well attended by scholars of multiple disciplines, journalists, witnesses and survivors. The collected papers from the conference were published in a volume of the same name published by Eastern Universities Press. A year later in 2003, I attended a similar conference at Princeton University Encounters at Sugamo Prison, Tokyo 1945-52 The American Occupation of Japan and Memories of the Asia-Pacific War, which like the Singapore conference brought together academics and participants from both America and Japan. At the conference we were told there plans to publish the proceedings but as far as I can discover those plans never came to fruition. My paper for the conference Sugamo and the River Kwai is available here. I attended, mostly out of personal interest, The David Lean Centenary Conference at Queen Mary University in London in July 2008 and presented. “Why former POWs and their families hate and love The Bridge on the River Kwai.“
The one conference that is still on going is sponsored by the Researching FEPOW History which holds an international meeting every couple of years at the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine. I attended the 2017 conference in Liverpool. Although now the second generation is getting older, the conference, like earlier ones, still attracts of an eclectic mixture of professional and amateur historians, medical professionals who study or treat both physical and psychiatric problems resulting from captivity, family members, journalists and anyone else interested. The latest conference was cancelled due to Covid 19 . It is now tentatively scheduled for June 2021. If and when it resumes anyone who is really interested in the full story of Far East POWs should attend.
4. Reconciliation: To give a key example of how the story of Far East Prisoners of War is not as high in the public consciousness as Kovner maintains, you only have to look at the controversy over Forgiveness by Mark Sakamoto. In 2018, Forgiveness was part of Canada Reads, a literary reality show on CBC Radio, where books compete for the top prize. Forgiveness is a story of reconciliation and love, between the son of Japanese Canadian whose parents were interned during the Second World War and the daughter of a Canadian soldier who was imprisoned by the Japanese in Hong Kong and how the two families eventually would come together. Mark Sakamoto is their son, grandson of both prisoners. Forgiveness was in a tight competition with a second excellent book The Marrow Thieves by Métis author Cherie Dimaline. The Marrow Thieves an allegorical novel about the treatment of indigenous people in North America where “Humanity has nearly destroyed its world through global warming, but now an even greater evil lurks. The Indigenous people of North America are being hunted and harvested for their bone marrow, which carries the key to recovering something the rest of the population has lost: the ability to dream.”
After Forgiveness was named the winner, the controversy came from certain quarters, where the critics said an indigenous novel novel should have won, claiming that not to do so was an impediment to reconciliation here in North America. Those critics were either apparently completely unaware of the full history of what happened to the those imprisoned in the Japanese Empire or found those stories unimportant, instead seeing multigenerational reconciliation in the Far East as an example to follow. (Disclosure I worked for CBC News for most of my career but was never involved in Canada Reads),
I will end this last note on with a personal story. I remember that one day my father came home more angry than usual. He had just found out in a casual conversation with a Japanese Canadian who had been interred during the Second World War about how here too they were marched away into prison camps. His words were “How did we dare do to them what they did to us?”
Truth and reconciliation is hard ongoing work, whether between the indigenous and settler populations here in North America, which is fairly recent, or for those who were victors and vanquished in the Japanese Empire which has been going on mostly at a individual, not formal, level for 70 years. Even at this late date, with almost everyone originally involved now gone, those academics and others writing about the Far East Prisoners of War have an obligation to follow the example of what is actually happening here with indigenous reconciliation in North America. That means sitting down and listening (or reading) respectfully to the many sides of the story, recognizing the multi-generational trauma involved even for the families of the admittedly white privileged descendants of the POWs and doing as much research as is possible on the romusha and everyone else. The obligation is to then present as truthful a picture as is humanly possible rather than writing papers (such as arm chair speculation on masculinity) or books that fulfil only the need to publish or perish.