Japanese mass violence and its victims in the Fifteen Years War (1931-45)

7 October, 2011

Japanese mass violence and its victims in the “Fifteen Years’ War” (1931-45)



From the end of the 19th century until 1945, Japan positioned itself among the world’s great powers as a colonial nation. Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, there was clearly a desire to transform Japan into a nation capable of competing with, as well as resisting, the Western powers. Subsequently, following a number of war victories, neighbouring territories were gradually turned into colonies. By the end of the 1930s, and apart from China, most of Northeast Asia had come under Japanese domination. The Kuril Islands (1875, acquired through the signature of a treaty), Taiwan (1895), the Southern half of Sakhalin (1905), the Kwantung Leased Territory (1905), Korea (1910) and the Pacific islands under Japanese mandate (1919) had been integrated into the emerging sphere of Japanese influence. This shows that Japan’s expansion followed three different directions: Northeast Asia, Southeast Asia and the Pacific, with islands taken from Germany.

This context served the interests of the military and political elites in Tokyo: nationalism was on the rise in Japan, and the victories attained in the recent past served as reminders that Japan had a mission to fulfil in extending and securing its newly acquired overseas territories. With this aim, the Kwantung Army (関東軍 kantô gun) was established in 1919 to protect Japanese interests on the continent. Korea (annexed in 1910) and Southern Manchuria (where Japanese economic interests were increasingly significant) were subsequently presented to the Japanese population as a sort of Eldorado after the Great Depression of 1929 in a major propaganda campaign by the government. The nationalists presented further colonisation of the Asian continent as the only available option to ensure the survival of the Japanese Empire, notably through achieving economic autarky. Even though Japan was expanding in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, the Tokyo elite believed that this objective would only be attained if Tokyo managed to control Northeast Asia.

The Japanese colonial authorities were grimly aware of growing tensions between local populations (harassed by Japanese ultranationalist movements) and newly arrived Japanese settlers in Manchuria. These tensions were a pretext for the Japanese military stationed on the continent to increase the pressure on the Chinese authorities in Southern Manchuria, where a local warlord, Zhang Zuolin, only eliminated in 1928, held sway. On 18 September 1931, the Kwantung Army sabotaged railway lines owned by the South Manchuria Railway Company and immediately blamed China for the deed. It is therefore clear that one cannot consider the Japanese army as a whole, acting in the same way everywhere. Indeed, this episode demonstrates the level of autonomy possessed by this specific structure: the Kwangtung Army played a major role in triggering the conflict.

This affair is known today as the “Manchuria Incident“ (満州事変 manshû jihen) and retains very special significance in Japan, not only as a sign of Japanese imperialism and aggression, but also as the starting point of a military campaign to gain control over China (Matsusaka, 2001: 349-387). Less than a year later, the whole of Manchuria had come under Japanese control and the puppet state of Manchukuo had been created by the ultranationalist leaders of the Kwantung Army, under the supervision of the government in Tokyo. On 28 January 1932, another event, this time staged by the Japanese Army in Shanghai, triggered the “First Shanghai Incident” (上海事変 shanghai jihen), which was to last until 3 March of the same year. In 1934, following the refusal of the League of Nations to recognise the legitimacy and independence of Manchukuo, Japan withdrew from the body, thereby exacerbating its diplomatic and political isolation.

It was in this context that began for Japan what is, from a contemporary Western perspective, known as World War II, but which Japanese specialists know as the “Fifteen Years’ War”

(十五年戦争 jûgo nen sensô). This expression was coined by historian and philosopher Tsurumi Shunsuke (鶴見俊輔) in 1956. From the Japanese point of view and a posteriori, not only is the timeframe different, but also the very denomination of the conflict changes. Today, the war that began in 1931 can be understood as a long-term experiment in mass violence against an Asian, mainly Chinese, enemy; it acquired another dimension only in December 1941 with the attack on Pearl Harbor, triggering a war against the Americans as well. A few days later, the war had become known in Japan as “The Greater East Asia War” (大東亜戦争 daitôa sensô – the use of this term was prohibited by the occupying powers on 15 December 1945), and was seen as a means of “liberating” Asian countries from Western imperialism and replacing it with Japanese leadership. This shifted the emphasis to the Asian experience of the war (Narita, 2005: 10-11). Indeed, since the first ten years of the war are considered almost exclusively as a conflict between China and Japan, it is hardly surprising that they are often omitted from Western narratives of the Second World War. Conversely, and although the war ended for the Japanese population in August 1945, some historians contend that World War II did not really end in 1945, but in 1952, with the end of the Allied forces’ occupation of the Japanese archipelago (Dower, 1999: 25). Another good example of such nuances in historical perspective can be found in the way the “Nanking Massacre” of 1937-38 (see below) began to be discussed by scholars in the West only during the 1990s – some 20 years after the topic emerged in Japan as an historiographical debate (Fogel, 2000, Iwasaki & Richter, 2005: 367-70). Regarding medical atrocities and biological weapons, see Nie and al (2010) for the most recent study available in the West, and Williams & Wallace (1989) for the oldest.

Today the conflict is also known in Japan as the “Asia-Pacific War” (アジア・太平洋戦争 ajia-taiheiyô sensô), but one can also identify this series of events as the “Sino-Japanese War” (日中戦争 nicchû sensô), which preceded the “Pacific War” (太平洋戦争 taiheiyô sensô). An overview is not the place for large interpretative analysis of events; however, the distinctions between the various ways of understanding the war (as irrelevant as they might seem to the untrained eye) are essential in order better to grasp its mechanisms, for the following reasons.

First, the very denomination “Fifteen Years’ War” is a statement that identifies one’s perspective on World War II as being after the events, and a Japanese one, as it reflects an experience predominantly centred on Asia and, especially, Japan. For the Western reader, this represents an interesting focal point, different from what is commonly observed in Europe, which tends to concentrate on Nazi Germany as the main “enemy”.

Second, it is impossible to grasp the extent of Japanese mass violence from a purely Western perspective. For the serious historian working on this topic, sources in the Japanese language are essential, not only to understand facts and access archives written almost exclusively in Japanese, but also to situate the extent to which Japanese scholars and citizens have investigated acts perpetrated by their own fellow citizens. As such, it removes the debate from the realm of clichés, and particularly the common assertion that the “duty of memory” carried out in Europe is still a taboo topic that has been left untouched in Japan. As we shall see, this is not the case.

The attack on Pearl Harbor marked the start of a spiral of hostility against Western powers, but, as we shall demonstrate below, a chronology of mass violence needs to begin with the experience of the conflict in China if one is truly to understand the impact of events in the Asia-Pacific area. Given that the vast majority of the victims were Asian (mostly Chinese), a summary starting in 1939 or 1942 would simply not take into account the numerous cases of brutality that occurred and would therefore give a reduced sense of their very plurality. Is it also necessary to add that while 15 August marks the end of the war from a “standard” – read: Western – perspective, the conflict only ended on 22 August from Moscow’s point of view?

It is therefore clear that this timeframe differs from what is considered standard in the West. Not only because the Sino-Japanese War is not directly linked to Western countries, but also because it is justified by the Japanese perspective. This may go without saying, but nevertheless must be clarified in order better to understand a perspective on mass violence and the very notion of a “Second World War” that does not really dovetail with conventional European view. This does not, however, make the case of Japanese mass violence in Asia and the Pacific unique, as is often implied in Western historiography on the subject. There is no need for superlatives or the use of a “sensational” wording in an attempt to quantify and qualify the supposed specificity said to make Japanese exactions different from those of other nations. Nor is there an intrinsic sense or definition of Japanese violence per se, even though the specificities of the topic will be approached chronologically below, in an attempt to highlight their emergence and recurrence along a specific timeline (Fujitani, White and Yoneyama, 2001).

As with many cases of mass violence, the number of victims poses serious problems of historiography that need to be addressed. A timeline is not the place to debate such a question, but it must nevertheless be said that most of the cases examined below present problems, whether of conflicting viewpoints that negate the death toll or augment it in order to politicise it, or of contradictory or incomplete sources, both preventing the historian from establishing a clear and precise number. Our decision to rate an event with one, two or three stars stems not so much from whether or not it took place, but rather indicates conflicting sources and a lack of concurrent detailed testimonies. In other words, it is certain that the vast majority of episodes set out here did occur; what is less certain is their precise corroboration due to the unstable nature of war testimonies, reflected here in the classification given.

Beyond this matter also lies the decision of whether to enter into a debate regarding the total number of victims. This carries the risk of classifying and quantifying events and the number of deaths they entailed, thereby giving some of them precedence on the basis of their death toll. It also places a localised event and a number on the same line. Worse, the danger of entering into a debate on numbers (数の論争 sû no ronsô as used by Japanese scholars) is that it can lead the historian astray, involving him in the politicisation of the event itself, where his true role is to contextualise and explain. When necessary, a summary clarification will be given concerning the estimated number of victims of specific events (or the absence of estimates). The chronology of Japanese mass violence during the “Fifteen Years’ War” can therefore be subdivided into the following three periods:

1) From the birth of Manchukuo to the Second Sino-Japanese war (1931-37);

2) War against China (1937-41)

3) War in the Pacific (1941-45)

1) From the birth of Manchukuo to the Second Sino-Japanese war (1931-37)

On 1 March 1932, the independent State of Manchukuo (満州国 manshûkoku) was proclaimed by the Kwantung Army. Its independence was recognised by the Japanese government and Emperor Hirohito (昭和天皇 shôwa tennô) on 15 September of the same year. Although the country was a puppet state subordinated to Japanese authorities, its foundation signalled, from an Asian perspective, the beginning of the war. In this context and notwithstanding the case of China, not a Japanese territory, it goes without saying that mass violence was first and foremost colonial violence, and the vast majority of the victims of Japanese troops were of different nationalities and/or origins. It must be said at this point that, although cases of mass violence were recorded during this period, these first seven years of the war are not the main focal point of our work. The war is not continuous and total (as it is in the case of the next two periods), but there is no durable peace. One must of course take into account the numerous Chinese casualties of the war, going back to 1931, but this chronological segment must above all be understood as the starting point of what was to become recurrent mass violence and exactions of all kinds, rather than as a period of indiscriminate killings in Manchuria.

While violence seems to be limited in this context to general war exactions, it is however essential to note that mass brutality was then beginning to become systematic throughout the Japanese empire. It was notably through the creation of bacteriological and chemical (hereinafter referred to as BC) warfare units that such a system first emerged in Manchukuo, but invariably controlled from Tokyo. The very selection of Manchuria as the area where BC warfare was first developed is an interesting indication of how it was perceived in Japan. Twice prohibited by international treaties (The Hague, 1899, and Geneva, 1925), BC research could not legally be conducted by signatory countries. Although some research and production centres were located in Japan, the puppet state of Manchukuo, technically independent but in reality controlled by Tokyo, represented a unique opportunity for Japanese scientists to experiment on what theoretically “[could] not be done in the home islands” (内地で出来ないこと naichi de dekinai koto, Aoki, 2005: 76).

Thus, countless political detainees or prisoners of war of various nationalities, not to mention kidnapped civilians, were interned in Japanese BC warfare camps and submitted to medical, bacteriological and chemical experiments. They become the first victims of the institutionalisation of mass violence by the Japanese Army during World War II. A global estimate of the number of victims is extremely difficult to provide for five main reasons.

First, available testimonies by victims and perpetrators alike do not so much contradict each other as show the extent of the phenomenon. Experiments were conducted throughout Manchuria, and later throughout the rest of Asia in various research centres. It is therefore virtually impossible to encompass them all, as the experiments varied depending on the timeframe, climate, and location. Only the most representative or well-documented cases will therefore be included in this chronology.

Second, archives and documents have survived for some experiments, but Japanese troops and scientists destroyed most of the documented research in 1945, for fear of legal action or reprisals by the Allied forces. Other sources exist in archives that have still not been made available to historians.

Third, experiments were also conducted on civilians in densely populated areas, making it difficult fully to grasp the extent to which they were exposed to bacteria and the overall effect on them.

Fourth, the long-term effects on the environment must also be taken into account (with their attendant on people). Wells, rivers and plants, as well as animals, were used for experiments and contaminated throughout Manchuria, causing damage that cannot necessarily be quantified.

Fifth, and as mentioned above, when studying this period, historians are confronted not with a massacre that occurred during a specific timeframe and which is therefore immediately identifiable as a particular event, but instead is faced with the implementation of a system that, in the long run, generated cases of mass violence in various locations. For Japanese scientists involved in BC research at that time, the results and tests were all that mattered, not the nationality or the number of victims.

Furthermore, the close collaboration of these units also prevents us from assigning precise responsibilities to specific research groups. For example, as units 731 and 100 both participated in the 1939 “Nomonhan Incident” described below, it is impossible to know exactly which unit was to blame for what.

However, although we do not possess exact numbers, we can establish that, because Japanese BC warfare units were organised into a network, they were not isolated cases or individual actions, and one can justifiably talk of mass violence. One example suffices to confirm this idea: the first BC research camp was built to have a capacity of 1,000, with 500-600 prisoners held inside (Harris, 2002: 32).


March 1932

Following the “First Shanghai Incident”, 223 cases of rape by Japanese soldiers are reported in the area. Lieutenant-General Okamura Yasuji (岡村寧次) subsequently demands the creation in Shanghai of the first “comfort station” (慰安所 ianjo) for naval troops, an initiative immediately imitated by the Imperial Army. The number of Chinese as well as Japanese women rounded up is unknown (see the rest of the chronology for available numbers and estimates.)

*** (Soh, 2005: 360, Hicks, 1994: 45, Yoshimi, 2000: 43-44)

August 1932

The Tôgô Unit (東郷部隊 tôgô butai, also known as 加茂部隊 kamo butai) is created in Manchukuo under the supervision of Major Ishii Shirô (石井四郎). Its aim is to set up a Japanese BC warfare research programme. In the same month, the first experimentation site is founded, again under his supervision, in the village of Beiyinhe (背陰河 Haiinga in Japanese), near the city of Harbin (哈爾浜). Experiments undertaken in this context include, but are not limited to, injections of anthrax, plague, typhoid fever and cholera into human guinea pigs. The victims are mostly Chinese, but sometimes Korean or Russian, and also include communists or guerrilla fighters opposed to the Japanese regime in Manchuria. When required, the Japanese Military Police (憲兵隊 kempeitai) also round up random civilians in villages and cities in the area. Since victims need to be treated as non-human guinea pigs, they are from then on referred to as “logs” (丸太 maruta) and assigned an identification number. After the experiments are conducted, and when the results have been analysed by Japanese scientists, the bodies are dissected and cremated. The destruction of the Beiyinhe facility is ordered in late 1937, in order to build a bigger one.

*** (Morimura, 1983: 16-36, Tsuneishi, 1995: 26-29, 82-86, Tanaka, 1996: 135-39)

March 1933

According to testimonies, organised prostitution sections are gradually established under the name of “Young Women Auxiliary Corps” (若年女子補助部隊 jakunen joshi hojo butai) and set up by the Imperial Army Staff in Manchuria for the benefit of Japanese troops. (Some former victims claim that the corps dates back to 1931-32.) The total number of women abused is unknown.

** (Soh, 2005: 364-65)


Chemical warfare production (initiated in 1929) is expanded between 1933 and 1935 in a facility situated on the island of Ôkunoshima (大久野島), in the Hiroshima prefecture. Due to the lack of protective measures, an estimated 350 Japanese and Korean workers die during this period after being exposed to chlorine gas, mustard gas and tear gas, among others. Other sources mention a total of 1,600 victims, countless deaths having occurred during the ten years after the end of the war.

*** (Buruma, 1994: 109-11, Ienaga, 1978: 187, Okano, 1987: 13, Tanaka, 1988: 14)

1 August 1936

The Tôgô Unit is officially incorporated into the Kwantung Army under the direction of Ishii and called the “Water Epidemic Prevention Unit of the Kwantung Army”

(関東軍防疫給水部 kantô gun bôeki kyûsui bu). The order is sanctioned by the Emperor himself. BC weapons, their production and medical experiments are thus endorsed by the Kwantung Army Staff as well as the Imperial Army Staff in Tokyo, and continue to be carried out on a larger scale with an ever-increasing budget.

*** (Aoki, 2005: 76, Bix, 2000: 364, Tsuneishi, 1995: 82-86)

August 1936

A BC research centre is set up near the city of Changchun (長春 Chôshun, also known as 新京 Shinkyô, the capital of Manchukuo from 1932 to 1945) under the supervision of Major Wakamatsu Yujiro (若松有次郎). Contrary to its name, the Kwantung Army Horses Epidemic Prevention Facility, also known as Unit 100 (kantôgun gunba bôekishô 関東軍軍馬防疫廠), not only works on BC weapons targeting plants and animals, but also takes part, alongside other BC units, in experiments on humans until 1945. The total death toll is unknown, but the “research” was devoted primarily to anthrax, plague, opium, heroin and glanders (an infectious disease affecting horses).

*** (Documents, 1950: 121-22, Harris, 2002: 119, Morimura, 1983: 193-200)

2) War against China (1937-41)

The period between 1937 and 1941 marked the beginning of an all-out war against China (although it was never formally declared, as sanctions and embargoes would have been imposed on Japan), as well as serious clashes with Soviet forces. It was also during this period that Japan signed its tripartite pact with Italy and Germany on 27 September 1940. On 7 July 1937, an armed incident between Chinese and Japanese forces, today known as the “Marco Polo Bridge Incident” (盧溝橋事件 rokôkyô jiken), sparked a full-scale invasion of China. Beijing fell on 8 August, and Shanghai was in Japanese hands by the end of November of the same year, with over 9,000 Imperial soldiers dead. The Imperial Army was moving towards Nanking, hoping that the capture of the Chinese capital would strike a blow to the government, undermine enemy morale and result in capitulation. As has often been the case in large-scale conflicts, and particularly during world wars, cases of mass violence erupted against civilians, soldiers and prisoners of war in a multitude of circumstances, making it impossible to estimate the total number of cases.

As opposed to the previous period, which mainly witnessed the creation of structures (both events and processes) allowing for the later emergence of mass violence, the second Sino-Japanese war resulted in a multitude of atrocities as well as greater systematisation of brutality. As a result, the cases presented here are no more than a selection based on two main criteria.

First, it is fundamental to recall that while some incidents and phenomena have been studied by historians or documented sufficiently to be presented here, there is no doubt that others remain unknown to this day, and it is not certain that they will ever be brought to light by scholars.

Second, the recent politicisation of some events in the media, or disputes between historians and revisionist/negationist movements (which are a very small minority in Japan) around issues such as “comfort women”, the “Nanking Massacre” or the visits of certain Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine, has led to their acknowledgement and/or discussion in the public sphere. However, this has not been the case for all situations of mass violence in the context of the “Fifteen Years’ War”, which are far too numerous to be taken into account in an historical chronology. For example, countless atrocities occurred against civilians, some spontaneous, some planned, as the Japanese Army continued its conquest of China in 1937 and subsequent years; others remain unknown today (for specific cases, see Bix, 2000: 364-67, Ishikawa, 1999, JIMT, 1948).

Furthermore, one cannot equate violence with death, as brutalities do not invariably result in the victim’s death. During the two periods studied here and below, numerous cases of brutality that cannot be anchored into a specific timeframe, and as such cannot be quantified with precision, nevertheless need to be addressed in order to facilitate an understanding, in hindsight, of the extent of the violence exerted. Three examples come to mind.

The first case concerns a type of brutality within the Japanese Army that became commonplace between 1937 and 1945. As this type of violence did not necessarily obey a specific pattern and took place at different levels, it is difficult to categorise or insert into a chronological index. It should, however, be presented here as an example of the very plurality of the concept of mass violence. Some examples of this type of violence include violent acts done to Korean/Taiwanese draftees in the Imperial Army, themselves victims of Japanese brutality (Fujitani, 2006: 182-196), soldiers bullying their comrades should they refuse to rape, pillage or kill on the battlefield, and the brutal treatment of Korean workers enslaved in Japanese factories on the home islands. The latter numbered 670,000 between 1939 and 1945, but close to 60,000 of these workers died due to harsh working conditions on Japanese soil (Dower, 1986: 47, Utsumi 2006: 102-05).

The gradual toughening of living conditions for Japanese civilians is another good example of mass violence; violence should not be seen merely as a purely external phenomenon, and Imperial subjects were still subjected to structural hardships. The 1937 “Principles of National Polity” (国体の本義 kokutai no hongi), followed by the “National Mobilisation Law” (国家総動員法 kokka sôdôin hô) of 1938, clearly reflect this situation: the Japanese population was subjected to rationing, forced mobilisation and government control of production, not to mention the outlawing of trade unions and other measures drastically limiting freedom of expression. While such situations do not necessarily result in the violent deaths of the people subjected to them or to other atrocities on a large scale, none of these examples are specific to a precise moment in time and all of them represent physical as well as mental mass violence, the latter only having recently begun to be deemed a valid research subject by historians (Yamashita, 2006: 262-63).

The third example is the specific case of “comfort women” (従軍慰安婦 jûgun ianfu, also known as “Special Personnel” 特要員 tokuyô in in the Navy) and the institutionalisation of sexual slavery throughout the Asia-Pacific region by the Japanese state, Army and Navy. The exact date of the establishment of the first “Comfort House” is unknown (Tanaka, 2002: 8), and it is probable that organised prostitution did exist beforehand. In the war context, and in order to prevent the spread of sexually-transmitted diseases among Japanese troops on the front, as much as to limit incidences of rape, Japanese military authorities thought that they could avoid the problem by setting up a system of government-sanctioned brothels populated with women from Korea, China and Japan, as well as the Netherlands, Malaysia and the Philippines, not to mention other countries. The vast majority of them were not prostitutes, and were mostly abducted or misled into “working” in brothels spreading from Sakhalin to Indonesia (attracted by jobs as laundresses or housemaids). Initially, some of these women were prostitutes sent abroad from Japan, the karayuki san (唐行きさん). One must add that although Japanese authorities set up this system in order to suppress the two abovementioned problems – rape and STDs – rapes did occur in comfort stations; as there is no indication that their number diminished on the field, the policy was ultimately a failure. This is also true of sexual diseases (Yoshimi 2000: 66, 69-72). As with BC warfare victims, it is almost impossible to give a precise number of the women involved, but an estimated total of 50,000 to 200,000 women (one woman for every 40 soldiers for the latter figure) were brought into the system and forced to have intercourse with an average of ten soldiers a day (Hicks, 1994: 19, Ônuma, 2007: I, Soh, 2008: 119-25, Tanaka, 1996: 99, Yoshimi, 2000: 93). Some revisionists/negationists in Japan (Nanta, 2001) assert that the Army and the state had no responsibility in this matter. Yet, while forced prostitution and mass rapes in wartime is not an intrinsically Japanese phenomenon (Yamashita, 2006: 261), the fact that this systematisation was managed at the highest levels of government makes this case of mass violence worth mentioning here. As with BC warfare, these types of violence were not only spontaneous, but were structured and endorsed by the government. The difference with the previous example was the type of brutality experienced by the victims, where a precise death toll cannot be estimated because the aim was not the destruction of bodies but their transformation into a sexual commodity through mass rape and violence.


24 November 1937

Two hundred and twenty-two Chinese villagers and refugees “ranging from infants to old people” are killed by Japanese soldiers marching towards Nanking in the village of Dongliang (near Wuxi, 無錫 Mushaku in Japanese).

** (Honda: 1999, 68)

November 1937

Three hundred and fifty-one Chinese civilians are executed, and 120 women raped by the Imperial Army in the commune of Shanyang (near Hangzhou, 杭州 Kôshû in Japanese). [These two examples, out of so many others, are only quoted here to show the extent of the atrocities committed by Japanese troops on the continent, but go largely unnoticed by Western scholars today.]

** (Honda: 1999, 22-23)

13 December 1937

The city of Nanking falls to Japanese troops under the command of General Matsui Iwane

(松井石根). Rape, pillaging and executions by Japanese soldiers take place over the following six weeks, until January 1938, in the city and neighbouring area, making the precise localisation of the event a source of dispute. However, most reasonable historians today accept that what constitutes the incident is the plurality of cases of mass violence exerted first on the road to Nanking, and then in and around the city, whereas revisionists tend to reduce the area in which acts of violence were committed, in order to minimise the number of victims. Chinese civilians and soldiers alike are killed, either individually in sporadic acts of violence or machined-gunned and thrown into mass graves. The female population is subjected to mass rape by Japanese troops. The total number of victims is still the main source of public disagreement today. The Nanking Memorial Museum claims a total of 300,000 deaths and 20,000 rapes. Some revisionists/negationists in Japan still maintain that what is known today as “The Great Nanking Massacre” (南京大虐殺 nankin dai gyakusatsu) or “The Nanking Incident” (南京事件 nankin jiken) did not take place in these proportions and that there was a maximum of 50 Chinese victims. The vast majority of historians today put the death toll at over 200,000.

*** (Brook, 1999, Fujiwara, 1997: 54-74, Ishida, 2006: 170, Kasahara, 1997: 201-232, Rabe, 1998, Yamamoto, 2000: 234-281, Yoshida, 2006: 11-26)

December 1937

The (first?) Japanese military brothel (in China) is set up by the Army in the city of Nanking, a few days after its fall, marking the beginning of the systematisation of this practice. Military police round up an unknown number (over a hundred) of Chinese women to serve as forced prostitutes. It is estimated that more than 1,200 women, a minority of them prostitutes, had been transformed into sex slaves by the Japanese Army by 1939. It is also widely believed that brothels had already been established in Manchuria, by and under the responsibility of the Kwantung Army, and had been in use by Imperial troops stationed there since 1931. If the Nanking “comfort station” is not technically the first such institution of its kind, it does, however, mark the beginning of their extremely rapid increase.

*** (Imai & Iwasaki, 2010, Soh, 2005: 360-65, Tanaka, 2002: 12-19, Yoshimi, 2000: 53-54)

18 February 1938

Following the 1937 air raids against civilian populations in Shanghai and Nanking, the Japanese Air Force bombs the city of Chongqing (重慶 Jûkei in Japanese) until 1943. In the first two days of air raids alone, the death toll is put at more than 5,000 Chinese civilians. The overall death toll is incalculable.

*** (Bix, 2000: 364, Shimokawa, 2006, 147-50)


Following Ishii’s orders, a new BC warfare facility is constructed in the village of Pingfan (平房 Heihô in Japanese), 24 kilometres south of Harbin. The size and structure of the centre are far superior to those of Beiyinhe, covering more than six square kilometres and with a staff of 3,000. (Construction work was completed in 1940.) Although the exact death toll is unknown for the abovementioned reasons, at least 3,000 people died as the result of experiments in Pingfan alone between 1940 and 1945. Furthermore, not only does this number not take into account experiments conducted before 1940, but the number of deaths as a result of experiments carried out on the civilian population outside BC warfare facilities cannot be fully measured. Following the completion of the Pingfan Research Facility as its headquarters, the Japanese BC research programme can be divided into five branches: 1) dissections and surgical experiments; 2) experiments to discover unknown pathogens; 3) experiments testing the strength of contagion of known pathogens; 4) experiments to discover new sources of treatment (including research into frostbite); and 5) experiments for the production of vaccines and drugs.

*** (Harris, 2002: 53-73, Kasahara et al, 1997: 29, Documents, 1950: 118, Tsuneishi, 1995: 105)


In order to cut costs and focus on the war effort, the Japanese government makes drastic public health cuts until 1945. Due to food shortages, the Japanese civilian population on the home islands suffers particularly from tuberculosis. Between 1938 and 1943, more than 5,000 Japanese in the archipelago die of the disease.

*** (Ienaga, 1978: 193)

18 April 1939

A BC research facility is set up in the city of Nanking in a hospital, with Unit 1644 (also called 多摩部隊 tama butai) created in the same city. From the beginning until the end of the war, more than 300 Japanese scientists receive BC warfare training in Nanking each year. To undermine Chinese resistance, Japanese troops are ordered to spread typhoid fever in the wells and springs of neighbouring areas, using infected bottled water. Other BC facilities are installed in the same year in Beijing (Unit 1855, 9 February) and Canton (Unit 8604, 8 April), creating a network of operations on Chinese territory (North, Centre, South). Beyond field operations, it is estimated that between 5,000 and 6,000 Chinese people are murdered in BC facilities. The total death toll is unknown.

*** (Aoki, 2005: 80-81, Harris, 2002: 87, 136-150, Documents, 1950: 58, 73-74, Tsuneishi, 1995: 12, 167-71, Yoshimi & Ikô, 1995: 2)

11 May 1939

The battles of Khakkhin-Gol, or the “Nomonhan Incident” (ノモンハン事件 nomonhan jiken), oppose Soviet, Mongolian and Japanese troops until September. The 11 May incident is the most famous of a numbers of clashes between the USSR and Japan in the 1930s, and ends with a crushing defeat for Japan. On 16 July, and following orders from the Kwantung Army Staff, bacillary dysentery bombs are spread into rivers in order to cover the Japanese forces’ retreat and to slow the Soviet advance. In this episode only, and notwithstanding Soviet casualties, an unknown number of Imperial troops die after being exposed to germs spread by their own army.

*** (Harris, 2002: 95-98, Documents, 1950: 62-64, Takemae, 2002: xxxi, Tsuneishi, 1995: 136-37, Yoshimi & Ikô, 1995: 15-6)

4 October 1940

Until 1942, numerous Japanese military operations (some BC) are conducted on Chinese territory to annihilate the communist resistance. On this date, orders are given to Japanese aircraft to drop cereals infected with bacteria onto the city of Quzhou (衢州 Kushû in Japanese) in order to crush guerrilla groups. Fifty thousand Chinese are thought subsequently to have perished. These systematic acts of mass violence orchestrated by the Japanese Army are labelled the “Three Alls Policy” (三光作戦 sankô sakusen or 三光政策 sankô seisaku) or “burn all, kill all, steal all” (灼き尽くし yakitsukushi, 殺し尽くし koroshitsukushi, 奪い尽くす ubaitsukusu), a term later used by the Chinese Communist Party. The total death toll of this single campaign is estimated at between 25 million and 44 million.

*** (Bix, 2000: 365, Dower, 1986: 43, Harris, 2002: 102, Ishida, 2006: 16-69, Li, 2003: 292-97, Tsuneishi, 1995: 169-70)

3) War in the Pacific (1941-45)

This period is usually, and with good reason, seen as a time of conflict with the Allied/Western powers. However, it is interesting to note that, prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Tokyo signed a neutrality pact with Moscow on 13 April 1941, even though fighting and large-scale skirmishes continued on the border between Manchukuo and the USSR (and Mongolia). On 7 December 1941, the Japanese Navy launched a large-scale attack on the United States forces at Pearl Harbor, marking the beginning of a war against the Allies (United States, British Commonwealth, Netherlands, also known as the ABCD Powers – Americans, British, Chinese and Dutch). A few days later, the conquest of the Asia-Pacific region had started. By mid-December, Borneo was under Japanese domination. The Philippines fell to Japanese troops in January 1942. By May of the same year, most of Southeast Asia was under Imperial control: Hong Kong, Malaya, Singapore, Indochina, the Dutch East Indies and the islands of the Pacific as well as Papua New Guinea. This blitzkrieg was considered essential by Tokyo, as war resources (notably the oil of the Dutch East Indies, with the American embargo imposed after Japan’s invasion of Indochina) were considered a priority in order to support the war effort. Symptomatic of this “total war” situation was the appointment of General Tôjô Hideki (東条英機) as Prime Minister, as well as Army Minister, on 18 October 1941.

However, the Japanese defeat in the naval Battle of Midway in June 1942 also marked the beginning of the Allied counter-offensive. In August of the same year, Allied troops landed on Guadalcanal (Solomon Islands), fighting their way to victory in February 1943 in a major setback for Imperial troops. On 6 July 1944, the island of Saipan fell to Allied forces in a move to isolate the enemy and cut its communication lines, signalling a crucial strategic loss for Japan. In December, the Philippines also fell, as Allied armies closed in on the Japanese archipelago. In March 1945, the island of Iwo Jima (硫黄島 iôtô) suffered a similar fate, while Okinawa was attacked by American troops in April. Although these islands were small, their possession was crucial for control of the Pacific Ocean theatre: Japan was now an attainable destination for US bombers. This chronology focuses solely on Japanese atrocities; to give a single example of enemy brutalities, however, on 17 November 1944, the first of a series of air raids on Japanese cities took off from Saipan, dropping incendiary and explosive bombs on the archipelago. On 9-10 March 1945, between 80,000 and 100,000 civilians died from US incendiary bombs. By August, 66 cities had been hit, and 40 percent of them had been reduced to ashes.

On 6 August, and following Tokyo’s decision to reject capitulation as outlined in the Potsdam Proclamation, the first atomic bomb was dropped, on the city of Hiroshima. Two days later, the Soviet Union officially declared war on Japan and began a full-scale invasion of Manchuria and Sakhalin/Karafuto (サハリン/樺太). On 9 August, the United States dropped a second atomic bomb, this time on the city of Nagasaki. On 14 August, under growing pressure, Japanese authorities agreed to capitulate and accepted the Potsdam Proclamation, leading to Emperor Hirohito’s declaration the next day, officially putting an end to the conflict on 15 August 1945.

These events constitute what is today known as the “Pacific War”, but it is important to remember that the attack on Pearl Harbor did not mean the end of the conflict with China. Until 1945, Japanese troops were engaged on the continent, and continued their campaign, although it was in reality limited to major cities and adjacent areas. Chinese resistance, as well as the size of the country, constituted the main obstacles for Japanese troops involved in two very different theatres of war.

Furthermore, as noted above, a chronology of mass violence cannot be limited to Japanese military actions against enemy civilians or troops. Abandoned or mismanaged by their leaders and due to poor logistics planning (sometimes no plans at all were drawn up to supply them), Imperial troops succumbed not only to enemy fire, but also to dehydration, malnutrition and disease on the battlefield. These were not isolated or exceptional cases. On the continent, it is currently estimated that the vast majority of the 450,000 Japanese casualties faced disease and starvation, leading them to commit acts of violence against civilians in order to get food. In the Pacific, up to 95 percent of some units caught malaria, due to a shortage of treatments (Fujiwara A., 2001: 33, 127-129, 146, 233). Certainly, acts of large-scale brutality were recurrent throughout the three periods presented here, and it is certain that, due to the radicalisation of the conflict and the involvement of the Allied Powers, 1941-45 can be considered as the timeframe with the most casualties. However, violence against civilians, regardless of their nationality, must be added to this account. In Japan, the period saw a continuation of the restrictions imposed on the population in 1937-38. Experiments on undernourishment were conducted in Japanese prisons, in about 1943, to assess the level of limits and resistance of the individual (Tsuneishi & Asano, 1982: 118-125). Opposition at home, whether from intellectuals, communist sympathisers or religious movements, was silenced through imprisonment or torture. In addition, in 1942-43, over 100 Japanese Christians were jailed by their own government for not obeying the orders of the Imperial hierarchy (Tokyo Shinbun, 2006: 23).

Outside Japan, a type of physical violence that is impossible to situate, precisely because of its quasi-ubiquity, continued unabated throughout the period. In Southeast Asia, for example, in 1942-43, over 350,000 men were forced to work on the construction of the Burma-Siam railway line, and it is believed that 60,000 of them died of malnutrition and disease (Dower, 1986: 47, Utsumi, 2006: 93-96). In what is now Indonesia, an estimated 300,000 Javanese were drafted as forced labourers; more than half of then perished before 1945 (Sato, 2005: 129). Similar events occurred throughout Asia. In Manchuria alone, over 2.5 million people were put into forced labour in 1944 (Tucker, 2005: 51).

The number of cases of mass violence can therefore be considered in this period to be the culmination of a process dating back to 1931. This is not only valid for the abovementioned cases of forced labour, but also for most of the following: acts of cannibalism, famines or the extension of the “comfort women” system following the occupation of Indonesia. Some of these specific acts of violence represented isolated cases that cannot always be recorded individually, but mentioning the most significant or early occurrences is nevertheless necessary in such a timeline: it allows for them to be understood, either in a context of systematisation or as confirmation that similar incidents have occurred.

The very number of these acts of violence makes it impossible in this context to locate or record them all. A simple look at Chapter 8 of the judgment of the “International Military Tribunal for the Far East” lists over 100 occurrences of mass brutality (IMFTE, 1948). Furthermore, the selection of sources for these cases raises yet another difficulty, namely the importance given to the victims. Aside from linguistic issues (and the need for historians to access sources in Chinese, Korean or other languages) and well-documented events such as the Nanking Massacre, most of the recorded acts of violence come from English-language archives, namely American, British and Australian (Japanese documents excepted). From a purely Japanese perspective, military deaths between 1937 and 1945 amounted to over 2.3 million, out of which 1.4 million caused by hunger, thirst or disease (Fujiwara A., 2001: 3, 133, 138). Together with civilian casualties, the total is close to 3.1 million (Dower, 1986: 297-98). Moreover, some have estimated that a total of 15 million Chinese perished in the conflict, along with 20 million Southeast Asians (of which 1 million Indonesians) (Fujiwara A., 2001: 133, Gruhl, 2003: 243-58). These numbers are of course subject to debate, and are only given here to illustrate the difficulty to quantify the phenomenon.

This raises one last interesting point, namely the danger of reducing our analysis to a narrative of Japanese brutality. The main focus of this timeline is to present significant cases of mass violence exacted by the Japanese state, Army and Navy. However, one does not wage war against oneself. For the subject at hand, we also need to take into account the role played by the enemy. Beyond the oft-cited notion that the winner gets to write history, a chronology of Allied mass violence (or mass violence perpetrated by Asian collaborators) in the Asia-Pacific War still has to be written in order to render the complexity of these phenomena in a multi-faceted war whose very denomination represents a challenge.


July 1941

In preparation for war with the Soviet Union, an estimated 10,000 Korean women are brought to Manchukuo to serve as “comfort women” for the Kwantung Army, and large numbers of brothels are set up throughout the area.

** (Yoshimi, 2000: 57)

25 December 1941

Japanese troops force their way into a British hospital in Hong Kong, using grenades and bayonets to kill wounded British soldiers being treated there. Chinese and British nurses are raped. The total number of victims is unclear, but certainly exceeds 50.

** (Tanaka, 1996: 82-83)

8 February 1942

As part of the anti-communist campaign throughout China beginning in 1940, the 36th Brigade of the First Army uses 300 tonnes of mustard gas against the Chinese Communist Army over eight days in Shanxi Province (山西 Sansei in Japanese). “A few thousand were poisoned and half of them died.”

*** (Tanaka, 1988: 17)

15 February 1942

After Britain’s surrender of Singapore, it is estimated that several thousand Chinese (suspected of belonging to communist guerrilla movements and/or of anti-Japanese activities), mostly males between 18 and 50 years of age, are executed in a few days by Imperial troops, in a number of different ways ranging from drowning and machine-gunning to beheading. An exact death toll is unavailable, but the number of victims is estimated at between 5,000 and 50,000 during the event now known as the “Singapore Chinese Massacre Incident” (シンガポール華僑虐殺事件 shingapo-ru kakyô gyakusatsu jiken).

*** (Dower, 1986: 43-44, Fujiwara K., 2001: 180-86, Ishida, 2006: 170-71)

26 March 1942

BC Unit 9420 is set up in Singapore by Naitô Ryôichi (内藤良一). Experiments on malaria and the plague are carried out in order to expand Japanese BC warfare capacities. (For obvious climatic reasons, frostbite-related research can only be done in Manchuria and malaria can only be studied in the south.) Unit 9420 also specialises in catching and breeding rats, with subunits in Thailand. The total number of victims is unknown.

** (Gold, 1996: 53-57, Tsuneishi, 1995: 12, Yoshinaga 2001: 243)

April 1942

After the fall of the Philippines to the Japanese Army, a total of 78,000 people, both soldiers and civilians (including American troops) are forced to march a 100 kilometres, with no preparation and no equipment, to the prison camp where they are to be interned. Countless numbers are brutalised, bayoneted or executed on the way. More than half those who survived the march died in prison camps after their arrival. The exact death toll is unknown, but estimates range from 6,000 to 20,000 dead in what is today known as the “Bataan Death March” (バターン死の行進 bataan shi no kôshin).

*** (Dower, 1986: 51-52, Tenney, 2003: 81-106, Tanaka, 1996: 15)

15 May 1942

The recruitment of auxiliary guards (軍属 gunzoku) to watch over Allied prisoners of war begins in Korea and Taiwan, underlining the racial hierarchy imposed at the time. Japanese officers dominate Asians, who in turn subjugate Western captives (army conscription of non-Japanese nationals is already in place from 1938). Three thousand Koreans are integrated into this structure and become the victims of Imperial military violence, as well as the oppressors of Allied prisoners. In September 1945, plans are made to execute 800 Korean guards along with Allied prisoners, and while the orders are changed at the last minute, this demonstrates the extremely low hierarchical position of these colonial guards. The number of Taiwanese enrolled is subject to debate (possibly over 200,000), as is the final death toll, but 148 Koreans are condemned for brutality at the subsequent International Military Tribunal for the Far East trials conducted by the Allied countries.

*** (Hui-Yu, 2005: 117, Michelin, 2000: 263-96, Tanaka, 1996: 38-40, 71-72, Utsumi, 2006: 92-93, Tokyo Shinbun, 2006: 194-97)

June 1942

The Japanese naval police fear that the Chinese population on the island of Borneo may be plotting an armed rebellion with the complicity of former colonial authorities. It therefore arrests the Dutch governor of the Kalimantan provinces and his wife, and accuses them of anti-Japanese activities. They are subsequently executed, along with 257 other people. An estimated 1,500 people, Europeans as well as Chinese, Indonesians and Indians, are tortured and killed over the subsequent months. In April 1943, another case of mass violence erupts, known as the “Mandor (or Pontianak) Massacre” (マンドール事件 mandor jiken, ポンティアナック事件 pontianak jiken): several thousand people, including the Sultan, colonial officers, intellectuals and nobles, are killed by Japanese troops. Certain points remain obscure to this day, but, although the total death count remains unknown, it is estimated that over 20,000 Dutch prisoners and civilians died of malnutrition, under torture or by execution in Japanese camps all over the Dutch East Indies before 1945.

** (Hayase, 2006: 32-35, Tanaka, 1996: 27-28, NIOD: IKA, 2010)

7 August 1942

Start of the battle of Guadalcanal. Until its end in February 1943, about 5,000 of the 34,000 men of the Japanese Imperial Army die in combat. Another 15,000 (three times the number of casualties) die of starvation, and/or the effects of disease or malnutrition (malaria, dysentery, beriberi).

*** (Fujiwara A., 2001: 22)

12 August 1942

Six hundred and ten crimes, the majority of them rapes, are committed by Japanese troops against civilian populations in Southeast Asia, and listed. As a result, and by September of the same year, 400 “comfort stations”, populated by (mostly) Asian women, are set up throughout the Asia-Pacific region in a matter of months in an attempt to contain rapes and STDs. In the Dutch East Indies alone, an estimated 300 Dutch and 20,000 Indonesian women (many not forced into prostitution but victims of rape and violence) are affected. As mentioned above, the exact total number of women enslaved or subjected to mass violence is still unknown.

** (Imai & Iwasaki, 2010, Tanaka, 2002: 61-83, Yoshimi, 2000: 80, 86)

11 November 1942

Over 2,000 Allied prisoners (Americans, Britons, Australians, etc.) are deported to Manchuria and housed in prison camps. Some sources mention experiments (injections and dissection) on these men, whereas others insist that nothing was done to Western prisoners (not including Russians). The death toll up to 1945 is unknown and remains a source of debate today.

** (Harris, 2002: 163-176, Documents, 1950: 273, Powell, Gomer, Röling, 1981: 44, 48, Tanaka, 1996: 158-59)

January 1943

The Japanese 18th Army loses over 135,000 men in Papua New Guinea, after having been sent to the front by their chiefs of staff without proper knowledge of the local situation or the strength of enemy forces. Due to inadequate planning and carelessness, most of these men die of starvation and disease.

*** (Fujiwara A., 2001: 52-53)

17 March 1943

Sixty civilians – German and Chinese missionaries and nuns – are being evacuated from several Pacific islands on the Japanese destroyer Akikaze (秋風) when the order is given, for reasons unknown, by the 8th Fleet Headquarters to execute them. All are shot and thrown overboard, including two children. Three hours later, the officers of the ship conduct a funeral ceremony for the deceased.

*** (Tanaka, 1996: 171-78)

September 1943

A total of 2,500 Australian and British prisoners of war have been interned in the Sandakan camp (Borneo) since the previous year. A resistance movement initiated in 1942 is discovered by the Japanese, and a series of escapes triggers a spiral of violence. Living conditions deteriorate, causing prisoners to die of disease and malnutrition. By the end of 1944, more than 400 of them are dead. In January 1945, any survivors fit to walk are taken on a forced march under extreme conditions, and the vast majority do not survive, while prisoners left at the Sandakan camp are executed by Japanese troops over several months. The survival rate is 0.24 percent: in August of the same year, only six prisoners remained alive.

*** (Rees, 2001: 81-91, Tanaka, 1996: 11-66, NIOD: IKA, 2010)


Individual testimonies by Allied soldiers about acts of Japanese cannibalism start to emerge. One witness claims that over 100 prisoners were killed and eaten by starving groups of Japanese troops near Manokwari, New Guinea. The practice, for survival purposes (Japanese troops were abandoned on Pacific islands without food or means of subsistence), seems to have been extended to killing and eating locals as well as dead Japanese soldiers. An order issued by the Imperial chiefs of staff, dated 18 November 1944, confirms this hypothesis and states that cannibalism is punishable by execution, except if the flesh consumed is of the enemy.

** (Rees, 2001: 93-96, Tanaka, 1996: 120-29)

6 July 1944

The Americans invade Saipan. The next day marks one of the largest collective suicides in the war. In a counter-attack effort, all Japanese forces die on the battlefield. Of the 23,811 troops present, only 3 percent survive. Civilians living on Saipan and attempting to surrender to the enemy are killed on the spot. As a result, 10,000 Japanese, over 1,000 Koreans and 3,000 islanders and “comfort women” perish at the hands of Japanese troops, following Tokyo’s orders, which proclaims that Allied troops will rape, torture and kill any Japanese taken alive, and that it is therefore preferable to die than to surrender. While this could be seen as propaganda, it should be borne in mind that more than 12 percent of Japanese settlers were indeed slaughtered by Soviet troops in Manchuria in 1945.

*** (Bix, 2000: 475-76, Dower, 1986: 298, Takemae, 2002: 23)

September 1944 (the exact date of the beginning of the experiments is unknown, it may have been earlier)

Around 130 Allied prisoners serve as human guinea pigs for members of the Military Police in Rabaul and Ambon in Papua New Guinea until 1945. Some of them are starved in order to study the effects of malnutrition, while others are used for research on malaria or injected with various poisons. Only two survive.

** (Tanaka, 1996: 150-58)

25 October 1944

Vice-Admiral Ônishi Takijirô (大西瀧治郎) creates the first kamikaze corps (神風 divine winds, also known as “Special Attack Forces” 特別攻撃隊 tokubetsu kôgeki tai, often abbreviated as 特攻隊 tokkôtai) during the battle for the Philippines in order to slow the Allied victory in the Pacific. Young Japanese pilots or recruits, often presented as “volunteers”, accept or are forced aboard aircraft destined to crash into American warships, and are subsequently treated as martyrs (and symbols of purity) to the fatherland. It is now estimated that their success rate in hitting their targets ranged between 1 and 3 percent, with total casualties probably numbering around 5,000 pilots. In November of the same year, the “Marine Unit of the Chrysanthemum” (菊水隊 kiku sui tai), a reference to the symbol of the Imperial House, is the first of the suicide submarine squads (回天 kaiten), set up along the same principle, but with a lower death toll of 106 among the Japanese. On 18 January 1945, kamikaze attacks become official government policy. From then on, the entire civilian Japanese population is expected to sacrifice itself and die like the kamikaze pilots, as per the slogan “The shattering of the hundred million like a beautiful jewel” (一億玉砕 ichioku gyokusai). To facilitate the identification process, kamikaze units are often presented in pictures in the Japanese press between 1944 and 1945.

*** (Dower, 1986: 232-33, Hosaka, 2009: 93-98, Ienaga, 1978: 183-84, Nakamura, 2006: 304-311, Tokyo Shinbun, 2006: 86-93)

February 1945

While under siege by Allied forces in Manila (February-March 1945), 20,000 Japanese soldiers kill, rape and torture more than 1,000 Filipino civilians held as hostages, before engaging in another suicide counter-attack. Over a period of two months, another 100,000 die in street fights at the hands of Imperial troops.

*** (Dower, 1986: 44-45, Fujiwara A., 2001: 112-113, Takemae, 2002: 28-29)

9 March 1945

The Japanese ambassador to Indochina orders the immediate surrender of French forces in the territory. Subsequently, and after a delay in their surrender, French civilians as well as officers are tortured, executed and/or decapitated. A few days later, Imperial authorities announce an increase in the mobilisation of resources. Food has been requisitioned in Indochina since 1944 to feed Japanese troops; as of 1945, larger stocks of rice are confiscated. American bombings (starting in 1943) of local railway lines make the delivery of resources impossible across the territory. Outbreaks of cholera and typhus appear as a result of generalised starvation. The death toll for both events is unclear, but it is thought that between 400,000 and 2 million people died. The number of French people falling victim to the Japanese Army is not specified in the available references.

** (Dalloz, 1987: 62-66, Fujiwara A., 2001: 133, Van 1996: 286, 308-09)

26 March 1945

Allied troops land on the island of Tokashikijima (渡嘉敷島), marking the beginning of the invasion of Okinawa. Japanese civilians are ordered by the garrison commander to kill themselves rather than meet an even more terrible fate at the hands of the American troops, and grenades are distributed among the population. When these fail to explode, sickles, razors and stones are used. Two days later, the death toll amounts to 329. A month later, 1,200 children (aged 11 to 14) drafted into “defence battalions” by the Japanese Army, are either killed by the enemy or commit suicide in accordance with Imperial orders. Okinawans who speak the local dialect but not standard Japanese are executed as suspected spies. By the end of the war, it is estimated that one-third of the island’s population (150,000–160,000) has perished.

*** (Dower, 1986: 298, Ienaga, 1978: 185, 198-99, Takemae, 2002: 32-35, Yakabi, 2006: 149-177)

March 1945

Japanese troops stationed on Mili atoll, in the Marshall Islands, are cut off from supplies by constant Allied air raids, and gradually starve. Food from the local population is requisitioned, and a subsequent uprising is crushed by the Japanese army, leaving over 200 people shot dead. This case is far from unique, and similar large-scale incidents (including victims such as Korean auxiliaries) occur throughout the Pacific, notably in the Philippines, until the end of the conflict.

*** (Fujiwara A., 2001: 92-93, 106-107)

9 August 1945

The order is given by the Japanese Army chiefs of staff to destroy the Pingfan BC warfare facility. Over 400 surviving prisoners are given food dosed with potassium cyanide or shot to dispense with any surviving witnesses who could testify to illegal activities. The remaining staff fail to dispose of all the bodies, which cannot be cremated due to their great number. On 14 August, the 120 technical staff still working there are ordered to commit suicide with cyanide pills to avoid being taken alive by Soviet troops.

*** (Harris, 2002: 245, Ienaga, 1978, 188-89, Documents, 1950: 43, 61, Morimura, 1983: 277-81)


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Archives and sources

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Biographical notices

Emperor Hirohito/Shôwa (裕仁/昭和天皇 shôwa tennô) 29 April 1901-7 January 1989: From his accession on 25 December 1926, Hirohito remained in power until his death on 7 January 1989. He enjoys an uninterrupted reign before, during and after the “Fifteen Years’ War”. Before and during the conflict, Hirohito was an informed, participative and enthusiastic leader of Imperial military operations, notably sanctioning the (secret) institutionalisation of the Japanese BC warfare project and, as the top of the military chain of command, reading each official telegram and piece of news. After 1945, Hirohito was protected and kept in place by the occupying powers, who saw him as a necessary element in keeping Japan from Communist influence. He was subsequently reinvented as the peace-loving, harmless sovereign who ended the war. His absence at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, followed by his complete absolution from any war-related responsibilities, is still a source of dissension in the Japanese memorial landscape today, and for the people who fought in his name between 1931 and 1945.

Source: Bix, 2000

International Military Tribunal for the Far East (IMTFE) (極東国際軍事裁判 kyokutô kokusai gunji saiban), 19 January 1946-12 November 1948: The IMTFE was a body composed of 11 judges (from the Allied powers as well as neighbouring countries), located in the former Ministry of War headquarters in Tokyo, created to try the leaders of Imperial Japan. Following the Nuremberg Trials and the intention to eliminate “irresponsible militarism”, as stated in the Potsdam Declaration (article 6), 28 Japanese military leaders were tried for crimes against peace and for conspiracy to wage war as “Class A War Criminals” (A級戦犯 A-kyû senpan) alongside “B and C Class” defendants. Seven of the 28 were hanged; by 1958, all of the surviving defendants had been freed, some resuming positions in government. The role and legacy of the IMTFE is still the subject of debate, largely because of dissenting opinions among the judges, the absence of representatives of the Imperial House – starting with the emperor himself – and representatives of colonised countries (Indonesian, Vietnamese) or the fact that BC warfare and, to a lesser extent, the question of sexual enslavement of Asian women (evidence was brought at the early stages of the IMTFE; subsequently, 13 Japanese defendants were brought before a military court in Batavia in 1948 for crimes against Dutch women only) were swept under the carpet at the trials.

Source: Takemae, 2002, Yoshimi, 2000

Ishii Shirô (石井四郎) (25 June 1892-9 October 1959)

Born in the Chiba (千葉) area, Ishii was the fourth son of a wealthy family. He was a brilliant pupil and, upon completion of his studies in 1921, embarked on a career as a doctor in the Japanese Army. Ishii was convinced that the future of Japan lay with the military, and that BC warfare, although forbidden internationally, had a critical role to play in the process. With this aim, in 1932, he became director of a research laboratory that would later be expanded in Manchukuo. Although he was not alone in his interest for BC warfare, and received support from the highest authorities in Japan, he can be considered a pioneer in the field, particularly after the setting-up of BC facilities (not necessarily under his guidance) across the Asia-Pacific region. After 1945, Lieutenant-General Ishii was never tried by the IMTFE, in exchange for his collaboration with the American government on BC-related matters. It must be noted that most works in Western languages (unlike sources in Japanese) tend to describe him as a “mad scientist” with a strange character, “obsessed” with women and drinking, so as to minimise his “genius”.

Source: Harris, 2002

Kwantung Army (関東軍 kantô gun) 1906-1945

After its victory in the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05), Japan expanded its sphere of influence in the Liaodong peninsula and gained control over the southern segment of the South Manchuria Railway by way of international treaties. To protect its interests, a military garrison is set up in the area in 1906, subsequently renamed “Kwantung Army” and restructured in 1919. Although technically under the control of the Japanese Army chiefs of staff, it was relatively independent vis-à-vis Tokyo. Notably, the Kwantung Army engineered the 1931 “Manchuria incident” and gained control over the area before creating the State of Manchukuo, with the Army’s Chief of Staff serving as Japanese plenipotentiary ambassador, de facto becoming the puppet state’s leader. It was also ultimately responsible for managing and partly funding the Japanese BC warfare programme in the area. Although it benefited from a reputation of prestige and success, it suffered greatly during the battle of Nomonhan and surrendered to Soviet troops in August 1945.

Source: Matsusaka, 2001

Matsui Iwane (松井石根) 27 July 1878-23 December 1948

A general in the Imperial Army, Matsui was a commanding officer in the Russo-Japanese War. Upon his retirement from the Army in 1935, he became active in pan-Asian associations to suppress communism in China. Called out of retirement to command the Shanghai Expeditionary Force and later the Central China Area Army in 1937, he favoured taking Nanking to mark a symbolic victory. Matsui was not present in the city when atrocities began (he was aware of some of them to a certain extent, mostly looting and rapes, which he strongly opposed), and only arrived for a formal ceremony on 17 December 1937. On 15 February 1938, he was recalled to Japan, where he ultimately retired. In 1946, he was arrested by the IMTFE and found guilty of incapacity to control his troops. Wrongly sentenced to death, he was hanged along with six other Japanese leaders. His diary today is widely used and abused (by some revisionists) as a source on the event.

Source: Yamamoto, 2000

Naitô Ryôichi (内藤良一) 26 December 1906-7 July 1982

Naitô was a lieutenant-general of the Japanese Army. He graduated from the Kyoto Imperial University before becoming assistant professor at the Imperial Army School of Medicine (陸軍軍医学校助教授 rikugun guni gakkô jokyôju) in 1939. A year later, he filed a patent application with Ishii for his “method of dry plasma blood transfusion” (輸血用乾燥血の製造法 yuketsuyô kansôketsu no seizô hô). In 1942, he was appointed Head of Unit 9420 in Singapore, where BC research and experiments were conducted under his supervision. From 1942 until the end of the war, Naitô resumed his position as a professor at the Imperial Army School of Medicine. From 1947 and in exchange for complete immunity, Naitô became a leading informant for US military personnel looking for the results of Japanese research on BC warfare. In 1950, he was the co-founder, under the patronage of Japanese and American bodies, of the Japanese Blood Bank(日本ブラッドバンクNihon Buraddo Banku), which on 28 August 1964 was renamed “The Green Cross Corporation” (株式会社ミドリ十字 kabushigaisha Midori Jûji), implicated in a tainted-blood transfusion scandal in 1983.

Source: Yoshinaga, 2001

Okamura Yasuji (岡村寧次) 15 May 1884-2 September 1966

Born in Tokyo, Okamura was a Japanese general in the Kwantung Army. In the 1920s, he was sent to Europe, subsequently taking command of a Japanese battalion that had returned from Siberia with a high rate of STDs, incapacitating officers and soldiers alike. In 1932-33, as Vice-Chief of Staff of the Shanghai Expeditionary Force, and to avoid the spread and debilitating effects of venereal diseases, he ordered both the Imperial Army and Navy to set up brothels in Shanghai after the Japanese intervention of 1932. Okamura demanded that the Nagasaki prefecture create and send “military comfort women corps” for Imperial troops stationed in China. The women were to be recruited among Japanese prostitutes in Nagasaki, with the aim of eradicating not only STDs among the Imperial forces, as well as rape. Condemned for war crimes in China in 1948, he was however able to return to Japan in 1949. His diary is a source on the “comfort women” question.

Source : Yoshimi, 2000

Ônishi Takijirô (大西瀧治郎) 2 June 1891-16 August 1945

Vice-Admiral in the Imperial Navy, Ônishi was appointed as Chief of the General Affairs of the Aviation Department in the Ministry of Munitions in 1944, after a brilliant career as commander of an aircraft carrier. This position made him aware of a certain lack of Japanese aircraft production capacity, leaving his country at a disadvantage against the enemy. With few planes left, Ônishi felt that suicide attacks had a better chance of success than conventional warfare. Determined to keep fighting to the bitter end, the Vice-Admiral refused to consider surrendering to the Allies and committed suicide in the night of 15 August 1945. He wrote an apology note before his death, dedicated to kamikaze pilots and to their families.

Source : Inoguchi, Nakajima, Pineau, 1958

Tôjô Hideki (東条英機) 30 December 1884-23 December 1948: A general in the Japanese Army, Tôjô was transferred to the Kwantung Army early in his career. In 1938, he was recalled to Japan to serve in various pivotal positions. He then became prime minister from 1941 to 1944, becoming Chief of Army Staff in 1944. Tôjô attempted suicide in 1945, just before he was captured by the occupying forces, but was kept alive and tried by the IMTFE as one of the main war criminals, due to the several senior positions he held before and during the conflict. He was hanged in 1948. Tôjô is often considered a scapegoat executed in order to save the Emperor and keep him on the throne. According to some sources, he remained devoted to Hirohito until the end; Hirohito reportedly wept upon hearing the news of his death.

Source: Bix, 2000


Japan (日本), World War II (第二次世界大戦), Asia-Pacific War (アジア・太平洋戦争), Fifteen Years’ War (十五年戦争), Atrocities (残虐), Mass Violence (暴力), Comfort Women (従軍慰安婦), Biological Weapons (生物兵器), Japanese Army (日本軍), Colonies (植民地)

Cite this item

DOGLIA Arnaud, Japanese mass violence and its victims in the Fifteen Years War (1931-45), Online Encyclopedia of Mass Violence, [online], published on: 7 October, 2011, accessed 16/07/2019, https://www.sciencespo.fr/mass-violence-war-massacre-resistance/en/document/japanese-mass-violence-and-its-victims-fifteen-years-war-1931-45, ISSN 1961-9898