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by Ulrich Straus

A retired Foreign Service Japan specialist and author of a book on Japanese POWs in World War II reviews America’s good treatment of these POWs and the mutual learning that took place during the occupation of Japan, which contributed to the forging of a remarkably successful long-term partnership between two very different nations. He regrets that this model was not followed in Iraq. — Ed.

Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States went to war with a nation that was hardly known by the majority of Americans. Even before the war began, racial prejudice against the Japanese had already run high, especially in the West Coast states. In addition to deep-seated cultural differences, Japanese and Chinese immigrants were regarded as alien because of their willingness to work longer hours for lower wages than Caucasians during the Great Depression.

In the prewar and wartime eras the Japanese people had even less contact with average Americans. Despite the hostile propaganda, it would be fair to describe their attitude toward our country as one of considerable respect because of America’s great wealth and leadership in modern technology. At the same time, in prewar times the United States was included in the group of western countries that was perceived as predatory and dangerous to virtually all of Asia. This was no idle threat, given the fact that almost all of Asia was already composed of colonies, plus a few quasi-colonies like China.

Other than combat, the unlikely locus of prisoner of war (POW) camps became the reason for the first mass contact between Americans and Japanese. The accounts of the torture, deaths and privations of American POWs at the hands of Japanese prison guards is well known to the now rapidly fading “Greatest Generation,” including the American WW II veterans.

Similarly, Americans captured large numbers of Iraqis initially and in the current period of extended insurgencies. In this case, we, the captors, evidenced again a general American disdain of another very alien culture heightened by public revulsion over the brutal regime of Saddam Hussein, linked in the public mind, however falsely, with the 9/11 attacks.

Thus in both cases, separated by over sixty years, the stimulus of revised perceptions lay first with Japanese and Iraqi prisoners. But in this case, the shoe would be reversed as American soldiers perpetrated atrocities upon Iraqi prisoners.Japanese POWs
Contrasting the two cases, the experiences of Japanese POWs in American captivity produced a very different attitude. Compared with the huge numbers of German and Italian POWs in our hands, Japanese POWs were relatively rare, numbering a total of only 15,000 when the war ended. Japan’s soldiers and sailors were thoroughly indoctrinated with the belief that surrender was never an option. It was regarded as the ultimate shame, with consequences not only for the individuals concerned, but for their families as well.

When Japanese were captured during the war, they had no idea how they would be treated. For obvious reasons their government had not instructed them on their rights as POWs since it was assumed this contingency would never arise. Left to their own wits, they reacted in a great variety of ways.

It is probably fair to surmise that the great majority of Japanese POWs had never seen an American, except in a movie, let alone spoken to one. They feared an unknown future, unable to imagine that they could ever live in their native land again. Many POWs believed that they might spend decades in hard labor abroad. A relatively small minority vowed to continue their war by staging uprisings and attempted break-outs, and in less dramatic ways by wasting toilet paper and other received American products as their “contribution” to Japan’s war effort; a much smaller minority actually assisted the American war effort in its final months by helping to draft surrender appeals. By far the largest number avoided both extremes and passively waited to see what the future might bring.

This benevolent result was a consequence of an enlightened U.S. policy. Japanese POWs were relieved when meeting with American intelligence personnel who spoke their language. Their fears of the unknown were especially eased when Japanese-Americans who “looked like them” either served as interpreters or interrogators.

At some point in the long interrogation process, Japanese cultural requirements often entered the equation. The POWs recognized that the Americans had not only given them back their lives, they had also provided them with the food, clothing, and medical care that kept them alive. In Japanese thinking those were “favors” that had to be repaid, and the only thing they had to give in return was the information sought by the interrogator.

Establishing Human Relationships

American interrogators were also initially greatly surprised to observe that the prisoner standing before them tended not to act like the feared kamikaze pilot or banzai-charging soldier, but more like a man with a very different mindset. He often provided a name different from his own as a means of avoiding shame falling on his family. He never expected to see his country again. Consequently, he became a relatively easy target in the interrogations, especially if interrogators took the time to first establish a “human relationship” with him by talking about their home town or perhaps something they had in common with the POW (for example a university education) before getting around to their real goal.

Stories abound of lonely Military Policemen assigned to guarding the prisoners showing pictures of their children to the POWs, who in turn showed them pictures of their own. The impetus to want to talk came especially from newly minted Japanese-language speakers eager to try out their new language skills.

Marine Corps Major Sherwood Moran, who had acquired fluency in Japanese during his childhood in Japan, sincerely believed that an interrogator had to deal with POWs as a fellow human being who needed to be pitied for the position he felt he was in. As Moran observed, “Make him and his troubles the center of the stage, not you and your questions.” It was essential to fully understand the prisoner’s mental and physical state before getting to the business at hand.

Since most of the Japanese had been wounded, the excellent medical care they had received as POWs contrasted sharply with the treatment they routinely suffered at the hands of their own countrymen. Even more important to the Japanese was their impression from the proffer of a cigarette by a GI that Americans did not despise them for having surrendered.

Navy Commander Huggins even followed these precepts to the point of dressing up a trusted POW in civvies and taking him to a local pub in Honolulu in order to share a few beers while pursuing their discussions about the capability of the guns aboard the Japanese battleship Mutsu in more convivial surroundings.

It is undeniable that the generally humane treatment of POWs was a significant factor among many that contributed to the peaceful and generally successful occupation of Japan that followed.


The occupation of Japan was significantly different from the better known occupation of Germany, which started after the Allies had already overrun the country. For the first few years, the Allies ruled their individual zones of occupation by military government. Instead of attempting to rule Japan directly, we wisely chose to keep the Japanese government intact. The United States insisted on a wide range of changes such as land reform, education reform, and the break-up of big businesses, but the Japanese interlocutors were able to some extent to provide their own input and in some instances cases made the changes more acceptable to the Japanese public.

At the start of the occupation, the U.S.-Japan relationship was necessarily one of inequality. A central liaison office was established for the transmission of American orders, but it also led at times to an attenuating of our views thanks to inputs from the Japanese side. Moreover, not long after the occupation began, the various American sections, like the economic and scientific section and government section, got into the habit of dealing directly with their counterparts in the Japanese government, which facilitated better communications.

The Americans also recognized the need to terminate the occupation after just five years and to begin the process of slowly relinquishing their power. By then, the Japanese had begun to regain their confidence. When North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950, Japan became the rear base area for air and sea operations against the North and a virtual ally of the United States as a major source of needed supplies. Once the date for a peace treaty was set, occupation influence over internal Japanese affairs rapidly began to wane. Japan’s sovereignty was restored in 1952. A bilateral status of forces agreement was negotiated to reflect the new military relationship, which has steadily become increasingly close over the past five and a half decades.

The close and largely harmonious bilateral relations during the occupation morphed easily into the postwar era of close relations. Both sides had learned a great deal about their interlocutors on the other side of the table.

Mutual Learning

In retrospect, the occupation was an era of immense learning by the two major actors. The Japanese learned how the Americans thought Japan’s society and economy should be rebuilt, and Americans received information on how the Japanese thought reforms, if any, should occur. It was an era of both sides obtaining immense learning about the values and traditions of the other.

In the years since the occupation, the United States and Japan have forged a remarkable partnership, unique in the history of both parties. Never in the history of mankind has such a strong, lasting bilateral relationship been established by two countries with such greatly dissimilar histories and cultures. The U.S.-Japan Security Treaty is the most far-reaching bilateral military partnership in which the United States is involved, despite the very different ways of our cultures. The success of the arrangement is also remarkable in light of the disparity of power between the two. We have the world’s two largest economies, are solid allies, have influenced each other’s cultures, and despite some inevitable frictions, represent a far-reaching American diplomatic success.

Treatment of POWs was, of course, not the whole story of our relationship with Japan, nor will it be with Iraq. But the policy helped and proved that an enlightened humanitarian approach can be immensely successful in practical intelligence and foreign policy terms. In contrast, among other tragedies in waging war against Iraq, the WWII model of valuing prisoners to entice results and to build the future was forgotten or, if known, ignored.End.


Ulrich Straus, born in 1926 in Germany, fled with his family in 1933 and lived in Japan until 1940, when they immigrated to the United States. He was commissioned as an Army officer in 1946 and sent to Tokyo to work in the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section, the war crimes trial, and MacArthur’s headquarters. After Army service he completed studies at the University of Michigan and entered the Foreign Service. His 30-year Foreign Service career was focused on Japan, including a tour as consul general in Okinawa. After retirement he taught about Japan at the Foreign Service Institute as well as at Georgetown, George Washington, William and Mary, and Johns Hopkins. He currently lives in Silver Spring, MD. His book on Japanese prisoners, The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II, was published by the University of Washington Press in 2005.

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