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Seminar paper
The Japanese army and its prisoners: relevant documents and bureaucratic institutions
Professor UTSUMI Aiko

The statue of Weary Dunlop that stands outside the Australian War Memorial is a symbol of the experience, memory and comradeship of Australian prisoners of war during the Second World War. Dunlop not only worked with Australian troops in the depths of the Thai jungle, he also supported ex-POWs who continued to suffer physically and mentally in the post-war period. The former Deputy Opposition Leader, Tom Uren, who had served under Dunlop as a POW, was also a conscientious advocate of the health and welfare of former veterans throughout his political career; he played a significant role in the establishment of free health services for them.

Not surprisingly, Japan’s ill-treatment of its prisoners of war during World War II has been a substantial issue in Australia-Japan relations in the post-war period. Many former POWs in Australia can neither forget nor forgive their treatment as captives of the Japanese army, and the numerous accounts that document these traumatic experiences ensure that they will be remembered for the foreseeable future.

This essay examines the Japanese institutions responsible for the treatment of POWs during the war and considers several key systemic problems associated with them. In particular, it aims to shed some light on bureaucratic rivalries within the Japanese armed forces that played a significant role in hindering the provision of adequate supplies for Japan’s prisoners.

1. Japanese organisations responsible for the treatment of POWs

Two bureaucratic organisations in Japan were responsible for the treatment of POWs: the Prisoner of War Information Bureau (Furyo Jôhôkyoku), and the Prisoner of War Management Office (Furyo Kanribu).

The Prisoner of War Information Bureau (Furyo Jôhôkyoku)

The Prisoner of War Information Bureau, or Furyo Jôhôkyoku, was established on 27 December 1941, under the “Regulations for the Prisoner of War Information Bureau” contained in Imperial Rescript No. 1,246. Establishing such an information bureau was the responsibility of all countries at war, as set out in the 1907 Hague Convention on the Rules of Land Warfare.[1] As an extra section of the Department of the Army (Rikugunshô) the POW Information Bureau was under the supervision of the Minister for the Army (Rikugun Daijin) and was responsible for gathering information about POWs and transmitting this information to enemy governments through the International Red Cross in Geneva and the Protection Powers for enemy countries.

To enable the POW Information Bureau to fulfil its duties, a so-called mei-mei hyô, or inscription card, was supposed to be made out for each prisoner of war. This card recorded personal details, such as the prisoner’s name, age, nationality, status, rank, unit, place of capture, place of internment and the date of any movement, such as release, transfer or death. The POW Information Bureau was also responsible for taking charge of deceased prisoners’ wills and belongings. In reality, however, these procedures were carried out for only a small percentage of Japan’s POWs. According to one report on Japan’s treatment of POWs by Major General A. L. LERCH,[2] before 1944 the POW Information Bureau did not attempt to keep track of Japan’s POWs systematically: while some alphabetical name lists remain, there is no master index that would have helped confirm individual details for the prisoners, neither were there any modern installations or equipment within the POW Information Bureau, making it a very inefficient operation.[3]

By January 1944 Major TAKADA of the POW Information Bureau had instituted a centralised card file system which recorded personal details of POWs captured by the Japanese Army. At the end of February 1943 the US government received its first list of names of US POWs, but this list was far from complete: for example, it recorded none of the many US soldiers who had fallen into Japanese hands during the first quarter of 1942. Several reasons for this omission, which was more or less the same for other Allied countries, were identified in Lerch’s report.[4] Lack of Japanese interest in the POW problem, inefficient research and administration and constant understaffing all contributed to the general dearth of information. The Field Army Commandant’s neglect in reporting the names of POWs, as required by international law, was another important factor.

According to a report called Prisoner of War Information Bureau Operations, compiled in February 1946, approximately 50 staff were responsible for the operations of the Bureau. At its inception it consisted of a head, four administrators and twenty other staff.[5] While Bureau staff numbers did not increase significantly during the first part of the war, they did increase from the middle of 1944 to May 1945; just prior to Japan’s surrender on 5 August 1945, staff numbers totalled 117. The increase in staff reflected a corresponding increase in inquiries from Allied governments concerning Japan’s POWs: 52 in 1942, 112 in 1943, 340 in 1944, 122 in 1945, and 122 in 1946. A post-war report compiled by the Bureau entitled Complaints concerning POWs and Bureau responses records some 83 complaints and protests from Allied governments, with responses from the Bureau. Of these, 58 complaints and protests occurred between 1944 and 1945. While the significant increase in staff immediately after the surrender was a situation that neither the Minister for the Army nor the head of the POW Management Office had anticipated, it was probably as a result of the strong interest shown by Allies in the treatment of POWs which forced a corresponding increase of emphasis upon Bureau operations.[6]

In September 1945 a body called the “Investigative Committee on POWs” was set up, chaired by Army Vice-Minister Lieutenant General WAKAMATSU Tadakazu. For the investigation, a meeting of internment camp commandants was opened in Tokyo on 3 October 1945. Predicting that inquiries from the Allies would become increasingly urgent, the then head of the Bureau, TAMURA Hiroshi, produced an outline for concluding its operations. The following are thought to be the reasons for the increase in Bureau operations following the surrender.

1. The demand for POW Information Bureau operations to be concluded by the time the Peace Treaty was completed.

2. The concentration of requests from Allied countries concerning the condition of POWs.

3. The considerable influence of POW management issues in diplomatic relations.

4. The post-surrender destruction of Japanese records relating to the custody of POWs at internment camps.

The POW Information Bureau was also requested to produce an investigation into the Allies’ detention of many former POW camp staff as war criminals. Most documents relating to POWs that escaped destruction were held by the POW Information Bureau.

The Prisoner of War Management Office (Furyo Kanribu)

The Prisoner of War Management Office (Furyo Kanribu) was established by the Minister for the Army on 31 March 1942 as an additional office to deal with the treatment of POWs. It was set up within the Management Office of the Army Ministry in order to handle the increase in POW numbers as the theatre of war expanded. The head of the POW Management Office had dual responsibility for distributing strategies and policies concerning POW administration and for the control of POW internment camps. The staff of the POW Management Office were also staff of the POW Information Bureau, meaning that individual staff were affiliated with both offices, although they were ostensibly separate organisations. The only staff officer not attached to both was Lieutenant Colonel HOTA Haruo.

The work of the POW Management Office can be divided into four main categories.

1. Duties related to general policy concerning the treatment of POWs, including internment, supervision, transfer, release, and utilisation (for labour, propaganda etc.).

2. Duties relating to POW labour.

3. Communications duties.

4. Duties relating to POW discipline.

Despite the variety of these duties however, not to mention the huge number of POWs, the POW Management Office was quite neglected within the Department of Army (Rikugunshô). According to the testimony provided at the Tokyo trials of Colonel Shigeru YAMASAKI, a high-ranking official, both the POW Management Office and the POW Information Bureau “worked as directed by the Military Affairs Bureau (Gunmukyoku). Accordingly, it didn’t really matter who was in charge at either the POW Information Bureau and the head of the POW Management Office. What was important, was that the instructions of the Military Affairs Bureau were obeyed without question.”[7] Moreover, Yamasaki added, the traditionally all-purpose nature of the Military Affairs Bureau within the Department of the Army meant that the POW Management Office could not operate independently. In practice, it was really little more than an appendage to the Military Affairs Bureau.

The head of the POW Management Office was Lieutenant Mikio UEMURA, while the heads of the Military Affairs Bureau were Lieutenant Akira MUTÔ, succeeded by Major General Kenryô SATÔ. SATÔ remained subordinate to UEMURA, despite being superior in rank. At the Tokyo trials, the lawyer Ichiro KIYOSE pressed YAMASAKI to admit that the rigid hierarchy of the Japanese army would never have admitted such a state of affairs (ie., where officers were able to issue orders to those of senior rank to themselves), but YAMASAKI insisted that “although such a situation could not arise under conventional military rules, the work of the head of the Military Affairs Bureau placed him in a position that was effectively a staff officer of the Minister of the Army, so that any orders issued could be thought of as emanating from this source; that is, directly from the Minister of the Army.” In addition, Yamazaki argued, the work of the POW Information Bureau, which was directly attached to the Minister of the Army, was “effectively unable to proceed without going through the Military Affairs Bureau,” proving that in reality it was the Military Affairs Bureau that issued orders to both the POW Information Bureau and the POW Management Office. It was therefore “customary,” he stated, for problems concerning prisoners of war to be “referred to the Military Affairs Bureau.”

Similarly, the POW Management Office had no authority to issue direct orders concerning the POW camps. In cases where something needed to be rectified, this would be communicated to a bureau representing the Army Ministry, which would then report to the Minister of the Army. Commanders would then receive orders from the Minister and issue them to the various camp administrations. By 9 April 1942, when the POW Management Office had been set up and the scope of its duties notified, there were already some 200, 000 prisoners of war in Japanese captivity. While matters relating to POWs were supposedly entrusted to the POW Management Office, it had no real authority. Specialist matters relating to issues such as accounting, sanitation and discipline were dealt with by designated bureaus — for example, sanitation by the Medical Bureau and accounting by the Intendance Bureau.

In actuality, then, the POW Management Office had very little real authority over the treatment of POWs, who were directly under the command of either the district military command post or the commanders of independent divisions operating in the area of capture.[8] The Office’s influence was further restricted by the fact that orders to these commanders had to pass through General Staff Headquarters (Sanbô Honbu). Moreover, according to the testimony of Lieutenant Colonel HOTA, far from having any significant input at the Army Ministry, the POW Management Office was routinely bad-mouthed within the Army Ministry for having tried to treat prisoners by treating too generously in the early stages of hostilities. According to one bulletin from the POW Management Office, it was not until the second half of the war that any significant improvement began to be seen in the POW camps. The camps themselves had an ambiguous status within Japan’s military bureaucracy. According to one account, “on the one hand, [the camps] were treated as an unwanted stepchild by the military; on the other, they were regarded with suspicion by the general public, putting those personnel connected with the camps in a truly awkward position.”

Given the limited influence of POW management personnel within the army structure, it is perhaps not surprising that when lower-ranking officers connected with the POW camps were later arrested and tried as war criminals, not everyone felt that this was fair. One high-ranking official within the Odajima Information Bureau for example, is known to have asserted that the maltreatment of POWs was the “responsibility of the government.” Others opined that because the camps had been run by the military in accordance with Japanese domestic law, it was not really fair that those responsible for handling the prisoners to be prosecuted for offences against international law, since men working at this level could not have had any significant influence.

2. The dualism of POW management

During the Second World War there were some significant differences of interpretation between Japan and other countries regarding the status and treatment prisoners of war. In the Japanese Army, “prisoners of war” were regarded as those formally detained in prison camps established under the authority of the Minister for the Army, at which point they first became regarded as “official prisoners” according to the Regulations for the Treatment of POWs (Furyo Toriatsukai Saisoku), and therefore subject to international laws and conventions. In short, while the Army Ministry was regarded as responsible for incidents which occurred inside the camps which were under its administration, it was not responsible for what happened in the processes which preceded detention. According to the testimony of Akira MUTÔ at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, commanding officers of units which took prisoners on the battlefields would first inspect the prisoners and list their names on a roll which was forwarded to Headquarters. At this stage the prisoners were designated as gunsei horyo, or “captives under military command.” Headquarters would then arrange for these “captives” to be sent to POW camps on the basis of information provided by the Army Ministry which indicated the position of respective POW camps and the number of staff there.

The significance of this procedure lies in the fact that prisoners captured by Japanese forces were not formally recognised as under the management of the Army Ministry and, by extension, the Japanese government until they were actually interned in the camps. This meant that the treatment of POWs while in transit was entirely at the discretion of local military commands. LERCH remarked on the duality of this system in his report.[9] Accordingly, incidents which occurred while prisoners were in transit (on board ship, for example) were deemed not to be the responsibility of the Japanese government. As both the POW Information Bureau and the POW Management Office were government institutions, they were therefore not technically responsible for “captives under military command”, that is, prisoners captured during battle. Often they did not even receive any information about these captives until they had reached the camps.

3. The establishment of the POW camps

Internment camps for POW set up by the Japanese Army following the outbreak of WWII were established in accordance with the “Directives regarding Prisoner of War Camps” (Furyo Shûyôjorei) issued on 23 December 1941 under Imperial Edict No. 1,182. The camps were formally under the jurisdiction of the Japanese Army and were managed either by Japanese military commanders or by Korean or Taiwanese district commanders, according to directives issued by the Minister for the Army. Management of the camps was coordinated through the executive powers of the Ministry of the Army.

There were some legislative provisions for the treatment of POWs. In 1904 the army had revised its manual of Rules concerning the treatment of prisoners of war, producing a variety of basic laws and regulations, such as Detailed rules concerning the treatment of prisoners of war and Regulations for the punishment of prisoners of war. Among these, the revised Laws concerning the punishment of prisoners of war, which was issued in March 1943, contained twelve articles listing crimes that could be committed by POWs and the appropriate punishment. For infringements such as resisting the camp guards or insubordination, for example, the law stipulated that punishment must entail the “humiliation” of the offender.

Towards the end of April 1942 the treatment of POWs was debated for the first time in the Bureau Heads Meeting of the Army Ministry, and in May a new set of Regulations for the treatment of prisoners of war was adopted. It was at this time that the Japanese military also decided that Caucasian prisoners (hakujin horyo) would be useful in replenishing a dwindling supply of manual labour, particularly in Japan’s overseas territories. A number of Caucasian prisoners were subsequently removed from Singapore to Taiwan and the Korean Peninsula; those left behind were regarded as unfit for labour, and were detained where they had been captured.

Much can be discerned about the view taken of POWs by the Japanese Army in the directives issued by General TÔJÔ Hideki. In May 1942 the head of the POW Management Office, Lieutenant UEMURA, invoked TÔJÔ’s instructions to the Zentsûji Divisions, informing his troops that “in keeping with the current situation in our own country, where nobody can be permitted to live a life of idleness, and in order to help preserve the health of the prisoners, it is a central requirement that all prisoners, regardless of rank, should be encouraged to willingly perform labour commensurate with their bodily strength and capabilities.” UEMURA’s statement is carefully worded, reflecting his awareness of not only the Hague Convention, which forbids the use of prisoners of war for forced labour, but Japan’s own regulations for the treatment of prisoners of war; hence his emphasis on “encouraging” prisoners “willingly” to perform labour. (In reality, “encouragement” routinely included reducing prisoners’ rations until they expressed such willingness). It is echoed too, in testimony from those within the POW Management Office, who remembered being instructed that “directions may be given for prisoners of war to usefully employ such skills and power as they have, rather than allowing them to live in idleness.” At the time, it was argued that it would be bad for Japanese national pride and morale if prisoners of war were seen to be enjoying an idle lifestyle merely because they were ranking officers.

Prisoners of war in occupied areas

On 27 June 27 1942 a “Temporary formation outline” was issued by Army authorities on extant Japanese POW camps in Thailand, Malaysia, Java and Borneo, and on of new internment camps for detaining any remaining prisoners in the southern region of the Japanese empire. The detention of prisoners in areas occupied by Japan had been decided about half a year after the start of the war. Prisoners were defined according to the criteria of the “official prisoner” category established by the Prisoner Information Bureau. Although management of the prisoners in the internment camps was to be carried out under the command of various military commanders, prisoners were accepted from military captivity in the region only after the arrival of Taiwanese and Korean military guards, sent to assist with camp organisation.

Table 1: POW Camps run by the Japanese Army in Southeast Asia[8]

Camp name
POW numbers
Camp organisation & number of employees
Troops dispatched
Thai prison camp
(Camp Commander:
Major-General SASAKI)
about 20,000
Camp command & interpreters, etc.: 63 people
Eastern Army (Tôbugun) & the Korea Army (Chôsengun)
800 Korean employees of the JIA (guards)
Malay prison camp
(Camp Commander: Major General FUKUEI Shimpei)
about 20,000
Camp command & interpreters, etc: 63 people
Eastern Army & the Korea Army
800 Korean employees of the JIA (guards)
Philippines prison camp
(Camp Commander: Major-general MORIMOTO Ichirô)
about 15,000
Camp command & interpreters, etc
Central Army (Chûbugun) & the Taiwan Army (Taiwangun)
600 Taiwanese employees of the JIA (guards)
Java prison camp
(Camp Commander: Major-general SAITÔ Seiei)
about 35,000
Camp command & interpreters, etc: 110 people
Central Army & the Korea Army
1,400 Korean employees of the JIA (guards)
Borneo prison camp
(Camp Commander: Major SUGA Tatsuji)
about 5,000
Camp command & interpreters, etc: 12 people
Central Army & the Taiwan Army
200 Taiwanese workers
In general, the Korean and Taiwanese guards were assembled with the higher-level officers by the camp commander to receive orders and to be informed of the necessary rules and regulations. The content of these instructions were almost the same as those given to troops connected with the Zentsûji POW Camp in Japan.[11] While the camp commanders would have had a slight knowledge of international laws and regulations concerning the treatment of POWs, in addition to the routine information they received, it is doubtful that much of this information would have been understood by the lower-level guards, especially those from Taiwan and Korea. Moreover, while the Japanese Army created rules for the treatment of POWs, one must wonder how much the implementation of these rules would have been influenced by the general tendency of the Japanese Army towards POWs. For example, as we have seen, even as it paid lip-service to the need for POWs to be treated in accordance with international law, the Army’s foremost objective was how to mobilise these prisoners for forced labour. The Army’s attitude could be summed up in the following directive, which was distributed even to the camp guards, and which stated unequivocally that “prisoners of war are a form of military power, and should be used as such to the maximum advantage.” Such examples would have influenced attitudes towards and treatment of the POWs by the lower-level guards, whose awareness of the details of international law would have been minimal.

4. Prisoners of war and international treaties

International law relating to the treatment of prisoners of war includes the Hague Convention on the Rules of Land Warfare, ratified by Japan in 1911, and the 1929 Geneva Treaty on the Treatment of Prisoners of War. While Japan was a signatory to the Geneva it had never ratified it due to internal opposition from the Army, Navy and Privy Council.

Following the outbreak of WWII, the US government issued a statement on 27 December 1940 expressing the hope that the Hague and Geneva treaties would be “mutually applied.” It was followed by similar statements from the governments of England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. In response, the Japanese Foreign Ministry compiled a “Note of Reply,” after which it gathered representatives of the Army Ministry’s Military Affairs Bureau, the Police Department and the Overseas Development Ministry for a meeting held on 21 January 1942. The Foreign Ministry’s recommendation at this meeting was that “Every effort should be made to correspondingly apply the provisions of the treaties regarding any prisoners of enemy countries that fall under the authority of Japan, including issues such as food, clothing, and the treatment of the prisoners in accordance with internationally recognised standards of human rights.” After ascertaining that there were no differences of opinion on the POW issue, the Vice-Minister for the Army, KIMURA Heitarô, replied to the Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs, NISHI Haruhiko: “While we cannot proclaim our open support for the (Geneva) Convention, we have no objections to measures taken with regard to the treatment of prisoners of war.”[12]

What did the Japanese government really mean by the phrase “correspondingly apply?” As we can see, its vagueness was echoed in the Vice-Minister’s response. While there were minor differences of opinion and interpretation regarding the POW issue within the army and the government the following official statement was finally relayed to the allied governments through the Swiss Embassy.

1. “As a signatory to the 1929 International Red Cross Convention, the Japanese Empire rigorously adheres to the principles established under this Convention.

2. “Although the Japanese Empire has not ratified the 1929 International Convention on the Treatment of Prisoners of War, and is therefore not considered to be bound by this Convention in any way, it is Japan’s intention to correspondingly apply the principles of this Convention to any American prisoners who fall under the jurisdiction of Japan.”[13]

A similar reply was also sent to the other allied countries, affirming Japan’s intention to “correspondingly apply” the principles of a convention it had not ratified. In the original draft document, the words “intention to correspondingly apply” are underlined, with the phrase “apply in mutatis mutandis” (with necessary modifications) noted in the margin. From other documents it becomes clear that the army took this to mean, in the words of the Minister for the Army, General TÔJÔ, that “necessary revisions of the principles of international conventions could be made in accordance with the demands of the immediate situation and in accordance with Japan’s domestic law.”[14]

According to the head of the Treaty Bureau in the Foreign Ministry, MATSUMOTO Shun’ichi, the decision to restrict Japan’s application of the Geneva Convention to only “corresponding” application of its principles was thus explicable: the Japanese government foresaw the possibility of enormous difficulties in applying the principles of the Convention to the letter. This did not, he argued, invalidate Japan’s intention “to apply the principles of the Geneva Convention wherever possible, unless in situations where there were insurmountable difficulties involved.”

I suggest that Japan was using the expression “correspondingly apply,” to notify enemy countries of its intention to observe the spirit of the Geneva Convention. Indeed, it could not credibly have been any more than an expression of intent — given that Japan had neither deposited ratification documents with Switzerland, nor taken any other procedures to become a member of the convention community. Since no arrangements for ratifying the convention were made domestically, no legal steps to accommodate the convention were taken which might have included amendments to domestic laws which contravened the conditions of the convention — such as the Japanese Army and Navy’s criminal law codes. The agreement among Japan’s governing elite was that they would apply the Geneva Convention with necessary modifications in order to make it conform to Japan’s domestic laws and regulations, and to suit the actual circumstances of Japan’s armed forces during the war.

Elsewhere, however, Japan’s expression of its intention to “apply the Convention in mutatis mutandis” was interpreted quite differently. The International Prosecution Bureau took this to mean that Japan would be bound by the conditions imposed by the Geneva Convention. It is clear that Japan and the Allies interpreted the Geneva Convention’s application to Japan quite differently; indeed, differing interpretations of the mutatis mutandis phrase remained an issue between Japan and its enemies until the very end, as the Allies accused Japan of gradually changing its approach to this matter.

In one response issued in 1942 both Foreign Minister TÔGO and the Treaty Bureau Chief MATSUMOTO said that in the absence of “any crucial obstacles,” the Geneva Convention would take precedence over domestic laws and regulations that came into conflict with its provisions. In February 1943, however, the Foreign Ministry issued a statement that POWs could and would engage in “non-hazardous labour.” This drew swift criticism from Switzerland, which pointed out that Article 32 of the Geneva Convention expressly prohibits the use of POWs as forced labour. In response, the Ministry stated in March 1943 that Japan was “not bound by the 1929 Convention concerning the treatment of prisoners.” When Japan was subsequently requested to submit detailed information to Switzerland on articles of the Convention which it might find difficult to apply under existing domestic law, the Foreign Minister SHIGEMITSU answered that Japan’s intention to apply the convention mutatis mutandis should be taken to mean that Japan “would mutually apply the Geneva Convention when and to the extent which it considered appropriate.” These shifting interpretations of mutatis mutandis were interpreted by the Allies as evidence of Japanese duplicity.

5. POW release and repatriation

On 14 August 1945, following Japan’s acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration, the Japanese Army dispatched General KAWABE Torashiro to Manila to receive orders from the Allied Powers. Among other things, Kawabe was requested to provide information on allied POWs by the time the surrender documents were signed (scheduled for 2 September 1945). The Allied Powers then bombarded Japan with demands regarding POWs so incessantly that the authorities were at a loss as to how to proceed.

Correspondence within the Japanese military from this period on the POW issue includes a bulletin issued in 1944 by the army called “Treatment of POW and military detainees in case of rapid changes of war situations,”[15] and another, “Treatment of POW in response to changing circumstances”, was issued in 1945.[16] Both of these reported that “with regard to prisoners of the Army, emergency measures were taken out of the sheer necessity of self-defence, as stipulated under Japan’s ‘Regulations on the treatment of prisoners’, Article 6.” On the basis of such statements, it is probable that the allied forces feared that many allied POWs had simply been killed by Japanese troops.

On 16 August 1945 the head of the POW Information Bureau issued detailed orders to the heads of POW camps. These orders included:

1. to offer full protection to all POWs until their release and to monitor the provision of supplies and the maintenance of hygiene;
2. to immediately cease the use of POWs as labourers;
3. to secure adequate food supplies for POWs for the next 3-4 months;
4. to exchange the clothing of POWs, as it was now unnecessary to maintain stocks;
5. to distribute all clothing, medication and food stuff sent from Allied countries for the comfort of POWs;
6. to maintain any remains and articles of deceased POWs in an appropriate manner and to replace old containers for remains, so as not to give an unfavourable impression;
7. to incinerate all unnecessary documents.

On 22 August, the manager of the POW Management Office issued a document called “Designation of POW camps” to the heads of all POW camps in Japan, all commanders of domestic military districts and to the Chief of Staff in the Taiwan district. The document instructed that a sign be drawn on the ground to indicate the location of each POW camp and specified that the letters P and W, spreading over 20 feet, should be drawn in yellow on a black surface, to be read from south to north. The heads of POW camps were also informed that units from the allied forces were to make a reconnaissance flight over these camps from 6 o’clock on 25 August and would airdrop provisions. The document also requested that a list of living and deceased POWs, ordered by country, be submitted to the POW Management Office by 30 August.

The haste with which the Allies pursued the safe release of their POWs attracted the particular attention of the Japanese Vice-Minister for the Army, who commented on 22 August that it was really “beyond our imagination.” On 2 September 1945 the Allies issued “Surrender instrument and General Order No. 1”, which ordered Japan immediately to release all allied POWs and detainees, taking necessary measures for their protection, allowances and provision, and to transport them as soon as possible to locations indicated. The order also required Japan to provide complete information on all allied POWs. On 20 September a POW investigation committee was set up, and on 24 September the Allies requested lists of the staff employed at various POW camps. (In the Philippines this task had already been completed on 20 September). Investigation and interviews of people involved in the management of POW camps started in mid-September 1945. Although neither the chiefs nor the civilian staff of the POW Information Bureau and the POW Management Office had been accorded much authority during the war, they were now called upon to account for the ill-treatment of POWs after the war. And, as more information emerged on the issue, it became clear that there was a world of difference between the US and Japan in relation to the POW issue, not only in terms of the number of employees engaged in their management, but also their experience and understanding of the issues.

6. Documents and evidence relating to POWs

Ill-treatment of POWs accounted for a large proportion of the war crimes charges brought against the Japanese forces by the Allies — an outcome anticipated by the army, which ordered the destruction of documents relating to POW issues. While this resulted in a scarcity of documentary evidence on POW matters, it is now known that only the army was as thorough as this in destroying such materials. In other areas of responsibility a good deal of important information survived, much of which was preserved on purpose. Most relevant documents kept at the POW Information Bureau were preserved and handed over to the Allies without hesitation. So confident was the Bureau that it had made every effort to provide for POWs within the constraints of Japan’s domestic laws, that it used its own documents to explain the POW management system established by the Japanese military, and thereby sought to establish the innocence of its staff at the war crimes trials. The Bureau also responded to all inquiries concerning POW-related matters. Some of the materials seized and used by the International Prosecution Section to prove the ill-treatment of POWs at the war crimes trials have since been microfilmed and are now open to the public at the Diet Library.

Although most of the Japanese military documents captured by the US during the war have long since been repatriated, it is not clear whether all of these have been made available to the public. Those that are available can be found at either the National Archives or the National Institute for Defence Studies. These documents are enormously significant to the progress of research on the POW issue because they indicate that the ill-treatment of POWs by the Japanese forces is attributable not merely to incidents of cruelty and punishment at an individual level, but, more profoundly, to the bureaucratic hierarchies created and sustained by Japanese military culture. We need to acknowledge the role played in POW management (or lack thereof) by a moribund Japanese bureaucracy, the excessive growth of the authority of the Chiefs of Staff Office, and a wartime environment which put military objectives first and neglected POW issues. All these factors contributed to a state of affairs where the POW Information Bureau was given neither qualified personnel, nor the right to voice its opinions.

Predictably, one of the more prominent issues during the War Crime Trials was Japan’s mobilisation of POWs as forced labour — in blatant defiance of international law as stipulated by the Hague treaty and Geneva convention. Allied POWs were not the only people forced to work for the Japanese Army. At first they were used to supply labour needs that the forced mobilisation of Korean civilians had been unable to fulfil, and they were later supplemented by the forced labour of Chinese civilians. Nonetheless, the labour issue remains important in the POW story, and it is expected that more materials on POWs — consisting mainly of documents seized or generated by the International Prosecution Section — will be collected and organised. My own publication for example, Documents relevant to the Tokyo war crimes trials, includes issues of the POW Information Bureau monthly journal, published during 1942, the Memoranda of the head of the POW Information Bureau, Hiroshi TAMURA, and records of interviews of staff of the POW Information Bureau conducted by the Allies. These interviews were compiled into reports, such as “Japanese handling of American prisoners of war” by A. L. LERCH; Summary of investigation by the delegation headed by U.S. Military Police Commander, by the POW Information Bureau; Treatment of POWs, by the POW Investigation Department; and Duties of the POW Information Bureau by the POW Information Bureau.


Although much work remains to be done, the compilation and publication of documents relevant to the POW issue is well under way. It is to be hoped that in the future all such materials, including those which deal with Australian prisoners of the Japanese, will be available to the public, perhaps in the form of an internationally accessible database.

Translated by Steve Bullard, Akemi Inoue and Meredith Patton for the Australia-Japan Research Project at the Australian War Memorial, March 1999.

The Author

Professor UTSUMI Aiko lectures in History in the Department of Arts and Humanities at Keisen University, Japan, and has published extensively on issues related to Japan’s role in World War II. In February 1999 Professor UTSUMI was a Visiting Fellow with the Australia-Japan Research Project, for which she presented a seminar based on this paper. The Australia-Japan Research Project gratefully acknowledges the assistance of the Japan Foundation in bringing Professor UTSUMI to the Australian War Memorial.


[1] The Hague Convention on the Rules of Warfare (1907) codified the conduct of war among its signatories, which included Japan. That part of the Hague Convention which covered the treatment of POWs was replaced by the third (1929) Geneva Convention, which incorporates a separate convention on the rights and treatment of POWs.

[2] “Japanese handling of American prisoners of war: a letter by Major Archer L. Lerch,” pp. 3-4.

[3] Records concerning the handling of prisoners, from the Prisoner of War Information Bureau. See also YASUOKA Teruo & HARA Kitashi (eds), Nihon Rikukaigun Jiten (Dictionary of Japanese military and naval history). Tokyo: Shinjinbutsu Fukuraisha, 1997.

[4] “Japanese handling of American prisoners of war: a letter by Major Archer L. Lerch,” p. 5.

[5] During the war three people occupied the post of Bureau Head: Lt Gen UEMURA Mikio (29 December 1941 - 11 March 1943), Lt Gen HAMADA Tairo (11 Mar 1943 - 22 Nov 1944), and Lt Gen TAMURA Hiroshi (22 Nov 1944 - 31 May 1946). The duties of the POW Information Bureau were discharged by August 1952, and it was formally abolished on 1 August 1957.

[6] Details of the content of these protests can be found in UTSUMI Aiko (ed.), Collected protests from foreign states concerning the treatment of Japan’s prisoners of war (1989)

[7] “Court Records” (Saiban Kiroku), No. 138.

[8] References to the relationship between the Prisoner of War Management Office (Furyo Kanribu) and the Military Affairs Bureau (Gunmukyoku) can be found in “Court Records,” Nos 148, 149, 821 and 382.

[9] “Court Records,” no. 313.

[10] UTSUMI, Aiko, & NAGAI, Hitoshi: Tokyo Saiban Shiryo -- Furyo Jôhôkyoku Kankei Bunsho. Tokyo: Gendai Shiryo Shuppan, 1999.

[11] Zentsûji is in northern Shikoku. The divisions stationed there included the 11th Division of the 55th Army.

[12] “Memorandum: Responses to the inquiries of Allied Powers regarding the treatment of POW,” and Items from the Greater East Asia War: treaty regulations and general problems concerning the treatment of prisoners of war of enemy states. Diplomatic Records Office, Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (in Japanese).

[13] From Items from the Greater East Asia War: general problems and relations between enemy states concerning the treatment of prisoners of war. Diplomatic Records Office, Japan Ministry of Foreign Affairs (Japanese).

[14] Oral testimony of TÔJO Hideki at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials. From the Tokyo War Crimes Trials Research Association (eds), Tôjô Hideki sensei kyôjutsusho, p. 133, Tokyo: Yôyôsha, 1948 (Japanese).

[15] “Secret Army Telegram (Rikua Mitsuden) No. 1633,” September 11, 1944.

[16] “Secret Army Telegram (Rikua Mitsuden) No. 2257,” March 17, 1945.

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