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Monday, Aug. 29, 2005


Worst abuse: being viewed as subhuman

NEW YORK -- World War II did not end neatly upon Japan's surrender on Aug. 15, 1945. Aside from scatterings of Japanese soldiers who joined local independence movements in Southeast Asia after the surrender, at least one sizable Japanese army unit fought on in China's northeastern province of Shanxi, with solid local support, until April 1949, when Mao Zedong's forces finally prevailed.

Japanese military forces played a different role, at least in Indonesia. Britain, which led the occupation of the former Dutch colony, found itself "in the paradoxical position of having to order the Japanese to redeploy . . . the forces which [the Japanese themselves had] so obligingly concentrated for incarceration," as Col. Laurens van der Post wrote in his report for Britain's minister for foreign affairs at the end of 1946 ("The Admiral's Baby," Morrow, 1996). This came about because, in a land quickly turning into chaos, "law and order" became the occupation's primary concern.

The greatest cause of this chaos was, as van der Post saw it, the "pathological" Dutch refusal to recognize that their role in Indonesia was over when their colonial government fled the archipelago in March 1942. The Dutch fervidly continued to reject any suggestion that Indonesian nationalism, which had flared up while they were in retreat, was "not a shallow, effeminate, intellectual cult but a people-wide, tough and urgent affair." They utterly ignored, of course, Indonesia's declaration of independence on Aug. 17, 1945.

(My father, an officer of the Special Higher Police then stationed in Jakarta, remembered his astonishment at the huge crowd that turned up to hear Sukarno after the Japanese released him from Dutch prison. There were something like 100,000 people. Back home, ironically, a political gathering of any size was illegal unless it was avowedly patriotic, and the Special Higher Police was the dreaded overseer of such activities. Sukarno's ability to fire up enthusiasm and passion was equally astonishing, my father said.)

The upshot was Holland's four-year attempt to regain control of its former colony. I haven't read a history of that strife and don't know how many people were killed in the process, but van der Post's official report gives some indication. The early Allied "mopping-up operations" touched off by an incident in Surabaya alone killed 6,000 Indonesians. The operations were led by British "sea, air and land forces" and lasted for a month, beginning at the end of October 1946.

The French also would not recognize Vietnam's independence, declared by Ho Chi Minh on Sept. 2, 1945. That forced them into a protracted war that ended in the famous Vietnamese victory in Dien Bien Phu, on May 7, 1954. That led to America's intervention, which, in turn, became a far longer conflict known as the Vietnam War.

Some other things made Japan's surrender anything but neat. There were, above all, postwar concentration camps, be they for "prisoners of war," for "surrendered personnel," or for "disarmed military personnel" -- in line with the distinctions that the British military apparently had made.

The Soviet Union created the most extensive network of such camps. It started rounding up Japanese, both civilians and disarmed soldiers, after the official ending of the war, and in the end sent anywhere from 650,000 to 2 million people to various camps in Siberia and other places. As is well known, the Soviet Union declared war on Japan, despite a nonaggression treaty it had maintained with Japan, on Aug. 9, 1945, the day America dropped the second atomic bomb. For some the detention lasted until 1957. Estimates of the people who perished during those years range from 60,000 to 200,000. On what grounds the Soviets detained so many people, for so long, seems unresolved to this day.

A number of books had been written by survivors of "the Siberian detention" by the time I became a university student in Kyoto in 1961. But it wasn't until some years later that I read one important poet to emerge from it: Yoshiro Ishihara (1915-1977). Among other things, he recorded one memorable statement a friend of his made during interrogations by a Soviet prosecutor: "If you are a human being, I am not. If I am a human being, you are not."

I recently read Yuji Aida's "The Aaron Camp" (1962). The camp in the title is one of several that Britain established in Burma. In the book Aida gives the kind of picture of British soldiers that Laurens van der Post, a man from South Africa, might not have imagined forming.

Aida was a college instructor specializing in the European Renaissance when drafted into the army as a regular private. The Japanese military was famous (or infamous) for absolute egalitarianism in such matters. It was also famous for its outmoded military equipment (except for Zeros and torpedoes) and for its inability to consider logistics in sending forces for overseas operations. In March 1944 Aida was sent to the Burmese front with decades-old equipment, and in a couple of months supplies completely stopped. Once serious engagements with the British army started, the Japanese suffered one disastrous defeat after another. The 20,000-man division to which Aida belonged was reduced to 3,000, and his company of 300 to a little over a dozen men, by the time his unit was cornered in the swamps outside Rangoon.

What drove Aida to deep resentment and despair during his life in concentration camps -- over 1 1/2 years in two different camps -- was not the food shortages, though they were serious for months. Nor was it the hard labor, though some of it was bad and degrading enough. The British captors rarely resorted to the sorts of physical violence that won the Japanese military universal notoriety -- gratuitous slapping and beating -- even though the Brits indulged in covert varieties: ordering a man on all fours and urinating on his face, for example.

No, what prompted Aida, the student of "Western humanism," to fantasize "cutting all Britons to pieces, women, children, even babies, pleading for mercy or crying," should there be another war, was the stark realization that British soldiers, officers or men, male or female, utterly regarded the Orientals as "subhumans." So, for example, when the complaint on the poor quality of food was passed up to them, the response invariably was: "We feed cattle the same thing, and it does no harm." This attitude applied to all Asians: Gurkhas, Indian soldiers, Burmese, Japanese.

And while all this was going on, representatives of Holland, France, the Soviet Union, Britain and other "victorious nations" were sitting on the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, the Tokyo Trial, as judges -- who were, as Elizabeth Vining, the English that tutor Gen. MacArthur chose for Crown Prince Akihito, observed, "the prosecution and jury."

Hiroaki Sato is a translator and essayist who lives in New York.

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