The idle ramblings of a Jack of some trades, Master of none

Sep 22, 2010

A War of Cultures

During the Second World War, it was well-known among Allied soldiers that the Japanese treated prisoners-of-war with horrific brutality. This knowledge served both to terrify the Allies as well as to harden their hearts against the caricatured little yellow men. For their part, the Japanese, impressed with their own daring conquests of South East Asia, held British and Indian soldiers with utter contempt.

There was a massive clash of cultural mores here. As the British noted, you could mow down 95 out of a hundred Japanese troops, and the remaining five would fight bitterly till four were dead, whereupon the last one would kill himself. The Japanese considered it dishonourable to surrender; to die for their Emperor was a worthy cause. Indeed, they found it unfathomable that anyone could surrender, which is why they treated Allied prisoners of war as less than animals.

On the other hand, when they encountered what they considered honourable behaviour on the side of the British, they were moved. After one ambush in which they wiped out a company of Indian and British soliders, they saw the British officer stand up and blow his brains out. They treated his body with deep respect. Another man who commanded a platoon they defeated they treated like a Samurai - they shaved his head, a mark of deep honour.

The Japanese fought with fanatic bravery. Their juggernaut was halted first by British and Indian troops in the North-East of India, at the infamous siege of Kohima in Nagaland. By that time, the Japanese lines were overstretched, undersupplied, and the British had air superiority, and far better armament. Still, the Japanese assault continued. They were indomitable.

Yet in their own camps, the bravery often sagged. One Japanese officer, seeing his men hungry and careworn,  rounded them up. As they stood facing him, he put his hand in his trousers. He ordered them to grab hold of their penises. If it is hanging loose, he said, it meant the soldier was brave and in control. He could scarcely find his own, shrivelled as it was in his terror. As his men looked on curiously, he kept a poker face, and they obeyed him. One of the youngest in the platoon suddenly yelped that he couldn't find his penis. Where is it? he said anxiously, and all the men burst out laughing. It was a rare moment of humour in a war that was savage and quickly getting out of their hands.

For the Japanese, obedience and adherence to the rigid hierarchy of society and army was a paramount dogma. And so it was that the General - Sato - in charge of the invasion of India found himself reviled for disobeying orders and abandoning Kohima and the road to Dimapur after a bitter battle lasting weeks. He realised that his higher-ups had neither the will nor the ability to keep him supplied. Meanwhile, his men were starving to death. 

For years after the war, he made it his penance to go to the families of every one of his soldiers who died under his command, and to beg forgiveness and light a flame in their honour. Rare among the military elite of Japan, he showed moral courage and true honour.


km said...

Brilliant stuff.

And if you haven't watched it yet, do check out Kon Ichikawa's "Fire on the plains".

Fëanor said...

Thanks for the reco, KM. I'll look out for it.

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