“Unbroken”: A Broken Account of WW2 History

The film “Unbroken”, directed by Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie, is set for release on December 25th. Based on Laura Hillenbrand’s similarly titled book, the movie traces the experience of Olympic athlete Louis Zamperini, who was captured by Japanese forces near the Marshall Islands after his B24 went down during WW2. He recounted stories of abuse from being held at the Omori, Ofuna, and Naoetsu detention facilities.

While the New York Times bestseller sold over 3.5 million copies, its content was full of dubious accounts from the war.

In the original book, the plot describes the Japanese military and its soldiers as thugs who routinely abused their prisoners and skirted international law, whose victims are saved only through Allied air raids and the atomic bombings that ended the war.

Littering the book are horrifying accounts of how Japanese soldiers engaged in “ritual” acts of cannibalism, eating Allied POWs. However, those with the most superficial knowledge of Japanese history and culture would know that no such customs or “rituals” existed in Japanese history. While individual acts of cannibalism may have existed, to suggest that they had roots in Japanese history or culture is disingenuous to the point of incredulity. It is akin to suggesting that American culture has had a history of cannibalism by pointing out that the 19th century pioneers, such as the Donner Party, who set out to explore the western frontier, engaged in cannibalism to survive. While such isolated cases of starvation and cannibalism did occur in U.S. history, those acts weren’t ritualistic nor were they engrained in American culture.


The Unforgiving Hand of Geopolitics

Another issue the author pointed out in the book, and by many others who have focused on Japanese war crimes, is the systematic massacre of Korean prisoners, as well as the sexual slavery of Korean women, often referred to as “comfort women”.

However, the idea that Japanese soldiers systematically killed Koreans goes against a fact that is often discounted; Korea was not at war with Japan at the time. In fact, Korea had been a part of Japan since 1910, after a Korean terrorist assassinated Japan’s first Prime Minister Hirobumi Ito.

The Korean peninsula was, and continues to be today, a vital security interest for Japan. Simply put, if Korea were to fall into unfriendly hands, Japan would quickly become the next target. While this is an oft-discounted, if not completely unknown, fact in the West, it was the primary reason why Japan entered the Korean Peninsula and Manchuria.

The Russo-Japanese War, which cemented Japan’s influence over the Korean Peninsula, has often been described in the West as a contest between two ambitious, imperialistic powers. But this was hardly the case for Japan, as Russian control of Manchuria and its subsequent moves south to grab the Korean Peninsula were seen as significant threats to Japan’s national security.

The U.S. government also implicitly acknowledged that fact when its military intervened to prevent North Korea from overrunning the South during the Korean War. General McArthur understood that if the U.S. were to lose the Korean Peninsula, Japan, together with America’s entire East Asia strategy, would be at risk. If an unfriendly power were to attempt to take control of Canada, the U.S. would hardly stand by and watch. Nor did it idly stand by when the Soviet Union deployed nuclear weapons in Cuba during the 60’s.

Geopolitical security was precisely the reason why Japan went into the Korean Peninsula, and its moves were defensive in nature. In fact, Hirobumi Ito wrote in a memo (dated November 1905) that “Korea will be a client state only until the nation becomes strong enough.” Ito was against the annexation of the peninsula, and clearly envisioned a Korea that was strong enough to defend itself, such that it could repel any foreign influence, and by extension keep rival nations outside of Japan’s security sphere. His assassination by the Korean terrorist brought about the decline of the anti-annexation wing of Japanese polity, and resulted in the Japan-Korea Annexation Treaty of 1910.

Claims of abuse in Japanese-occupied Korea fly in the face of the rapid industrialization and modernization that took place within the country. From 1910 to 1945, the Korean population grew from 12 million to over 25 million, its agricultural production grew from 250 million yen to around 1700 million yen, and its industrial production, which was non-existent at the time of annexation, produced over 1500 million yen in output per year by 1945. Its fishery and forestry also saw close to a 10-fold increase in output. The phenomenal rate at which Korea evolved was a surprise even to Japan.

The issue of comfort women has also been littered with misinformation and outright fabrications. The Interagency Working Group’s (IWG) report on Nazi and Japanese war crimes, submitted to Congress in 2007, goes against what many have claimed as the truth, that those Japanese soldiers sexually abused foreign women. After looking through newly declassified documents from the OSS, NSA, CIA, and the Departments of State and Defense, opened to the public under the Nazi War Crimes Disclosure Act and the Japanese Imperial Government Disclosure Act, the IWG was unable to find any evidence that gave credence to the claims that the Japanese government and military forced women into prostitution. In fact, the report went on to give an apology to the special interest groups who were eagerly looking for such evidence.

Copious amounts of evidence and primary source documents exist (such as Korean newspapers during the war, and pay slips that the comfort women received) that clearly show that these comfort women were highly paid prostitutes. So well paid were these comfort women that they made more money than a full General employed by the Imperial Japanese military.


Starvation, Torture, and POWs

Within the plot of “Unbroken”, there are also wide-ranging indictments of the Japanese treatment of Allied POWs.

The book tells its readers that the Tokyo/Omori detention center was a “slave labor camp”, but this goes against accounts from the Japanese soldiers who worked there, as well as stories from prisoners such as Louis Bush, who, while providing occasional accounts of violence, described the Japanese staff as generally reasonable and well-behaved.

The Ofuna detention center, where prisoner interrogations took place, is often described as a dungeon of abuse, but the accounts of Colonel Yuzuru Sanematsu, who was in charge of the interrogations, contradict those stories. Mr. Sanematsu recounted that those who had been subjected to fear and aggression tended not to offer the truth, and that it was important to guarantee the life and safety of the prisoners in order to get useful information.

While there may have been soldiers who went against the military’s policy, its leadership did not ask the soldiers to carry out such abuse systematically. The Japanese military authorities came to the same conclusion as the CIA during the 1980s that torture tended to bring out false confessions. For this very reason, the Japanese government rejected acts of torture that the CIA is currently being accused of having engaged in since the 9/11 attacks.

The Japanese government at the time was worried enough by allegations of prisoner abuse, that in 1944, Prime Minister Tojo made a surprise inspection of the Omori detention center, and warned the staff against such abuses.

There are also allegations that the Japanese military didn’t provided enough food to Allied POWs. While it was true that POWs suffered from a lack of food, this was not due to abuse and neglect, but due to the simple fact that Japan suffered heavily from food shortages during the war. The indiscriminate sinking of Japanese vessels by the Allied powers had taken a toll on Japanese food imports and the importation of other strategic resources, to the point where Japanese soldiers and ordinary citizens lacked basic food supplies. There were even accounts of prison guards having gone out of the detention facilities to beg for food from ordinary citizens so that the POWs could be fed.

Also noteworthy is the fact that the Allies killed over 20,000 of their own prisoners through the indiscriminate sinking of Japanese POW transport ships even though the Allied headquarters knew that there were prisoners aboard. This was done to deprive Japan of strategic resources, which the Allied headquarters saw as a priority over the lives of the POWs.

While the issue of prisoner abuse is laced with strong emotions, questions of “How many?” and “Was it systematic?” require research into the capabilities and situations within which the nations found themselves. Japan, for example, was suffering from food and supply shortages due to the Allied embargo, and didn’t have ample resources to feed its own soldiers far less enemy POWs. While this may have appeared as systemic abuse from the perspective of the POWs, and an argument could be made that circumstances don’t change the fact that many POWs died, to say that the Japanese systematically executed Allied prisoners simply do not stand up to the facts and the events that took place.

“Unbroken”: A Broken Account of WW2 History
Copyright © IRH Press Co.Ltd. All Right Reserved.