Japanese POWs in Allied Camps

The cultural difference between the western notion of an honorable surrender and the Japanese notion of fight to the death was a big contribution to the ferocity of the Pacific War. Allied soldiers had trouble comprehending the Japanese will to fight on in the face of certain death, and Allied atrocities against surrendered Japanese was a function of the racism that infused the island fighting. This resulted in very few survivors of the pacific garrisons.

The small numbers of prisoners is shocking. On Tarawa, only 17 Japanese were taken; many surrendered only after being knocked unconscious by gunfire. Many more Korean laborers survived the battle. Many prisoners were only captured when they were unable to resist due to wounds or incapacitation. On many islands the entire garrison perished. Only as the war ended did Japanese start surrendering in large numbers.

Kazuo Sakamaki was the lone Japanese Prisoner of War #1, having passed out in the surf near his midget sub. He failed attempting to drown himself, while his crew mate succeeded. He was alone until crewmen from IJN HIryu were captured following the Battle of Midway. Sakamaki was so ashamed that he chose to leave Japan after the war and live in Brazil for decades.

Once captured, they were reported as dead to their families and many Japanese POWs chose to aid the Allied effort. Prisoners provided the Allies with important information, sometimes directing bombers against their former comrades.

Once they had delivered all the information they could, or were recalcitrant, they were shipped to POW camps in Australia, New Zealand and the United States. Their treatment in Allied hands was better than their Allied counterparts in Japanese prisons. Over 95% of Japanese POWs survived the war, while only 49% of Allied POWs returned to their native lands. As the war ended its final year, more POWs were captured as the rank and file Japanese soldiers surrendered, recognizing the futility of fighting for a lost cause.

During the war, there were a number of suicides and breakout attempts. One of the most violent occurred in the United States, where POW leaders advocated an uprising in the Emperor’s name. Several thousand prisoners took part, but it was stopped with minimal casualties. The leaders hanged themselves before capture. Another breakout in Cowra, Australia took weeks to round up all the POWs. No POW is known to have escaped and successfully returned to Japan.

At the end of the war, the Japanese POWs in Allied hands that were not accused of war crimes were returned to Japan. The Japanese in Soviet hands were held in Siberian camps and not returned for years. As late as 2006 Ishinosuke Uwano said he was a former Imperial Japanese Army soldier living in Siberia.

Some "holdouts" refused to surrender after the war. On some islands, Japanese and Americans fought to the death after the surrender, with casualties on both sides. The last Japanese soldier surrendered in 1980, after thirty-five years. Some Japanese believe that there are still abandoned warriors living in the islands of the South Pacific.