Japanese Treatment of Chinese Prisoners, 1931-1945

Nature-People-Society: Science and the Humanities, No.26, January 1999

published by The Society of Liberal Arts, Kanto Gakuin University

Hayashi Hirofumi

This paper is based on a speech given at the Anglo-Japanese Conference on Prisoners of War, 14-16 November 1997 at Cambridge. I would like to express my gratitude to Dr Philip Towle and Ms Kosuge Nobuko who gave me an opportunity to give a speech at the conference.

1 Execution without trial in Manchuria
2 Treatment of Chinese POWs during the Sino-Japanese War
3 Treatment of Chinese volunteers in Singapore
4 Massacres of Chinese in Singapore and Malaya



The purpose of this paper is to look into Japanese treatment of Chinese prisoners in China and Southeast Asia between 1931 and 1945, or in other words during the Fifteen Years War. I deal here not only with POWs captured from the regular army, but also with Chinese guerrillas and civilians taken by the Japanese, because there were close parallels between the treatment of both. Thus the term "prisoner" refers to POWs as well as guerrilla and civilian captives, while "Chinese" is used here to include overseas Chinese also.

Large numbers of Chinese joined guerrilla forces or gave them every assistance in attempting to expel Japan from their country. In Southeast Asia, overseas Chinese ? who commanded considerable influence in economic and social affairs ? joined up with volunteer forces organised by the British or organised their own forces. This led to all people of Chinese descent, not just those in China, being regarded as anti-Japanese by Japan; many Chinese civilians were captured and treated severely by the Japanese as guerrillas.

Japan has long been bitterly criticized for its treatment of European and American POWs and internees, which flouted international law and common humanity. Although there is no disagreement on this point, it is also very important to draw attention to the treatment meted out to Chinese POWs and civilians.

There is no doubt that the main purpose of Japans aggression was occupation of China and Southeast Asia, nor that captured Chinese soldiers ? who were seldom officially treated as POWs ? were much more numerous than Europeans and Americans. As I shall make clear later, the treatment of these Chinese captives was incomparably more severe than that suffered by Europeans and Americans. Thus, in dealing with the matter of POWs, it cannot be emphasised too strongly that a discussion of how the Japanese treated Chinese POWs is essential. Thus far, however, most studies have focused on European and American POWs, and few overall studies of the POW issue has been made(1). Although it is beyond the scope of this paper to fully correct this situation, I will focus on this aspect of the question ? Chinese prisoners ? which has so far received little attention(2).

1 Execution without trial in Manchuria

Japan conquered Manchuria in 1931, and the following year set up a puppet-state known as "Manchukuo" (or state of the Manchus). The occupation was troubled by anti-Japanese guerrilla activity, and attempts were made to eradicate opposition. In September 1932, a law for the "provisional punishment of bandits" was enacted, where the word "bandit" actually meant not only bandits but also guerrillas(3).

According to this law, certain officers ? Manchukuo military officers and police officers ? were empowered to "dispose" of those captured during mop-up operations. The Japanese army (known as the Kanto-gun in Manchuria) also used the same tactics. In other words the Japanese army, the Manchukuo army, and the police were allowed to kill captives without trial if they were regarded as guerrillas or anti-Japanese elements.

This procedure later came to be known as genju-shobun, which means sever punishment by the letter, or genchi-shobun, meaning on-the-spot punishment(4). It sometimes led to Japanese garrisons massacring whole villages on suspicion of anti-Japanese sentiment. And although the law was abolished in December 1941, the procedure remained in use until the end of the Manchukuo state.

When the Sino-Japanese War broke out, genju-shobun was commonly applied by Japanese troops dispatched to various parts of China. In the north, for example, it was used in mop-up operations against anti-Japanese guerrillas, particularly communist guerrillas. The commander of the Kempeitai (the Japanese military police) in China from 1938 to 1939 had once been a military advisor in Manchukuo, and he imported the method to northern China. There it was adopted by the chief in staff of the North China Area Army, Yamashita Tomoyuki(5). As mop-up operations became more intense, they became known as sanko-sakusen (three-lights operations; "light" in Chinese implies completeness or thoroughness), meaning total killing, looting, and burning.

As I shall explain later, Yamashita went on to command the mop-up operations in Singapore and Malaya that later became known as the Chinese massacres. Thus this means of execution without trial, which originated in Manchukuo, later became commonplace in China and Southeast Asia.

2 Treatment of Chinese POWs during the Sino-Japanese War

Despite fierce resistance from the Chinese regular army during the Shanghai Incident of 1932, the Japanese continued to treat the Chinese army with disdain. In a book entitled "A study of ways to fight the Chinese army," published by the Infantry Academy in 1933, the chapter dealing with the treatment of POWs reads as follows(6).

"There is no need to take POWs into custody nor return them, in contrast with our treatment of POWs of other nationalities. Except in certain special cases, it is sufficient to free them on the spot or in another location. Further, the Chinese system of residency registration is imperfect, and most soldiers are homeless anyway and seldom registered. Thus no problems will arise if we kill them or deport them".

Clearly, the notion that it does not matter if Chinese POWs were killed or deported prevailed at the beginning of the Sino-Japanese War in 1937.

Immediately after the outbreak of this war, Japans Vice Minister of War instructed the China Expeditionary Army that international laws of warfare, such as the Hague Conventions, did not apply and that the term POW should not be used because it was an "incident" and not a war(7). In line with this position, no war was declared against China. Neither a POW administration nor POW camps were set up. And even after the Asia-Pacific War broke out, Japan made no effort to set up POW camps for the Chinese, in contrast with the treatment of Europeans and Americans.

Although the Ministry of War gave no instructions as to dealing with surrendering Chinese, the above instruction was naturally interpreted as meaning that captives should be killed, since neither personnel for administering POWs nor food were available for the troops to distribute. Accordingly, mass executions took place. In Nanking, mass executions of POWs were as prevalent as those of civilians.

An example can be found in the diary of a Major General in charge of an infantry brigade; his men took 14,777 prisoners. He confined them to a nearby school for a time, but since there was a lack of food for even the Japanese occupiers, he dispatched a liaison officer to headquarters for advice as to their treatment. In answer, he was ordered to kill every one of them. His men took the prisoners to the banks of the Chang Jiang river, machine-gunned them, and abandoned the bodies in the river. Even working as fast as they could, the gruesome task took two days(8).

Japanese troops unexpectedly took large numbers of prisoners during the battle of Nanking. Further, since many Chinese soldiers abandoned their uniforms and hid among civilian refugees, many civilians were captured and executed as POWs. Such mass executions were systematically committed under military orders. A similar practice ? executing captured soldiers and civilians together ? was also used in the case of Singapore and other territories.

Those captured Chinese who were not killed on the spot were compelled to do forced labor. Some of these were later killed, while others were let free. In all cases, however, their fate was arbitrarily decided by the troop concerned, with no consideration of international law.

3 Treatment of Chinese volunteers in Singapore

When Japan attacked Malaya and Singapore, the British effort against the Japanese was helped by several volunteer forces made up of Malaya residents including Malays, Chinese, Eurasians, and civilian Europeans. These British volunteer forces were of three types.

Firstly, there were volunteer forces organised by individual settlements and states, including the Straits Settlements Volunteer Forces (SSVF), Federated Malay States Volunteer Forces (FMSVF), and Un-Federated Malay States Volunteer Forces (UFMSVF)(9). In Singapore, there were two battalions of the SSVF, and these were the oldest of the volunteer forces, dating back to 1854. Members were European, Eurasian, Malay, and Chinese. The Chinese members were what were called the "Kings Chinese": English-educated, able to speak English, and owing allegiance to the British king. Since the SSVF guarded the inner city of Singapore, they did not fight directly with the Japanese.

The second type was the Malay Regiment. Founded in 1933, it consisted of British officers plus Malay officers and soldiers(10). The first battalion of the Malay Regiment fought courageously against the Japanese at Opium hill to the west of Singapore city.

Third was the Overseas Chinese Volunteer Corps, commonly known as the Dall Force(11). The basis of this corps was the Singapore Chinese Mobilisation Council which was formed on 30 December 1941. On 31 January 1942, by which time every British soldier had been expelled from the Malay peninsular and had retreated to Singapore island, the British authorities in Singapore asked the council to organise a volunteer corps. The corps was instantly ready. In spite of minimal training, they fought bravely against the Japanese at Bukit Timah in the center of Singapore island. However, two days before the British surrender, the corps was disbanded and the volunteers escaped. The volunteers consisted of Chinese communists, Kuomintang (nationalists) and others educated in Chinese. They usually spoke Chinese and were patriotic toward China. Some later took part in communist guerrilla fighting afterwards.

Some of the officers and soldiers of these various volunteer forces were captured and became Japanese POWs, while others (including the Dall Force) escaped or went home. Among the POWs, one group of seventy to ninety officers and soldiers was selected and brought to the coast for execution by bullet. Among them were eight Malay officers from the Malay regiment and the FMSVF, twenty-six Chinese from the SSVF, as well as Eurasians from the SSVF. One Chinese sergeant narrowly escaped, although shot in the knee, and was able to act as witness to the massacre after the war(1??.

The Malay officers were given a choice: join the Japanese army or be set free as civilians. They refused both options, however, and demanded to be treated as British officers ? to be taken as POWs. The Japanese denied them this right.

The Japanese executed both Chinese volunteers and Malays and Eurasians, while Asian officers detained in Changi prison with British officers were spared. Although there is no evidence to suggest why the executions took place, one explanation is racial discrimination by the Japanese against other Asians in comparison with their treatment of Europeans. European officers and soldiers were treated as POWs, but this was not the case with Asians.

4 Massacres of Chinese in Singapore and Malaya

After Nanking, the second biggest massacre perpetrated by the Japanese was in Singapore. The Japanese Army had been planning mop-up operations against those Chinese who remained anti-Japanese since before British surrender. As soon as the occupation was complete on 15 February 1942, the Japanese army ? under the command of the same Lt. General Yamashita Tomoyuki ? put these plans into effect(13).

According to the original plan, mopping-up was to last from 21 to 23 February, and the sweep was to pick up (1) volunteers, (2) communists, (3) looters, (4) those bearing arms or harbouring arms, and (5) elements obstructing Japanese operations, disturbing peace and order, or likely to disturb peace and order.

Clause (5) above was later revised because the Singapore garrison commander under orders to implement it claimed that he could not pick out such elements in so short a time. Certainly, the wording in clause (5) was too vague. In the end, it was altered to read "people named on the list." The Japanese had already captured some lists of names from Chinese organisations that had supported the defense of the Chinese motherland against Japanese aggression. These lists included people who, perhaps, simply donated money to the Kuomintang government. They were executed simply because their names were on the list. People identified by clauses (1) to (5) were to be killed without investigation or trial.

The Chinese population of Singapore, and especially males between eighteen and fifty years old, were crammed into designated areas, where they were screened by the Kempeitai with the help of collaborators. The collaborators, wearing hoods or masks and consisting of ex-communists, ex-volunteers, police officers, and others, picked out certain people as anti-Japanese elements. In general, few questions were asked of the people selected. In one particular location, they were simply asked whether they were volunteers or civil servants, and those answering in the affirmative were selected.

The Japanese might have been using the term "volunteer" to mean a member of the Dall force, but in fact they were probably mixing up the several volunteer forces. Even Malay officers were regarded as anti-Japanese simply for not obeying orders.

Those categorised as anti-Japanese were taken away in lorries to coastal areas where they were tied, shot, and ? if still alive ? stabbed to death with bayonets. Those found not to harbour anti-Japanese sentiment were allowed to return home after several days of hardship.

According to the diary of the Singapore garrison commander, Major General Kawamura Saburo, the total number reported to him as killed by the various Kempeitai section commanders on 23 February was five thousand(14). This was the third day of mop-up operations when executions were mostly finished. It is said in Singapore that the total number killed was forty or fifty thousand; this point needs further investigations.

On 21 February, the first day of these mop-up operations in Singapore, the army sent two divisions to mop up anti-Japanese elements in the Malay Peninsular. Operations continued for about a month. According to my research(15), about four thousand Chinese, including females and children, were killed in the state of Negeri Sembilan alone, where the Chinese population at the time was about one hundred and twenty thousand. Some villages that were regarded as cooperating with the guerrillas were completely wiped out. In contrast with the Singapore operations, where the targets were male alone, many of those killed in the peninsular were women and children.

In Seremban, the capital of Negeri Sembilan, those executed were: (1) hostile elements and communists, (2) those remaining insolent throughout questioning, and (3) those suspected of disturbing the social order(16). These alone were reasons for execution without trial.

In the larger towns, the Japanese selected male suspects and took them to the suburbs for secret executions. In the villages, on the other hand, several hundred villagers were executed on the spot, regardless of age or sex, and every house burnt to the ground. The villages usually fell to ruin.

One of the reasons for such terrible actions, particularly in Singapore, was that the Japanese treated ex-volunteers not as POWs, but as anti-Japanese elements with the potential to carry out guerrilla warfare. There was no way to distinguish ex-volunteers nor guerrillas from civilians. Thus every Chinese was regarded as anti-Japanese and a guerrilla sympathiser. It was the case in China with Japanese.

Japanese policy as regards POWs was established by the Ministry of War in May 1942. According to an instruction known as the Rules for the Treatment of POWs, all POWs except Europeans and Americans who do not need to be interned should be freed immediately after making an oath or should be utilised locally(17). Thus the Japanese specifically set up POW camps for Europeans and Americans, but not for Asians.

One of the reasons for this difference was that certain officers in charge of the POW administration were afraid of reprisals by the Allies, in particular the USA, if POWs were treated improperly(18). However, they had not such anxiety about China and other Asian countries. Chinese officers and soldiers in the British forces were not considered worth taking as POWs by Japanese. This was the case even with Malay officers.

In the same way, Indian officers and soldiers in the British forces were not regarded as POWs; they were mobilised into the Indian Independent Army or as "volunteer" laborers. It is doubtful, however, whether they truly did voluntarily.

Indians were taken as laborers to various Pacific islands in order to construct airfields or camps for Japanese. However, as soon as the Japanese perceived danger of American attacks, they accused the Indians of espionage and executed them without trial. Such cases were heard at the war crimes trials held by the allied nations after the war(19).


The Japanese treatment of Chinese soldiers both in China and in Southeast Asia was not the same as that given to European and American forces. With European and American captives, the Japanese had, to a certain extent, to take international laws into consideration. On the other hand, the rights of Chinese and other Asian prisoners were simply ignored. It has been said that Japanese policy toward POWs changed in the 1920s or 1930s(20). However, it is clear that double-standards still remained throughout the Sino-Japanese war and the Asia-Pacific war. Although European and American POWs were treated inhumanely, the Chinese were not even considered POWs and were often executed on the spot without hesitation.

This treatment of the Chinese originated in the Manchurian Incident, as already mentioned. Since Chinese civilians were regarded as latent guerrillas, the same treatment was given to Chinese soldiers and Chinese civilians. This attitude might even date back to the first Sino-Japanese war of 1894-1895 when many Chinese POWs were massacred by the Japanese at Lushun(21). There is room here for further investigations.

To finish, I want to consider this subject from the viewpoint of comparative studies. It must not be overlooked that it is not uniquely Japanese to treat POWs inhumanely, although the Japanese treatment of POWs was much worse than that of the Allies. During the Asia-Pacific war, the US army sometimes killed Japanese on the spot when they were captured on the battlefield, according to John Dower and George Feifer(22). Although the US army often protected Japanese POWs and civilians, some US troops would never have accepted Japanese soldiers as POWs, such as at Tarawa, Okinawa, and so on. Japanese soldiers sometimes had no alternative but death; not because they had been ordered not to surrender, but also because of US treatment.

John Dower pointedly notes that one of the main reasons for such behavior was racial prejudice. This was the case with Japanese policy toward the Chinese. And there have been many similar cases, such as the US toward Vietnamese. Inhumane treatment of POWs often seems to occur when one nation has some kind of prejudice against another. There is a need for further comparative studies on the treatment of POWs(23).

We may note, in passing that the British treated Japanese internees inhumanely. Japanese civilians were captured in Southeast Asia and deported to India after the war broke out. According to the British Foreign Office documents(24), of two thousand eight hundred captives, one hundred and six died of dysentery, malaria, beri-beri, and other diseases as a result of the poor conditions by the end of 1942. The British government improved the situation after protests from the Japanese government, so it cannot be said that British treatment of internees was as inhumane as the Japanese. However, it does demonstrate that there is a likelihood of internees being treated inhumanely.

In the case of Japanese treatment of European and American POWs, one can safely state that an inferiority complex with regard to Europeans was one reason for the Japanese behavior. Inferiority complexes do sometimes cause aggressiveness against the object perceived as superior. On the other hand, in the Chinese case, Japanese racial prejudice against the Chinese became extreme. Both types of treatment illuminate a characteristic of modern Japan which we Japanese still exhibit.



(1) See, for example, Fujiwara Akira, Nicchu-Senso ni okeru Horyo Gyakusatsu[Massacres of POWs in Sino-Japanese War], Senso Sekinin Kenkyu[Report on Japans War Responsibility], No.9, September 1995.
(2) This paper is based on a speech given at the Anglo-Japanese Conference on Prisoners of War, 14-16 November 1997 at Cambridge. I would like to express my gratitude to Dr Philip Towle and Ms Kosuge Nobuko who gave me an opportunity to give a speech at the conference.
(3) Asada Kyoji & Kobayashi Hideo(eds), Nihon Teikokushugi no Manshu Shihai[Japanese Imperial Domination of Manchuria], Tokyo: Jichosha, 1986, Chapter 4.
(4)Hayashi Hirofumi, Kakyo Gyakusatsu[Chinese Massacres by Japanese],Tokyo: Suzusawa-Shoten, 1992, pp.225-226.
(5) Ibid., pp.234-235.

(6) Rikugun Hohei Gakko[Infantry Academy], Tai Shina-Gun Sento-ho no Kenkyu[A study of ways to fight the Chinese army], published in 1933. See also Fujiwara, op.cit., p.19.
(7) See Fujiwara, op.cit., pp.20-21 and Kanda Fuhito, Kindai Nihon no Senso : Horyo Seisaku wo chushin nisite[Modern Japan War: On the POW Policy], Senso Sekinin Kenkyu[Report on Japans War Responsibility], No.9, September 1995, p.16.
(8) The Diary of Major General Yamada in Kaiko-Sha(ed.), Nankin Senshi Siryo-shu [Documents on the History of the Nanking Campaign], Vol.2, Tokyo: Kaiko-sha, 1993, pp.331-332. See also Ono Kenji, Heishi no Jinchu Nikki ni miru Nankin Daigyakusatsu[Nanking Massacres based on Soldiers War Diaries], Senso Sekinin Kenkyu [Report on Japans War Responsibility], No.9, September 1995, Fujiwara Akira, Nankin no Nihon-Gun[Japanese Army in Nanking], Tokyo: Otsuki-Shoten, 1997, pp.40-41 and Ono Kenji, Fujiwara Akira & Honda Katsuichi(eds), Nankin Daigyakusatsu wo Kiroku shita Kogun Heishi tachi[Imperial Japanese Soldiers who kept records of Nanking Massacres], Tokyo: Otsuki-Shoten, 1996.
(9) T.M.Winsley, A History of the Singapore Volunteer Corps, 1854-1937, Singapore: Government Print Office, 1938, Stanley Woodburn Kirby, The War against Japan: Vol.1 The Loss of Singapore, London: Her Majestys Office, 1957, Song Ong Siang, One Hundred Years History of the Chinese in Singapore, Singapore: University of Malaya Press, 1967, Yap Pheng Geck, Scholar, Banker, Gentleman Soldier, Singapore: Times Books International, 1982.
(10) Mubin C. Sheppard, The Malay Regiment, Kuala Lumpur: The Department of Public Relations, Malay Peninsula, 1947, Yap Siang Yong(Ministry of Defense, Singapore) , Fortress Singapore: The Battlefield Guide, Singapore: Times Books International, 1992.
(11) Shu Yun Tsiao & Chua Ser Koon(eds), Malayan Chinese Resistance to Japan 1937-1945: Selected Source Materials, Singapore: Cultural & Historical Publishing House, 1984, The file of (Dalforce)Chinese Volunteers Overseas Army: British Military Administration/Chinese Affairs(Head Quarters, Singapore Division) preserved in the National Archives, Singapore.
(12) The statement of Chan Cheng Yean(WO325/87), preserved in Public Record Office, UK. See also the interview of Chan Cheng Yean(Oral History Department, Singapore), Sheppard, op.cit. and Hayashi Hirofumi, Sabakarenakatta Senso Hanzai[Untried War Crimes], Senso Sekinin Kenkyu[Report on Japans War Responsibility], No.19, March 1998.
(13) This Chapter is based on my two books, Kakyo Gyakusatsu and Sabakareta Senso Hanzai [Tried War Crimes: British War Crimes Trials to Japanese], Tokyo: Iwanami-Shoten, 1998.
The Diary of Kawamura Saburo(WO325/1, Public Record Office). See also Hayashi, Sabakareta Senso Hanzai, p.220.
(15) Hayashi, Kakyo Gyakusatsu, pp.163-166.
(16) Ibid., p.153.
(17) See Nagai Hitoshi, Ajia-Taiheiyo Senso-ki no Horyo Seisaku[Japanese Policy toward POWs during the Asia-Pacific War], Senso Sekinin Kenkyu[Report on Japans War Responsibility], No.9, September 1995, pp.32-33.
(18) Ibid., pp.34-35.
(19) Hayashi Hirofumi, Sabakareta Senso Hanzai, pp.70-71, pp.160-162.
(20) See Yui Daizaburo & Kosuge Nobuko, Rengokoku Horyo Gyakutai to Sengo Sekinin[Ill-treatment of United Nations POWs and Post-war Responsibility] , Tokyo: Iwanami-Shoten, 1993, pp.10-20 and Kanda Fuhito, op.cit..
(21) Inoue Haruki, Ryojun Gyakusatsu Jiken[Massacres of Lushun], Tokyo: Chikuma-Shobo, 1995.
(22) John W. Dower, War without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War, New York: Pantheon, 1986 and George Feifer, Tennozan: The Battle of Okinawa and the Atomic Bomb, New York: Ticknor & Fields, 1992.
(23) See, for example, Tanaka Yuki, Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War ?, Colorado: Westview Press, 1996, pp.74-78.
(24) FO916/477, 572, 775, 776(Public Record Office). See Hayashi Hirofumi, Indo ni Yokuryu sareta Nihonjin Minkan Yokuryusha[Japanese Internees in India], Shizen-Ningen-Shakai [Nature-People-Society: Science and the Humanities], No.25, July 1998.

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