by Sam Erkiletian
On 9 April 1942, approximately 60,000 Filipino and 15,000 beleaguered American soldiers surrendered to the Imperial Japanese 14th Army under the command of General Masaharu Homma after three months of heavy fighting across the Philippines and on the Bataan Peninsula. What followed was one of the greatest atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War, which was aptly named the Bataan Death March. Exhausted and malnourished Filipino and American POWs were forced to make the roughly 70-mile journey from Bataan to the American military base Camp O’Donnell without adequate medical or food supplies, all while being subjected to routine beatings, torture, and executions from their Japanese captors.[i] Approximately 7,000 to 10,000 Allied soldiers (2,330 Americans) died on the march.[ii]
The early atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers across China and in the Philippines, coupled with the perfidious nature of the attack on Pearl Harbor, solidified Allied enmity towards the Japanese and the stereotype that they were a “robotic, ferociously brainwashed people” willing to carry out any order no matter how brutal.[iii] However, a comprehensive account of the Bataan Death March reveals something puzzling—a significant number of Allied POWs received relatively humane treatment from some of their Japanese wardens. While some Allied prisoners were beaten, murdered, and even forced to bury their own officers alive during the march, others were allowed to ride in trucks and given adequate supplies and humane treatment.[iv] [v]
What explains this variation and inconsistency in the treatment towards Allied POWs by Japanese soldiers during the Bataan Death March? Why did some Japanese guards unflinchingly follow orders to beat and murder their charges while others resisted them? In order to answer these questions and to understand what factors led to the Bataan Death March, it is necessary to first discuss the military socialization process for Japanese soldiers during the Second World War and to then engage with the growing literature on resistance to socialization within armed groups.
Military Socialization in Imperial Japan
Japanese treatment towards POWs and the atrocities committed during the Bataan Death March were a direct result of the military socialization processes within the Imperial Japanese Army. Military socialization is the process within armed groups that “strip away [the] pre-military norms and identities” of recruits and replace them with the expected values and behaviors of the armed group.[vi][vii][viii] Armed groups employ a combination of ideological and social pressures through formal training, indoctrination, hazing, and initiation rituals to reform the identity of recruits.[ix][x]
Japanese soldiers experienced one of the most intensive military socialization processes during the Second World War. Even before active duty, young Japanese men had already been inculcated with ultranationalist propaganda that glorified the military and death in service of the emperor through media, the national school system, and during preparatory military training which began as early as secondary school.[xi] Japanese adolescents were raised in a society that had been “geared for war for fifteen years” and extolled patriotism which was “ultimately expressed through devotion to the emperor” and military service.[xii] A central theme of the propaganda promulgated throughout 1930s Japan was not only service to the emperor, but also obedience to all other authority figures.
Once inside the Imperial Japanese Army, recruits endured brutal physical and psychological training that further emphasized blind obedience and fostered extreme group cohesion. The Army was built on a “structure of authoritarian coercion that transferred oppression downwards [and] superior officers commonly commanded fear rather than respect”.[xiii] Physically hitting recruits in the face, a practice known as binta, was a regular occurrence meted out seemingly at random. Insubordination was also unacceptable. If a single member of a unit suffered an infraction or hesitated to carry out an order, the rest of his squad-mates often suffered savage beatings by officers with baseball bats, some inscribed with the words “Military Spirit Instilling Bat”.[xiv] This normalized brutality accompanied severe physical training in the form of long marches and drills that pushed recruits to the limits of their endurance.
Ideologically, Japanese recruits were inculcated through formal and informal indoctrination that emphasized devotion to the nation and the emperor, as well as a strict policy of no surrender. The doctrine of no surrender was reinforced at every level and stage of the military socialization process and was codified in the official Field Service Code for the Japanese Army (Senjinkun). For instance, one of the codes stated the following: “never live to experience shame as a prisoner…always think of preserving the honor of your community and be a credit to yourself and your family…by dying you will avoid leaving behind the crime of a stain on your honor”.[xv] The concept of “death before dishonor” was so enshrined in Japanese military culture, that the Japanese government refused to ratify the Geneva Convention of 1929 on the grounds that the treaty was unfair as “Japan would have to feed and house POWs, while other countries would be spared the onus of caring for Japanese prisoners because there would be none”.[xvi]
This policy had an incredible impact on the conduct of Japanese soldiers throughout the Second World War. Out of the 5,000 Japanese defenders on Tarawa, only 17 surrendered. On Iwo Jima, only 216 out of 14,000 soldiers surrendered, and on Okinawa, only around 10,000 of the 170,000-man garrison were captured alive.[xvii] In comparison, approximately 235,000 Axis soldiers surrendered at Stalingrad in February 1943 and over 260,000 German and Italian soldiers were captured in Tunisia later that year.[xviii]
Given the norms and behaviors emphasized during the military socialization process in the Imperial Japanese Army—blind obedience, discipline, extreme physical endurance, and no surrender—it is unsurprising that many Japanese soldiers treated prisoners viciously and that entire units committed atrocities against them. To many of the Japanese soldiers overseeing the procession of Allied prisoners from Bataan to Camp O’Donnell in April 1942, POWs represented the antithesis of their military culture and training; they were disgraced soldiers “seen as legitimate objects of their captor’s scorn, contempt, and much worse”.[xix][xx] However, even within this system of extreme military socialization, there were a number of Japanese soldiers that did not conform to these norms and in some instances even directly resisted them.
Limits to Military Socialization
The fact that “cruelty was not systematic” during the Bataan Death March and that some Japanese guards and officers defied orders to execute their charges suggests the potential limits of and resistance to military socialization.[xxi] Mounting evidence finds that individuals within armed groups are capable of resisting socialization and, in turn, the prescribed norms and behaviors of their group.[xxii][xxiii] Individual combatants “retain a measure of agency even under pervasive social control” which can lead to conflicting behaviors and insubordination. [xxiv]
At Bataan, many officers disobeyed a direct order from Colonel Tsuji, a radical officer even by the standards of the Imperial Japanese Army, to execute all POWs in their possession. For example, upon receiving the order to execute his prisoners, Colonel Imai not only disobeyed Colonel Tsuji, but freed his roughly one thousand prisoners and allowed them to escape into the jungle, citing that the order would have violated his own personal interpretation of Bushidō, the ancient Japanese warrior code.[xxv] At the ground level, a multitude of Japanese guards also went against the norms of their military culture to beat and belittle prisoners and instead provided adequate food, water, and breaks during the march. In one instance, an American tank commander was hugged and supported by a Japanese officer who had been his classmate at the University of California, Los Angeles.[xxvi]
The Bataan Death March demonstrates the effects of military socialization as well as its limitations. While the few Japanese soldiers and officers who resisted the draconian norms of their military culture were unable to change the horrific outcome of the Bataan Death March and the widespread atrocities committed by their brothers-in-arms, their actions illustrate that resistance to socialization and expected behaviors can occur even within rigidly controlled armed groups like the Japanese Imperial Army. Colonel Imai refused an order because it conflicted with his own personal code, while another Japanese officer disregarded expected behavior and embraced an old classmate because they were friends before the war. These experiences demonstrate that soldiers are not “blank slates” but have enduring prewar civilian identities “formed through prior arenas of socialization, such as families and schools” that can conflict with or even override aspects of military socialization processes.[xxvii]
The unexpected behavior of these Japanese soldiers during this brutal event in history illustrates that there are complex and often overlooked dynamics of identity and resistance within armed groups. Further research is needed to better understand what factors lead certain combatants like Colonel Imai and other Japanese soldiers to go directly against the expected norms of their armed group. Investigating what leads to behavioral differences will provide a more nuanced understanding as to how armed groups function, and such exploration will help to better contextualize the motivation and behavior of combatants.
[i] Kevin Murphy. Inside the Bataan Death March: Defeat, Travail and Memory (Jefferson: McFarland & Company, 2014).
[ii] John Toland. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 301.
[iii] John Dower. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: Norton, 2012), 122.
[iv] John Toland. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 294-301.
[v] Michael Norman and Elizabeth Norman. Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath (New York: Picador, 2009).
[vi]Amelia Hoover Green. “The commander’s dilemma: Creating and controlling armed group violence,” Journal of Peace Research 53, 5 (2016): 619-632, 621.
[vii] Devorah Manekin. “The limits of socialization and the underproduction of military violence: Eviidence form the IDF,” Journal of Peace Research 54,5 (2017): p. 606-619.
[viii] Gary Wamsley. “Contrasting institutions of Air Force socialization,” American Journal of Sociology 78, 2 (1972): 399-417.
[ix] Anthony Kellett. Combat Motivation: The Behaviour of Soldiers in Battle (New York: Springer, 1982)
[x] Jefferey Checkel. “Socialization and violence: Introduction and framework,” Journal of Peace Research 54, 5 (2017): 801-826.
[xi] Ulrich Straus. The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005).
[xii]John Dower. Embracing Defeat: Japan in the Wake of World War II (New York: Norton, 2012), 58,193.
[xiii] Ibid, 58.
[xiv] Ulrich Straus. The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005), 37.
[xv] Ibid, 39.
[xvi] Ibid, 21.
[xvii] John Toland. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (New York: Modern Library, 2003)
[xix] Ulrich Straus. The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005), 3.
[xx] Michael Norman and Elizabeth Norman. Tears in the Darkness: The Story of the Bataan Death March and Its Aftermath (New York: Picador, 2009).
[xxi] John Toland. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 301.
[xxii] Jefferey Checkel. “Socialization and violence: Introduction and framework,” Journal of Peace Research 54, 5 (2017): 801-826.
[xxiv] Devorah Manekin. “The limits of socialization and the underproduction of military violence: Evidence from the IDF.” Journal of Peace Research 54,5 (2017): 607.
[xxv] John Toland. The Rising Sun: The Decline and Fall of the Japanese Empire, 1936-1945 (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 295.
[xxvii] Devorah Manekin. “The limits of socialization and the underproduction of military violence: Eviidence form the IDF,” Journal of Peace Research 54,5 (2017), 610.
Sam Erkiletian is a PhD candidate at University College London’s Department of Political Science. His research focuses on the changing identities of combatants during conflicts and in postwar environments. In particular, he is interested in how the military socialization processes of armed groups affect the behavior and postwar identity of former combatants. Sam employs comparative case studies and utilizes primary sources from conflict archives in his research designs.
Sam is a Senior Editor at Strife. Find him on Twitter @SErkiletian