cover image Prisoners of the Empire: Inside Japanese POW Camps

Prisoners of the Empire: Inside Japanese POW Camps

Sarah Kovner. Harvard Univ, $35 (288p) ISBN 978-0-674-73761-7

Kovner (Occupying Power), a research scholar at Columbia University’s Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies, delivers a rigorous and wide-ranging study of Japan’s treatment of POWs during WWII. Though Japan received praise for its “scrupulous conduct” toward Russian POWs during the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War, and officially pledged to uphold the Geneva Conventions in WWII, its military culture, which regarded surrender with utter contempt, was a factor in the abuse and neglect of prisoners, according to Kovner. She notes that in the five months following Pearl Harbor, Japan captured more than 140,000 Allied soldiers and 130,000 civilians, without an adequate system in place to manage them. Showing an impressive command of source materials in multiple languages, Kovner documents the experiences of Allied POWs and Asian laborers forced to work on the Thai-Burma Railway and American and Filipino soldiers rounded up for the Bataan Death March, notes that many of the worst abuses occurred at the hands of undernourished Korean and Taiwanese guards, describes conditions aboard the “hell ships” that transported POWs to where their labor was most needed (and were regularly sank by Allied torpedoes), and details efforts to hold Japanese officers responsible for war crimes. She concludes that “there was no overarching policy or plan to make POWs suffer... POWs were simply not a priority.” This revisionist history adds essential nuance and depth to an emotionally charged subject. (Sept.)