Critique Vol. XI, No. 1 March 2004
The Anguish of Surrender, Japanese POWs of World War II by Ulrich Straus
Reviewed by Hans Baerwald

Ulrich Straus. The Anguish of Surrender, Japanese POWs of World War II. Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training, in association with University of Washington Press, 2004. 256 pp. plus Notes, Bibliography, Index. $27.50. ISBN 0-295-98336-1
Available from for $19.25.

The Imperial Japanese Army’s Field Service Code -- Senjinkun -- decreed that surrendering to the enemy was not an option. To become a Prisoner of War (POW) would bring shame onto yourself, your family and your community. By contrast, death in battle or committing suicide to avoid being captured or participating in a suicide charge against the enemy was extolled as honorable. Senjinkun and the accompanying indoctrination during basic training, as well as even earlier instruction absorbed during school years (in the 1930s), became almost insurmountable obstacles to considering capitulating. Senjinkun created the “Anguish” of surrender. It also helps to explain the brutality with which Japanese treated many -- but not all -- enemy combatants in China, Southeast Asia and the Southwest Pacific who became their POWs. [1] After all, by surrendering they had lost their honor and deserved to be punished, used for medical experiments, maybe murdered.

During the 1930’s when the Army increasingly dominated Japanese politics, all kinds of ancient lore connected with Bushido, the code of the samurai, was also dredged up to enhance ultranationalism, militarism and territorial aggrandizement, at the expense of the European colonial powers. Voices of domestic dissent were squelched under the terms of the Peace Preservation Law (Chian Iji-ho). Some of these dissenters were incarcerated for many years and tortured. Basic training for draftees was a miserable experience. They were slapped in the face or beaten with special staves for the slightest infraction. When I asked a Japanese colleague some years ago why he detested the imperial institution and the Emperor, he responded: "Every time I misbehaved during basic training and was battered, I also had to shout 'Tennoheika Banzai' (Long Live His Imperial Majesty). It has been impossible for me to erase those memories."

Ulrich Straus [2] has written a truly fascinating account of the agonizing interplay between the imperially ordained demands imposed by the Senjinkun and the more generally accepted normal will to survive unless one is committed to personal and general destruction for the sake of some grandiose cause. Thus, it surprised me that the recent film “The Last Samurai” extolls Bushido without even a hint that, during feudal times, these warriors also could and did lop off a commoner’s head or kill a captured enemy from another clan without compunction. The film becomes especially ironic when one remembers the post-World War II Occupation’s efforts to eliminate the remnants of “feudalism” in Japan.

During the initial year of war in the Pacific, few Japanese soldiers or sailors surrendered. One exception was Ensign Sakamaki Kazuo, the commander of a two-person suicide mission “midget submarine”. He was supposed to have steered his tiny sub into Pearl Harbor on the “day of infamy” and support the destruction of the U.S. Pacific fleet. However, for reasons that Straus recites with care, the sub hit a reef, broke apart and threw Sakamaki and his comrade (who did not survive) into the ocean off Oahu. The commander was able to swim ashore and became POW Number One.
His story and that of many others have been carefully researched by Straus using autobiographical books and written accounts, Japanese studies of POW experiences, and the author’s personal interviews with several ex-POWs. These men, still alive in the last decade of the 20th and first two years of the 21st century replied to Straus’s letter of inquiry that the Asahi published. A surprisingly large number of ex-POWs responded and willingly participated in the interviews. The resultant individual case studies, some lengthy, others brief, provide an unexcelled insight into the spectrum of responses to the unanticipated and often unwelcome fate of being battle survivors who ended up as POWs. Their tales bring the “Anguish” they confronted into sharp relief and comprise the major part of the book.

From the Allied -- mostly American -- perspective in the zones of conflict, the capture of Japanese soldiers and sailors, especially if they were officers, was important if the POWs could provide battle-front intelligence. For that to be realized, two requirements had to be met. First, interrogators of POWs and translators of captured documents were essential. Second, the POWs had to be willing to share important information. The latter imperative was overcome with relative ease because once they had taken the monumental step of surrendering -- sometimes by feigning unconsciousness -- they had no code of conduct to guide them and so answered questions freely. Some even assisted in the preparation of leaflets or verbal appeals to their erstwhile comrades to surrender.

By contrast, the number of Caucasian Americans who had a working knowledge of the language of Japan was negligible. Only Americans of Japanese descent (mostly Nisei, i.e. belonging to the “second” born-in-America generation) provided a pool of talent that could fill the void. However, all too many of them who had been living on the west coast were in relocation/internment/concentration camps as a result of the truly infamous “Exclusion Order” that uprooted them from their homes, businesses and farms. Nevertheless, from the outset, the vast majority of American Army draftees in the intensive Japanese language programs were Nisei. Some of them ended up as wartime sensei (teachers) of other inductees, which meant that the small program at the Presidio of San Francisco had to be moved to Camp Savage and later Ft. Snelling -- both on the outskirts of Minneapolis. It was not until the Spring of 1946 that the Japanese language school returned to the west coast, this time at the Presidio of Monterey [3] even though those incarcerated in the camps had been allowed to return to California in January 1945.

It took a while for the U.S. Army to recognize the enormous value that the Nisei represented. (The Navy never did allow them into its ranks). Ethnic discrimination was still palpable. Every single one of us Caucasians who became a Japanese linguist was commissioned upon graduation from the MISLS (Military Intelligence Service Language School) or its counterpart in the Navy. However, that recognition was not bestowed on the Nisei except in a small handful of cases. About a decade ago, I attended a reunion at the Presidio of Monterey of Japanese Language School graduates. An overwhelming majority of those attending consisted of Nisei. Those with whom I had served and who knew me greeted me with affection and warmth. Others were far more reserved. Old hurts linger. Nevertheless, reading Straus’s Chapter 8, “America's Secret Weapons: The Army and Navy Japanese Language Schools” is pure nostalgia for all who were linguists, especially for Nisei, who were the real heroes in the field.

In his final chapter, “Reflections on Japan’s No-Surrender Policy,” Straus has written a deeply-felt and sensitive meditation on the terrible toll that the Senjinkun imposed. Only someone having a close familiarity with Japan, its culture and its mores, could have written so movingly. Thousands, probably hundreds of thousands, on both sides of that horrific conflict perished even more unnecessarily than the usual price that all wars normally exact. However, one unanticipated consequence has been that returned Japanese ex-POWs were warmly welcomed back into their families and communities. Today’s Japan has changed from the hyper-militarzed and ultranationalistic society of the 1930s and first half of the 1940s. It has become more “normal” unless that word is meant to imply reliance on only military force to settle international conflicts. Overall support of the Constitution’s Article 9 (the No War clause) remains sufficiently strong that its amendment continues to be politically impossible. That kind of outcome should make today’s proponents of suicide missions reflect on the kind of revulsion that such fanaticism may breed in future generations.


[1] My father, a businessman who had never held any military implements in his hands, was a POW of the Japanese during WW I after the German Embassy in Tokyo had sent draft notices to all able-bodied German males in Japan in the summer of 1914. The draftees were to bolster the German garrison in Tsingtao which the Japanese attacked as an expression of their Alliance with the British. Fortunately, the German commander of the forces defending Tsingtao was reasonable and hoisted the white flag. All of the POWs were sent back to Japan. My father’s initial two-year sojourn behind barbed wire was in a Buddhist temple and its grounds in Matsuyama, Ehime-Ken. During the last two-and a half years he was in Camp Bando (now a part of Naruto-shi, Tokushima-Ken). Today a German-style castle (Schloss) built in the 1980’s in Naruto-shi, Tokushima-Ken houses extensive memorabilia, including a diorama of the Camp orchestra. My dad was a member of its first violin section that performed Beethoven’s 9th Symphony for the first time ever on Japanese soil. He spoke much more warmly -- if rarely -- about Bando than the Buddhist temple, but NEVER mentioned any maltreatment at the hands of his captors. Japanese behavior changed dramatically in the 1930s, and even more so in the early 1940s.

[2] For the sake of truth in advertising: Ulrich (Rick) Straus and I are the oldest of old good friends, going all the way back to being classmates in the Tokyo German School’s first grade in 1933. We transferred to the American School together in 1936 when the Gestapo’s arrival in Japan mercifully signaled an end to education in the German School. We were roommates in the Yuraku Building during the Occupation, but were not allowed to discuss [amazingly in retrospect, we obeyed] our respective interpreter/translator roles as he had been assigned to a senior subordinate of General Willoughby and I to a senior subordinate of General Whitney; the two generals were mortal ideological enemies who fought for every advantage in seeking favor with the Supreme Commander. Our paths diverged in the mid-50s when he joined the State Department’s Foreign Service while I began an academic career. During his retirement, Rick has become the scholar he might have been long ago and I have endless admiration for him and the book he has written.

[3] I was ordered to travel on the troop train that moved the School.

HANS BAERWALD, born in Tokyo in 1927, is a professor emeritus, University of California, Los Angeles. He received his B.A., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in Japanese studies and political science from the University of California, Berkeley. His books include The Purge of Japanese Leaders under the Occupation (University of California Press, 1959), Japan’s Parliament: An Introduction (Cambridge University Press, 1974), and Party Politics in Japan (Allen & Unwin, 1986). He is also a member of the board of advisers of JPRI and author of Occasional Paper #3 (May 1995), “Fund-Raising in Japan: A Sasakawa Saga.”

Downloaded from