Japanese soldiers of the 144th Infantry Regiment in Rabaul, January 23, 1942. Credit: Pen & Sword.

The Men Who Fought For Japan

Japanese soldiers of the 144th Infantry Regiment in Rabaul, January 23, 1942. Credit: Pen & Sword.

Since the end of the Second World War, there have been countless opportunities to hear from those who were there. Whether told in books or movies, those stories have scared and inspired younger generations for more than three-quarters of a century.  

However, in the West, these memories have originated from chiefly those who fought for the Allies. Now, a new book offers readers the perspectives of those who fought on the other side.

Japan's Pacific War: Personal Accounts of the Emperor's Warriors is a collection of written histories and memories provided by those who fought for Japan in the Second World War.

Kaname Harada is one of dozens who have shared their memories in Peter William's book.
Kaname Harada is one of dozens who have shared their memories in Peter William's book. In February 1942, he was involved in the largest ever attack mounted on Australia. Credit: Pen & Sword

The book, written by author Peter Williams, includes the frequently harrowing accounts of men who saw action across the Far East against British, American and Australian forces.

"I have killed without remorse many of the Emperor's enemies: the British, the Australians, the Americans and the Dutch. To this day, I have no shame about it." - Takahiro Sato, Japanese Army.

One such account is from Yoshiaki Iwasaki, an experienced bomber pilot with 22nd Air Flotilla, based near Saigon. On December 10, 1941, Iwasaki was part of the attack that sunk HM Ships Prince of Wales and Repulse.

I took off at 9:00 in the morning. We carried bombs instead of torpedoes. When we located the British Eastern Fleet (Z Force), we decided to go into the bombing run at 3,000 metres. The anti-aircraft fire from Prince of Wales and Repulse and their escorting destroyers was so massive that my Bombardier couldn't see his target very well. It was a curtain of fire. Prince of Wales and Repulse were also taking evasive action, zigzagging, so it was hard for us to predict which way they turn next. But my aircraft Bombardier, Sergeant Imai, had great skill, so I was quietly confident. Our eight bombers each dropped most of our 250-kilogramme bombs on Repulse, and one of my bombs actually hit the deck.

Our plane's observer screamed, 'Our bomb hit! Our bomb hit the ship!' I left the controls to my co-pilot and went to look out. I saw Repulse covered by black smoke. I was so excited. As I went back to the cockpit, my plane was suddenly shaken hard. An anti-aircraft shell had exploded, hitting the left wing. Oil started leaking, so we decided to return to base while the other servant bombers made a second attack. With the oil leaking on the wing, we all expected that a fire in the left engine would burn the wing off. I ordered the crew to be ready for an emergency landing in the sea and to throw all the heavy equipment out of the plane. We put on our life jackets and threw out the 20 millimetre and 7.7-millimetre guns, all the ammunition and other heavy things. I kept watching the hydraulic gauge as the left engine could stop anytime. While we were flying towards base, the radio kept updating us on the situation. 'Repulse, 45 degrees list,' then, 'Repulse completely underwater.'

 We were worried about the left engine, but we all still shouted 'Banzai' in the airplane when we heard the good news.

We finally saw the Indo-China coast and found our base. Just as we landed, the left engine fire burned down to nothing and went out. If it had been just a little more intense, my plane would have crashed, and everyone would be dead. When I got out of the plane, I also found another thing. One of the 250-kilogramme bombs was still hooked up under the bomber!

The loss of capital ships Prince of Wales and Repulse on December 10, 1941, proved to be the Royal Navy's most significant maritime loss of the war, a matter covered in depth by BFBS to mark the 75th anniversary of VJ Day in 2020.

Japan's Pacific War book cover. Pen & Sword
Japan's Pacific War: Personal Accounts of the Emperor's Warriors in written by Peter Williams. Credit: Pen & Sword

Another account is that of Isamu Kajiita, who, in September 1945, became a prisoner of war under the responsibility of Australian forces.

"I once tried to pick up a crust, but an Australian soldier stood on it. I smiled and bowed and he took his foot off it. I picked it up, blew the dust off and ate it. We were so hungry that there was no shameful feeling about doing that." -Isamu Kajiita.

Williams' book tells us that more than 160,000 Japanese personnel were placed in Australian camps in the South-West Pacific theatre. After the war, those not retained as suspects or witnesses for war crimes trials were sent home on Allied and Japanese ships.

Isamu Kajiita's account details his memories of capture:

In September 1945, I became a captive. When I heard about the end of the war, I felt relieved. But, on the other hand, I was keen to get rank, and I'd been a corporal for a long enough. I thought if the war had gone on a little longer, then I would have been promoted to Sergeant.

We marched in and gave up our weapons to the enemy: we only had one rifle for each person, no machine guns or mortars. I had an enemy belt, but my friend told me I should not keep it. If it is found, I'd be in trouble. So I threw it away.

I was sent to Jesselton Prisoner of War Camp in Borneo. There I saw Australians for the first time close up. They were big men, and I was scared. They had weapons, they could run quickly while we were weak, and it was hard to keep up with them. They made us strip naked and sprayed us with insecticide from head to toe, in every crevice of our body. Our first task was to clean up the mess made by bombing and repair a bridge. 

At first, the Australians kicked me if I made a mistake, but I was told by my superiors not to resist or complain. We were told to bear it so that we would be able to go back home without losing anyone. Keeping everyone alive in our new circumstances was now the aim, our officers said. 

The Australians questioned each of us. I was asked if Tojo was good. I said, 'No, no!' Then he asked if Hirohito was good. I knew the Emperor but didn't know this Hirohito. Who is Hirohito? We never called the Emperor by his name. I answered, 'Hirohito is good,' but that was clearly the wrong answer. 

The Australians were having a party, drinking because they'd won the war period on the counter they had tea, lemons, tomato juice, things I've not seen for years period so far I had only been given ten small biscuits a day, so I could not take my eyes off the food.

Crew of Yokosuka K5Y intermediate trainer at Oita Flight School in 1941
A crew of a Yokosuka K5Y intermediate trainer at Oita Flight School in 1941. Credit: Pen & Sword

In another chapter, a somewhat peculiar demonstration of the in-camp democracy shared by Japanese captives held as prisoners of war in New South Wales, Australia, is retold by WW2 survivor Teruo Murakami.

Murakami and more than a thousand fellow inmates staged a prison breakout in August 1944, a year before the war ended. During the escape, 231 Japanese prisoners were killed.

I didn't play any part in planning the escape, and I wasn't too keen on it. I was just one of the many. I followed the rest. I mean, I voted for an attempt to escape, but I just did what I was told. I was only a lowly private. Each group of 30 men had a leader, and he organized a vote. The leader gave each of us a piece of toilet paper, and we had to draw a circle on it if we were in favour of the breakout. A cross indicated opposition. I drew a circle, which meant yes.

The total vote was counted, and the decision was made to carry out the breakout. The vote to go was overwhelming. I thought that I would not see the end of it, that I would soon die in the breakout. That's how I felt. I thought the Australians would be prepared for such an attempt, so it probably wouldn't work. 

When the signal to go was given, I just followed the rest. I went towards Broadway [the main north-south road in the camp, separating the compounds from one another], and then I lay in the ditch until day broke. We had agreed to finish our lives but, because of a basic human instinct, many of the men, including me, didn't want to die. So we just lay down and allowed ourselves to be recaptured. I thought they would kill us then and was surprised to be treated so well.

That circle meant death for 231 Japanese and four Australians. Many Japanese escaped into the countryside and chose to die there. 

Afterwards, I was sent to another camp and went home in January 1946. When I went to Cowra, I never imagined I would ever see Japan again. When I got home, my family said it was as if a ghost had returned from the war.

The book includes the memories of men who fought against the Allies in the Far East, including Kokichi Nishimura, pictured here in 1941 and 2006. Credit: Pen & Sword
The book includes the memories of men who fought against the Allies in the Far East, including Kokichi Nishimura, pictured here in 1941 and 2006. Credit: Pen & Sword

Williams' book reminds us that when so much history is recorded by the victors of war, the voices of those who served on the opposing side can sometimes be lost. To some, those memories might even be considered to be less valid. For a period immediately after a terrible conflict like World War Two, perhaps those feelings are justifiable.

However, in a world now separated from the dark events of the 1930s and 40s by a gap of significant years, it is right to want to look upon those experiences and ponder the war from the other side's perspective. For the Japanese, this book provides that timely opportunity.

Japan's Pacific War: Personal Accounts of the Emperor's Warriors by Peter Williams is published by Pen & Sword and available now.

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