Japanese atrocities during World War II were a horrifyingly widespread phenomenon. While they lacked the systematic and technological character by which the crimes of the Third Reich shocked the world, they distinguished themselves instead by the frequency with which ordinary Japanese soldiers murdered civilians and prisoners of war. Efforts to understand this phenomenon have often pointed to Bushido, “The Way of the Warrior,” as a cause for such behavior. In reality, it is the cynical abuse of Bushido as a motivating force that contributed to these atrocities.
Entire books have been written to explain Bushido, but many of the central concepts concern a disdain for death. Generally, the death that is disdained is one’s own. The ideal samurai held honor higher than life, and could be expected to yield up his life in the service of his lord at any time. A key samurai exercise was to enter battle while considering oneself already dead; having overruled the instinct of self-preservation, it was thought, the samurai could pursue his tasks single-mindedly, offering a greater chance of success if he lived, and of glory and renown if he died.
This was an idealized image, just as the chivalry of medieval knights had been in the West. In medieval Japan, warfare was endemic, and there must have been many samurai who failed utterly to adhere to these ideals. It is not their stories, however, that endured, unless they served as the foil of a more noble samurai. Then, around 1600, the advent of the Tokugawa period brought peace to the Japanese islands. The samurai endured as a symbol of Japan’s past glories and as the embodiment of what were considered Japan’s noblest characteristics, but there was no need to prove those characteristics on the battlefield. In short, they became romanticized reflections of their ancestors, and it was in this capacity that they seized the collective imagination of Japan.
It is these romanticized notions that survived the modernization of Japan in the late nineteenth century. The Meiji Restoration was in large measure a response to the threat of colonization by the west; it rejected the quaint and insular character of the previous three centuries in favor of a marriage between the new, represented by industry and modern forms of organization, with even older ideas around which the new Japan might coalesce, above all the Emperor.
In reality, the Emperor was more than restored; his role was greatly enhanced over that of his medieval ancestors. The Imperial Family was always held to have a divine origin, but in the past, this was largely theoretical. Warlords could fight each other over control of the Emperor, who was often a passive figure at court. In practice, this continued to happen in modern Japan, although the fighting was mainly in the realm of politics rather than violence; but in theory, after the Meiji Restoration the Emperor was governing, not merely reigning, and his commands held the force of divine law.
During this transition, the samurai were partially sidelined. Many of the high politicians were themselves samurai, but they maintained their power by casting aside romantic affectations. Those who were less willing to do this either died in samurai rebellions in the 1870’s or faded into obscurity. There was no practical need for active samurai; the new state was defended with a new military, styled on those of the western powers.
The essential point of the Meiji Restoration was to make Japan a Great Power, so that it would not become a victim to the other Great Powers. In the late nineteenth century, this meant expansion. After defeating local uprisings, the new Japanese army was used to expand onto the mainland of Asia, with fighting in Korea and on the borders of China in the late nineteenth century, and a short and gratifyingly successful war with Russia at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Armies based on conscripts need a motivation to fight, however, and Japanese leaders found a successful formula in a hybrid ideology that married the popular image of Bushido to the new status of the Emperor. True Bushido had been a transactional system much like western feudalism, in which the samurai received practical benefits from his lord in return for his services. Under the new system, soldiers and indeed the population as a whole were to give their all in service to the Emperor for just the grace of his nature. Expressed in this way, the cynical nature of the decision becomes clear, but it was successful because it touched upon the romantic notions that endured in the popular imagination.
These developments suffice to explain the fanatical tenacity with which Japanese soldiers defended the islands of the Pacific, and even suicidal developments like the Kamikaze program, but still fall short where atrocities are concerned. These were made possible by the growth of interwar Japanese militarism, which ultimately stemmed from disappointment over the results of World War I. Japan had joined the war early on, promptly taking on the Allied cause, but Japanese leaders felt that their reward in the peace treaty was paltry, and blamed European racism for this inequity.
Two direct consequences flowed from this perception: the Japanese quest to build by force the great empire that its leaders felt it deserved, and a simmering anger at Europeans and Americans. Several schools of thought developed in military circles. Order at home and expansion abroad was a common theme, and as a result of the anomalous independent status of the Kwantung Army in Manchuria, it became possible for soldiers to act on their philosophies without full political support at home.
In the end, the Toseiha faction won and became the governing ideology of the Japanese High Command, but as Mark Felton pointed out (in “A Culture of Cruelty,” in Military History, January 2011), the more romantic notions of the Imperial Way faction came to dominate among the officers of the Japanese Army. It was here that the second cynical twist was made in the use of Bushido.
These officers saw Bushido as a manifestation of Japanese cultural superiority, and called upon their soldiers to live up to it as a way to fulfill their nation’s destiny. At the same time, Bushido was used for very practical ends; retreat and surrender were utterly unacceptable, and any who might consider them deserved the worst punishments. In the long run, this was a more successful way to discourage retreat than the Soviet expedient of deploying political officers to gun down retreating troops, but it also colored the Japanese view of enemy prisoners. These officers also enhanced their own authority by calling upon the divine authority of the Emperor. By teaching the common soldiers that the officers’ commands were the Emperor’s commands, they effectively bypassed any objection to any orders.
It was this last consideration that led to many of the atrocities in World War II. Whether the orders concerned the bayoneting of Chinese civilians or the execution of Allied prisoners of war, Japanese soldiers complied. Denigration of the victims added to the fervor. In the case of the Chinese, Japanese officers held them to be inferior, and yet they resisted the might of Japan. In the case of prisoners of war, the Japanese felt that they had behaved dishonorably by allowing themselves to be captured in the first place. The racial component to Japanese anger at the West only served to heighten the indignities they would heap on prisoners.
Bushido certainly played a substantial role in the atrocities committed by the Japanese in World War II, but it was not Bushido in its proper form, nor did this develop naturally. Rather, Bushido was used cynically by Japanese leaders to enhance their own power in several ways. By the time of the Second World War, the new Bushido of the Imperial Japanese Army bore little resemblance to the Bushido of medieval Japan.
Felton, Mark. “A Culture of Cruelty” in Military History, January 2011
Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai and the Sacred. Osprey, 2006
Ibid. Warriors of Medieval Japan. Osprey, 2007
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