Prisoners of war are a product of any war. By the end of World War Two, hundreds of thousands of soldiers, airman and sailors had been held as prisoners of war in all the theatres of war – Western Europe, Eastern Europe, the Far East, Asia and North Africa. There were rules that governed the treatment of prisoners of war (the Geneva Convention) – though a document formulated in Switzerland in times of world peace was always going to be hard pushed to be accepted by all those involved in World War Two.
If the Geneva Convention barely existed in Eastern Europe, it was not even recognised by the Japanese military which could not even understand why someone would want to shame their family and country by surrendering. Hence why the Japanese treated those who had surrendered to them with such barbarity – starting with their campaign in China in 1937. To a Japanese soldier, the greatest shame was to surrender – such a belief had been literally beaten in to all recruits. This belief in honouring your family and country also explains the thousands who volunteered to be kamikazes. Those Allied soldiers that did surrender to the Japanese went against what the Japanese perceived as honour. As an example, the Japanese took 100,000 men prisoner in Singapore. Many had just arrived and had not fired a bullet in anger. To the Japanese, these men did not deserve to be treated with any decency as they had shown no ‘honour’. 9,000 of these men died building the Burma-Thailand railway. Many other POW’s from other Pacific battles died on the infamous Bataan death-march – those who could not make it, were bayoneted where they lay. Survivors of Japanese POW camps were invariably united in their tales of brutality in these camps – as shown in films such as ‘Bridge over the River Kwai’ – and what happened in these camps outraged western society.
However, it is a myth that Japanese soldiers did not surrender. In the first few years of the Pacific War this was probably true. But as the war turned in favour of the Allies, this became less true and more and more Japanese soldiers became POW’s.