Kempeitai: Japan's Dreaded Military Police

One of the things that some people wonder about is how was the Japanese civilian population able to be so supportive of the war, and even buy into the idea that they, themselves, would be sacrificing their own lives if the US landed on the Japanese home islands, attacking with bamboo spears or explosives strapped on to their body.

The Kempeitai were one of the instruments which was used to keep the populace in place and keep them from doing anything but support the war effort.

The book has a lot of interesting information about the secret police, some examples of which follow:

1. The Japanese war effort in China led to a lot of anti-Japanese feeling there, which is, of course, not exactly surprising. The Chinese were boycotting Japanese goods, and Shanghai seemed to be a center of anti-Japanese hatred.

2. In relation to how many POWs were mistreated and even killed by the Japanese (who had never actually signed the Geneva Convention documents), the book has this to say:

”The abuse of PoWs in the history of warfare has been, and remains, a universal problem. As Japan emerged from feudal purdah in the nineteenth century, the nation's proclivity to racial discrimination- that is, a subscrpiton to the view of all nations as inferior to the Kami-country of Japan- was hardened into gaijin being considered sub-human by the new military ideology suffused throughout Japan from around the annexing of Korea in 1910. From the time of the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895), a Japanese soldier was expected to commit suicide rather than surrender. This was the ideology known as gyokusai, which led to the implementation of the kamikaze air and sea attacks of the Second World War.”

This is what caused the Japanese military to look down on PoWs, because, if the people they fought had been true fighters, they would have died rather than surrender. Therefore, anyone who surrenders has lost face and has no honor or loyalty left. Thus, they could be treated in any way the captors wanted to.

The civilians had a duty to their Emperor and their motherland which was supposed to be higher than any other duty. All orders were theoretically tied to the Emperor and it was the people's duty to obey them.

The prisoners in the PoW camps were considered of the lowest caste status possible, even lower than the burakumin, or the Japanese version of India's “untouchable” class. Thus, again, they could be mistreated without any problem.

In addition, the Japanese military training itself was brutal, and so for the soldiers to behave in a brutal manner towards non-Japanese was nothing at all surprising.

Thus, from the Japanese viewpoint, the torture or execution of PoWs was something that was to be expected and there was nothing wrong with it at all. Remember that history is written by the victors, and if the Japanese had been victorious, then there would be no talk of how badly they treated the PoWs. It would have been the Americans who would have been tried for war crimes and not the Japanese.

3. In the thirties and on into the forties, the police in Japan also had a duty of social censorship, and of monitoring public activities. The TOKKO (Special Higher Police, or thought police) was the civilian branch whose duty it was to enforce the idea of proper thought. Citizens could get in trouble for reading foreign language books. They could also get in trouble for listening to foreign music, and for being involved in labor movements.

From 1933 through 1936, over 59,000 people were arrested for having “dangerous thoughts.” Of those, 2,500 were sent to prison.

There was also a complete difference in legal assumptions. People in Japan who were arrested were assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Examinations could take place in secret, and torture could be used.

The Kempeitai were noted for their “racial and political fanaticism.”

There was also a Naval form of secret police that were responsible for mass murders.

The Kempeitai were the key administrators in the use of “comfort women” and prostitutes.

A Japanese radio show, Zero Hour, was used to broadcast pro-Japanese propaganda, and it was this radio show on which Tokyo Rose would appear. The book goes into the history of the one person prosecuted , Iva Toguri, was basically forced by the Kempeitai into taking up a job in the radio show. After the war she was arrested, freed, and re-arrested when the public wanted a scapegoat, tried, found guilty, and spent time in prison. The fact is, of course, that there were a number of “Tokyo Rose”s, not just one person.

The Kempeitai were also involved in getting subjects for the biological warfare experiments of Unit 731.

Japanese soldiers behaved particularly cruelly to civilians in the Philippines.

Tojo ordered that the Doolittle raiders that were captured were to be treated as war criminals and not as PoWs. He was also connected to the Kempeitai.

Hirohito's uncle Prince Yasuhiko Asaka had ordered the Japanese Army and the Kampeitai to slaughter 300,000 military prisoners at Nanking. A second uncle had ordered civilians in China bombed. Both went free and were not tried as war criminals at the end of the war.

The U.S. Occupation force had their own system of rigid censorship of papers, books, magazines, etc. (Some of this involved hiding things from the knowledge of US citizens, also.)

Groups that supported the Kempeitai continued even after the war ended, even through the 1980's.

On May 28, 1959, Emperor Hirohito “gave an order in person to the Shinto priests who administer the Yasukuni-jinja to inscribe the names of all Japan's war criminals on to the scrolls of the 2,500,000 immortal military dead commemorated at the shrine.”

(This is the shrine that has been so controversial when visited by Japanese dignitaries. The Korean and Chinese governments get upset when the visits are conducted, primarily because of the addition of those accused and convicted of war crimes.)

There is also a small memorial to the Kempeitai at the Yasaukuni-shrine area.

Main Index
Japan main page
Japanese-American Internment Camps index page
Japan and World War II index page