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  • The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II
  • Roger Dingman
The Anguish of Surrender: Japanese POWs of World War II. By Ulrich Straus. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2004. ISBN 0-295-98336-1. Maps. Photographs. Illustrations. Notes. Bibliography. Index. Pp. xx, 282. $27.50.

This book focuses on an important and neglected group of Pacific War combatants: Japanese prisoners of war held by the United States and its British Commonwealth allies. Its author is eminently qualified to tell their story. He grew up in prewar Japan, served as an Army Japanese language officer during the war, and later became first an interpreter at the Tokyo War Crimes Trials and then a career foreign service officer specializing on Japan. He bases his account on interviews with and memoirs of former Japanese POWs and the records of their interrogation and captivity stored in the U.S. National Archives.

Straus tells a tale of death and rebirth. In the first third of the book he explains why so few Japanese combatants surrendered and why so many regarded captivity as akin to death. The Senjinkun [Army Field Service Order] of January 1941 in effect "forbade . . . [being] taken as prisoners of war for any reason whatever" (p. 17). Strong nationalism, belief in Japan's superiority, severe discipline, and fatalism in the face of adverse battle circumstances made Japanese soldiers and sailors respect that order. Only one in three who became prisoners surrendered voluntarily. Driven by a sense of shame that shattered their sense of self-worth, those who did so misremembered or manufactured stories about their capture so as to make it seem unavoidable. In their own eyes and those of family and friends back home, they were dead.

Straus focuses in the second third of his story on those who coaxed and questioned the prisoners back to life. "America's secret weapons" (p. 89) were enlisted Army Japanese American native speakers and Caucasian Army and Navy officers trained in pioneering intensive language programs at the Universities of Michigan and Colorado, respectively. These interpreter/ interrogators broke down prisoners' reluctance to talk in ways one wishes their counterparts at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo had emulated. Army Nisei played upon their subjects' shock at seeing fellow Asians in American uniforms and in some cases used their ties as former pupils or classmates to get prisoners to open up. Otis Cary, perhaps the most successful Navy interrogator, made them feel alive again and willing to cooperate by showing them that Americans honored their fighting men who had or might become POWs and by getting them to think and talk as patriots about a democratic Japan of the future.

Straus uses his last chapters to describe the prisoners' lives in captivity and their troubled rebirth after repatriation to postwar Japan. While uprisings roiled Allied-run stockades, peace generally prevailed in better-managed, more cross-culturally tolerant American POW camps. The author is particularly telling in describing returnees' struggles to come to terms with their former status in a society which continued to live under a senjinkun mentality. [End Page 270]

This is a book meant for a scholarly audience focused on a war that ended nearly sixty years ago. But it has current relevance and is so gracefully written that it will appeal to anyone interested in prisoners of war or cross-cultural issues more generally. I chafed at Straus's occasional silence on sources and few factual errors. But I left the book feeling that its insights into Japanese thinking about war more than made up for those weaknesses.

Roger Dingman
University of Southern California
Los Angeles, California


Additional Information

Print ISSN
pp. 270-271
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2010
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