25th February 2022

Book in Focus
Imperial Japan's Allied Prisoners of War in the South Pacific

Surviving Paradise

By C. Kenneth Quinones

What is the book about?

The focus of this book is the people whom the Imperial Japanese armed forces imprisoned during WWII in the South Pacific and the battle for Rabaul, Imperial Japan’s foremost bastion in the region. Their struggle to survive is recalled, particularly that of the six US airmen and one Australian coast watcher among some 200 Allied airmen imprisoned in the South Pacific. One of the survivors was my father. Also examined is the fate of the several thousand other Allied prisoners of war (POWs), Korean “comfort women” and conscripted labourers, and hundreds of European and American missionaries forced to serve Imperial Japan’s armed forces in the South Pacific.

Imperial Japan’s motives for initiating the “Great Pacific War,” as it is called in Japan, are scrutinized to comprehend why its armed forces inhumanely treated millions of people across East Asia during the war. Were the atrocities a consequence of conduct and culture unique to the Japanese people or more due to the human race’s innate ability to act inhumanely?

The narrative opens with an assessment of international political and economic conditions between the two World Wars which set the stage for Imperial Japan’s effort to conquer China and to expel the Western imperialists from East Asia. The genesis of Japan’s pre-war nationalism and political ideology is also explored, beginning with the emperor’s “restoration” as Japan’s ruler in 1868. It discusses how Shinto and Bushido became the empire’s foremost value systems, shaped modern Japanese nationalism, and set the stage for the rise of militarism and fascism in Japan during the 1930s. Imperial Japan’s enormous effort to expand its empire into China and the South Pacific, and the Allies’ determination to destroy Rabaul are also detailed, while the odyssey of the seven Allied “Rabaul survivors” prior to their imprisonment, during their struggle to survive in paradise and life after liberation is interwoven into the narrative.

What was your inspiration for writing the book?

My father and wife, who was born in Korea, were convinced that the Japanese people were cruel and devious, but I acquired a contrary assessment during a decade of working as a diplomat and professor in Japan. Could these contrary perceptions be reconciled? My quest for a resolution began half a century ago when the US Army assigned me to study the Korean language and to decipher North Korean army codes. Travel to Korea and Japan followed. Then came a decade of formal study that led to a PhD in East Asian Language and Civilization at Harvard University. After teaching East Asian history at American universities, I served two decades as a diplomat focused on Northeast Asian affairs. Eventually, I returned to Japan to teach East Asian history at an international university, which exposed me to the views of students from around the world, including Japan. All the while, my wife’s experience living in Japan convinced her, like me, that the Japanese people are worthy of respect and are no better or worse than human beings anywhere. This perception was refined by the application of rigorous analysis to the saga of Allied prisoners in the South Pacific during WWII.

What does your book do differently to similar titles?

This study goes beyond cataloguing atrocities committed during the war. It strives to understand the Japanese people’s conduct prior to, and during, the Great Pacific War. Often ignored is the fact that the majority of Japanese played no role in their nation’s policy decisions because of their exclusion from the political process.

An exploration of Japan’s traditional cultural values established that these values in their orthodox form did not propel early modern Japan’s leaders to pursue imperialism, militarism and authoritarianism. Confucianism and Buddhism emphasize mutual respect, self-restraint, mutual cooperation, and pacifism, which are the antithesis of the values Imperial Japan’s military leaders professed. Shinto as an institutionalized religion did not appear until the early 19th century. Similarly, the Japanese people have traditionally cherished human life rather than promoted its destruction. However, in Imperial Japan (1868-1945), as was also true in Germany and Italy, political and military leaders exploited their people to build an empire in the name of national defence and prosperity.

Imperial Japan’s early leaders formed by the 1920s a new ideology by extracting selected elements from traditional values to fabricate what they called Bushido and kokutai. Kokutai, or national essence, assigned the emperor unique supreme authority and benevolence. Buttressing their convictions were racism, nationalism, imperialism, and authoritarianism, the basic elements of Bushido, or the “Way of the Warrior.” They proclaimed that the Japanese people were obligated to sacrifice their liberty and lives to defend their emperor and nation from the “barbarians,” specifically the European and American imperialists. Soldiers were trained to die in battle and to never surrender. Eventually, the Japanese people were expected to commit national suicide. All those who sacrificed their lives for the emperor and nation were assured of achieving the Buddhist concept of eternal bliss and enshrinement at the nation’s leading Shinto shrine, Yasukuni.

This gross distortion of traditional Japanese values and the Japanese people’s willingness to serve the common good rather than their own individual interest enabled Imperial Japan’s rulers to exploit their subjects, which culminated in the suffering and death of millions of East Asians, Americans, Europeans, South and Southeast Asians, and the people of the Pacific islands.

What new insights has the book revealed?

Buddhism, Confucianism, and Shinto are manifestations of traditional Japanese values and promote social harmony, mutual respect, and denial of selfish desires. They did not nurture Imperial Japan’s quest for empire and engagement in war. The Bushido of the WWII era was a gross distortion of these values and had little in common with traditional norms of conduct. Bushido’s purpose was to rationalize the pursuit of empire in the name of national defence and prosperity, and to justify the Japanese people’s obligation to die for the emperor and nation.

Racism, fear, the desire for revenge, and a thirst for power emerge as primary motives for the decisions of Imperial Japan’s leaders, factors common to all human beings.

Racism severely marred the assessments of military leaders in both Imperial Japan and the Allied nations. It convinced both sides’ military leaders of their invincibility. The Allies’ arrogance rooted in racism, just as much as Imperial Japan’s tactical surprise, enabled Imperial Japan to quickly destroy the Allies’ military might during the war’s initial six months. Similarly, Imperial Japan’s military leaders believed that the Japanese people’s racial superiority gave them “intangible qualities” which enabled them to overcome superior US industrial might. Such convictions proved to be myths.

Emperor Hirohito and some members of his immediate family played significant roles in Imperial Japan’s effort to subdue China.

Conventional wisdom has long depicted Imperial Japan’s soldiers as having lacked individuality and as having acted strictly in conformity with the precepts of Shinto and Bushido. Actually, Imperial Japan’s soldiers shared characteristics innately common to young men everywhere, as evident from prison guards’ interactions with their prisoners and views that soldiers recorded in personal diaries.

Douglas MacArthur’s performance during WWII has been overrated and that of the Australian forces grossly underrated.

African-American troops’ contribution to the Allied victory in the Pacific has been largely ignored and underrated. African-American troops built much of the infrastructure and provided the logistical support essential for the Allies’ defeat of Imperial Japan.

Similarly ignored has been the suffering of Korean labourers’ and Colonial Indian POWs who were forced to build and to maintain the infrastructure Imperial Japan needed to defend Rabaul.

Both Japanese and Korean men exploited Korean women as “comfort women.” These women may have signed employment contracts, but this did not justify their being sexually abused or justify the terrible conditions most were forced to endure.

Conditions at Imperial Japan’s POW camps in Japan were inferior to those in Germany but superior to conditions at POW camps in the South Pacific. Allied POWs interned in Japan were much more likely to survive than POWs at camps in the South Pacific as evident from the fact that 75% of Allied POWs in Japan survived imprisonment, but only 3.5% of those who stayed at Rabaul did.

The human desire for survival is vividly depicted by the “Rabaul survivors’” struggle to survive from the time of their being shot out of the sky until their liberation. Their experiences also illustrate the extreme hardship humans can endure and their ability to work together despite ethnic, economic, and educational diversity.

Ultimately, similar motivations yielded similar conduct. All wars are a consequence of a thirst for power and revenge, racism, and mutual fear and distrust steeped in ignorance. Wars are without mercy and all humans share an equal capacity to act either humanely or inhumanely. A multitude of factors can tip human conduct in either direction, but precisely what these factors are has yet to be determined.

A student of East Asian history and languages since 1963, C. Kenneth Quinones received his PhD in History and East Asian Languages at Harvard University in 1975. Careers as a university professor and diplomat, plus coordinating US-East Asian educational exchanges enabled him to live in Japan (12 years), South Korea (10 years) and North Korea (six months), and to travel extensively in East and Southeast Asia, the Russian Far East, Europe, and Australia. In 2006, he was appointed Chairman of the Global Studies Program at Akita International University, Japan’s first truly international university with students from over 35 nations. He taught East Asian history at this institution, and was promoted to Dean of Research before retiring in 2015. His publications include over 30 academic articles and five books.

Imperial Japan’s Allied Prisoners of War in the South Pacific: Surviving Paradise is available now in Hardback at a 25% discount. Enter code PROMO25 at checkout to redeem. 

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