Human rights dismissed: Disregard for life leads to huge damage, tragedy at home, abroad
During the Showa War, individual lives and human rights were given scant regard in Japan, and this was particularly so among military personnel. This apparently led to battlefield tragedies characterized by the never-surrender combat tactic known as “gyokusai” for dying an honorable death and the “tokko” suicide attacks. The nation’s disregard for lives and human rights during wartime in the Showa Era took hold as a traditional tactic of hand-to-hand fighting with swords and bayonets. In the Battle of Guadalcanal, which continued for six months from August 1942, the Imperial Japanese Army repeatedly used the tactic against overwhelming U.S. firepower and manpower. As a result, Japan suffered a massive defeat. The use of hand-to-hand combat style was originally outlined in the Hohei-Soten (Infantry Manual) introduced in 1940 that stipulated what actions soldiers should take. Focusing on hand-to-hand combat, the manual stated, “The hallmark of infantry troops is to wage battle and annihilate enemies regardless of the terrain and time factors.”
The second factor that led the nation to disregard lives and human rights was a mindset that placed priority on mental toughness, a trait peculiar to the Imperial Japanese Army. Unlike the manual for ordinary soldiers, the Tosui Koryo (Principles of High Command) or instruction guidelines and command codes for officers and chiefs of staff, which was revised in 1928, pointed out that “winning or losing largely depends on psychological factors—this has not changed since ancient times.”
This idea of mind over matter apparently led General Staff officers to misread their enemies’ situation and downplay information about the enemies.
”Gyokusai,” which referred to a patriotic act of fighting to the death right down to the last man, in essence meant the self-annihilation of entire military units. The “gyokusai” tactic was used from the time of the battle on the island of Attu at the western end of the Aleutian Islands in May 1943 forward but resulted only in needless piles of bodies.
”Tokko” attacks in which aircraft or manned torpedoes were crashed into enemy warships were regarded as “systematic suicides,” and the missions were carried out on the assumption that the soldiers would die. Weapons used for such suicide missions—such as Oka (Cherry Blossom) manned glider bombs and Kaiten (Divine Fate) human torpedoes, both of which were developed and used by Japan’s military during the war, embodied the military’s inhumane treatment of soldiers.
Oppression of human rights also intensified domestically. Backed by fears of terrorism and coups that grew among the public after the February 26 Incident in 1936, politics buttressed by the Military Police dominated the nation. People who criticized the war or did not actively cooperate with the government and military were quickly suppressed by the Military Police. In addition to politicians, liberal theorists, social critics and scholars were targeted. Writers were not allowed to publish their works unless they demonstrated that they believed the war would be won and that they were willing to cooperate with the government and military.
The national mobilization system introduced by the Cabinet of Prime Minister Konoe in 1938 was reinforced by the Cabinet of Kiichiro Hiranuma in 1939 as a national movement in which the public was compelled to work with the government and military as a whole to ensure victory in the war. When it was decided that the nation should eventually fight on the mainland in the final months of the war, “Kokumin Giyutai” (National Volunteer Corps) were organized at communities and workplaces to get ready for the battle against the U.S. forces. Pamphlets were produced to encourage people to use bamboo spears, hatchets and kitchen knives as weapons. The pamphlets chillingly urged the people, “Each person should kill one enemy combatant.”