Prisoners of the Empire: Inside Japanese POW Camps

Prisoners of the Empire: Inside Japanese POW Camps

by Sarah Kovner
Prisoners of the Empire: Inside Japanese POW Camps

Prisoners of the Empire: Inside Japanese POW Camps

by Sarah Kovner


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A pathbreaking account of World War II POW camps, challenging the longstanding belief that the Japanese Empire systematically mistreated Allied prisoners.

In only five months, from the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 to the fall of Corregidor in May 1942, the Japanese Empire took prisoner more than 140,000 Allied servicemen and 130,000 civilians from a dozen different countries. From Manchuria to Java, Burma to New Guinea, the Japanese army hastily set up over seven hundred camps to imprison these unfortunates. In the chaos, 40 percent of American POWs did not survive. More Australians died in captivity than were killed in combat.

Sarah Kovner offers the first portrait of detention in the Pacific theater that explains why so many suffered. She follows Allied servicemen in Singapore and the Philippines transported to Japan on “hellships” and singled out for hard labor, but also describes the experience of guards and camp commanders, who were completely unprepared for the task. Much of the worst treatment resulted from a lack of planning, poor training, and bureaucratic incoherence rather than an established policy of debasing and tormenting prisoners. The struggle of POWs tended to be greatest where Tokyo exercised the least control, and many were killed by Allied bombs and torpedoes rather than deliberate mistreatment.

By going beyond the horrific accounts of captivity to actually explain why inmates were neglected and abused, Prisoners of the Empire contributes to ongoing debates over POW treatment across myriad war zones, even to the present day.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780674737617
Publisher: Harvard University Press
Publication date: 09/15/2020
Pages: 336
Sales rank: 676,931
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 1.40(d)

About the Author

Sarah Kovner is Senior Research Scholar at the Saltzman Institute of War and Peace Studies at Columbia University. She is author of Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan, a Choice Outstanding Academic Title.

Table of Contents

Introduction: A History Both Familiar and Strange 1

1 From Avatar of Modernization to Outlaw Nation 13

2 Singapore: A World Gone Topsy-Turvy 43

3 The Philippines: Commonwealth of Hell 67

4 A War of Words 96

5 Korea: Life and Death in a Model Camp 120

6 Captivity on the Home Front 137

7 Endings and Beginnings 157

8 Undue Process 177

9 Prisoners of History: Renegotiating the Geneva Conventions in the Wake of War 195

Conclusion: Never Again, and Again 208

Notes 221

Archival Sources 307

Acknowledgments 309

Index 311

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