Home from a Japanese jail a Far Eastern correspondent describes what goes on behind Hirohito’s war front

FREDERICK B. OPPER November 15 1942


Home from a Japanese jail a Far Eastern correspondent describes what goes on behind Hirohito’s war front

FREDERICK B. OPPER November 15 1942



Home from a Japanese jail a Far Eastern correspondent describes what goes on behind Hirohito’s war front


ICHIRO UEDA was a young Japanese businessman in Shanghai who had been arrested by the gendarmerie for selling gasoline in defiance of the most stringent regulations. He squatted next to me on the filthy wooden floor of the gendarmerie jail, carefully nursing the bruises and welts on his arms and back that a gendarme questioner had left as “persuaders” for additional information.

“By next May the war will be over,” he whispered confidently. “Japanese will take Alaska. We will land in Canada, California and seize Hawaii. India will revolt against Britain and we will capture Madagascar and Africa. We will give little parts of Africa to Germany and Italy, but Japan will be most important country in the world. Also we will fight Russia at right time and take Siberia. Japanese very successful.”

“If Japan is going to rule the world within the next few months why is it necessary for the Japanese gendarmes to beat you up because you have broken a minor rule?” I whispered back.

“Shigata ga nai (such things can’t be helped),” he shrugged. “I do not care. I am Japanese.”

Time after time I encountered that same attitude among the Japanese prisoners. For 109 days I sat and slept side by side with them in an incredibly filthy jail, twenty-five of us in a bare cagelike room nine feet by eighteen. I gave them and the Chinese prisoners my daily prison fare of three small bowls of rice, for the jailers let me go upstairs to eat food sent by friends; and as we squatted on the floor we whispered in defiance of the regulations that called for us to sit like statues contemplating our “crimes” in silence.

Ueda, I am convinced, is typical of the overwhelming majority of 75,000,000 Japanese today in that he believes implicitly the propaganda the Tokyo Government spoon-feeds him, he never thinks for himself and he is certain that Japan, the

chosen child of destiny, not only will win the war but will rule the world.

Out of the two dozen Japanese who were held in my cell from time to time I never saw one who resented his treatment, or who was other than convinced of Japan’s righteousness.

“Why don’t you tell the gendarmes you realize your mistakes and will co-operate now in the New Order in East Asia?” one of the Japanese prisoners asked me one day while we were joining forces in picking lice from our clothes. “They probably would let you go.”

When I said that I didn’t see that I had made any mistake in my estimation of Japanese character or tactics he shook his head sadly.

“But it was a mistake because you wrote antiJapanese news,” he explained carefully. “AntiJapanese activity is always mistake.”

One of the few kindly and inherently decent gendarmes I met during my incarceration told me, one day, that after the war he intended to go into business in Manila. I suggested it might be difficult for him to make a success in that field if the Japanese had been expelled from the Philippines and that there was no assurance they might not be forced out before the war ended.

He roared with laughter.

“You joke,” he said. “Everybody knows Americans never come back to Philippines. Impossible Japanese lose. Japanese always win.”

The whole Japanese argument was dinned into my ears, time and time again, by a Sergeant Terasaki who was my chief interrogator at the

jail. He would call me out of my cage and take me upstairs in the apartment house which served as a gendarmerie headquarters and in the cellar of which the Japanese had built the cells that housed their prisoners. We would sit opposite each other across a tiny table in a former kitchen with a Japanese who had spent fifteen years in Vancouver and San Francisco, serving as interpreter. 1 think Terasaki early came to the correct conclusion that, although I was a newspaperman and had written what were probably the strongest anti-Japanese editorials in a daily English-language newspaper in East Asia, I was not, therefore, necessarily a spy, as his associates believed. The result was that on occasion he made only a halfhearted effort to pin me down to a confession and spent the remainder of the period attempting to prove that Japan was unbeatable.

One day I offered to bet him a dinner that Japan would lose. The interpreter put his remarks into excellent English.

“You simply do not understand,” he said. “It amounts only to this: Japan will not lose because Japan cannot lose. You Americans think you are powerful because you are rich. But Japan is powerful because we have a Japanese spirit that you do not have and that is why we will defeat you.”

Two Schools of Thought

SUCH superconfidence, stemming from the fact that Japan has never lost a war and there is simply no precedent for defeat, has given rise to two schools of thought among Canadians and

Americans home from the Far East. One holds that never, under any circumstances, will the Japanese admit they are beaten, that with their fleet sunk and their army routed they will carry on guerilla warfare in the rugged hills of Honshu and Kyushu, clinging to hope and determination equally with life. The other school says that nobody knows what the Japanese will do in the face of defeat because nobody has seen them defeated in total war and that their own native excitability in the face of a national crisis, as was evidenced in the 1923 Tokyo earthquake holocaust, makes it likely that thèy will panic when they realize at last that the war is lost.

Both these schools, however, agree on the one vital point that it will be a long, bitter, bloody and difficult war before Japan is brought to her knees either through complete and utter military defeat and occupation or through internal crack-up. Almost without exception the 1,600 Canadian and American repatriates recently back to these shores on the Gripsholm see nothing ahead in the Orient for the United Nations but long weary months of blood and sweat against a disciplined, able, courageous, fanatic and hardened foe.

That the Japanese is able has been amply shown by what he has accomplished in ten months of war, and his courage is certainly no weak chink in his armor. When the Japanese say they can get along happily on food that would barely support an Anglo-Saxon they are speaking the literal truth. Japanese officers in Peking could not believe that the American Marine garrison there was serious in asking the daily rations it did. The Japanese thought the request covered a period of two or three days. I have seen Japanese soldiers in Manchuria, going down to Nomonhan to fight the Russians in the summer of 1939, eat a bowl of rice, drink a cup of weak tea and slog on satisfied.

Foreigners frequently wonder how the Japanese, a poor people when they started, have been able to wage war against the gigantic sprawling continent that is China for five long years and more, without a final decision, and then turn and plunge into a conflict against the British Empire and the United States. Part of the answer is to be found in the overlooked fact that for the better part of the Sino-Japanese “incident” no real war has been fought.

Since 1938 the Sino-Japanese conflict has been almost static. Since the fall of Hankow and Canton there have been almost no major campaigns and Japan has carefully husbanded her strength. Chinese guerillas have chopped at Japanese communications and periodic “mop-up campaigns” and “piston attacks” have been undertaken but there have been virtually no major offensives. When I was in jail the Japanese held a service in the prison yard for troops killed in the Shanghai area during the past four months. I counted twenty of the little white boxes that hold the dead soldiers’ ashes. Twenty deaths in four months, in an area as essential to their China success as the lower Yangtze Valley, is not a high price for the Japanese to pay.

Chinese guerillas do blow up bridges, derail trains and kill puppet officials. They operate within sight of the city of Shanghai and have a complete organization, taking orders from Chungking, collecting taxes and supervising education. But they are gadflies more than scorpions.

Prepared For Bigger Fight

IN THE meantime Japan has been hoarding her supplies with only half an eye on the China war. She’s looked forward to an ultimate fight against the Western Democracies and possibly Russia with more than half her vision. The raw materials of war that she purchased abroad in America and Britain up to a year ago have been turned into the finished products of war and have not been used in China but have been saved to be sent back where they came from ! She likewise traded with Germany most profitably up to the time the Nazi-Soviet war cut off the Trans-Siberian Railway, trade that brought her such necessary items as precision tools and scientific instruments. And the China field

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itself has been a market for her goods and a source of many of her raw materials — not only in occupied China but in Free China itself, where a crying need for certain supplies has resulted in such topsy-turvy sights as Chinese troops wearing Japanesespun cloth in their uniforms.

In the six weeks I have been back in the United States I have found the average American still thinks of Japan as a nation of double-crossing, bespectacled comic characters out of Gilbert and Sullivan. They are double-crossers and they have been comical. But where it once was funny to laugh at the ubiquitous policeman dogging the foreigner’s footsteps along the sands of a quiet seaside resort, it is not so funny to think that policeman may today be a military policeman in an army of occupation in Singapore or Hong Kong or Batavia or Kiska. The Japanese do not wage war as one might think from the “Mikado” or “Madame Butterfly.” They wage it very seriously and unfortunately all too well. In the United States I have seen little realization that Japan is a nation united as few nations are united today and that Japan is united for the purpose solely of waging war.

There are chisellers and profiteers in Japan as there are in every country in every war. But the Japanese Empire today is prepared for sacrifice and the people, by and large, are not only willing but eager to follow any lead they receive from the Government that will help to win the war. There are malcontents, to be sure, and in some enlightened quarters there is deep-seated worry over the huge task which Japan has shouldered—an all-out conflict against the gigantic potential of the British Empire and the United States. But most of the malcontents are rotting in jails for “dangerous thoughts” and have been there for years without trial. And most of those who worry keep their thoughts to themselves and join in the war effort for they realize, better than most, that Japan is fighting for her life.

The Japanese civilian certainly has suffered hardships in the last five years of war. Rice is growing scarcer and is mixed with barley now. Clothes are shabby and wear out easily since they are made of substitute materials. Homes are poorly heated for coal must drive the war factories of Japan. Luxuries are a thing only of memory. But the hardships the Japanese civilian has suffered are by no means sufficient yet to bring him to his knees as the German was brought in 1918.

Japanese are used to hardships. The country is a rocky group of islands that cannot adequately support the 75,000,000 people who live on them. Rice must be imported

from the Korean colony and today more and more of this staple product must come from overseas. Farm labor is scarce because many of the young men are in uniform now and many others are in the cities working in the better-paying war industries. Fixed rice prices make the farmer consider the advisability of planting wheat instead to ensure a larger margin of profit. Fertilizer is scarce since the British capture of Italian Somaliland, the former chief source of supply. So the Japanese eats rice imported from Indo-China or China which he does not like, or he eats it mixed with barley which he likes even less.

But the Japanese, though he doesn’t care for the hardships that are his lot now concurrently with war, bears them without protest. There is less “voluntary” co-operation in Japan than there is in the nations of the West, for the Japanese Government does not wait for public opinion to force an individual to give his all for the nation at war, largely because there is no public opinion as we know it. So at government “request,” schoolboys cheerfully spend their vacations tilling the fields and feel they are contributing their mite. Golfers coming out to the links on sunny mornings are apt to find the fairways plowed into furrows and return to feel that, small as it is, their involuntary retirement from golf is a contribution to Japan’s war effort. Private automobiles have slowly disappeared from Japanese streets and so Japanese subjects scramble for streetcars without complaint or faint from the fumes in tightly packed charcoal-burning buses. Leather is scarce so Japanese walk uncomplainingly on cardboard soles that wear out within a matter of weeks or even days. Whale meat is plentiful and beef is not and therefore “whale meat” parties are organized and the nation manfully chokes on the noxious stuff to help win the war of Greater East Asia.

Jap Fighting Men

IMPORTANT as Japanese civilian morale and unity is to the Japanese war effort, nevertheless it is the Japanese soldier and sailor who is doing the actual fighting and who will have to be beaten by the land, sea and air forces of the United Nations. What kind of troops are they, these undersized little men who live on fish and rice, who wear patched uniforms and in many cases put on shoes for the first time when they are recruited? What are these sailors like, crammed into quarters western navies would hardly use for cattle, men who built a modern fleet out of tiny cockleshell wooden junks within the memory of people alive today, and

who have faced the might of the two greatest navies in the world and traded shot for shot with them? Who are these. aviators who in an hour one day off Malaya did more damage to the heavy ships of the Royal Navy than the famed Nazi Luftwaffe has done in three years of war and who in a like space of time inflicted damage to the American Pacific fleet greater than that suffered in all that nation’s previous history?

The answer is simply that they are among the best fighting men in the world. They form a military force that will be hard, terribly hard, to beat.

I once asked a German officer who had been with General von Falkenhausen when the German military mission was training and advising the Chinese armies in the early days of the “Incident” what he thought of the Japanese Army.

“As soldiers they are among the best I have ever seen and I have seen most,” he answered. “Give them an objective and they will take it or die in the attempt. You can’t ask anything more than that of troops. There’s a lot about the Japanese Army that is not so good but the individual soldier is excellent.”

Actually the Japanese Army (and to a lesser extent the Navy) is a mystical military machine that is difficult for the occidental mind to understand, let alone explain. It is autonomous in that it feels little responsibility to the Government in Tokyo and it is autonomous within itself in that the Central China command may refuse to co-operate with the North China command or the North China with the Kwantung Army of Manchuria. What is more, relatively junior officers can and do issue orders altering government policy on their own authority without censure and even with praise.

In the midst of all these cliques and groups, however, the buck private is naturally nothing but a pawn. He is a soldier, not of the Fifteenth Division or of Major Nakamura, but of the Emperor—and therein lies his great value as a fighting man.

The Japanese soldier considers it an honor to die for the Emperor. Japanese mothers sob like English mothers when Taro’s ashes are brought home in the little white box but she can feel pretty sure that Taro probably died as happily as men die. And she can be just about as sure that Taro’s last thoughts were not of her but of the Emperor. If Taro and his comrades are killed fighting for the Emperor they become gods. That is literally what happens to Taro. On an appointed day the Shinto priests hold solemn services at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, the Valhalla of Japan, and Taro becomes a god to whom succeeding generations of Japanese will clap their hands, bow meekly and pray for help and guidance.

More specifically Taro is unlikely to be taken prisoner. He has been instructed that Japanese troops don’t surrender and that if he should be captured he can never return to Japan. Japanese troops, of course, have surrendered and are today in prison camps. But far more of them have fought to the death in preference and many, as in the Solomon

Islands, have killed themselves rather than fall into American or Australian hands.

The Japanese soldier will go to ; almost any length to prevent capture, which makes him a dangerous and bitter-end fighter. The American Marines on Wake Island reported that many Japanese, overpowered during the first landing attempt, j sought to kill their captors at the first opportunity no matter how j great the odds against them. The : result was that the Japanese almost had to be beaten twice.

What is true of the Japanese soldier is equally true of the Japanese sailor, j Both have imbibed a fanaticism that ! is virtually unknown in western ¡ nations, which means, for the Cana! dian, American or Australian who meets them somewhere in the Pacific area, a battle that will never be a j walkover.

There are other reasons, many j others, why for a long time to come | any skirmish or fight or battle will not be an easy victory for our side. Japanese staff work has been excellent, Japanese equipment is adequate, Japan’s supplies are plentiful and the choice of action is still largely in Japan’s hands.

Adequate Equipment

WHAT equipment Japan now has is streamlined for her present needs and while perhaps it is equipment that does not in some categories compare favorably with the best German, Russian, British or American equipment, it is equipment designed for the front on which it is used and equipment which is the J right thing at the right place at the , right time.

A year ago, when the Japanese were driving south toward Changsha in one of their periodic attacks against the Hunanese capital, I flew over the area and watched the Japanese knife ahead. They had complete command of the air. Not a Chinese plane was to be seen any place in all of Central China during the three-day trip I made, and Japanese bombers, dive bombers and fighter planes were over the area like hawks over a chicken yard. No Chinese motorized equipment was any place in evidence and the Chinese troops were virtually reduced to defending themselves and their bases with rifles and machine guns. Perhaps the Japanese planes and tanks and trucks were small in number and inadequate in performance compared to those which have been thrown into action before the gates of Stalingrad or in the Western Desert. But the equipment was far superior to that which the enemy had and there lay the overwhelming superiority of the attackers which enabled them to make good their objective, temporarily at least.

The same thing has proved true in

the Japanese war in Malaya, the

Philippines, Burma, the Dutch East

Indies and elsewhere where they have

met the United Nations to date. In

each of these areas the Japanese

equipment has proved to be the

equipment that was needed at the

moment and proved to be sufficient

for the task in hand. How that !

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equipment would have stood up if it had met the best British and American equipment on even terms or in even numbers is another question. Only at rare intervals has it been forced to do so. Japanese Zero planes have shown their capabilities on sufficient fronts to indicate that they were excellent planes for Japan’s purposes at the moment they were most effective—driving an outnumbered enemy air force from the skies. American Army and Navy fliers believe the Zeros are inferior in the long run to British and American planes and that is apparently proving true now with the heavy counterblows which are being struck in the Solomons, New Guinea and the Aleutians. But the Japanese had designed and built their planes for the initial push and they proved they had designed well and built wisely.

Equally good has been the Japanese staff work. It seems obvious nowthat the Japanese had worked for years on the problem of the push southward into the regions they have won since last December. Every detail had been thought out and considered in advance. Roads and traits were known by the attackers, as well as or even better than, by the defenders. Beaches and jungles had been mapped with the utmost care. Spies and fifth columnists had been waiting for years for Dec. 7. When that day came they, and the Japanese Supreme War Council, were ready.

If Japan were given five to ten years of peace in which to develop her initial gains in the south she would possess one of the richest empires in all the world’s history and the United Nations would face an almost impossible task in attempting to dislodge her. That she is forced to continue the war is a circumstance that prevents full exploitation and leaves the ultimate outcome still in doubt. The stronger the slowly gathering strength of the United Nations in Asia becomes, and the more Japan is forced to fight to protect what she has already garnered, the more her hopes for a completely successful war wane.

Nobody knows what reserves Japan had in preparation for a long war when the attack came last December. Of all the secrets Japan kept so carefully that was probably guarded as closely as any. But it is the general consensus that her oil stocks particularly could not have lasted much beyond a year or a year and a half at most and with them depleted and facing two powerful foes she would have been forced to sue for peace. It was largely to dig her arms in such riches up to the elbows that she moved a year ago to secure them by force.

Japan has oil now. She has the Dutch East Indies and Burma and she has in addition the wealth of the Philippines and Malaya and Indochina. Her people have been told that now, at last, they will receive the overdue payment they have awaited so patiently in the shape of increased quantities of consumer supplies. From the south, her papers and radios have screamed, the “treasure ships” are coming. To date, however, they have brought very little.

Some sugar from the Philippines and some cigarettes seized in Manila have been put on the Tokyo market. To the Japanese civilian that is evidence that the war is slowly beginning to pay off with dividends, small though such dividends have been to date. But. to the Japanese Army and Navy leaders “treasure ships” do not mean sugar and cigarettes. They mean rice, rubber, oil, iron, gold, bauxite. They mean all the raw materials so necessary to keep a war machine in operation. Those things Japan has won, and certainly will fight tooth and nail to keep. Their retention means Japan’s ability, in large measure, to continue the struggle and with such booty now in her possession it naturally means her increased ability to carry on the war.

Merchant Navy Weak

IF POSSESSION alone of Borneo and Java oil were the end-all of Japan’s war it would be extraordinarily difficult to fight her successfully. But Japan must get that oil to her home refineries in an alltoo small merchant navy, she must guard sea lanes that run from Kamchatka to the Solomon Islands, she must provision millions of men in every corner of Asia, she must build ships and planes and tanks to guard her home shores and her newly won possessions beyond the seas and she must hold growling conquered peoples with a firm hand. It is a difficult assignment but to date she has done it.

Lack of merchant shipping is probably Japan’s greatest worry. When she entered the war she had about six million tons of merchant shipping, not exactly a reassuring figure for an island nation that, as events developed, was forced to stretch herself out along a good part of the Pacific sea lanes. Last winter Japan had already begun to realize how dangerously inadequate her available shipping was and responsible officials were admitting candidly that she was being forced to call on junks and sampans up and down the China coast to haul her supplies and provide for her troops.

“Many Japanese industrialists think we ought to put our idle spindles to work in order to sell our products in the newly acquired regions of the south,” a leading Japanese spinning tycoon told an Osaka audience last March. “Instead of that, however, we should turn into scrap every piece of our equipment that isn’t needed at this moment in order to help in the construction of ships. If we defeat our enemies we will be able later to sell our goods without difficulty but unless we build ships now we will not be able to defeat them finally and therefore we will not need to consider the problem of selling our articles in the south or elsewhere.”

To get around that problem Japan has begun a program that makes it appear that she is intending to change from an island nation to a continental power. Plans have been advanced for the construction of a railroad line from Singapore to Shanghai which would obviate the necessity of depending on shipping space. Much of the line exists already in sections

through Malaya, Thailand, IndoChina and China. The missing links, however, are in country so difficult and inaccessible that it is unlikely any such grandiose project can be accomplished in the time that would be necessary to make it worth while. But Japan at least thinks it worth considering and discussing. Already a tunnel has been bored under the Straits of Shimonoseki, thereby enabling goods landed in Nagasaki to travel by rail almost the length of Japan proper to the northern tip of the main island. And engineers have gone a step farther to propose the construction of a tunnel that would conduct Shimonoseki with Korea. If such a project ever came to pass it would mean in effect that ! Japan had become a continental power, for trains could run without interruptions from Tokyo to Peking, Shanghai and deep into the heart of China. And, if the SingaporeShanghai project advanced beyond the blueprint stage, it would make j possible train travel direct from | Singapore to Tokyo.

Until that day comes, however, Japan is dependent on her ships to carry on her war. With every ship sunk the difficulty of carrying it on successfully increases and ultimately, we can only hope, it will prove an impossible task since lack of shipping space will call for retirements from advanced positions and their consequent seizure by the United Nations. Nobody knows the full facts about Japan’s shipbuilding facilities but they are not great, it is certain, and cannot be compared in the same breath with those of Britain and the United States.

Depletion of Japan’s merchant marine, perhaps the most important single means of breaking down our Far Eastern foe, is not, naturally, the sole path to victory in the Orient. Japan cannot, in the long run, match our production and though she wTon the first few rounds we still are in the ring and that alone gives us reason to be confident. The Japanese thought by this time we would have sued for peace. That we have no such intention now or in the future must cause her leaders an uneasy feeling for they realize, even though the bulk of the nation does not, the terrible potential they face. Our soldiers and sailors are well trained, well equipped and brave and have in dozens of engagements shown that they can give as well as take. But it will need a great deal more of giving than we have yet enjoyed before the knockout comes.

A Japanese noncommissioned officer sneered at me one day just before I left Shanghai, “Tell your friends in America they will soon be working as stevedores on the docks of Yokohama.”

In fact prisoners of war captured at Guam are indeed working now on Japanese docks as day laborers, and though those of us who have come back to a free land have no expectation that we will return to the Far East as slaves of the Japanese, neither do we think we will see our countrymen freed from that involuntary servitude for a long time to come.