Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption

by Laura Hillenbrand
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According to Unbroken, why were the Japanese so harsh to the POWs? What did they hope to achieve?

According to Unbroken, the Japanese were harsh to the POWs because they valued dignity and hoped to strip the POWs of theirs to demonstrate Japanese superiority. Louie hopes that another reason is because they were getting trounced in the war. Also, the guards compete “to impress each other with their cruelty.” Their inability to understand the English-speaking prisoners is a “pretext for many of the outbursts,” and the author also alludes to racist motivation.

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Japanese cultural values at the time stated that there was little more shameful than to surrender to one's enemies. Dying in the fight is a glorious honor. Surrendering is a great humiliation. That Louie and Phil were helplessly adrift in a lifeboat and were in no condition to fight when...

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Japanese cultural values at the time stated that there was little more shameful than to surrender to one's enemies. Dying in the fight is a glorious honor. Surrendering is a great humiliation. That Louie and Phil were helplessly adrift in a lifeboat and were in no condition to fight when they encountered the Japanese does not seem to matter. Because they were POWs, they no longer had any honor in the eyes of their captors. Therefore, the guards amused themselves by humiliating them. Humiliating their prisoners also seems to be a way that the guards relieved their own feelings of anger at being given the inglorious assignment of prison guard.

The guards were in a fixed state of fury at the captives. Nearly every day, they flew into rages that usually ended with Phil and Louie being spat upon and bombarded with rocks and lit cigarettes. Every day, at gunpoint, Louie was forced to dance while his guards roared with laughter. They stabbed him with sticks and taunted him while he crawled around picking up bits of rice (140).

When Louie brings up his harsh treatment to the Japanese officers, they tell him it should be expected. Louie and Phil are even used as test subjects for a medical experiment where a strange pain and rash-inducing substance is injected into them.

Beatings also seem to be an ingrained part of Japanese military culture.

All Japanese soldiers were regularly beaten by their superiors, in the belief that it would strengthen them. Guards, occupying the lowest station in a military that applauded brutal domination of underlings, vented their frustration on the helpless prisoners under their authority (149).

This brutality was often justified by racist notions that dehumanized the non-Japanese. Furthermore, Japanese guards who treated their prisoners with kindness risked the wrath of their fellow guards.

In Louie's case, there is a reason beyond a desire to humiliate that led to his harsh treatment. The Japanese want information from him. They interrogate him over details about airplane design, radar, the operation of bomb-sights, and the locations of airfields. Louie feeds them a mixture of unhelpful truths and complete fabrications. When he is caught in a lie, Louie is punished by having his food withheld.

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According to Unbroken, the Japanese were so harsh to the POWs because they valued dignity and hoped to strip the POWs of theirs in an effort to attain and demonstrate their superiority over them.

Few societies treasured dignity, and feared humiliation, as did the Japanese, for whom a loss of honor could merit suicide. This is likely one of the reasons why Japanese soldiers in World War II debased their prisoners with such zeal, seeking to take from them that which was most painful and destructive to lose.

Author Laura Hillenbrand writes that the guards at the prisoner of war (POW) camp “maintained a fixed state of fury at the captives.” The guards flew into rages almost every day and “usually” threw stones and lit cigarettes at Phil and Louie, spat on them, and poked them with sticks.

Optimistically, Louie hopes that part of the reason that the guards were so harsh was because they were getting trounced in the war. Whenever he heard a guard “arriving in a stomping fit—a consequence, he hoped, of an American victory.”

Another explanation given is that the guards are actually competing with one another “to impress each other with their cruelty.” This type of competition ratchets up their harsh behavior.

They use their inability to understand the English speaking prisoners as a “pretext for many of the outbursts.” More important than their inability to communicate verbally, the author also alludes to racist motivation, noting that “the captives and their guards came from cultures with virtually no overlap in language or custom,” and writing that the guards “had probably never seen a foreigner before.”

The treatment by the guards is in contrast to the treatment Louie and Phil receive by other Japanese people “who cared for them with genuine concern for their comfort and health” in the infirmary before they are sent to the POW camp. The deputy commanding officer there even brought them beef, chocolate, and coconuts as a gift from his commander.

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I would argue that the Japanese did not really “hope to achieve” anything by treating their prisoners of war (POWs) as badly as they did.  They were not doing it as a way to get something.  Instead, they were doing it because their culture and/or their psychology told them they should.  Let us look at what Hillenbrand has to say on this matter.

One place where Hillenbrand discusses the reasons for the Japanese treatment of POWs is in Chapter 19.  (I cannot give page numbers as I have this book in electronic form without page numbers.)  Hillenbrand tells us that the Japanese military “applauded brutality” and that soldiers were routinely beaten.  She says that the soldiers who ended up guarding POWs were typically those with the lowest status.  They would “vent their frustration” at their low status and at being beaten on the POWs since the POWs could not resist.  Japanese historians call this “transfer of oppression.”

Hillenbrand then goes on to argue that there were two more factors that reinforced this tendency.  First, the Japanese felt that they were racially superior to their prisoners.  This made them more likely to abuse those prisoners.  Second, and perhaps most importantly, the idea of surrender was terribly shameful in Japanese society at that time. Hillenbrand discusses how Japanese soldiers were told in training that they should not allow themselves to be captured because that would shame them and their families.  Instead, they should die fighting.  (Hillenbrand does not discuss this, but there was a Japanese word “gyokusai” that meant “honorable death” or “death without surrender” and was made up of the characters for “jewel” and “smash” or “crush.”  This gave the idea that soldiers who died rather than surrendering were like jewels.)  Because the Japanese thought that it was shameful to surrender, they despised men who had surrendered.  Since the POWs had surrendered, the Japanese felt they had lost their honor and their right to be treated with dignity.

What all this tells us is that the Japanese did not treat POWs badly because they wanted to achieve anything.  They were brutal to their prisoners because that was what their society said they should do and because they were psychologically inclined to treat their prisoners horribly. 

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