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Prisoners of the Empire

Prisoners of the Empire

Inside Japanese POW Camps

Sarah Kovner

ISBN 9780674737617

Publication date: 09/15/2020

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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.

Praise

  • Prisoners of the Empire forces readers to rethink the morality-tale version of cruel Japanese treatment of Allied POWs. Kovner is unflinching in presenting harsh treatment by Japanese prison commanders or guards and unsparing in her attention to racism on all sides. Above all, she is clear-eyed in explaining how confusion and ignorance, more than consistent policy, shaped this tragic episode in the fog of war.

    —Andrew Gordon, author of A Modern History of Japan

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.

Book Details

  • 336 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Harvard University Press

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