The Anguish of Surrender

Japanese POWs of World War II

Ulrich A. Straus

  • Published: 2003. Paperback 2005
  • Subject Listing: Asian Studies / Japan; History
  • Bibliographic information: 272 pp., 25 illus., 6 x 9 in.
  • Territorial rights: World Rights
  • Published with: The Association for Diplomatic Studies and Training
  • Contents

On December 6, 1941, Ensign Kazuo Sakamaki was one of a handful of men selected to skipper midget subs on a suicide mission to breach Pearl Harbor's defenses. When his equipment malfunctioned, he couldn't find the entrance to the harbor. He hit several reefs, eventually splitting the sub, and swam to shore some miles from Pearl Harbor. In the early dawn of December 8, he was picked up on the beach by two Japanese American MPs on patrol. Sakamaki became Prisoner No. 1 of the Pacific War.

Japan's no-surrender policy did not permit becoming a POW. Sakamaki and his fellow soldiers and sailors had been indoctrinated to choose between victory and a heroic death. While his comrades had perished, he had survived. By becoming a prisoner of war, Sakamaki believed he had brought shame and dishonor on himself, his family, his community, and his nation, in effect relinquishing his citizenship. Sakamaki fell into despair and, like so many Japanese POWs, begged his captors to kill him.

Based on the author's interviews with dozens of former Japanese POWs along with memoirs only recently coming to light, The Anguish of Surrender tells one of the great unknown stories of World War II. Beginning with an examination of Japan's prewar ultranationalist climate and the harsh code that precluded the possibility of capture, the author investigates the circumstances of surrender and capture of men like Sakamaki and their experiences in POW camps.

Many POWs, ill and starving after days wandering in the jungles or hiding out in caves, were astonished at the superior quality of food and medical treatment they received. Contrary to expectations, most Japanese POWs, psychologically unprepared to deal with interrogations, provided information to their captors. Trained Allied linguists, especially Japanese Americans, learned how to extract intelligence by treating the POWs humanely. Allied intelligence personnel took advantage of lax Japanese security precautions to gain extensive information from captured documents. A few POWs, recognizing Japan's certain defeat, even assisted the Allied war effort to shorten the war. Far larger numbers staged uprisings in an effort to commit suicide. Most sought to survive, suffered mental anguish, and feared what awaited them in their homeland.

These deeply human stories follow Japanese prisoners through their camp experiences to their return to their welcoming families and reintegration into postwar society. These stories are told here for the first time in English.
Ulrich "Rick" Straus lived a total of twenty-one years in Japan, first as a child between 1933 and 1940 in Tokyo, then as a U.S. Army language officer during the Occupation, when he participated in the trial of Japan's major war criminals. He was Consul General on Okinawa from 1978 to 1982 and retired from the Foreign Service in 1987.

"Straus's book is terrific - eminently readable and full of cultural insights and empathy. This careful blend of essential scholarship and gripping storytelling gives us an entirely different idea of what was going on during the tragedy that was World War II."
-Walter F. Mondale, former Vice President of the United States and Ambassador to Japan

"This is a marvelous book, describing in great and often moving detail the experiences of Japanese prisoners of war in allied (mostly U.S.) hands. Such a perspective adds significantly to our understanding of the rather remarkable history of U.S.-Japanese reconciliation after a bitter war."
-Akira Iriye, Harvard University

"This is a fascinating topic, arising as it does from the contradiction between the fanaticisms alleged to have been endemic to Japanese military personnel combined with the realities of their generally quiescent behavior in POW camps."
-T. J. Pempel, University of California, Berkeley

"An intriguing study not only of the prisoners themselves - the war they fought and the circumstances of their capture, but of the whole spectrum of Japanese society, as this people emerged from wartime militarism to set the stage for their present democracy."
-Frank Gibney, Pomona College

"This is an engrossing story told with sensitivity by one who has deep experience in Japan, and who writes with clarity and empathy."
-Ambassador Michael Armacost

1. Prisoner Number One
2. Japan's Policy on Prisoners of War
3. Indoctrination into the Senjinkun
4. Honorable Death or Shameful Life
5. America's Secret Weapon: The Army and Navy Japanese Language Schools
6. The Interrogations
7. A Few Very Special POWs
8. Uprisings in the Stockades
9. Everyday Life in the Stockades
10. Returning Home Alive
11. Reflections on Japan's Wartime No-Surrender Policy

"The Anguish of Surrender. . . is a valuable corrective to what we thought we knew about Japanese POWs, written by a man who lived for twenty-one years in Japan, both before and during the war, and who is better able than most historians to understand the mentality of the Japanese POW."
-Canadian Military History

"Straus's seminal contribution comprehensively explores the Japanese POW experiences and fills a substantial gap in POW historiography."

"This cogent and well-written study offers a thorough exploration of the many dilemmas facing Japanese POWs."