War Crimes: The Pacific

War Crimes: The Pacific

Pacific War Crimes


The Holocaust is widely remembered around the world. However, there were other WWII war crimes, and the lesser remembered and discussed ones were committed by the Imperial Japanese forces in the Pacific Theater during World War II. These are of critical importance because they took place over a longer period of time (1933 – 1945), and they resulted in the deaths of an estimated 7 – 10 million people, mostly of Chinese, Korean, Russian, and Australian heritage.


Learning Objectives

  • Identify the war crimes of the Pacific Theater of War.


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Bataan Death March: 60-mile march orchestrated by Japanese troops in which Americans and Filipinos were forced to walk long expanses, without any needs being met, resulting in 20,000 deaths

Burma Railway: 250-mile stretch of railroad between Burma (Myanmar) and Thailand

The Nanking Massacre: 1937 – 1938 destruction of the city of Nanking, China, by the Imperial Japanese army

Unit 731: Japanese unit designed to perform human experimentation


The Nanking Massacre


The best-known Japanese atrocity was the Nanking Massacre in China. Reports suggest that 2.7 million casualties occurred because of the actions undertaken by the Japanese army.

Nanking was targeted by the Japanese following their victory in Shanghai in 1937—two years before World War II erupted in Europe. Up to that point, Nanking had been one of China’s most prosperous, industrial cities. But when Chinese nationalist leader, Chiang Kai-Shek received news of the advancing Japanese army, he ordered his army to retreat from Nanking for fear that it would be decimated, leaving China entirely defenseless. While, perhaps, the act saved the Chinese army, it left the city of Nanking open to attack.


Bodies of murdered Chinese civilians on the outskirts of Nanking, 1937.


The Japanese army poured into the city in December 1937. Citizens hid and fled where they could, rumor had reached them of the atrocities that the Japanese army had committed before arriving, including mass murder and a scorched earth policy.

The auxiliary forces which had remained behind were hunted down and slaughtered. Pregnant women were pierced with bayonets. Children and the elderly were executed without hesitation. Tens of thousands of women were raped, then summarily murdered. Nearly one-third of all buildings were destroyed, and property was seized. The massacre only concluded when the Japanese installed a government in Nanking in February 1938.


Forced Labor and Prisoners of War


Japan ratified the 1907 Hague Convention respecting the treatment of prisoners of war. However, it constantly violated the agreements made at the convention throughout World War II. The Japanese overall treatment of prisoners of war, including women and children, was infamous in World War II. Executions, starvation, neglect, beatings, and death marches were common practices.


Forced Labor


British and Australian prisoners of war experienced some of the most heinous forced labor of World War II during the construction of the Burma Railway. The railroad stretched over 250 miles along the border of Burma (present-day Myanmar) and Thailand. More than 60,000 Allied POWs were forced into massive labor gangs with little to no provisions and ordered to begin construction on the railroad. The route of the railroad cut through both mountains and nearly impassable jungle that was riddled with disease and venomous animals.


Australian and Dutch POWs in Thailand in 1943 at the completion of the Burma Railway.


Camps for the POWs consisted of primitive shelters that were mostly open, leaving the prisoners exposed to the torrential rains and disease-carrying insects. Men were forced to work for nine days, and rest on the tenth day. Each primitive hut housed 200 men. Living conditions were so cramped that men could scarcely move. Their days consisted of fourteen-hour shifts where they would clear bamboo forests, dig and haul dirt, and contend with the rivers in preparation for the laying of the railroad. Beatings were common among those who did not work fast or efficiently. Food was scarce and poor in quality. Malaria, along with a host of other diseases, plagued the prisoners of war. When the railroad was completed in 1943, more than 16,000 Allied POWs had died.


Death Marches


Death marches were commonly practiced by the Imperial Japanese army during World War II. Prisoners of war and civilians alike could be forced on such marches, including women and children. The most infamous of these marches was the Bataan Death March. This event occurred following the Battle of Bataan in the Philippines in 1942. Tens of thousands of American and Filipino troops were captured by the Japanese army. Because there was no permanent camp at the point of their capture, their captors forced the POWs to march over sixty miles to a permanent camp.


The dead along the Bataan Death March. Civilians investigate the scene in the background.


The march proved indescribable. Japanese guards frequently beat the POWs, and randomly pulled men out of line to be shot or bayoneted. Little food or water was afforded the prisoners, and both physical and psychological torture was common practice. The tropical climate not only bred disease but also excessive heat. Sunburn, heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and disease claimed thousands of lives. Medical care was also, in large, denied to the prisoners of war. By the time the Allied POWs reached their final internment camp, more than twenty thousand had died along the 60-mile march. After the war, the Allies classified the march as a Japanese war crime.


Human Experimentation


Just as the Nazis engaged in human experimentation, so too did the Japanese. Infamous among the units that carried out medical experiments was Unit 731. Emperor Hirohito authorized the creation of the unit that would conduct some of the most heinous wartime activities. Among other procedures, the unit regularly performed vivisection—removal of organs from a living human without anesthesia. Similarly, the unit performed experiments on Chinese and Korean subjects in which body parts were amputated without anesthesia, with the supposed goal of learning how the body reacted to such trauma. Other experiments included the injection of poisonous chemicals into human bodies and regular torture of prisoners of war.


Unit 731 about to perform hypothermia experiments on prisoners of war.


Impact on Humankind


The atrocities carried out by Imperial Japan during World War II remain indescribable, and expansive in their scope. Crimes were carried out not only against the Allied armies but also, most especially, against civilians in China, Korea, the Philippines, and the Pacific Islands. Tens of thousands of young girls and women were enslaved to serve the needs of the Japanese army. Prisoners of war were regularly subjected to torture, forced labor, executions, and human experimentation. To date the crimes of Japan in World War II continue to taint its relationship with China, as well as other countries in East Asia.




1 of 2