The Knights of Bushido – Review

Edward F. Langley Russell of Liverpool. The Knights of Bushido: A Short History of Japanese War Crimes. 1958; New York: Skyhorse, 2008. E-book.

A few years ago I inherited a copy of a diary kept by my father’s cousin who died in a Japanese slave labor camp during World War II. He had been a civilian construction worker on Wake Island when the war started. The island was attacked a few hours after Pearl Harbor and managed to hold off a major amphibious attack for nearly three weeks.

He was among those kept on the island until September 1942 to build an airfield and dredge a channel for the Japanese. From there he was taken to Japan where he died among the intolerable conditions of Camp Fukuoka #18 in April 1943. His diary was kept hidden and preserved by a fellow inmate who eventually returned it to his parents (my great aunt and great uncle) in the early fifties.

During the time I was editing and annotating this diary, I read many works on the War in the Pacific, especially about Wake Island and POWs. Numerous works that I read referred to The Knights of Bushido, but I never got around to reading it until just now. (Amazon had a good deal…).

There are other books documenting Japanese atrocities such as Daws’ Prisoners of the Japanese and Weller’s First to Nagasaki, yet none have as many testimonies as The Knights of Bushido. The book focuses mainly on British and Dutch prisoners including colonials from India, Australia, Canada, Indonesia, etc. Russell himself was an English Lord, a military lawyer, and investigator for both the Nuremberg and Tokyo war crimes tribunals.

Still, there are numerous descriptions of events in the Philippines, Taiwan, China, and Japan. The only mention of Wake Island, for example, concerns the January 1942 transport ship (Russell calls them Prison Hulks but today they are commonly called Hellships) which took the majority of Wake captives to China and the massacre of the remaining 96 civilians on the island in October 1943.

What Lord Russell details is stunning. From the time that Japan began fighting in China in 1931 until it surrendered in 1945, the pattern changed little. Civilian populations were raped and killed, often deliberately massacred to instill fear or to demonstrate Japanese racial superiority. Prisoners, whether military or civilian, were often summarily executed or retained for slave labor. They rarely had access to any medical care and were always inadequately fed and (as they say today) hydrated.

The death toll in many places was staggering. For example, of 473 prisoners on a forced march from Sandaku to Ranau, Indonesia, in February 1945, only six were still alive in June. Often at the trials, the Japanese defense was that they also were without food, water, and medical attention, but not a single Japanese or Korean soldier in attendance died during this time.

In virtually every location, prisoners were used for target and bayonet practice. Beatings were common. (My cousin’s diary says that daily beatings were the routine at Fukuoka #18). In the first six weeks of occupation of Nanjing (a.k.a. Nanking), China, over 200,000 people were killed—nearly all of them civilians including women and children. That alone is more than the number of people killed in the two atomic bombs . Yes, the atomic bombs were terrible, but the Japanese atrocities were really on a much greater scale.

The Knights of Bushido includes photographs, much testimony, and selections from many incriminating Japanese documents. Lord Russell is not being sensational. Every detail is carefully documented. I understand now why so many sources on the Pacific War refer to this book. The reader realizes, too, upon completing the book that the information contained in it just scratches the surface. Everywhere Japan conquered from the Russian border to the Nicobar Islands, from Melanesia to the home islands, their treatment of the local population and prisoners (including civilians) was cruel and ruthless.

Russell devotes a chapter to the war crimes trials. Here he points out how weak and even ridiculous most of the legal defenses were. Were nuns and children really a military threat? There was enough documentation still in existence to show that extermination was a protocol and mistreatment of civilian populations and prisoners was policy.

This review could itemize the many examples Russell gives, but it better serves the readers see for themselves. This review will conclude with three reflections.

Since the 1970s it has been considered politically incorrect if not rude to use the word Jap for Japanese. At times students at my school have acted offended when a Pacific War veteran uses the term at an assembly. After reading this, one can understand. My father was a veteran of the Pacific War. When he spoke of people or products from Japan, he always used the word Japanese. But when he spoke of the people he was fighting in the war, they were the Japs. After reading what The Knights of Bushido details about the destruction and massacres in Manila, I get it. My father never said much more than that Manila was awful. I can see why.

The term “man’s inhumanity to man” is a cliché. This review has not even mentioned the more extreme torture methods used on civilians and prisoners or the truly savage practices of some of the Japanese soldiers. I wonder to myself not only how people could do some of these things, but also how could anyone even think of them. I am reminded that the Bible tells us that there are people, “Speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their consciences seared with a hot iron.” (I Timothy 4:2) That is the only explanation. Such consciences were seared. Any sense of chivalric honor was pure hypocrisy. Lord, may it never happen to us.

Third, The Knights of Bushido shows us why there has to be a God. While hundreds of people were ultimately found guilty of war crimes, it is pretty obvious that thousands of people committed them. The human justice system is limited because people are not omnipresent nor can they read minds. Our own biases and perceived offenses get in the way as well. We have to look to God for true justice. So many things in history have caused people to say what the Bible itself says:

How long, O Lord, holy and true, doest thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth? (Revelation 6:10, cf. II Peter 3:7-9)

Perhaps, too, Americans can relate to Longfellow’s Messianic vision written during our own Civil War:

The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men!

N.B. The Knights of Bushido uses the spelling and place names common in English to the first half of the century. Since then a number of place names have changed or at least come to be spelled differently, e.g., Nanking for Nanjing, Kwantung for Liaodung, or Celebes for Sulawesi. In most cases consulting a good atlas or even a search engine can clear up any confusion.

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