Connect with us


BOOK REVIEW | ‘Prisoners of the Empire: Inside Japanese POW Camps’ by Sarah Kovner

The Columbia University historian draws on the records in a fascinating read tackling common beliefs about POWs in WWII.



It was widely known that the Japanese had little respect for the concept of surrender during the Asia-Pacific War. It has been largely assumed in the West that the high death rates of Allied POWs held by the Japanese was a byproduct of this negative view, and that a punitive centralized policy was directed to the camp commandants from Tokyo. 

In Prisoners of the Empire, Inside Japanese POW Camps, Columbia University historian Sarah Kovner takes aim at this common belief. “There was never a mandate for officers or guards to mistreat, exploit or shoot prisoners” she states. “There was little policy of any kind.”

Policy is administered by bureaucracies and as Kovner shows, the Japanese Prisoner of War Information Bureau and Prisoner of War Management Office lacked authority and were woefully understaffed. There was no protocol, no manual. But even if there had been, she adds, “there was no institutional capacity to implement it”.

The end result was an extensive allotment of camps run by officers, and sometimes non-commissioned officers, largely left to their own discretion and reliant upon local economies for supplies and resources. “This latitude meant that conditions differed dramatically across the vast Asia-Pacific theater,” Kovner concludes. 

The primary consideration for an author on a book about Japanese prisoner of war camps during the Asia-Pacific War is how far to cast the net. There were hundreds of camps on scores of islands. The number of published POW diaries runs into many hundreds, with additional unpublished diaries coming to light every year. A definitive account is an impossible task. 

Kovner opts for a relatively slim volume of 218 pages of text, with a hefty 85 pages of notes containing more than a few hidden gems. Chapters detail POW experiences within Singapore and the Philippines ー the primary locations at which British, British Empire and American soldiers were captured, respectively, “model camps” in Korea built and run to impress the Red Cross and international community, and a Fukuoka-based camp in Japan which was widely considered to be one of the most notorious of the domestically located Japanese POW facilities. 

Then- Defense Minister Taro Kono pays respect at a WW II memorial on Japan's Minamitorishima.

Throughout these chapters, Kovner weaves the chronology of Japan’s extensive and long-term involvement with the International Committee of the Red Cross, much of which would be new to even the most informed reader. Surprisingly, the Japanese did not dismiss the Geneva Conventions outright as commonly thought. They agreed to adhere to them mutatis mutandis: making necessary alterations while not affecting the main point at issue.

With Kovner being American, it is unsurprising that the narrative leans towards the United States’ experience. An Australian or British author would likely have paid more attention to the Burma-Thailand Railway. The Sandakan camp on British Borneo, iconic to Australians, receives but a single mention. 

The Worst and Best, Left Unsaid

Given the need for selectivity, the charge which might be most readily levied against Kovner is of cherry picking. This would be unfair as there is much that could have been included to demonstrate both Japanese magnanimity and a lack of such on the part of the Allies. 


No mention is made of Rukuro Tomibe, for example, a camp commandant of the Buguio internment camp in the Philippines, so fondly thought of by the internees that they made him guest of honor at a 1977 reunion. Nor is mention made that in mid 1943, at the Santo Tomas camp in Manila, laundry could still be sent out for starching.

At the other end of the scale are the negative precedents set by the Allies against which Japanese abuses can be not unfavorably compared. Kovner makes note that the first civilian internees to be dragooned into labor gangs, in direct defiance of the Geneva Conventions, were Japanese residents of Manila. 

She additionally details how the US had a shoot-to-kill policy when dealing with attempted escapes by the Japanese-Americans infamously interned under President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Three such escapees had been killed by July 1942, a date prior to the September 1942 execution of four allied POWs who had attempted escape from the Changi facility in Singapore, in August of that same year.  

Not mentioned by Kovner, however, is the fate of the 2,115 Japanese internees rounded up within the British imperial possessions immediately after Pearl Harbor. They were housed within tents at the Purana Quila camp outside Delhi, India, an area untroubled by the war. 

Repeated Japanese complaints regarding housing, diet, and sanitation went unanswered. By the end of 1942 the British administration declared itself “shocked” that 106 of them had died (55 men, 42 women and 9 children). This figure was higher than the 29 deaths among all European civilian internees in Changi during the same time period. 

The British Empire Experience at Singapore

In Singapore, initial treatment of POWs and civilian internees was benign. After surrender, the predominantly British and British Empire soldiers were marched back to the barracks at Changi and largely left alone. Policy change commenced in June 1942 when Prime Minister Tojo famously stated that “the present state of affairs does not permit anyone to lie idle.”

Participation in work parties was not necessarily detested by the POWs. Work relieved the boredom and payment received could be spent on additional supplies from local traders.

The construction of the Burma-Thailand Railway, from October 1942 to October 1943, was a dominant exception to this rule. Once the project had been started, the turning of the tide of war against the Japanese necessitated completion by an unrealistic date in order for the railway to be of military use. 

Akiko Macdonald and Burma Campaign British veteran Richard Day

The Japanese engineers responded by pushing the POWs to their very limits. These demands, combined with the isolation of the railway construction camps, led to horrific death tolls from tropical diseases

The Burma-Thailand Railway construction project is considered the most seminal experience of the British Empire POWs.

US POWs in the Philippines

The initial march to barracks for American POWs in the Philippines was the Bataan Death March. It terminated at Camp O’Donnell, a hike of around 106 kilometers. 

Unlike Changi, Camp O’Donnell was insufficiently large for the number of POWs captured. The condition of the arriving prisoners was poor. The camp administrators were out of their depth and overwhelmed. Fatalities occurred in significantly larger numbers than in Singapore. 


The other fateful collective experience of the Americans was the “hell ships” within which POWs were relocated to Japan. They frequently sailed out of the Philippines in 1944 and 1945. 

In her introduction, Kovner cautions that “English language accounts...downplay the large proportion of POW deaths that resulted from friendly fire, which allied commanders carried out even when they knew they would likely kill POWs”. 

This was never more the case than with these POW transports. And it constitutes one of the major controversies of the Asia-Pacific War. 

Grumman Hellcat ( Flying Heritage Combat Armor Museum)

The US had broken the Japanese naval codes and could easily have made information regarding the routes of the hell ships known to air bases and submarine commanders. Despite the near certainty of an ultimate US victory after 1944, American authorities nonetheless encouraged pilots and submarine commanders to sink all Japanese shipping encountered. 

The extent of these avoidable POW losses is made clear when Kovner states that the sinking of the Arisan Maru alone, by a United States submarine, resulted in the death of “more than two and a half times as many American GIs” as during “the entire Bataan death march.”

Camp Commonalities

Among the variations to be found within the camps, a degree of commonality eventually came to be dictated by the progression of the war. In 1944, the Asian region started to suffer from significant food shortages which were reflected within the camps. By 1945, these shortages had become severe, with many of the camps additionally impacted by bombing. 

This deterioration in conditions throughout the region is frequently ignored by Western writers. Much use is made in the West of photos of emaciated POWs at war’s end, but as Kovner rightly notes, many Japanese, both soldiers and civilians, were similarly afflicted. 

By the “end of 1944,” she writes, “the home ministry had warned the war minister that citizens were complaining that POWs were getting better treatment than they were.” In Korea, an attempt was even made by the local population to break into one of the camps. 

Japanese bombers used armor piercing projectiles to sink the USS Arizona and other ships in Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941.

Escape Obligations

An issue upon which Kovner might have provided greater resolution concerns the degree of obligation which the Allied POWs had to attempt to escape. Kovner details how in the post-surrender weeks, the POWs were required to fill out questionnaires that included details on their efforts to escape and engage in sabotage. 

Postwar books and movies such as The Great Escape (1963) and The Wooden Horse (1951) have cemented attempted escape as a military compulsion in Western consciousness. Was it actually required in the same way that surrender was officially forbidden to Japanese soldiers, as stipulated in their manual: Instructions for the Battlefield?

In the Asian theater of the Second World War, escape was not a prudent act. Escapees could not rejoin the Allied front line without undertaking a sea voyage. The best for which they could hope was to link up with a guerrilla force. 

Japanese Army Marches toward Imphal

The even more significant issue, however, was the impact which escape attempts had upon conditions within the camps. During the initial months of internment at the Changi camp, the camp commandant allowed the POW population free rein over a land area far greater than could stringently be guarded. 

After the August 1942 escapes occurred, he demanded that the prisoners sign a no-escape clause. Following their refusal, he responded by moving them into a small enough space from which they could be monitored with the troops at his disposal. The result was an outbreak of dysentery which claimed many lives. 


This event is indicative of an unwritten contract that underscored the operation of all of the camps. In being located within the tropics, the camps were inherently dangerous places. The risks of tropical disease could be lessened through sparser living densities, but that could only be achieved through an acceptance by the POWs and internees that the primary task of camp commandants was to retain them within the camps. If escapes occurred, a greater degree of supervision, with greater crowding, could only be expected. 

The tenure of Rokuro Tomibe, the much respected camp commander at the Buguio internment camp, came to an end after two of his internees successfully escaped. Unsurprisingly, he was promptly transferred to a post supervising rice harvests. One wonders how the remaining internees felt about the two who had escaped in the weeks after the new commandant arrived.

World War II Japanese soldiers interned by Soviet Union in Siberia

Postwar Japanese Surrendered Personnel

After surrender, the Japanese troops did not enjoy a swift transfer back to their homeland. Many were pressed into service by the Allied powers, the last being repatriated in 1956.

The Japanese troops were labeled as “Japanese Surrendered Personnel.” It is a term which one might assume the Allies had conceived in order to deny Japanese soldiers the protections of the Geneva Conventions, but which Kovner informs was “proposed by Japanese officials to avoid shaming those who were ostensibly prohibited from being taken captive”.

The Allied powers, however, were more than happy to take advantage of the opportunities made available by this designation, the British determining that they would “apply parts of the Convention but not quote it as authority”. This position, Kovner concludes, was “not unlike the Japanese policy of accepting the Geneva Conventions mutatis mutandis.”

Kovner concedes that there is little sympathy for the fate of Japanese Surrendered Personnel. Many viewed the harsh treatment they endured as justifiably punitive or even “poetic justice”, despite it having occurred “while guards and camp commanders were being pursued and prosecuted for their mistreatment of Allied POWs.”

Her ultimate conclusion, however, is that the essential rationale behind the decisions to put both Japanese and Allied soldiers to work was the same: a function of necessity. 

By mid-1942 the Japanese had concluded that POW labor was essential to maintain their empire and the war effort. After the Japanese surrender, the Allies similarly surmised that without Japanese manpower, the independence movements that sprang up within their Asian colonies could not be put down. 

“It was an ironic end to the story of captivity in the Pacific War” Kovner declares. “One and all — whether Japanese or Korean, American or Australian, French, Dutch, or Indian — were prisoners of the empire.” In truth, that should not be a surprise. The Asia-Pacific War was fundamentally an imperial war.

Akiko Macdonald and Burma Campaign (British) veteran Roy Welland

The Soldiers are Gone – Debate Can Begin

There are certain topics for which emotions run so high that an objective accounting can only be possible once the participants have passed from this world. The incarceration of Western POWs by Asian Japan is surely one such case. One suspects, therefore, that Prisoners of the Empire’s publication date of 2020 is essentially year zero. 

For reasoned debate to now progress, an acceptance must exist that the high rate of POW fatalities under Japanese incarceration cannot be simplistically attributed to a punitive, centralized Japanese policy. Considerably more was at play. Fair, concise and balanced, Kovner’s well timed work is an invaluable contribution towards the debunking of the punitive policy myth and a subsequent flowering of considered debate. 



Title: Prisoners of the Empire Inside Japanese POW Camps

Author: Sarah Kovner

Publishers: Harvard University Press

Date: September 2020

ISBN: 9780674737617

Formats: Hardcover

To Purchase: From the publisher at this link, or through Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or order through your local bookseller.

For More Information: See the publisher’s website



Book Review by: Paul de Vries

Find other reviews and articles by the author on Asia Pacific history at this link.

Continue Reading


  1. eyeonhistory

    May 3, 2022 at 2:57 am

    The revisionist history in this book "review" is despicable. Full of selective anecdotes to make misinformed broader conclusions. Full of false equivalency. Full of crap, mostly.

    The author/publication sounds like a domestic abuser blaming the victim for getting in the way of his fists, or to use a better analogy, blaming the murdered POW for getting in the way of bayonet lunges.

    The effort in Japan to minimize responsibility for the country's mistreatment of POWs has been consistent for decades, and this is just the latest example. Go watch the youtube videos of the POWs telling what happened. Believe them. Read the hundreds of pages of testimony from those POWs in the U.S. National Archives. It's all very clear. There's no confusion or middle ground. There's no "debate" about any of it, and there's no debate to be had now that nearly all those POWs are gone, unless your goal is to rewrite history.

    Did the Japanese follow policy and ignore international law in beating, beheading, starving, stabbing, enslaving, torturing and stealing from the POWs in their care, murdering thousands of those POWs at a rate 20 times greater than their Nazi counterparts, and then spend 70-plus years trying to pretend it wasn't that bad? Yes. Yes they did. Debate over.

  2. ArmchairAsia

    May 2, 2022 at 5:29 am

    This “review” is riddled with misinformation and selective application of facts. The mistreatment of POWs throughout the Empire was so uniform that it was clearly a policy. The orders that outlined it were likely the very first to be burned after August 15, 1945. And anyone who knows anything about Japan and authoritarian regimes, understands that state ideology is so imbued among the people that often no formal order for behavior is needed. Interestingly, Togo’s May 5, 1942 order requesting “white slaves” does exist.

    That certain practices were not punished or changed and that a guard or officer who showed any kindness was reprimanded or removed is all you need to know. The result is that for American POWs of Japan, the death rate was 40% (more for British and Australians). This is in contrast to the German stalags where the death rate was less than 2%.

    For example, the 1,816 National Guardsmen from New Mexico and Arizona that made up the 200th and 515th Coast Artillery (Anti-aircraft): 829 deaths (46%) — 24 battle-related; 803 as POWs (44%); 2 post-liberation 988 survivors (54%) — 40 deaths post-liberation for 10 year period (4%). In a recent congressional statement remembering the Bataan Death March, Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur honored Port Clinton, Ohio’s Company C of the 192nd Tank Battalion on Bataan. Of the 100 men of Company C, only six died in combat or on the Bataan Death March. However, 58 died as POWs of Japan in the following three and one-half years of captivity and slave labor. Of the 32 men from Port Clinton, only 10 returned home.

    The hellships were unmarked, in violation of international law. In addition to POWs they also carried soldiers, war supplies, and sometimes civilians. The POWs were packed into the holds of the ship where they were forced to lick condensation off the side of the ship for water and sit on waste-covered floors with little food, light, and ventilation. Many men never physically or mentally recovered.

    The Bataan Death March was not “a hike of around 106 kilometers.” It was more like 100 miles. The men were rounded up at several points along Bataan where they were beaten and robbed. If any were found with anything Japanese, they were executed on the spot. No acknowledgement was made of the fact that the surrendering soldiers were sick and starving. The one American woman they found at a field hospital was immediately gang raped. The first leg of the March was a 65-mile trek to a train station at San Fernando. It took place in the tropical heat and was marked by unimagined cruelty and murder all while food, water, and medicine was withheld by their capturers. It was sport for officers on horseback to behead a POW who was on the outside of a row of POWs. Those who faltered or dashed for water were shot or bayoneted. For the next 24 miles, they were packed standing into steaming, fetid boxcars to Carpas. Those still alive were then walked several more miles to a makeshift POW camp that had only two sources of water for some 60,000 POWs. It was a Philippine Army training camp under construction. It was a death trap compounded by very limited medical care as the Japanese refused American doctors medicine, surgical tools, and bandages.

    There is so much more to say. Hopefully others will comment.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

Leave a Reply

Our Partners