Reviewed by: Rob Attar
Author: Laurence Rees
Publisher: BBC Books
Price (RRP): £8.99
Laurence Rees is a doyen of popular Second World War history, responsible for a clutch of BBC documentaries, several books and a website. His Horror in the East was originally published a decade ago to accompany a television series about the brutal conflict in Asia and the Pacific.It has now been released in paperback for the first time.
The atrocities committed by the Japanese against PoWs and the Asian people they conquered are ghoulishly familiar to those with an interest in the war but what sets this book apart is Rees’s attempt to get into the mindset of the perpetrators.
He shows that there is nothing inherent in the Japanese mentality that favours such actions. Indeed German PoWs in the First World War had been treated comparatively well – drinking beer, swimming and putting on musicals. It required a combination of factors, including strict army discipline, international rivalry and the rise of the nationalist right to create the conditions where savagery flourished in the 1930s and 1940s.
Rees’s interviews with former Japanese soldiers are particularly revealing, especially with regard to the desire to conform.
Recalling the group rape of a Chinese woman, a third-year solider named Hajime Kondo explained how “one of the fourth-year soldiers summoned me and said, ‘Kondo, you go and rape’. You couldn’t turn it down.”
Startling as well is the lack of emotion attached to murder. “I felt like I was just killing animals, like pigs,” said Masayo Enomoto about the use of live prisoners for shooting practice.
In his unsettling conclusion Rees suggests that in oppressive totalitarian societies, such as Japan then was, it is those who stand back from the violence who are the exceptions. “The vast majority just wish to go with the flow,” he says, “even if that flow happens to be a corrupt and evil one.”
Rob Attar is deputy editor of BBC History Magazine