Bushido: the Valor of Deceit



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Bushido: the Valor of Deceit

Holly E. Senatore

MA in Military History (MMH), cum laude

Norwich University, Vermont

ISME Convention, January 1, 2010

“When the Japanese troops

are facing hardships…

there is no need to pamper POWs.” 1

Sleep my son, your duty done…

For Freedom’s light has come

Sleep in the silent depths of the sea

Or in your bed of hallowed sod

Until you hear at dawn, the low

Clear reveille of God2



The Study of Warfare includes not only the clash of cultures and ethics

in one brief instance of time. It also includes the realization that alliances are not unilaterally balanced in nature. The alliances between states whereby one becomes such through defeat in war simply represents a dangerous and precarious temporary loss of military power of the defeated enemy.

For the Confucian Japanese culture, which spanned the seventh century through 1945, World War II represents the first unjust war that they have fought since the seventh century. This is only because the atrocities that martial culture committed throughout the war did not lead to total victory. Contrary to popular thought, the Japanese defeat in World War II therefore, does not represent a “corruption” of the Code of Bushido nor does their action in World War II represent a continuation of such an “ethic.” As Western military theorists held, the Medieval Japanese believed in Just Cause for war as well as Just Action in war, but they also believed that once a war was launched for a Just reason, any means of achieving that end became moral and just as well. Yet it is evident that from the end of World War II up through the present time, both Western and Japanese historians have looked only to the Code of Bushido as an explanation for the cruelty committed against Allied POWs by the Japanese military during World War II.

The society in which Japanese warriors were raised held no equivalent standard or procedures for the treatment of prisoners of war unlike Western Europe, which acted through the set parameters of Jus ad Bellum (Just Cause for war) and Jus en Bello (Just Action in war). The founding fathers of the Western concept of Just War, Aristotle, Cicero, Gratian, and Augustine, established that the act of warfare is not only an end in itself but additionally serves as a means to an end after all diplomatic measures to establish a greater peace had been exhausted. The act of a just war was only considered honorable if it was precluded by a declaration of war and if it was conducted by the state. According to Augustine, Christians could only “engage in violence if their actions met these criteria: right authority, just cause, right intention, proportionality, last resort, and the end being a greater peace.” 3 It also followed that proper conduct in war included the dual tenants of proportionality and of discrimination. A soldier could not inflict any more harm on an opponent than was necessary to achieve his military objective and similarly, he must discriminate between combatants and noncombatants. These ideas were designed within the context of universal human importance. They were to be followed by every level of society with the acknowledgement that humans were all equally important despite their social standing. Protected POW status in the West first appeared in Ancient Greek hoplite battle and gained resurgence in Frankish warfare when knights primarily fought other Christian knights, reinforcing the notion of the concept of brothers in arms. Knights also practiced limited warfare through capture and ransom, versus hapless torture.4 The Code of Chivalry demanded that a beaten enemy be given quarter and that captured prisoners be treated as gentleman to be ransomed for money not beyond their means to pay. Thus, warfare ensured a direct means of profit if the enemy was treated properly.

Another dominant regulation and code of ethics innate to Western medicine, including the practice of medical ethics in a wartime environment, is the establishment of the Hippocratic Oath – ‘Physician, do no harm.’ Historically, there is no equivalent to this practicum in Japanese society.

Starting in the sixth century, Chinese Confucianism influenced the Japanese view of just war which itself stressed Jus ad Bellum (Just Cause for war), yet little emphasis was placed on Jus en Bello (right conduct in warfare). The Confucian Chinese also had an abhorrence of ‘letter of the law’ government. They believed that the virtue of a legitimate sovereign, who represented a parental figure in the Confucian realm of beliefs, was sufficient. Just as parents have pretty much unlimited power and discretion with regard to disciplining and controlling their children, the state, in Confucian conception, could deal with miscreants--in and out of the country--in any way that it saw fit, as long as it was for their own good. The only restriction in either case was that the authority--the parent or the state--had a moral duty to be acting in the best interest of the family as a whole and, to whatever extent possible, of the miscreant as well.  What that means is that there was no need for Confucian philosophers to develop detailed rules for conduct in war.  The emperor's virtue presupposed that he would adhere to the same basic principles of proportionality and discrimination that underlie European concepts of Jus en Bello, without needing to articulate them.

The majority of Chinese martial works that influenced the Japanese were written during China’s tumultuous “Warring States Period” (475-221 B.C.) when warfare was an ever-constant threat and affected all of society. The ancient Chinese, unlike the culture in Western Europe, did not revere military service. During the Warring States Period, warfare was often total, and as such, many of those who took part in military campaigns were not professional soldiers, were uneducated, and were from the lowest tier of society. Given such an environment, ancient Chinese scholars placed much more emphasis on Jus ad Bellum than on Jus en Bello.

It was held that once a war was begun for a just cause, any means to help defeat the enemy also became legitimate. This notion held major importance for Japanese rule starting from the seventh century. From the seventh century through the eleventh century, the emperor retained authority over the martial forces in Japan. Within this context, a just war was any undertaking that the ruler sought to fulfill since the sovereign represented an “…earthly agent and custodian of the cosmic order.”5 As such, any means in war of achieving the goals of the emperor, became ethical and moral by default. Similarly, the success and victory of a military action itself, was proof of its legitimacy and a just cause under the guidance of the ruler. If a force was victorious in warfare, it was because it had been in accord with the cosmic order, by default making any means of attaining victory just. The “right intention” of a war, “right conduct in a war,” and proportionality were all parameters that were subject to the personal desires of the ruler in charge at the time. These parameters could not be questioned by anyone since that would demonstrate disrespect for authority and a questioning of the authority’s divine judgment. This was because the emperor was the ‘State,’ unlike in the West where an executive or a government was also accountable to overriding rules or principles.6 Conversely, if a martial force became defeated, their goal, intent, and behavior during a war, in retrospect, was deemed as unjust and their behavior was judged as illegal, criminal, and unjust. One could not question the valor and the legitimacy of any martial undertaking unless it was in retrospect.

The Japanese felt that once the ends of a war were deemed righteous, any means of attaining that end became righteous and just in themselves.7 Such a mentality was integrated more deeply into Medieval Japan when a defeated enemy or a weaker party was viewed as a criminal.

In Medieval Japan, from the twelfth through the seventeenth century, the Japanese court judged external warfare as an extension of domestic criminal law enforcement. 8 One side in a conflict was judged to act in the best interests of the state, while the counterpart was characterized as criminal, yet these titles shifted during the course of a conflict, varying according to which force was winning at the time. Under this system, captured enemy soldiers or those who had surrendered became labeled as “criminals,” as were the non-combatants who assisted the enemy. Noncombatants were not viewed as inferior or helpless bystanders who should be immune from the hazards of war; noncombatants in areas controlled by the enemy were, by definition, accomplices to the primary target’s "crimes.” Consequently, they were considered legitimate targets because attacks upon them served a means to the end goal.9 Except under unusual circumstances, Japanese warriors seldom worried about protecting non-combatants…women and children in the proximity of a battle were often slaughtered with the warriors. In addition, killing all of the inhabitants of an enemy’s town was a common tactic, usually used to coerce the enemy to stand and fight. 10

Japanese units and officers were responsible for both internal law enforcement and military defense since “pacification” campaigns in which they participated were, by default, against criminals and rebels.11 In regards to which behaviors and actions constituted righteous warfare, it was stated that the just forces only need to use restraint because it enabled them to win the hearts and minds of the defeated, making control of them easier and, in turn, expediting political goals more quickly. It also helped to defuse the actions that would result from resentment and revenge.12

Under these constraints of warfare, which were often open-ended and pervasive, winning became the sole imperative and it allowed any and all means of attaining that end. By these means, the victorious could justify their victory in terms of “criminal law enforcement.”

This focus on the end result, and not on the way by which a force attained victory, is important to understand because in the sixteenth century Tokugawa Ieyasu encouraged the dissemination of Confucian values throughout Japan.13 In the late sixteenth century, the great grandson of Ieyasu, Tokugawa Tsunayoshi, also promoted the spread of Confucianism very heavily throughout Japan. In the 1930’s, the Japanese Imperial Army was imbued with the notion that the ends justified the means.14

The influence of the Confucian view of Just Warfare in World War II was demonstrated explicitly by the words of a professor at Tokyo University, Fujioka Nobukatsu. He stated that Japan’s motive to secure the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”15 in World War II was a just motive making any action to secure it, virtuous by default.16 “There were no constraints on the methods the army might use to secure its ends.”17 Any action or behavior was legitimate because it aimed at total victory. To achieve a systematic plan of a ‘Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere’ necessitated dedication and loyalty from the soldiers that focused solely on the ending transcendent moral imperatives and not the questionable nature by which they got there. The study and influence of Confucian values remained an integral component of Japanese culture through 1945.

World War II was the first modern “Total War for Japan.”18 There were no constraints on the methods that the army could use to secure its ends; any weapons and any ploy was acceptable. 19 From the very outset of the war until Japan’s unconditional surrender, the murder, torture, and willful neglect of POWs continued unceasingly. The antecedents of such cruelty are found in the Confucian measurement of ethical conduct in warfare. Pre-modern Japanese rules of engagement demanded that warriors focus only on the most efficient means of achieving the desired result. In this, any action taken towards that end was justifiable. “The notion that certain tactics might be cruel, brutal, or unfair was not only irrelevant to such considerations, but it was also extraneous to Japanese warrior culture.”20

The opinion of Lord Russell of Liverpool in his 1958 text, Knights of Bushido, was that, “When you read the sections in Japanese Military Law which apply to Prisoners of War you come to the conclusion that they are spoils of war to be treated as criminals and punished for 'crimes.' These would either include the crimes of one or two persons, or imagined crimes for which all the POWs were punished.” 21 The Imperial Japanese Army conducted many mock trials during World War II in which they sentenced alleged “criminals” to death. The most famous incident was the executions of several of the Doolittle Raid pilots. Although the practice of torturing and then executing captured Allied airmen was practiced prior to 1944, after this date it became almost automatic. Allied “criminals” were no longer given trials in order to expedite the execution process approved of by senior military officers. 22

The historian Yuki Tanaka averred, “The extreme ill-treatment of POWs by the Japanese in World War II was a historically specific phenomenon that occurred between the so-called ‘China-Incident’ and the end of World War II.”23 According to Tanaka, the cruelty committed by Japanese soldiers during World War II towards Allied POWs was an effect of the subordination and the corruption of the Code of Bushido to the emperor ideology and the ‘new’ military ideology.24 According to Tanaka, the strategic and political demands of the Japanese militarists in the early twentieth century superseded the rigid moral and ethical imperatives of the Code of Bushido, which listed seven distinct qualities for a warrior to exhibit.25

The aforementioned statement argues that the behavior of the Japanese during World War II was unique and did not occur prior to that time nor could it occur afterwards. Alleging that there was a corruption of the warrior code also implies that the Code was rigid enough for a measure of illegality and unlawful manipulation of it to occur. In truth, the term “bushido” is a nebulous concept that constitutes a vast amount of space for interpretation. The importance in exposing the illusive context of bushido is to show that within this flexible doctrine, almost any action can be interpreted as just or moral as long as it fulfills the end goal. For a law or a doctrine to be corrupted and illegal action to ensue, the laws must be clearly defined, which the Code of Bushido was not. The term “bushido,” was not used to specify a code of warrior behavior until the early modern era. Even then, it was rarely referred to as such before the late nineteenth century. Secondly, since bushido emphasized obedience above all other aspects of conduct, while remaining contractual, obedience was only required as long as it served the motives of the individual, therein giving the individual the freedom of unrestricted action. Japanese conduct in World War II was not a corruption of the Code of Bushido. A “corruption” of the Bushido Code was impossible. The concept of a code of conduct for the samurai was a product of the seventeenth and eighteenth century Japanese theorists when Japan was in a state of peace. The primary goal of these bureaucrats and administrators was to define the proper role of the warrior in a state of peace. Accordingly, “The ideas that developed out of this search owed very little to the behavioral norms of the warriors of earlier times.”26

A similar argument that focuses only on the Code of Bushido is evident in the argument of Lord Russell of Liverpool. “The atrocities of World War II were the result of behavior codes fostered by the military for their own ends, codes such as ‘eight sides and corners of the World,’ and ‘the way of the emperor,’ based upon the old code of the warriors (bushido).” Rather, Japanese conduct in the Pacific Theater in World War II stemmed from this deeper, unwritten collective code, bushido, making their behavior part of a continuous pattern of martial culture. As an ideal construct, bushido emphasized honesty, filial piety, honor, selflessness, indifference to pain, loyalty, and above all, unquestioning obedience to one’s superiors.27 These attributes, in no way, give structural integrity to any type of normative warrior ethic. Instead, they are generalized traits, capable of being amended to suit to needs of a specific situation, and are applicable to any martial force during any given time-period. There is no specific quality to these traits that denote an ethos unique to the Japanese.

Japanese brutality was not unique to World War II but instead stemmed from the Confucian notion of Just Warfare making their behavior part of a continuous pattern of martial culture. The stoical behavior and aggression towards the enemy POWs was only unique in its scope and in its magnitude. The scale of the brutality committed against the Allied POWs was only unique from the sense that the Japanese had not been engaged in a war with the same military ability (total war) prior to World War II, thus making World War II the first modern, total war for the Japanese Military. This makes the scale of brutality circumstantial. What was unique to World War II was that the goal of creating a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere proved to be incommensurate with the lack of man-power that Japan needed to attain such a goal. What made the brutality that the Japanese Military ordered and exhibited so pervasive was that it fit the criteria of serving their temporary strategic and political goals, and was, in effect, a means to an end. This uniqueness was further exacerbated by the fact that Japanese brutality during the conflict did not lead to ultimate victory.

The prevailing explanations that have circulated throughout academia and formal texts explain the roots of Japanese brutality during World War II in terms of the two reinforcing concepts dominant in Japanese society in the early twentieth century: nationalism and militarism. While these two elements contributed to the mass torture and murder of Allied Prisoners of War in the Pacific Theater, they were not necessarily the cause. This is because Japanese national fervor was also expressed during the period encompassing the Russo-Japanese War and World War I. In post-World War I Japan, national fervor was in the form of a rejection of martial culture. The necessary cause of the large-scale brutality by the Japanese towards Allied POW’s in World War II was the Japanese vision of “just action in war.”

Since the end of World War II, the Japanese have systematically denied their brutality and conduct during the War. Because the Japanese have refuted all allegations of cruelty during World War II, one is firstly only able to deduce from such a deeply ingrained cultural denial that the notion of just and unjust action still resides within their culture. Just as the losing martial forces in Medieval Japan were judged as criminals and their cause viewed as unjust in retrospect, the Japanese prosecuted during the Tokyo War Crimes Trials, held from 1946-1948, were also held to be criminals. As further evidence that the explanation of Just War theory influenced the Japanese Military in World War II: after the formal declaration of surrender was signed in 1945, the Japanese Ministry for the Army ordered all POW camp guards to destroy any incriminating evidence.28 Secondly, that saving face and the perception of honor is more valuable to them than is the truth. A society is able to learn through education the mistakes of the past in order to prevent their reoccurrence. If Japanese actions during World War II truly were unique, and were the result of a particular combination of the nationalism and militarism of the 1920s and the 1930s as the accepted conventional wisdom argues, why have they dedicated decades to denying the truth? The answer is because such an admittance of a purported “wrong” would be egregiously shameful and considered disgraceful. More importantly, if their action in World War II truly reflected a corruption of a greater warrior code, it would give their nation greater impetus to admit that their actions in World War II were wrong and unjust instead of denying them while at the same time teaching false history.

Prior to World War II, the Japanese had not been defeated in battle since 663 A.D. when Yamato forces lost the decisive Battle of Baekgang (Paekch’ on River), making each martial undertaking since then, just causes. Since the Japanese were the victors and because these acts contributed to military success, any acts of impropriety, cruelty, or atrocity towards enemy combatants were thus, ipso facto, legitimized and considered honorable since they contributed to victory. Since Confucian Just Warfare in early samurai warfare also emphasized obedience and honor over all other traits, it made even the most brutal acts justifiable because they served to expedite the process of victory. Hence, these acts were not classified as “war-crimes.” The defeat in war entailed an outside source and victor judging the actions of the defeated as shameful, or unjust, and therefore too dishonorable to record for history.

During World War II, the brutality committed against Allied POWs by the Japanese was a result of a systematic and deliberate policy of terror.29 30 Bushido had neither definition nor any recourse for what constituted a war-crime nor were Japanese soldiers held accountable for misconduct or cruelty against an enemy by their own military. Within the Japanese culture, the emperor, being an earthly agent of divine origin, in essence, was the ‘State.’ His decisions and judgments for war were by default, moral, righteous, and legal. For the Japanese Imperial Army, any action taken to achieve the end goal of the emperor, became just and ethical as well.

The type of warrior ethic expressed by the Japanese towards Allied POWs on the Bataan Death March was known as Shido, and was espoused by Neo-Confucian philosophers. Shido was calculated and rational, stressed non-attachment to the present, and focused one’s mind on the end goal. Prior to the Bataan Death March, General Homma’s strategic goal was to capture the fortress of Corregidor (the Headquarters of American Command) in the shortest amount of time possible. Only when Corregidor had surrendered, could Japan claim its intended goal- the Philippines. For the Japanese 14th Army, it was first necessary to remove the enormous number of prisoners who General King had just surrendered, who represented an obstacle numbering 100,000 Filipino and American defenders.31 General Homma’s immediate concern was not the humane treatment of the enemy POWs but was instead more far-reaching. His end goal superseded any thought to benevolence towards the Allied enemy who constituted a barrier between him and his goal. Therefore, the Allied POWs had to be disposed of and removed in the most expeditious way possible.

Approximately 66,000 Filipino soldiers and 12,000 American soldiers were surrendered to the Japanese on the Bataan Peninsula. The ensuing Bataan Death March was a nine day, sixty-five mile journey that the Japanese had originally thought would only be nineteen miles. In accordance with the estimates of enemy troop strength, made by General Homma’s Intelligence Officer, Hikaru Haba, the Japanese made provisions for the evacuation of only 25,000 prisoners north from Mariveles, Bataan to Camp O’Donnell, near San Fernando on the Western coast of Luzon. The actual number of POWs, already in very poor physical condition and nearly starved, amounted to three times that number.32 During the early years of World War II, it is possible that the Japanese suffered from poor military intelligence.33

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