What chanced Japanese military that treated POW’s humane in WW1 to the villains of WW2?

Hello Indy and Sparty,
I have watched Indy’s Great War episode about how humane and good Japan treated it’s prisoners of war in World War One. How did this civilized military become the barbaric monsters that treated it’s prisoners so terrible in World War Two?


In a nutshell it boils down to different ideologies in WW1 Japan was on the rising tide of European influence and still in that phase of wonder as remember Japan only started letting westerners in great amounts during the mid 1800s so there was a lot of fascination with European style and technology.

After the Great War Japanese traditionalists felt they were losing their identity and there was a major push to go back to their traditional roots and one of those ideologies was that if you surrendered you were viewed as weak and worthless and hence the treatment of POWs and civilians.

Keep in mind that while this played a part in the abrupt change in thinking but it wasn’t the only factor as it does become more complicated the deeper you go into the changes between the two wars.


Well having been to Japan and as my fist MA history assignment was about spotting Japanese history another aspects might have been at play.

Japan was rightfully scared of racist Western powers which had colonized virtually every place in the East and where not. The Russians which the saw as Europeans were just across the water and the Yakusan explained noted the worries about the Dutch who had a trading post and advanced tech.

Fast forward in 1899 /1907 Japan was invited to the The Hague peace conference as the only Asian power. This conference was held in The Netherlands but organized by Czar Nicholas 2. Japan had reason to think it would gain more acceptance.

After WW1 Japan attended the peace conferences in Versailles but their calls for racial equality were completely ignored which they felt to be deeply insulting. While Japanese history IS biased I think the contemptuous attitude of Westerners to the Japanese the horrific treatment and pillaging of Asian people played a much bigger role than the Western view of history admits.

Was the horrible treatment by the Japanese not at least partially caused by the dispicable attitude of the Western powers?


Definitely the feeling that the Japanese were shortchanged by the Treaty of Versailles


This is an excellent questions and the contrast is interesting to explore. WW1 Japan was close to it’s European counterparts and treated prisoners with the accepted protocols of that time. In the 1920’s, they participated in many important military and diplomatic conferences and were members of the League of Nations. Unfortunately, like in Germany, the depression changes everything. Poor harvests and poverty allowed ‘ultra nationalists’ in the military to slowly gain control of the government. Japan spent most the 1930’s taking actions that broke Western ties and introduced a traditional and militaristic mindset in the entire culture. They left the League of Nations. Brain washing and Imperial ambitions were leveraged by the military and ultimately led to the Pacific War. It didn’t help that Germany appeared soon to rule all of Europe in Dec 1941. The military that turned barbaric monsters, believed Japan had the natural right to rule inferior neighbors and not only treated military prisoners poorly, but Asian civilians were brutalized equally.


Treatment of Europeans in WWI and in the Russo/Japanese war* The treatment of colonials; Koreans and Chinese was very different during this time. At first, the goal of the Japanese government was to be respected as a modern power. When this goal changed so did the incentive to treat POWs well. My personal opinion is that if you are willing to commit atrocities against one group of people it’s natural to shift it to another before bringing it home to your “own” people. “one hundred million dead for victory


If you want an institutional explanation of how the IJA became accountable to no one the book ‘Curse on This Country: The Rebellious Army of Imperial Japan’ offers an interesting critique where people keep trying to make fixes around a flawed menji constitution but each fix leads closer to the countries destruction.

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It’s a shame that book wasn’t a thing in 1998, when I wrote about the crimes of the Pacific War in college. It’s really good.