Culture clash

Advocates of multiculturalism take it as an article of faith that all cultures are created equal, just a little, well, different. Regardless of the relative “worth” of cultures, one thing is unmistakable; cultures can be very different and can cause people to think and act in strange and counterproductive ways.

Here is a case in point. During World War II, warring nations set up prisoner of war camps to house those captured on the battlefield. Those confined to such camps often tried to escape. We’ve all seen movies where the plucky POWs dig tunnels, or sneak out hidden in trash trucks, or find some other devious way of slipping away from their captors. The deception was necessary because here was no other way of getting past the barbed wire, guard towers and guns of the captors. The POWs did this to keep up morale and to tie down the enemy by making them assign troops to security. It was almost a game at times. Germans escaping from US camps knew they would be quickly recaptured, but did it anyway. This was pretty much universal. Americans and Brits tried to escape from the Germans, and the Germans and Italians tried to escape from camps in England, Canada and the US. As long as there was a possibility of escape, there was a chance to fight another day.

Except for the Japanese. Here is where culture comes in.

American and European troops regarded captivity as simply a fortune of war and figured they still had a chance to contribute to the war effort, but to the Japanese, captivity was a disgrace. Raised in a “Face” culture and schooled in Bushido, the warrior’s code, the Japanese preferred death to surrender, often committing suicide rather than be taken prisoner. If they were unconscious or wounded, however, they could still wind up as POWs. If this occurred, many would give false names so the people back home would not know they had been humiliated by captivity. Death, even by suicide was honorable. Surrender was not.

Once in a POW camp, this  dishonor ate at many Japanese prisoners to the point that they would do almost anything to redeem their honor, and this led to the biggest and bloodiest POW escape of all time.

The Australian POW camp at Cowra held about 4,000 Axis prisoners, including a sizable Japanese population. A large number of Italian prisoners were also kept there. (Different nationalities were kept in separate sections of the camp) The Italians made the best of things and put on frequent spirited sing alongs of arias from operas which were so well done that townspeople would come out to listen.

The Japanese, however, reacted to captivity with resentment and shame, and after some unrest, attempted a breakout the night of August 4, 1944. Instead of digging tunnels or engaging in deception, however, hundreds of Japanese POWs attacked the barbed wire fences and guard towers directly with bare hands and homemade weapons, even charging directly at two machine guns. The point was less about escape than it was about the Japanese redeeming their honor in combat.  Of the attackers, 359 escaped. Four Australians and 231 Japanese were killed. Eventually, all the remaining Japanese were rounded up by the army, the police, and gun wielding civilians. Of the Japanese dead, however, many died by committing suicide to avoid recapture and some who were unable to escape committed suicide in the camp to regain face. This suicidal escape was a direct result of a Japanese culture that valued death above surrender. cowra01

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The Great Escape it wasn’t, and all because of culture.

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