Culture again

I have written before about the mass escape of the Japanese POWs from a camp n Cowra, Australia in WW2, and how the Japanese were driven by their culture, rather than by any actual military considerations. The remarkable thing about the escape was both its size, several hundred at once, and its suicidal nature. The Japanese POWs considered themselves shamed to have become POWs and sought redemption in death, even in suicide. Actual escape was almost secondary.This redemption by death was a reflection of the Bushido code deeply embedded in Japanese culture.

The Real Samurai in The 19 Century (8)

Some killed themselves rather than be recaptured. As a result, they charged into a barbed wire fence in the face of machine gun fire. One group of five escapees broke free, but found themselves at an isolated section of railroad track with no prospects of either escape or of being killed by the Australians. They decided that suicide was the honorable way out. They waited until a train was coming, then burst from hiding and laid across the tracks with their necks on the rails. The engineer of the train could not stop in time and the Japanese were beheaded.

This destructive impulse, however, was not consistent. Despite local fears of the Japanese running amok, the POWs took care not to harm civilians. Japanese troops in the field often gleefully slaughtered civilians by the thousands and proudly sent photographs of their handiwork home to relatives in Japan. (Don’t believe it? Google The Rape of Nanking) This did not happen at Cowra, possibly because fugitives naturally act differently than conquerors. At any rate, during the Cowra escape, several Japanese showed up at a farmhouse where only the housewife was present. In China, this would have most likely resulted in the rape and murder of the unfortunate woman, but the escapees were polite and indicated they were hungry, since they had been on the run for almost two days. The farm wife, who probably should have won an award for coolness under pressure, invited them in and cooked them a dinner, which they ate quietly and gratefully. Meanwhile the woman slipped in the back room and called the camp to come pick up her dinner guests. When the truck arrived, the Japanese went quietly.

Culture, or just the unpredictability of human nature?


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