Japan's Horrifying Use Of Sikh Prisoners As Human Target Practice During WWII

In August 1945, Allied forces prepared to launch Operation Zipper, a massive operation intended to liberate Singapore and Malaysia from Japanese control. On August 15, Emperor Hirohito announced Japan's surrender. Seishiro Itagaki, the Japanese officer in charge of military operations in Singapore, initially refused to accept this surrender, and secretly planned to execute all Allied prisoners before fighting to the death against Allied invaders. However, five days after Hirohito's surrender, and after a meeting with Japanese South East Asia Army Commander Hisaichi Terauchi, Itagaki alerted Allies personnel of his willingness to surrender.

Operation Zipper became Operation Tiderace, and Allied forces swept into Singapore, retaking control of the city-state. As with Allies liberating Japanese territories throughout Asia, those who arrived into Singapore were faced with scenes of obscene violence and inhumanity, from the treatment of POWs to mass graves, tales of civilian massacres, and scenes of slaughter in hospitals. Among the things left behind by the Japanese were photographs of soldiers using Sikh prisoners for target practice.

Allied personnel, and the world, has an inability to understand the Japanese mindset during WWII. What would compel a military force to conduct medical experiments on POWs; rape, mutilate, and slay civilians; burn enemies alive and use them for bayonet practice; or commit suicide in the face of imminent defeat? The reasons for this are complex and historical; the images and context provided by this list offer just a snapshot of what happened during the Pacific War, and why. 

Photo: flickr / CC0

  • The Fall Of Singapore

    The Fall Of Singapore
    Photo: Fowler&fowler / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Singapore fell to the Japanese on February 15, 1942. The days following Japan's takeover of the city-state saw the Alexandra Hospital Massacre, during which around 200 civilians were killed, the Banka Island Massacre of Australian nurses, and Operation Sook Ching, during which the Japanese army sought out and killed ethnically Chinese inhabitants of the city (death toll estimates for this operation range from 5,000 to 50,000). 

    Huge numbers of personnel surrendered to the Japanese in Singapore, marking the largest defeat of the British Empire in history; the Japanese earned 130,000 prisoners in one day, and they were all treated with equal contempt. In traditional Japanese martial conduct, defeated warriors don't surrender, they took their own lives; because of this, the Japanese saw those who surrendered as cowards who dishonored their family and nation.

    Many captured in South East Asia were forced to work on the Burma-Thailand railway in brutal jungle conditions, during which 13,000 POWs and 100,000 local slaves died. Others were sent to camps where torture, starvation, and tropical disease were a day-to-day reality. 

  • Human Target Practice

    Human Target Practice
    Photo: Fowler&fowler / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

    Among those captured by the Japanese upon the fall of Singapore were 40,000 members of the Indian Army, who were presented with the choice of joining the Indian National Army (INA). The INA was a guerilla force fighting for independence from Britain created in Southeast Asia in 1942, composed largely of Indian soldiers captured by the Japanese in Malaysia and Singapore; the army allied with Japan to battle its common enemy. Those who didn't join the INA were treated as poorly as all other POWs captured by the Japanese; many were shipped to islands around SE Asia and enslaved. 

    During war crimes trials in 1946, details emerged of the treatment of Indian soldiers by the Japanese in Singapore and other parts of South East Asia. Several Indian POWs were beaten to death for transgressions as trivial as stealing sugar; another was beheaded for trying to escape. According a lengthy report on these abuses in the Times of India

    "At Wewak in New Guinea too, Indian PoWs were treated worse than beasts of burden. They were made to work 12-14 hours and were left exposed to Allied air raids. The senior-most Japanese officer here was one Colonel Takano, who even flogged men sick with beriberi for 'working slowly.'"

    Photographic evidence found by the British when the Japanese surrendered Singapore shows Sikh POWs used for target practice. Looking carefully at the photo, you can see targets placed over the hearts of each POW. The prisoners were set on high ground and assigned numbers corresponding to those of Japanese soldiers taking target practice — soldier one shot prisoner one, and so on and so forth. 

    As Thomas Berger writes in War, Guilt, and World Politics after World War II, education, propaganda, and military life in Japan, which promoted the notion that Emperor Hirohito was a god and Japan an exceptional nation with a common spirit (a notion reinforced by native Shinto beliefs), created a culture that:

    "... effectively obliterated any sense of individual morality, and any action, no matter how atrocious, was acceptable as long as it ostensibly was done for the good of the empire... the hierarchical structure of Japanese society, with the Emperor at its apex and the conquered or colonized Asian peoples at its base, encouraged a pattern of brutality in which those in higher runs of authority reflexively dominated and bullied those below them."

  • Life In Japanese POW Camps

    Life In Japanese POW Camps
    Photo: Fowler&fowler / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain


    Life in Japanese POW camps was difficult, as Robert B. Edgerton writes in Warriors of the Rising Sun: A History of the Japanese Military:

    "Often, for no other reason than Japanese scorn for anyone who surrendered, prisoners were beaten, burned alive, forced to run barefoot over broken glass, hideously tortured, and use for bayonet practice, or as targets for rifle practice."

    Author Thomas Berger notes the Japanese army, in particular, romanticized historical samurai as models of martial behavior, and soldiers and their superiors often acted in accordance with impressions of samurai from folklore. To this end, they used weapons like swords to inflict beheadings and other feudal brutalities on POWs. 

    Those interred in Japanese POW camps were left exposed to bombing raids from Allied planes, forced to work as slaves for 10- to 14-hour days, and fed paltry rations of rice, salt, tapioca, and sweet potatoes. When transported on Japanese ships, prisoners were forced into tiny compartments with no air and deprived of water. A British army doctor on one such ship claims the Japanese told him "water and air was not for the prisoners"

    A report from the Times of India on the treatment of India POWs during WWII notes:

    "According to Australian historian Professor Peter Stanley, the Indian officers gave a written petition in English to Takano in July, 1943. The Japanese colonel was so angry to see it that he paraded all of them before him and told them that they had no rights as they had surrendered unconditionally. He also called them 'traitors of Asia and India'. Harsher conditions were imposed on the men.

    Then in one Allied strafing raid, five Indian PoWs were killed and 13 others injured. Takano didn't let their wounds be treated. Instead, he threw sand at the men crying in pain and told them to shut up as it was their 'Churchill and Roosevelt who did this' to them. All the men died later of infection."


  • Allegations Of Japanese Cannibalism Targeting Indian Prisoners

    A Reuters report from April 2, 1946, on the trials of Japanese military leaders, reads: 

    "The Japanese Lieutenant Hisata Tomiyasu found guilty of the murder of 14 Indian soldiers and of cannibalism at Wewak (New Guinea) in 1944 has been sentenced to death by hanging, it is learned from Rabaul."

    Eyewitness accounts from prisoners in Japanese camps during the war corroborate tales of Japanese cannibalism. According to Captain R U Pirzai, who gave testimony to an Australian newspaper in April 1945:

    "Of 300 men who went to Wewak with me, only 50 got out. Nineteen were eaten. A Jap doctor —Lieutenant Tumisa, formed a party of three or four men and would send an Indian outside the camp for something. The Japs immediately would kill him and eat the flesh from his body. The liver, muscles from the buttocks, thighs, legs, and arms would be cut off and cooked."

    Allied personnel maintained for years that Japanese cannibalism began when Japan was running out of food at the end of WWII. However, in 1997, Japanese historian Toshiyuki Tanaka published Hidden Horrors: Japanese War Crimes in World War II, in which he asserted Japanese cannibalism was committed as a form of psychological warfare, and sanctioned at high levels of the military.

    Of the Indian soldiers captured by the Japanese during the war, only 5,500 survived