Rule of Law

by Terese Svoboda

“My account omitted many very serious incidents,” writes Bertrand Roehner, the French historiographer whose analysis on statistics about violence in post-war Japan I used in my Graywolf Nonfiction Prize memoir, Black Glasses Like Clark Kent. He began emailing me at this September about a six-volume, two thousand page report concerning Japanese casualties during the Occupation that has just been released in Japanese after sixty years of suppression.[i] Black Glasses Like Clark Kent is a memoir about my uncle, an MP in postwar Japan, that told of GIs executing GIs in an American-held Tokyo prison. Among many other things, the book takes a close look at censorship in postwar Japan.

A fog of censorship comes up during war about casualties. In the obfuscating haze after bombs explode – O Say Can You See? –  bodies get thrown into too many pieces to count, bodies are attributed to those who don’t count, bodies simply aren’t counted. Authorities have their reasons to undercount. The mighty conqueror vanquishes the conquered by a mere flick of its thumb; the conquered want to seem relatively unscathed. If nothing else, undercounting encourages enlistment in future wars. Finding out just how many soldiers die in a war is extremely difficult.  Counting the dead during an occupation with its even hazier rules is almost impossible. MacArthur made it even more difficult due to his overwhelming policy of censorship. “Even the Allied military reports were subject to self-censorship,” writes Roehner. In Black Glasses I was just trying to find out how many American soldiers convicted of capital transgressions had been officially executed by Americans. After four years of research, I did not discover that number. Counting civilians in either case is another thing entirely. According to the Geneva Convention, civilians are not supposed to be killed at all, although these days civilians are more and more the actual targets of conflict. (See Ukraine).

I wrote Black Glasses during the occupation of Iraq, while the misdeeds of Abu Ghraib haunted the country.  By 2018, the death toll of Iraqi noncombatants was estimated to be between 460,000 to 2.4 million, though sometimes that counts the invasion, insurgency and the civil war, and sometimes not. [ii] During the Japanese occupation, General MacArthur worked hard to promote the idea that there was no conflict at all between civilians and the occupation, that everyone was perfectly happy with the Japanese defeat and the invasion by Americans. This P.R. effort promoted the idea of a benevolent democratic US, and the civilizing effects of a new constitution modeled on our own. With the deliberate cultivation of psychoses in soldiers necessary to kill other humans (despite all instincts otherwise) – and the exhilaration of actually winning WWII, plus the tendency of revenge on both sides, it would be quite a miracle if the “peace” of an occupation did not include violence, especially violence to unarmed civilians.  Once the Pandora’s box of sanctioned murder is opened, it is very hard to close.

Roehner examined all 9,684 of the SCAPINs (formal directives issued by MacArthur), Japanese and American newspapers during the Occupation period, and the Allied archives in Australia, New Zealand, and England regarding violence in occupied Japan.The new publication that Roehner wrote me about was the “Fact-Finding Survey on Damage Caused by Occupation Forces,” compiled and introduced by Taji Fujime of the University of Osaka. The survey was conducted by the APU, a Japanese organization engaged in procurement work for the US military but that maintained a stance against military bases and war. It reviewed 1300 questionnaires circulated country-wide in 1958, its aim to discover who had been given “condolence money” by the Japanese government due to the violence of the occupying American military. The survey was designed to get “compensation money,” an additional amount, from the government.

Two examples of its findings were put forward in translation: On July 17, 1950, Kayoko Kurosawa, a schoolgirl aged ten, died while toweling off from a school swim in the sea when the US Army strafed the beach. The other incident cited happened on 10 March 1946 when Gonbei Shimono, a farmer with a boatful of radishes, was mistaken for one of a gang of thieves pillaging military stores. He was dragged to a storeroom by military guards and shot sitting on his knees with his hands folded together. He was 69, and caring for his orphaned granddaughter. The neighbors heard his screams but they had heard such cries for help so frequently that no one came to his aid because they feared being shot by the military themselves. Both victims’ families received condolence money, 30,000 yen for Kayoko’s death and 64,000 yen for Gonbei’s, such money an admission to crimes by the military, but the data omitted from the official Occupation records. Twenty-eight percent of the fatalities tabulated in the survey were children.

Adding Roehner’s numbers to Fujime’s, there’s a total of 8,242 fatalities directly attributable to the occupation forces. That’s over eight years. The number should also include those hospitalized, put into rehab, or permanently disabled, an additional 5,440 Japanese in Fujime’s report. Add this to an equal number in Roehner’s list, and the total casualties over seven years is nearly 20,000 people.

Fujime writes that her statistics are just the “tip of the iceberg.” The casualties of the occupation army workers, black marketeers, moonshiners, illegal immigrants, sex traffickers, military crackdowns on security, and “politically concealed casualties from the Korean War” fell outside the scope of the survey. Sexual assaults were rarely reported unless the victim had died. There were also casualties who had no families to report their deaths. Many casualties – nearly 80% – were caused by occupation soldiers driving recklessly at high speed, no lights, no horns, and drunk. These included homicidal incidents where soldiers used their vehicles in ways that were not accidental.[iii] In his report, Roehner quotes a New Zealand soldier:

To my shock there were quite a number of Kiwis who did mean harm. I was horrified on the several occasions where, otherwise reasonable chaps, would not deliberately accelerate their trucks to give the Japs a fright, but actually boast about it later. One sergeant killed two Japanese announcing, “I’m going to get me a gook.” Well, he got two and the matter was hushed up.

The monthly average of Japanese killed in traffic accidents by military occupation vehicles was forty-five during the first year of the occupation.

In her introduction to the survey, Fujime writes:

I couldn’t even turn to the police. In the damage survey sheet, there were quite a few people who wrote about their bitter experience of being told by the police, “It can’t be helped because we are a defeated country,” and advised by police to endure in silence.

These crimes were committed by men recruited at the very end of World War II. They had little training but had been inculcated with hatred for another culture, and harbored the supposed superiority of the victor. Of course Americans were also killed during the occupation, but 81% of those deaths were attributed to “accidents,” which reminded Roehner of the many “mechanical failures” of the helicopters in Iraq at the beginning of that conflict. John Dower won a Pulitzer for his book Embracing Defeat by insisting that the Occupation was completely peaceful. “There was not a single incident of terrorism against the U.S. forces there after World War II.”[iv] The many casualties that now come to light suggest that the “successful occupation model” he touted was “one-sided and fictitious,” as Fujime states in her introduction, and that August 15, 1945 when the Emperor broadcast his ‘Imperial Rescript on Surrender” was merely the final stage of World War II, the Occupation having lasted longer than the war itself.[v]

This is old bad news as opposed to new bad news. We always need to know who died in a war, and why. We need everyone to follow the rule of law to function as a democracy, to be subject to clearly defined laws and legal principles rather than the personal whims of the powerful. It should never be shoot first, ask questions later. Later is too late.


[i]              Roehner, Bertrand M. Relations Between Allied Forces  and the Population of Japan. 15 August 1945 – 31 December 1960. Paris. University of Paris. 2007. 26.

[ii]          “Casualties of the Iraq War.” Wikipedia.,than%2060%25%20of%20deaths%20directly%20attributable%20to%20violence.  Accessed 13 October 2022. Also Benjamin, Media, Nicolas J.S. Davies. “The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion.” Common Dreams. 15 March 2018.

[iii]           SPB journal “Chosa Jiho” no. 35 as quoted in “Fact-Finding Survey on Damage caused by the Occupation Forces” by APU,  compiled and introduced by Taji Fujime. Tokyo: Rikka Publishing. 2021. 4.

[iv]   Wallis, David. “Questions for John W. Dower: Occupation Preoccupation.” The New York Times. 30 March 2003.9.

[v]             APU, op. cit. 8.