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Four Personal Perspectives on the Film Documentary, Japanese Devils

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Confessions of Imperial Army Soldiers From Japan’s War Against China





Japanese Devils is an extraordinarily shocking and courageous film. It is difficult to imagine a more intimate, powerful, and persuasive indictment of Japanese atrocities in the long-ago war against China—or a more remarkable expression of public confession and contrition. The fourteen Japanese who speak to us here are ordinary old men, but their willingness to acknowledge the monstrous crimes of their youth so that others might take warning is rare indeed. Japanese Devils transcends mere history to engage war, madness, and evil themselves. This is a document of major importance.

-John Dower, author, Embracing Defeat


In the documentary film Japanese Devils, fourteen veterans of the former Imperial Army testify to their individual actions in Japan’s war against China, from the Manchurian Incident in 1931 to Japan’s 1945 surrender. During those years, the Japanese military system molded obedient men, trained to follow orders. After 1940, the Japanese military increasingly targeted Chinese civilians, and by late 1942 had initiated conscription of Chinese peasants for forced labor in Japan.1 Few veterans of the Imperial Army have been willing to talk about their military service in China. According to the veterans who appear in this film, destruction of civilian life and villages was a routine component of military service in Manchuria and China.


When I first saw Japanese Devils at the Berlin Film Festival in February 2001, I responded with a mix of horror, fascination, and the searing question: Why had these soldiers waited so long to testify? Their words made my skin crawl, and I had to stifle an urge to run out of the theatre as they described unimaginable acts of cruelty in Japanese, a language I usually associate with politeness and euphemism.


To gather feedback from secondary teachers on the feasibility of using Japanese Devils in their classrooms, we offered a screening at the Program for Teaching East Asia’s Summer Institute, Starting Over: Japan’s Occupation Years, 1945–1952. Although attendance at the screening was voluntary, many teachers participated, and the film was followed by passionate discussion.


Japanese Devils left me with “awful truths” and some of the most searing observations of wartime brutality. Lurid and sobering testimonies reveal a perverted sense of loyalty, duty, competition, and discipline. As one soldier lamented, “That was the true face of war—no matter how shameful.”


Japanese Devils (in both long and short versions) documents individual Japanese atrocities during World War II in China. While there is a general narrative of historical events, some contemporary photographs, pictures of newspaper headlines from that era, a brief discussion of trials held by the Peoples Republic of China, and even a comment or two on what happened to these veterans after they came home, the work primarily consists of recent testimony of rapes, murder, deadly biological experiments, and even cannibalism by fourteen aging veterans. The Japanese army, these veterans recall, treated Chinese as sub-human “logs” or “Chinks,” and insisted that new recruits use live Chinese for bayonet practice. The video’s title thus refers both to the ways in which Japanese militarism made decent citizens into “devils,” and to the ways in which the Japanese were hated by the Chinese.


1. On Unit 731, the Nanjing massacre, “comfort women,” and the like, see Sheldon H. Harris, Factories of Death: Japanese Biological Warfare, 1932 –45, and the American Cover-up (London/New York: Routledge, 1994); Joshua A. Fogel, ed., The Nanjing Massacre in History and Historiography (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000); and Yoshimi Yoshiaki, Comfort Women: Sexual Slavery in the Japanese Military During World War II (New York: Columbia University Press, 2000). On literary and oral testimonies of Japanese wartime atrocities, see Hirabayashi Taiko, “Blind Chinese Soldiers,” in Noriko Mizuta Lippit and Kyoko Iriye Selden, tr. and eds., Japanese Women Writers: Twentieth Century Short Fiction (Armonk, N.Y.: M. E. Sharpe, 1991), and Haruko Taya Cook and Theodore F. Cook, Japan at War: An Oral History (New York: New Press, 1992).