Horror in the East (2000): Part 02 – Death before Surrender


Horror in the East: Japan and the Atrocities of World War II (2000) is a two-part BBC documentary film that examines certain actions, including atrocities, and attitudes, of the Imperial Japanese Army in the lead up to and during World War II.

The film also examines attitudes held by the British and Americans, toward the Japanese.

Part of the BBC History of World War II collection (1989-2005).

Outline (General)

In the First World War the Japanese fought on the same side as the British and captured German soldiers who were fighting in Asia. They were treated well, even, following an Imperial Order of 1882, ‘as guests’. The question arises: “How could the Japanese behave with such kindness towards their prisoners in World War I and then, less than thirty years later, act with such cruelty?”

Outline (Part 02)

Part 01 here.

Writer-producer Laurence Rees looks at the Kamikaze phenomenon:

” What could be more impossible to understand?” [yet] he says, “one of the most extraordinary things which making the series has done is this – I think I understand now why some of them did it, down to a meeting with a kamikaze pilot, he actually volunteered to become a pilot – he explained the dreadful social pressure that he and his family were living under – if he didn’t go to volunteer he knew his family would be ostracised, shunned, – from his point of view it was a sensible, sane thing to do.”

When US Marines tried to re-take Japanese-held islands like Tarawa in 1943, the ferocious way in which the Japanese were prepared to fight to the death did not make the Americans respect them more. To many Americans, their refusal to surrender, like their attack on Pearl Harbour and their mistreatment of prisoners, became another sign they were a dishonourable foe. Michael Witowich: “I thought they were very cruel, sadistic, and they wanted to die for their emperor and we had to go on and help them die for their emperor.” (The film soundtrack plays an excerpt from We’re gonna have to slap, the dirty little jap, recorded New York, 18 February 1942). Gene La Rocque (USS MacDonough): “We had been taught that the Japanese were sub-human when we got into the attack, but of course we had no love for Hitler, or the Nazis – but we also had many people in America of German descent, Italian – it was an entirely different view we had of the Italians, of the Germans, than we had of the Japanese.” Rees’s documentary shows a photo published in the war in Life – the girlfriend of an American sailor next to a souvenir from him – the skull of a Japanese signed by her boyfriend’s comrades.

Japanese soldiers fighting the Australians in New Guinea committed cannibalism. Japanese forces were sent to New Guinea in 1942 but without sufficient preparation – they were simply abandoned. In late 1943, forbidden to surrender and cut off from their supplies, they began to starve – some resorted to cannibalism of their own and enemy dead. According to Professor Yuki Tanaka: “The cannibalism was organised group practice, rather than individually practised.” A Japanese major-general wrote an order prohibiting the eating of human flesh but this meant flesh “excluding enemy flesh”.

The first signs that large numbers of civilians as well as soldiers might be prepared to die for their emperor rather than surrender came in 1944, 1,400 miles (2,300 km) south of the home islands of Japan, on the island of Saipan. Japanese propaganda about Saipan emphasised the nobility of dying in the struggle against the British and Americans. With the capture of islands like Tinian and Saipan, heavy bombers were now in easier range of targets on the home islands of Japan and the Allies now launched the biggest aerial bombardment the world had ever seen – more than 160,000 tonnes of bombs were dropped on Japan in an effort to make the Japanese accept unconditional surrender.

On 10 March 1945 Tokyo was fire bombed. Over 300 Boeing B-29 bombers dropped incendiaries which caused a fire storm. About 100,000 died. Despite the destruction in Tokyo opinion was still divided in the Japanese government in the months that followed about what should be done. Accepting unconditional surrender might, some feared, mean the elimination of the institution of the emperor itself. Hirohito and his military leaders believed that, in order to negotiate a more advantageous peace, Japan needed to win one big victory – and the Kamikaze would provide the means. Sporadic isolated kamikaze attacks had occurred in 1944 – now in the spring of 1945 kamikazes were to sortie en masse for the first time. A student from Tokashiki Island: “I didn’t think that they were wasting their lives, I believed they were sacrificing their lives for their country. The Japanese people belonged to the emperor – we were his children.” The testimony of a pilot suggests that not all kamikaze volunteered as freely as the propaganda sometimes suggested. Kenichiro Oonuki:

“All the fighter pilots, about 150 of us at the training base, were called in – a senior officer told us they were recruiting people for a special mission. They said, ‘If you go on this mission, you won’t come back alive.’ Everyone thought this was ridiculous and nobody really was ready to go. We wanted to answer, ‘No, I don’t want to go’..But later on we thought, ‘Wait, if we want to say no, can we really say it, can we say no to this officer?..We told each other that we should calm down and think about the consequences..if people rejected the offer they might be shunned and sent to the most severe battlefront in the south and would meet certain death anyway – then when their family was informed of this, how would they feel? They would be ostracised from the community…so nobody wanted to volunteer but everybody did..”

The biggest kamikaze assault of the war was on the British and American fleets during the battle for Okinawa in the spring of 1945.

The British warships with their armoured decks did not suffer as much under kamikaze attacks as the Americans. In March 1945 as the kamikaze flew around them, the Americans landed on the small island of Tokishiki. As on Saipan, the civilians were told by the Japanese army that the Americans would rape and murder them and encouraged them to adopt kamikaze tactics. To some they gave two hand grenades – one to throw at the Americans, the other to blow themselves up with. Shigeaki Kingjou, a student in 1945, looking back in the year 2000: “I think we were dreadfully manipulated – as I got older, my soul started to suffer. 55 years since the end of the war and I still suffer today.” By the spring of 1945, the Japanese empire had been pulled apart. Now the Imperial Japanese Army ordered a heroic stand to be made on Okinawa, less than 1,000 miles (1,600 km) from Tokyo.

The Americans expected the Japanese to defend the beaches on Okinawa but on 01 April 1945 when 50,000 American troops came ashore they found their arrival virtually unopposed. But more than 80,000 Japanese troops were dug into the fabric of the island interior, some in concrete pill boxes underneath the trees. In Okinawa, as the Americans pushed to the south of the island there were many civilian suicides, some thousand at Cape Kyan. Once more the Japanese military played a crucial role in encouraging the civilian population to kill themselves – on nearby islands where there were no Japanese soldiers there were no mass suicides. Around 8,000 American troops, 60,000 Japanese soldiers, and 150,000 Japanese civilians died on Okinawa.

In Popular Culture

DVD Release

The series was released on Region 2 DVD by BBC Video as part of the BBC World War II DVD Collection.[1]

Companion Book

Rees, Laurence (11 October 2001). Horror in the East: The Japanese at War 1931-1945. BBC Books. ISBN 978-0-563-53426-6.

Production & Filming Details

  • Narrator(s):
    • Samuel West (UK version).
    • Edward Herrmann (History Channel version).
  • Director(s):
    • Laurence Rees.
  • Producer(s):
    • Martina Balazova … associate producer.
    • Laurence Rees … producer.
  • Writer(s):
  • Music:
  • Cinematography:
  • Editor(s):
    • Alan Lygo.
  • Production:
    • British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC).
    • History Channel.
  • Distributor(s):
    • BBC Worldwide.
    • Divisa Home Video (2009) (Spain) (DVD).
    • History Channel.
  • Release Date: 07 September 2000 (UK).
  • Rating: PG.
  • Running Time:
  • Country: UK.
  • Language: English.

Video Clip(s)

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