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Japan Hears of World War II Cannibalism A Half-Century Later

August 11, 1992

SYDNEY, Australia (AP) _ For six months, historian Toshiyuki Tanaka dug through Australian archives to tell his country that some Japanese soldiers were cannibals during the last desperate days of World War II.

Allied forces have known this for years. But Tanaka’s account, published in the Tokyo media Tuesday, represents the first Japanese investigation into the atrocities and the most extensive study of the subject to date.

Tanaka, an associate professor of political science at the University of Melbourne, said he uncovered more than 100 cases of Japanese Imperial Army soldiers eating the flesh of Australian troops, Asian laborers and indigenous people in Papua New Guinea.

″These documents clearly show that this cannibalism was done by a whole group of Japanese soldiers, and in some cases they were not even starving,″ Tanaka said Tuesday.

Some, their supply lines cut off, were genuinely hungry. But in other cases, officers ordered troops to eat human flesh to give them a ″feeling of victory,″ Tanaka said.

Born after his country’s defeat, the 43-year-old Tanaka wants to educate young Japanese ″who are not told anything″ about the war at a time when their leaders are considering erasing sections of its postwar constitution that prohibits sending troops overseas.

Tanaka said he tried several times to publish his work in Japan but it was deemed ″too sensitive.″

His account didn’t receive much attention Tuesday in Japanese TV and newspapers - the Mainichi newspaper placed it inside, on page six.

Tanaka’s findings are based on Japanese army documents seized by Australian troops, plus the testimony of witnesses and the confessions of Japanese soldiers at war-crime trials.

An English translation of a secret Imperial Army order - issued Nov. 18, 1944 - warned troops that cannibalizing anyone not an enemy was punishable by death.

The order described cannibalism as the ″worst human crime″ and blamed increases in murders and the possession of human flesh by soldiers on a ″lack of thoroughness in moral training.″

Another archive contained testimony by Australian troops to war-crimes tribunals.

An Australian army corporal recounted how he found the mutilated bodies of his comrades. One had only the hands and feet untouched.

An Australian lieutenant described finding the dismembered remains of several bodies, saying: ″In all cases, the condition of the remains were such that there can be no doubt that the bodies had been dismembered and portions of flesh cooked.″

Other witnesses reported they saw Japanese soldiers eating prisoners of war as well as Indian and Asian laborers and Papua New Guineans.

A Pakistani corporal, captured in Singapore and transported to Papua New Guinea for slave labor, claimed hungry Japanese soldiers killed and ate one prisoner a day, reaching a total of ″about 100.″

In Canberra, Australian National University war historian Hank Nelson said cannibalism took place in isolated fighting zones such as the Kokoda Trail, Sepik River and Bougainville Island.

Nelson had also uncovered evidence of cannibalism. One young Japanese soldier confessed at a war-crimes trial he ate the flesh of an Australian he had shot in battle.

″He simply said he did it out of intense hatred and intense hunger,″ Nelson said.

Bruce Ruxton, Victoria state president of the Returned Services League, which represents Australian veterans, said the atrocities had been ignored by the Japanese people for 50 years.

″Cannibalism did take place,″ he said, adding: ″But all of these sorts of things have been kept under wraps in Japan since then.″