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“Those sons of bitches can beat me to death but they aren’t gonna starve me to death!”

PFC Robert Gordon Teas,

19th Bomb Group,

United States Army

The problem with the fukoku kyōhei strategy was that industrialisation needed steel, steel needed trade, trade needed security, security needed steel. Most of the sources of raw materials were in colonies of the Western Powers.

The Meiji Constitution also had one flaw  ̶ that the executive was separate from the elected legislature and executive decisions needed military support. Effectively, the military had veto power and curbing military spending was out of the question.


Japan gained Eastern power status after victories over China in 1895, rubbed shoulders with the world powers during the Boxer Rebellion, then world power status after victory over Russia in 1905. Japan even entered an alliance with the United Kingdom in 1902 and helped Britain suppress an Indian soldier rebellion in Singapore during the First World War.


As part of Japan's desire for acceptance from the West, they signed and ratified the Hague Convention of 1907, which stated that prisoners must be treated the same as the captor’s forces. During the First World War, Japan invaded German territory in China, taking 3,900 prisoner. In all respects, the Japanese observed the Hague Convention.

Horyo (捕虜) is the Japanese word for ‘captive of war.’ The men of Sparrow Force were led to believe that the Japanese did not take prisoners in war.

To be taken prisoner in combat was the greatest shame a warrior could endure, worse than defeat. The Japanese code of Bushidō — ‘the way of the warrior’ — was deeply ingrained in Japanese culture, especially  as the war escalated. The concept of Yamato-damashii equipped 

each soldier with a strict code:

​“Never be captured, never break down, and never surrender. Surrender was dishonorable. Each soldier was trained to fight to the death and was expected to die before suffering dishonor. Defeated Japanese leaders preferred to take their own lives in the painful samurai ritual of seppuku (called hara kiri in the West). Warriors who surrendered were not deemed worthy of regard or respect.”


By February 1942, the Japanese slaughtered Chinese soldiers in Nanking, captured Hong Kong, and massacred Australians at Laha on Ambon. Sparrow Force were next.


The Fall of Singapore on 15 February 1942 where 130,000 British, Indian and Australian troops became prisoners of war saw a change in Japan's approach to prisoners of war.

Although Japan did not ratify the 1929 Geneva Convention, it did promise to abide by its terms as well as the Hague Convention of 1907. The Red Cross was promised access to prisoners of war.

Japan did not expect to capture so many enemy and most soldiers were not aware of The Hague or Geneva Conventions. Another 100,000 Americans and Filipinos would also be captured during the Fall of the Philippines in May 1942. With so many captives and fearing that prisoners of war would be close to the front line, many would be transported on unmarked ships to Thailand or Japan to work in labour camps.

Sparrow follows the journey of The Sparrows throughout the Japanese Empire, experiencing different conditions with inmates captured in Bataan, Malaya, Singapore, Java, Hong Kong, Timor, and at sea. In the most comprehensive research undertaken, it explores life as a horyo in mainland Japan as the Allied blockades tightens and bombing raids escalates.

Relations with the West deteriorated following the League of Nations Conference's rejection of a racial equality clause in the Covenant. When the United States did not join the League, the United States then set about negotiating multilateral agreements, which were designed to break the Anglo-Japanese alliance and restrain Japanese expansion. What it achieved instead was isolation and aggression from the Japanese.

Japan developed its own path in the East after annexing Korea, invading Manchuria, China and French Indo-China. They adopted the cynical and self-serving role of liberator from Western imperialism. As trade embargoes started to bite, Japan prepared for war. They studied their enemy, how they treated those they colonised, how they treated captives.


Every former prisoner of war interviewed for Sparrow said the same thing: Japan wanted to liberate the Far East of western imperialism so it could trade with its neighbours. Horyo also recounted how their Japanese captors knew how the British treated prisoners during the Boer War, how the Americans treated Filipinos, how the Australians treated Aborigines, and how the Americans treated Japanese Americans.

The letter from King George VI welcoming liberated prisoners of war home.

For centuries, Japan was skeptical of the West. Japan's borders were closed to Western influence during the Sokoku (“locked country”) but those borders were forced open by gunboat diplomacy from the West. The United States sent warships to the entrance of Tokyo Bay in 1853 to force a trade agreement on the Japanese Shogunate.​

The Japanese went through a major modernisation during the Meiji (“enlightened rule”) Restoration between 1868 and 1912. The Emperor’s goal was to combine “western advances” with the traditional, “eastern values.”​ Over time, Japan developed the fukoku kyōhei (“enrich the country, strengthen the military”) strategy to maintain its security – both militarily and psychologically. An important objective of the military buildup was to gain the respect of the Western Powers and achieve equal status for Japan in the international community. Many of the social and institutional reforms of the Meiji period were designed to remove the stigma of backwardness and inferiority.​​​

Historical Analysis:
Historical Documents:

The guards at Mitsushima Prisoner of War Camp feared that their prisoners would all die so they took these photographs as a memento for the prisoners’ families.

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