How the Japanese kempeitai tortured and interrogated during WWII
Kempeitai or also known as Kenpeitai was the infamous Japanese military police from 1881 to 1945.
In Japanese-occupied territories, this police force was in charge of arresting and executing those who were suspected of being anti-Japanese.
They were notorious for their brutal treatment of prisoners during World War II (WWII).
Many historians refer to them as Japan’s version of the Gestapo, the official secret police of Nazi Germany.
They were trained under Japan’s War Ministry and even had an interrogation manual provided by their government.
One of the cautions stated in the manual, “Care must be exercised when making use of rebukes, invective or torture as it will result in his telling falsehoods and making a fool of you.”
Mark Felton in his book Japan’s Gestapo: Murder, Mayhem and Torture in Wartime Asia noted that the uniformity in methods of torture practiced by the kempeitai throughout the Japanese occupation zone suggested a definite policy adopted by the armed forces at the direct instigation of the government in Tokyo.
“Often, kempeitai investigators cared little whether confessions were made voluntarily or made under duress so torture served a useful and normally quick role in confirming kempeitai suspicions. Essentially, if you were arrested by the kempeitai your fate was usually already sealed.”
Methods of torture and interrogation deployed by the kempeitai during World War II:
This form of torture was commonly used by Japanese as well as German officials during WWII.
It involves water being poured over a cloth covering the face and breathing passages of an immobilised captive.
This would cause the person to experience the sensation of drowning.
At Woosung prison camp in Shanghai in early 1942, there was a Japanese army interpreter who worked for the Kempeitai.
He was infamously known for using the water treatment on American and British prisoners.
Nicknamed ‘The Beast of the East’, Isamu Ishihara developed his own version of waterboarding.
The steps include “Prop a ladder on a slope, tie the prisoner to it, feet higher than head, pound something into his nostrils to break the bones so he had to breathe through his mouth, pour water into his mouth till he filled up and chocked, and then it was talk or suffocate.
The Japanese kempeitai also pumped uncooked rice into their victims.
During the Japanese occupation of Borneo, there were at least 15 kempeitai operatives stationed in Sandakan, Sabah under the command of Warrant Officer Murakami Seisaku.
The victim would be starved for several days and then have a large amount of uncooked rice forced down his throat.
Then, they would put a hose in the victim’s mouth and he would swallow a large amount of water which cause the rice to expand.
This would cause excruciating pain as the stomach stretched to its limit, and the pain would often continue for days as the rice was digested.
The resulting stress on the digestive tract would also cause internal and rectal bleeding.
This method of torture was one of the ways used on those interrogated in Sandakan.
3.Flogging or beating
The Double Tenth Incident or Double Tenth Massacre took place on Oct 1943 in Singapore.
After a raid on Singapore Harbour under the Operation Jaywick, 57 civilians were arrested and tortured by the Japanese military police on suspicion for aiding the raid.
One of them was Anglican Bishop of Singapore, Dr Leonard Wilson.
He was flogged till he was unconscious by seven Japanese operatives.
While the bishop survived, 15 other men died.
Flogging was the most common of the cruelties deployed not only at Kempeitai headquarters, but also at POWs camps as well as on prison ships or hell ships.
Moreover, there was no limitation in creativity when it came to the size or shape of the flogging instruments.
It could be a piece of wood that looked like a baseball bat, a hose, riding crop or a bamboo bat.
In Sandakan, beatings were made more painful and terrifying by the use of wet sand.
The interrogators would smear wet sand over the victim and press it into the skin when he was beaten with a wooden sandal.
This abraded the skin and made the whole beaten area red, raw and bleeding.
Sometimes, the captives were forced to beat their fellow captives.
In many times, these men were beaten into unconsciousness only to be revived in order to be beaten again.
All of the times, they suffered lacerations, broken bones and injuries from these beatings.
In an unknown number of times, these prisoners were beaten to death.
After the war, it was revealed that there were five ways the kempeitai operatives tortured their victims using electric shock.
Darius Rejali in his book Torture and Democracy explained,
“One involved tying an EE5 telephone to the feet. This device was an old ‘lineman telephone’, consisting of two binding posts to which one connected wires and a crank to generate a ring. When it rang, it delivered a shock. The shock lasted four to five minutes. Three other electro-tortures used the main power grid to electrify metal chairs, brass tabletops, and metal rings on the fingers. A fifth was exclusively for women; the torturer thrusts an electrode ‘shaped like a curling iron up her vagina’.”
5.Knee spread and kneeling on sharp instruments
Another form of torture was known as the ‘knee spread’. The victim was forced to kneel with a pole inserted behind both knee joints so as to spread them as pressure was applied to his thighs, sometimes by jumping on them.
This torture could cause immense pain, separation of the knee joints and often permanent disability of the victim.
It was common to force prisoners to kneel when they were interrogated.
However to make matter worse, they were forced to kneel on top of sharp objects.
6.The use of sharp objects
Speaking of sharp objects, the knee was not the only part of the body where the kempeitai would inflict pain with a sharp instrument.
Lieutenant Rod Wells was discovered building a radio receiver at Sandakan POW camp by Japanese forces.
He was sent to Kuching to be interrogated. Wells recalled:
“The interviewer produced a small piece of wood like a meat skewer pushed that into my left ear, and tapped it in with small hammer. I think I fainted some time after it went through the drum. I remember the last excruciating sort of pain and I must have gone for some time because I was revived with a bucket of water. Eventually it healed but of course I couldn’t hear with it. I have never been able to hear since.”
Apart from removing the fingernails or toenails of the victims using pliers during interrogations, sometimes sharp objects were inserted right beneath the fingernails to get victims to talk.
A Swedish prisoner Erik Friman once revealed what type of nail ‘treatment’ he received.
“This consisted of hammering silvers of bamboo under the finger nails until the nails pulled up at the root so that they could be pulled out with dirty pliers.”
8.The use of heat
The nail ‘treatment’ was just one of many form of torture Sybil Kathigasu suffered when she was captured by the kempeitai.
Together with her husband, she was captured for aiding the resistant forces 5th Independent Regiment Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA).
While they ran needles into her finger tip below the nail, her hand was held firmly flat on the table.
In her memoirs, Kathigasu wrote “They heated iron bars in a charcoal brazier and applied them to my legs and back; they ran a stick between the second and third fingers of both my hands, squeezing the finger together and holding them firmly in the air while two men hung from the ends of the cane, making a see-saw of my hands and tearing the flesh between my fingers.”
After the war, Kathigasu was the only Malayan woman to be ever awarded with the George Medal of bravery.
She passed away in 1948 at age 48 due to a wound on her jaw left by the kempeitai which led to fatal septicaemia.
On Feb 13, 1947, the prosecutor in Batavia charged 33 kempeitai members as a criminal group.
He alleged that between April 1942 and September 1945, he group had committed a variety of war crimes in Batavia.
These war crimes include striking suspects on various parts of the body with their hands and fists, beating them with sticks, subjecting men and women in their custody to the ‘water cure’, applying electricity to various parts of the body, hanging suspects by their wrists and ankles, depriving them of food, water, and medical care, burning them with lighted cigarettes on various parts of the face and body, and lastly, throwing suspects to ground using jiu-jitsu holds.
So what is jiu-jitsu?
Also known as jujutsu, it is a family of Japanese martial arts that can be used in an offensive or defensive to kill or subdue one or more weaponless or armed and armoured opponents.
In Kuching Kempeitai headquarters, they had four bungalows which were used as torture rooms.
One of the rooms was handled by a jiu-jitsu expert.
His job was to fling his prisoners around the room while twisting their limbs. He also stomped on them with his boots.
10.The use of ants
Have you heard of the Sook Ching? It roughly means ‘purge through cleansing’. It was a systematic purge of perceived hostile elements among the Chinese in Singapore and Chinese Malayans by the Japanese military during Japanese occupation of Singapore and Malaya.
During that time, the kempeitai established their headquarters in the old YMCA building on Orchard Road in Singapore.
The Chinese civilians who were taken there for questioning seldom returned other than in a wooden box after dark.
Occasionally, impaled Chinese heads were put on display in the front yard.
It served as a reminder to the Singaporeans not to go against the Japanese.
According to Hal Levey in the book “Under the Pong Pong Tree”, the kempeitai trucked groups of Chinese to a banyan tree on the fairway of the third hole of the Royal Island Club golf course as ‘an amusing diversion’.
They then were ordered to stand under the tree while another kempeitai officer slashed at through the leaves overhead.
This dislodged thousands of kerengga or weaver ants onto the prisoners.
Levey wrote, “Disturbed as they were, the kerengga descended and inflicted a fiery torture on the prisoners until machine guns put the prisoners out of their misery.”
For the Japanese military police, burial was considered a non-lethal torture device.
It served as a warning or to scare the captives they interrogated.
One record where the method performed was in Kuala Terengganu. A magistrate was wrongfully accused for espionage and tortured to extract a false confession.
After spending a night tied to a table leg, the next morning his captors kicked him almost to death dragging him outside.
There, he said, “they buried me in the ground leaving just my head above ground. I was then made to close my eyes. When I did so one of the Kempeitai men put his sword against my throat as if to cut it, and kept it there for some minutes. After that I was unburied and left out in the sun for the rest of the day.”
The price of fighting back against the kempeitai
There were a number of incidents when groups of brave men fought back against their oppressor during Japanese occupation.
However, the price for their retaliation was high.
On the islands of Loeng and Sermata east of Timor, 96 locals were executed after two kempeitai were murdered.
All the hostages were first interrogated, tortured and then executed with bayonet thrusts the chest and belly.
Even after those bloodshed, the real murderers of the kempeitai were never discovered.
Why so much torture by the Japanese military police?
During a military trial, Uno Shintaro a former Japanese officer who served in China revealed the ‘essential’ reason to use torture as a form of interrogation.
“One of the essential means of obtaining information was the interrogation of prisoners. Torture was an inevitable necessity. Killing the victims and burying them is a natural consequence. You do it because you don’t want it to be discovered. I believed and acted that way because I was convinced of what I was doing. We were doing our duty as we had been taught. We have done so far for the sake of our country and because of our subsidiary obligations to our ancestors. On the battlefield, we never considered the Chinese to be human beings. When you are the winner, the losers seem miserable. We concluded that the Yamato (i.e Japanese) ethnic group was superior.”
Meanwhile, historian Professor Yuki Tanaka further explained,
“Kempeitai members were projecting their fears onto the local population and this constantly ‘discovering’ new conspiracies. They were usually convinced of the guilt of those arrested before any interrogation had taken place. The confessions they extracted after days, weeks, or even months of torture were usually given by victims who would confess to anything, even crimes punishable by death, in order to end their ordeal. Those named in such confessions were also arrested and tortured, so the circle of false confession and torture widened and fueled the paranoia of Kempeitai operatives, who became increasingly convinced that uncovered a comprehensive network of resistance activity.”
After all the abuse and torture, the operatives most of the time were just chasing their imaginary ‘anti-Japanese conspiracies’.
Even for those who had came out from the interrogation rooms alive, some died due to the injuries they had suffered not long after and all of their minds were never the same again.