My late mother was a maiden in the town of Nasugbu during the Japanese occupation. The Japanese invaders, she used to tell us, were not always the monsters they were portrayed after the war. They became vicious, she used to say, only when the tides of war had changed and defeat started to stare them in the face.
Exactly how vicious, this article intends to narrate. Many of the atrocities that the Japanese committed, I used to hear when I was a child – but more as folklore. The stories in this article, in contrast, are all taken from published documents.
I thought that I had outgrown the almost genetic animosity for the Japanese those of my generation inherited from our parents; but researching this article has rekindled some of the anger that I used to feel.
Although the Japanese committed countless atrocities in many places around the Philippines during World War II, majority of these were committed from 1944-1945 in the Province of Batangas, where an estimated 25,000 men, women and children, mostly non-combatants or civilians, were massacred by the Japanese.1
While the number of people killed is enough to make the blood boil, the methods employed simply redefines the meaning of the word brutality.
For instance, during the trial of Tomoyuki Yamashita, the general under whose command many of these war-time atrocities were committed, many mothers testified that “babies had been torn from their arms, tossed high into the air, and, when falling, were caught upon the up-thrust bayonets of Japanese soldiers standing nearby.” 2 I had actually heard this wanton act of inhumanity before, told by a first-hand witness.
One such witness during Yamashita’s trial was the black-clad Apolinaria Navarro, whose 10-year old son and 6-year old daughter were bayoneted by the Japanese. She also narrated seeing how her neighbour’s child was thrown up in the air and caught on the pointed tip of a Japanese soldier’s bayonet.3
|Unidentified man stands at a river site of a mass killing by the Japanese during World War II, in Batangas Province, Luzon, Philippines. Image credit: United States National Archives.|
In the same trial, another woman from the Taal Lake area testified that Japanese soldiers cut off her husband’s tongue in front of her because he could not give information about the guerrilla movement, which in the first place he knew nothing about.2
Then there were the testimonies of five men and women describing how “four hundred men, women and children were herded into a churchyard in the village of Taal, Batangas. The men were sorted out into groups of fifty, marched to the edge of a well, and there were bayoneted, shot and thrown into the well until it was filled to overflowing with their bodies.2”
I know the same thing was done in Lipa close to where I live; and in fact, I have heard of a woman who survived by pretending she was dead inside the well, surrounded as she was by the bodies of dead people piled one on top of the other.
A survivor of one such massacre by the name of Pamfilo Umali, testifying during the trial of Yamashita, gave a graphic description of how it went. He narrated being tied up along with 700 men and many other women and being led by the Japanese to a well about 300 feet wide and 60 feet deep. They were forced to jump one by one into the well, after which the Japanese threw in rocks along with a sewing machine and started firing shots down into the well. Afterwards, they covered the well with bamboo sheets.4
A former soldier of the Japanese Imperial Army by the name of Jintaro Ishida, whose pangs of conscience led him to research these atrocities and publish them in a book entitled “The Remains of War: Apology and Forgiveness,” confirmed one such massacre near a well in Lipa during an interview with the New York Times.
“He knows, for example,” wrote the New York Times, “about the massacre at the well in the Philippine village of Lipa, where 400 people were thrown to their deaths. The blood lust of the soldiers ran so high, he says, that one of them smashed a rock onto the head of a woman who was combing her hair.5”
The stench of carnage was described by national artist Bienvenido Lumbera, who was a first-hand witness to the atrocities in Lipa. In his biography published at the web site of the Ramon Magsaysay Awards Foundation, Lumbera narrated that victims of the Japanese massacres were left unburied so that he could smell the stench of rotting flesh. He learned to suck on a slice of ginger to keep out the stench.6
Meanwhile, an entry to the diary of a priest named Juan Labrador told of how Japanese soldiers went from house to house at dawn in the town of Tanauan and “killed everybody they found either with bullets or with blows.7”
Documents show that while the Japanese conducted wanton killings around the Province of Batangas at the height of their blood lust, the highest number of these killings was in Lipa.
Beyond the taking of lives, the Japanese mania also extended to the razing of properties. Upon learning that the Americans had already landed and gained a foothold in the coastal town of Nasugbu, the Japanese “panicked and started rampage killing the civilians on sight, torching villages.8”
Why the Japanese would engage on such an orgy of killing almost defies understanding. However, some documents provide insights why. Yamashita’s defence panel argued before the war tribunal that the atrocities were committed by dispersed army regiments in Batangas who had ignored the general’s orders to withdraw.
They called these soldiers “war-crazed” and “drunken,” adding that “knowing that they had at best a few days to live... went berserk, unloosed their pent-up fears and passions in one last orgy of abandon.9”
A Japanese wartime survivor, 92-year old Shinichi Miura, has acknowledged that he had indeed attacked civilians in Batangas during the war. The commander of the Japanese Imperial Army’s 17th regiment had given the order to the effect that civilians who were thought to be in collaboration with the guerrillas should be “purged.” He said, “I felt like I had no choice but to follow orders at that time partly because I felt hatred toward the locals since some of my fellow soldiers were killed by guerrillas.10”
Of course, the Japanese who participated in these hideous crimes could rationalise all they liked; but what they conveniently failed to see was that all guerrilla actions were simply to reclaim what was theirs from unwanted guests who were never invited to begin with.
When I was growing up, standard fare of afternoon television were movies depicting how Americans and Filipino guerrillas triumphed over the Japanese aggressors. These triumphalist films were hard for a young boy to resist.
Growing up, however, brought with it the realisation how fortunate my generation has been in that we were born more than a decade after the end of the last world war. We had been spared the horrors of war, and long may it continue.
Notes and References1 The Yamashita War Crimes Trial: Then and Now, by Major Bruce D. Landrum
2 The Tiger of Malaya: The story of General Tomoyuki Yamashita and "Death March" General Masaharu Homma
3 Grim Stories at Trial of Yamashita, The Sydney Morning Herald
4 Ellensburg Daily Record, November 8 1945
5 Japanese Veteran Writes of Brutal Philippine War, New York Times
6 Bienvenido Lumbera, Biography
7 The Philippine Diary Project
8 Kuwentong Bayan: Noong Panahon Ng Hapon : Everyday Life in a Time of War
9 The Japanese on Trial: Allied War Crimes Operations in the East, 1945–1951 by Philip R. Piccigallo
10 Filipino survivor of wartime massacre expresses mixed feelings about Japanese emperor’s visit.