For Hideki Tojo, the worst part of the war was the climate. He could stand the ringing in his ears from the resounding sounds of explosions that reverberated around him constantly. He could stand the hunger that constantly gnawed at his stomach from the lack of rations. But the one thing he could not stand was the hot, humid weather that drenched him and his comrades in perspiration as they trudged through the damp swamps and muddy wetlands.
Like cattle, they were herded in large contingents down the spine of Malaya through the hottest and wettest time of the year. The rain would come down in droves of stinging needles, whipping both trees and soldiers alike, drenching the world in a dismal layer of sticky, smelly moisture. Seen from above, the soldiers in their green helmets made it look as though the forest itself was moving, flowing down the spine of Malaya, a deadly green flow preceded by bursts of orange flames. Ironically, the stains on the soldier’s Uniforms were not blood nor other war related grime you would expect, but instead marks from the brown dirt that lodged itself into every crevice of their uniforms and bodies.
Under the watchful eye of their commanders, the soldiers marched through the dense vegetation, resting twice a day to consume their meager rations before continuing their monotonous trek through the jungle. Hideki’s contingent was part of the battalion that made up the flank of the army and therefore only heard the sounds of battle from afar but none of them had actually sighted the enemy. All they saw were the decimated camps of the Kichiku Beiei (Bestial Americans and British) that they passed, some still unravaged by war but abandoned by the British soldiers fleeing from the oncoming tide of Japanese troops.
Back in Japan, Hideki had led an ordinary, mundane life. His family lived in a temporary shelter made of wood and paper in the Hiroshima precinct, for an earthquake had destroyed their previous home. He would go to school every morning, hang out with his friends after school at the movie theatres, which mostly screened patriotic Japanese films and then go home in the evenings for dinner with his parents. When he was enlisted into the Imperial Japanese Army, he failed his basic military course due to a leg injury and was given the rank of a private. When his battalion was called to arms, he had dutifully picked up his rifle and marched off to war, unsure of what to expect, in his shiny boots and crisp uniform prepared by his mother.
Overhead, another Japanese fighter flew by. At first, the soldiers would duck and find cover every time the screech of an airplane was heard. But now, all they did was continue to march, the sound of the airplanes just another hum in the air, mixing in with the other sounds of distant explosions. The Imperial Japanese Army had complete air control over the battlefield due to their infiltration of British Intelligence, which gave them access to all the enemy’s flight schedules. It was a massacre.
Hakko Ichiu, all the world under one roof. That was the mantra that was hammered into their hearts as they marched under their flags into foreign land. That was what kept them going, knowing that they would be doing good for the world, bringing all the barbaric lands together under the rule of the Emperor, bringing everyone under one roof, under one rule for the benefit of the world.
An explosion that sounded especially close shocked Hideki and his comrades out of their trance-like marching. The soldiers, sensing real danger for once, crouched low to the ground, loading and preparing their rifles and ammunition as another shell blasted a crater metres away from their front line. A shot was fired, another. Suddenly everyone was emptying their bullet cartridges, firing indiscriminately in front of them. All training flew out the window as adrenaline took over and self-preservation kicked in.
Afterwards, when the skirmish was over, the troops would continue their march across the broken Gurkha Contingent lines who had stayed behind to delay the Japanese troops for their British and Australian counterparts to retreat. All it took was 2 Japanese bombers to wipe out the resistance. Hideki was unsure if he had inflicted any damage on the enemy at all. He had a strange suspicion that his bullets had fell short of the enemy lines and it was the planes that had won the victory for them. In fact, the war was won the moment they had managed to achieve air superiority. The war was won even before it had begun.
The most important thing a General needs to understand before he leads his troops into battle is that his soldiers need to be given the right motivation to fight. That is why before every war, commanders would give his troops a rousing speech, imploring his soldiers to fight and die for their country, to die defending their homeland. That is why the Japanese won the war. While their soldiers fought with the mandate of Emperor Hirohito, truly believing that they were fighting to create a new and better world, the British and Americans were fighting to defend a land that they had colonized years ago, a land they saw as profitable but not worth their lives to defend.
Before Hideki embarked on The Sakura, the warship which would take them down to Singora, his contingent was put before a large projector screen that showed a speech made by General Akira Muto, the Chief Secretary of the Supreme War Council. On the flickering black and white screen, General Akiro was resplendent in his full Uniform, adorned with medals and badges, standing in front of the Japanese flag. The camera was tilted upward so it looked as though the General was talking down to them, the clear skies clearly visible behind his beret. In his speech, General Akira talked about the history of Japan and how Japan had flourished under the rule of Emperor Hirohito. He lamented the state of the world and charged the soldiers to bring the benevolence of Emperor Hirohito to the world, “so that everyone will experience the true greatness of his Imperial Majesty”. Bushido, the way of the warrior. Discipline, morality, honor in dying for one’s country.
When the Japanese troops marched into Singapore on 8 February 1942, the British were still reeling from shock. In two months, the Japanese had managed to breach the “Impregnable Fortress”, that was Singapore. The Japanese, a nation the British Newspapers portrayed as weak, barbaric and backward, had managed to achieve the impossible, conquering an entire nation with pure determination, discipline and ultimately, propaganda.
The battle was already over when Hideki’s Contingent reached the shores of Singapore. The British had surrendered to the Imperial Japanese Army, which made Hideki and his comrades colonizers, or rather, freedom fighters, liberating the country from the tyrannical rule of the British.
The first thing Hideki noticed were the flames. They were everywhere, filling the air with thick, black smoke that enshrouded the entire city. Ash fell from the sky like burning snow. White flakes. Almost vulgar in its innocence. Coating the world below in a soft, powdery layer. Dust to dust, ashes to ashes.
The second thing he noticed, were the people. Covered in dirt, dressed in rags, people were rushing around the city, throwing water and sand onto the fires. Both the young children and elderly worked together to save their burning city. It reminded him of an ant’s nest that had just been destroyed. The people scurried around industriously, rounding up the wounded, dragging them to makeshift refugee compounds and medical tents. Commands were shouted in a myriad of languages that sounded foreign to his ears. With the kind of solidarity that comes when people have lost everything they owned, both the rich and poor, Malays and Chinese helped one another out of the wreckage that they once called home. What was particularly evident though, was the wide berth they gave to the Japanese soldiers as they trundled down the city road. Like a bubble in water, the mass of people diverged in front of the contingent and converged again after they had passed. It felt as though he was prying into another world in which he did not belong. He was an unwanted spectator. He was the violent perpetrator. He was unwelcome.
After the surrender, the Japanese soldiers rounded up the Eurasians. All of them were told to gather at the Padang, to be brought to Internment camps at Changi. It was the first time Hideki had managed to see the enemy up close. Kichiku Beiei. They didn’t look that bestial to him. On the contrary, they looked like a weak, sickly group of people with their pale skins and complicated outfits. They resembled cornered animals, huddling in the scorching sun.
As the Eurasians were marched away, the civilians who were gathered nearby started jeering. Would they also jeer at him when the Japanese were no longer in power? He prodded the Eurasians along the dusty road to Changi with the butt of his rifle. For some reason, he felt like a shepherd herding his flock of sheep to the slaughterhouse. Harmless, meek white sheep.
Everywhere he went, the Civilians would stop and bow to him the Japanese way, staying bent over till he was out of their sight. It was an unsettling change for him. In Japan, he was the one who did most of the bowing. Of course, his commanders had told them to expect the bows as the people were bowing not to him, but out of respect of the great and powerful nation of Japan. He was simply an extension of Emperor Hirohito and they were bowing in happiness and gratitude to his Majesty for saving them from the poverty and aimless lives they had led before. When a Civilian did not bow quickly enough, Hideki and his fellow soldiers would hit them as though they were disobedient children needing to be taught a lesson.
Later on, the Chinese would call it Sook Ching. The Purge through Purification. Kideki watched closely as the Chinese men filed past the hooded figures seated on stools in the shade. Every now and then one of the hooded figures would nod their heads and Kideki would pull aside the Chinese man they had nodded at. The hooded figures were the Fifth Columnists, locals who helped the Japanese identify other locals who had anti-Japanese sentiments. At the end of the screening, about ten thousand Chinese men were sent to the beach at Punggol Point where they were given spades and asked to dig. Obediently, they dug, a long, deep trench that stretched along the beach.
Hideki watched as the men literally dug their own graves. He did not know that moments later, he and his comrades would be forced to stand in a line behind the Chinese men, guns loaded and pointing at their backs. He did not know that the command to fire would be given and the night would be filled with the sputter of rifles as the men thumped into the graves they had dug. He did not know why he did not fire a single shot that night, even as everyone else around him hurled insults at the defenseless men and gunned them down. He did not know why the Chinese men were silent as they fell into their graves.
He did not know.
They did not know. Morality.
5 Months into the Japanese occupation, Hideki was sent to the Kempeitai (Military Police) compound at Outram to assist in Interrogations. While the exterior of the building looked innocent enough, the screams and shouts of human voices could be heard the moment Hideki stepped into the compound. Makeshift manacles were nailed to the walls and prisoners were being interrogated in a series of sadistic ways to elicit confessions and information about other anti-Japanese movements. Hideki was sent to the lower basements of the compound where he helped to carry and dispose the mutilated bodies into a large pit located behind the compound.
When she was brought in for questioning, she was stripped and tied spread-eagled on the cold, cement floor. It shamed Hideki to see a woman treated in such a crude manner yet when he broached the subject with his Japanese comrades, they sniggered and told him that the locals were not seen as humans. The natives were simply animals, to be taught Japanese values so that they could better serve the empire like how bulls helped them to plough fields or dogs were used to guard houses. It was disconcerting how nonchalant his friends were about the entire situation. When Kideki returned to stare at the woman, now bloodied and bruised but still very naked, he was struck by how she glared back at him contemptuously, as though she was the jailor and he the captive.
When the raping started, he watched as his friends penetrated her in a pool of her own blood, cheered by the others. As though spurred by the cheers, the young soldiers inflicted as much violence on the helpless woman as they could, trying to elicit the loudest scream or moan from the animal they were playing with to impress his watching friends. Each involuntary scream, each escaped shriek brought forth more violence, with one of his friends even ripping off a bunch of her hair in a frenzy of thrusts and waving the hair around like a macabre trophy. There was nothing animalistic about the very human howls of pain and the hardening in his pants as he watched. When it was his turn, he did not know why he didn’t step away. Like his other friends, he stepped up to the bound girl and gently penetrated her. At least he wasn’t hurting her, he told himself, as he gently caressed her smooth legs and breasts. As though sensing his weakness, with a strength that was unbecoming of her petite figure, she kicked him in the face with her leg and spat at him. Her eyes were defiant, imploring as she screamed a garbled mix of insults. Her mocking eyes followed him, even as he doubled over from the pain. Not wanting to look weak in front of his friends, he quickly straightened his body and grabbed a knife from the table. Even as he slit her throat, he saw her lips pull upward in a smile, welcoming the quick and painless death. Even as he dug the knife into the soft tissue in her neck, he could almost hear her imperceptible whisper of thanks. Even as her blood gushed out, crimson like his own blood, he couldn’t help but think of Bushido.
Honour in dying.
Honour in death for country.
Where was the honour?
Years later, after the Japanese surrendered Singapore back to the British, Hideki would still remember her imploring gaze as her life coursed over his hands and spilled onto the floor. He would remember the light dimming from her eyes as he freed her from her shackles and dragged her out to the mass grave behind the compound to be buried with the rest of the mangled Chinese bodies. Years later, he would wonder why the first and only person he had killed in the war was a Chinese woman, unarmed and defenseless. He would wonder, but there would be no answers, only a faint memory of someone on a black and white screen telling him about Bushido, the way of the warrior. Discipline, morality, honor in dying for one’s country.