In This Review

Prisoners of the Empire: Inside Japanese POW Camps
Prisoners of the Empire: Inside Japanese POW Camps
By Sarah Kovner
Harvard University Press, 2020, 336 pp

This innovative study of Japanese prisoner-of-war (POW) camps in Japan, Korea, the Philippines, and Singapore during World War II explores how they were administered and what the prisoners experienced. Many prisoners were transported thousands of miles in crowded ships to work in construction, factories, and mines. The horror stories about camp conditions, forced labor, soaring death rates, and “hell ships” are painful to read. But Kovner attributes these gruesome events not to some inherent inhumanity in Japanese culture (a stereotype that remains influential) but to Japan’s lack of material resources and administrative capacity as it struggled to defend a vast new empire. Japanese administrators often tried to apply the provisions of the 1929 Geneva Convention regarding POWs to Americans, Australians, and Europeans, although they did not consider Asian captives to be protected by POW status. Kovner’s vivid, detailed inquiry throws light on a host of subjects, including the racial and gender attitudes of the many cultures that encountered one another in wartime Asia.