Friday, 1 February 2008

Ant Soldiers

For people in America and the UK, the Second World War usually means 1941-1945 or 1939-1945 respectively. For East Asians, though, the group of conflicts making up the Second World War really started in the 1920s, and didn't finish until the mid-1950s. The Pacific War between the US and Japan and the Burmese campaigns involving Britain were really only chapters in a wider story.

I was reading in the Asahi Shimbun today about the Japanese soldiers who stayed on in the former occupied territories after 1945 in order to continue the war. Hard to believe that anybody would want to, but I've already talked before in this blog about soldiers becoming enamoured with fighting. What I hadn't known was that at least 20,000 and probably more than 30,000 Japanese soldiers chose to remain in China and fight on after the war officially ended in September 1945. Most sided with the Kuomintang, but extraordinarily many also joined the Communist forces under Mao Tse-tung. They were reknowned for their fighting ability throughout both warring parties: according to the article Hu Pin, a former soldier for the Communists who was involved in the hunting down and killing of 20 Japanese Soldiers in 1948, remembers that "Unlike [the Kuomintang soldiers], they did not surrender easily. Some of them pretended to give up their weapons and then launched a counterattack...still, I could not understand why Japanese soldiers were staking their lives [for the Kuomintang]."

Japanese Soldiers, Shanxi, 1948.

It's hard for us to understand either. The Kuomintang and the Japanese Army had been fighting each other ferociously for over a decade; why did so many Japanese soldiers join their hated enemies so readily and fight and die alongside them? We can only wonder - the Second World War was only sixty or so years ago, but already it has the feel of an utterly different era. We understand people from that time's motives about as readily as we do the motives of ancient Sumerians. Again I find myself thinking that some men really do enjoy fighting.

Anyway, a new docu-film, Ari no Heitai (Ant Soldiers), deals with this very topic. It was released last September in Japan; hopefully I'll be able to track it down and report back over the next few weeks.


Bilbo said...

This is very interesting! One of my hobbies is studying the history of the Second World War, although my major focus of interest is in the European theater (having lived in Germany for many years, and had a father - and father-in-law - who both fought in the conflict. I remember numerous news stories from years ago about single Japanese soldiers found in various jungles who didn't realize the war was over, but never knew that they actually stayed on in large numbers to fight on both sides in China. Can you recommend any good books on the topic?

noisms said...

I only know about as much as is written here, although in the article I mentioned there was also an intriguing line about "1000 Japanese soldiers remaining in Indonesia to fight for the country's independence from the Dutch."

It sounds in a way almost like the Freikorps who returned to Germany after the First World War - groups of disbanded soldiers with nothing much better to do than become basically mercenaries.

I'll certainly watch the film, and if I can find any English books on the subject I'll let you know.