Keichi Endo and the Kempeitai: the story of a Japanese PoW

Amongst the collections at the National Archives in Kew are a set of Japanese Prisoner of War (PoW) identity cards dating from the end of WWII. After the Japanese surrender, thousands of captives were detained whilst evidence was collated for their trials.

By studying these intriguing documents, we cannot only help families trace their long lost relatives but also gain an insight into the career of an ordinary soldier in the Imperial Army during WWII. For an example, we shall examine the case of Keichi Endo.

Who Was He?

Keichi Endo was, according to British records, a Military Police Sergeant in Batavia (Dutch Jakarta). After the Japanese surrender, he had been arrested and sent to Bang Kwang Prison in Thailand before being transferred on 7th December 1945 to Changi Prison in Singapore, having made a stopover in Saigon.

The notorious Changi prison had been used to imprison Allied soldiers in brutal conditions during the Japanese occupation

The notorious Changi prison had been used to imprison Allied soldiers in brutal conditions during the Japanese occupation

What Was He Accused Of?

Endo was arrested under suspicion of unlawfully executing two Australian PoWs and two Dutch nationals. He was to be tried by an Australian war crimes commission.

Service Record

Endo had been conscripted early on in WWII, joining the 74th Infantry Regiment on the 1st December 1941. The 74th was part of the 19th Division of the Imperial Japanese Army which had its garrison in North Hamgyong, part of Japanese Korea (now North Korea), on the border with the Soviet Union.

Endo would have been responsible for securitising the Japanese border with the Soviet Union and subduing any resistance posed by the native Koreans, who had been under Japanese occupation since 1910.

In May 1942, Endo was sent back to Tokyo to attend a training course for the Military Police. The Japanese Military Police was the notorious Kempeitai. Formed in the late 19th century, the Kempeitai took on a variety of often secretive roles to ensure peace, both within Japan and subsequently the territories it had conquered.

Chinese PoWs in the hands of the "Japanese Gestapo", the Kempeitai

Chinese PoWs in the hands of the “Japanese Gestapo”, the Kempeitai

Counterinsurgency and surveillance were particularly important tasks for the Kempeitai and it had developed a fearsome reputation in Korea (where it had had a presence since 1907) for its brutal methods of extracting information and subduing dissent.

Mr Endo’s role was thus both secretive and, potentially, lethal, and he returned to Korea in July 1942 after just a couple of months of training. The 74th Regiment would soon be transferred to the 30th Division and Endo was transferred to Java in in February 1943, by now part of the Japanese Empire. Here, he would establish himself at the Kempeitai headquarters in Batavia.

The British describe his role in Batavia as “Dealing with Jap. military offenders” yet it is likely that Endo’s concerns were more directed towards the Dutch and Indonesian settlers, in addition to Allied prisoners, than they were to his own kin.

In May 1943, Endo was transferred to a place named Pogol (this appears to be the present-day city of Bogor) to undertake clerical duties. Whether his actions in the field had brought him into disrepute or whether he was now adjudged senior enough to take on an organisational role is unclear.

However, what we do know is that on the 5th May 1943, two Australian PoWs and two Dutch civilians were executed in Bogor and Endo was suspected of being the guilty party. So much for clerical duties.

Endo's arrest card shows the accusations against him

Endo’s arrest card shows the accusations against him

His possible complicity in this horrible act seemingly did not displease Endo’s superiors. Promoted to Corporal in December 1943, he would see out the rest of the war in the Bogor Kempeitai division, even becoming a Sergeant on the 1st August 1945, a mere two weeks before the Japanese surrender.

Trial

No details of Endo’s trial are available except for a note that he was acquitted for lack of evidence on the 30th September 1946, over a year after his initial incarceration.

Whether Endo was guilty we will probably never know, yet these important documents (brief though they may be) offer a fascinating portrait of the path of an individual soldier through the carnage of the world’s greatest battle.

Another Coal on the Historical Fire: the challenge of Japan-Korea Relations

Japan and South Korea have strained relations. History makes this inevitable. Whether it be resentment over Japanese occupation of Korea in the first half of the 20th century, school textbook revisionism involving different interpretations of each country’s wartime role, or the scandal over ‘comfort women’, an unresolved issue always remains lying submerged just beneath the surface, threatening any stability in bilateral relations.

Therefore, the release of a document from 1953 in which a senior Japanese diplomat declared that normalising relations with South Korea was “impossible” due to the “arrogance” of the Koreans is unlikely to sooth contemporary sentiment between the two nations, coming shortly after Mayor Hashimoto’s defence of the use of Korean ‘comfort women’ during WWII.

The comments by Kanichiro Kubota serve to illustrate why a formal bilateral agreement to normalise relations between Japan and South Korea only materialised in 1965. Mr Kubota went on to claim that Japanese occupation of Korea served many beneficial purposes, that the South Koreans were “servile to the powerful and high-handed to the weak”, and that the overthrow of the government of Syngman Rhee was essential to regional progress.

Chief negotiator in normalising relations with South Korea, Kubota (l) had the opposite affect

Chief negotiator in normalising relations with South Korea, Kubota (l) had the opposite affect

Given their strained past, and the continuing flashpoints over historical interpretation, it is unsurprising that many Koreans believe that some of the sentiments expressed by Mr Kubota over half-a-century ago are shared by the current Japanese population and, in particular, its political leadership.

Indeed, even some within Japan believe this. Fumitoshi Yoshizawa, a Korean expert at Niigata University claims:

Tokyo never parted with the basic thought underlying Kubota’s comment…Japanese politicians have continued to make similar comments in recent years, drawing fire each time both within Japan and from abroad.

This is the crux of the matter; subsequent post-WWII Japanese politicians have been unable to convince their South Korean counterparts that they accept the wrongs wrought by their imperial predecessors and they have not pursued a consistent policy of sincere reservation for past Japanese actions.

South Koreans regularly protest Japan's questionable interpretation of its wartime actions

South Koreans regularly protest Japan’s questionable interpretation of its wartime actions

It is a burden on the modern Japanese politician, and every Japanese citizen for that matter, that they should be in a position where they have to apologise for the wrongdoings of their forebears. However, the inability to confront Japan’s shameful past has meant South Korea (and China) has refused to bury the historical hatchet, particularly when there are frequent reminders of Japan’s dubious acceptance of its wartime guilt.

To accuse the Koreans of being “arrogant” was a particularly appalling comment given by Mr Kubota. Imperial Japan, like Nazi Germany, saw itself as the master race of its region and any foreigner was designated a sub-human, such was the contempt in which they were held. The refusal of Japanese politicians, especially those of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), to offer a comprehensive apology, leads many observers to believe that a degree of this arrogance remains.

Whatever unfairness we may attribute to the situation of modern Japanese politicians having to apologise for the past, it is a necessity for the future well-being of East Asian relations that they do so. South Korea and Japan need one another. They are important trading partners, share a concern over North Korea’s nuclear intentions and both watch China’s increasing regional dominance warily.

Yet without setting aside the differences of the past, which continue to manifest themselves in one form or another in the present day, serious cooperation will be neglected and the tentative relationship between both nations will persist.

Japan's occupation of Korea (1910-1945) will take some forgetting

Japan’s occupation of Korea (1910-1945) will take some forgetting