Consider this: The German Wehrmacht is generally considered the toughest and highest-quality fighting force of the Second World War — perhaps of the whole 20th Century. Yet, when confronted by military disaster in North Africa, at Stalingrad or in the collapse of their defenses in France in 1944, German units surrendered wholesale. We’re talking hundreds of thousands of officers and troops hoisting the white flag.
Not one cohesive unit of the Japanese Imperial Army surrendered in World War II until after Japan had officially capitulated.
And for years after the war, holdouts in the jungle islands of the Pacific carried on a personal war, unwilling to give it up until they were ordered to do so. In the most famous case, Lieutenant Hiroo Onoda, who was deployed to the Philippines in December 1944, did not surrender until March 1974, and only then because his former commanding officer was flown in to order him to do so.
The Japanese soldier was not just hiding out in the jungle, either. He and several fellow holdouts killed more than a score of Filipinos and engaged in firefights with police during his extended campaign. When he surrendered, he was armed with his Arisaka rifle in good working order, 500 rounds of ammunition, and hand grenades.
The intense level of commitment in the Japanese Imperial Army is hard to fathom. American veterans of the Pacific War saw it as a practically inhuman fanaticism — and who could blame them? Mad Banzai charges; hopeless but deadly defenses of cave and bunker networks; utterly brutal abuses in prisoner of war camps; savage slaughter of conquered peoples…
What can explain all this?
Dan Carlin does his best to understand and explain in his Hardcore History podcast Supernova in the East. Like all of his work, this is a long, deep dive into an extreme phenomenon — and nobody does this stuff better.
Carlin explores how taking laudable principles like patriotism, loyalty, a sense of duty and sacrifice, and turning the intensity level up till it red lined made the Japanese culture of the early 20th Century incredibly dangerous.
He explores the extraordinary leap from medieval-to-modern-industrial economy military and culture that Japan took in a span of about 50 years in the late 19th Century, noting that its determination not to fall prey to Great Power colonialism led Japan to extraordinary lengths of social engineering — and turned the empire into a super-predator in its own right.
It’s a weird tale, pretty much unprecedented in human history. Give it a spin.