Prisoners of the Empire: Inside Japanese POW Camps

Harvard University Press, 2020

In only five months, from the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 to the fall of Corregidor in May 1942, the Japanese Empire captured more than 140,000 Allied servicemen and 130,000 civilians from a dozen countries. They were imprisoned in seven hundred hastily assembled internment camps. In the chaos 40 percent of the American POWs did not survive, and more Australians died in captivity than were killed in combat.

Sarah Kovner traces the experiences of the prisoners and their guards, providing the first comprehensive portrait of captivity in the Pacific theater. She details the suffering of Allied servicemen transported to Japan on “hell ships” and of prisoners singled out for hard labor. But she also concludes that the degree of mistreatment varied widely, as did camp policies generally. Much of the abuse of Allied POWs resulted from a lack of planning, poor training of camp guards, and bureaucratic incoherence rather than a deliberate policy dictated by Tokyo to debase and torment prisoners. The single biggest factor was the whim of camp commanders. In Japan and Korea, Tokyo exercised tight control, while in the Philippines and Thailand, far from the oversight of central authorities, on-the-ground officials had their way.

We have long known that Allied prisoners suffered abuse in Japanese camps. The question has been why. Prisoners of the Empire reveals the reasons and points to deeper truths about POW treatment and the responsibilities of conquerors to the present day.


Prisoners of the Empire forces readers to rethink the morality-tale version of cruel Japanese treatment of Allied POWs. Kovner is unflinching in presenting harsh treatment by Japanese prison commanders or guards and unsparing in her attention to racism on all sides. Above all, she is clear-eyed in explaining how confusion and ignorance, more than consistent policy, shaped this tragic episode in the fog of war.” (Andrew Gordon, author of A Modern History of Japan)

Kovner reformats the complex ‘morality play’ depicted in Western history of prisoner of war suffering during World War II. Looking at the entirety of the Japanese empire at war, and focusing on the camps as locales within a cascade of battles for power, she challenges preconceptions that abuse stemmed solely from bushido ideals gone wrong or specific policies of cruelty. By comparatively investigating a vast range of experiences and geographic sites, Kovner overturns our stereotyped perceptions and challenges our understanding of POW history.” (Barak Kushner, author of Men to Devils, Devils to Men: Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice)

In a major work of original scholarship, Kovner reveals that who lived and who died often resulted not from policy but incompetence—poor training, lack of planning, disregard for anything but military priorities. With impressive daring, she situates camp lives within the larger context of occupation policies, diplomacy, and international law, and describes the multiethnic world of hundreds of thousands of POWs, civilian internees including women and children, and guards in the Philippines, Singapore, Japan, and Korea. Prisoners of the Empire is a signal critical accomplishment.” (Sabine Frühstück, author of Playing War: Children and the Paradoxes of Modern Militarism in Japan)

In this ambitious study, Kovner moves beyond threadbare tropes of bushido and surrender-as-shameful to persuasively argue that Japanese treatment of POWs during World War II varied greatly across time and space—and cannot be fully understood without the broader context of Japanese diplomacy with the West, propaganda and strategic considerations, and the breakdown of discipline and logistics as Japan’s empire collapsed. Elegantly written and compulsively readable, this accessible narrative history will be of great interest to scholars and general readers alike.” (Nick Kapur, author of Japan at the Crossroads: Conflict and Compromise after Anpo)

“A rigorous and wide-ranging study of Japan’s treatment of POWs during WWII… This revisionist history adds essential nuance and depth to an emotionally charged subject.” (Publishers Weekly)

“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… 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. (Foreign Affairs)

“Professor Sarah Kovner’s excellent and unemotional account of the issue… is not unsympathetic to the former POWs but provides a nuanced and dispassionate interpretation of what happened to those who became Japanese prisoners between 1942 and 1945.” (J E HoareAsian Affairs)

“Prisoners of the Empire offers a much-needed corrective to our understanding of Japanese treatment of Allied prisoners. The book is well researched, and the author’s ability to work with Japanese-language sources makes this an extremely valuable contribution to the field of POW scholarship. Kovner’s careful consideration of the source material, her clear and fluid prose, and her critical eye provide a nuanced analysis that is long overdue… It will be of particular interest to anyone interested in Second World War POWs and essential reading for scholars studying Allied prisoners of the Japanese.” (Derek R. Mallett, Journal of Military History)

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Occupying Power Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan

Stanford University Press, 2012

The year was 1945. Hundreds of thousands of Allied troops poured into war-torn Japan and spread throughout the country. The effect of this influx on the local population did not lessen in the years following the war’s end. In fact, the presence of foreign servicemen also heightened the visibility of certain others, particularly panpan—streetwalkers—who were objects of their desire.

Occupying Power shows how intimate histories and international relations are interconnected in ways scholars have only begun to explore. Sex workers who catered to servicemen were integral to the postwar economic recovery, yet they were nonetheless blamed for increases in venereal disease and charged with diluting the Japanese race by producing mixed-race offspring. In 1956, Japan passed its first national law against prostitution, which produced an unanticipated effect. By ending a centuries-old tradition of sex work regulation, it made sex workers less visible and more vulnerable. This probing history reveals an important but underexplored aspect of the Japanese occupation and its effect on gender and society. It shifts the terms of debate on a number of controversies, including Japan’s history of forced sexual slavery, rape accusations against U.S. servicemen, opposition to U.S. overseas bases, and sexual trafficking.


“Sarah Kovner’s path breaking study of the Japanese sex industry during the Allied occupation brings to light that the Japanese historical toleration of state-regulated prostitution nonetheless has its limits when confronted with a new reality . . . Occupying Power: Sex Workers and Servicemen in Postwar Japan otherwise makes a compelling case and should be regarded as an indispensable read for all students who explore the history of commercial sex in Japan, the Asia-Pacific region, and beyond (Yuma Totani American Historical Review)

“Rich, theoretically-informed, and based on extensive archival research in several countries, Sarah Kovner’s study sheds new light on a hitherto unexplored aspect of the Allied occupation of Japan―its sexual politics.” (Vera Mackie University of Wollongong, and author of Feminism in Modern Japan: Citizenship, Embodiment and Sexuality)

Occupying Power addresses an important subject, the multiple roles and shifting statuses of sex work in occupation-era Japan. . . [P]repares the ground for global perspectives and comparisons on sex work wherever occupation has occurred. Students and scholars will find the book a welcome addition to their readings in the modern history of Japan and the still understudied occupation era in particular. . .[M]akes an exciting contribution to women’s, feminist, and sexuality studies.” (Sabine Frühstück, Journal of Japanese Studies)

“Sarah Kovner has tackled a delicate subject with tact, thoughtfulness, and academic rigor. Her important book will be of great interest not just to specialists in Japanese history, but to anyone interested in the consequences of war, occupation, and indeed human relations across cultures.” (Ian Buruma, Henry R. Luce Professor of Democracy, Human Rights, and Journalism Bard College)

“[Kovner] reaches for and firmly grasps interconnections, whether across national boundaries or periods of time, and frequently with an eloquence that requires rereading and sharing. . . . The rave reviews coming in from leading scholars suggest that Kovner already has vaulted into the front ranks of Japanese scholarship. Summing Up: Essential.” (R. B. Lyman Jr. CHOICE)

Kovner’s detailed analysis of this movement and the politics of prostitution is illuminating, explaining how sex industry bribery of Diet members facilitated crucial compromises ensuring that outlawing sex work in 1956 had limited practical impact.” (Jeff Kingston The Japan Times)

“Overall, Occupying Power is a new and important addition to the recently growing literature of the social and grassroots history of postwar Japan . . . The book further deserves praise for incorporating up-to-date developments in the fields of women’s, feminist, and sexuality studies, as well as empire and nationalism studies, into the study of occupied Japan, making the book multidisciplinary by nature. Without doubt, therefore, Occupying Power should attract a wide audience in diverse fields.” (Hajimu Masuda)

“Although there have been many books published in recent years dealing either with the post-WW II period of Japanese history or with modern Japanese gender history (whether the focus is on geisha, comfort women, or occupation-era sex workers), this new book by a young historian manages rather brilliantly to advance the discussion of all these interrelated issues. In presentation, the author’s prose is entirely free of obfuscation and jargon. Kovner lays out her evidence so logically and clearly that a neophyte undergraduate could follow the interconnected strands of evidence and argument and the many ways even familiar categories such as geisha have sometimes been misconstrued. The author’s fluency in Japanese opens up reams of evidence at a level not always seen in books about Japan. She reaches for and firmly grasps interconnections, whether across national boundaries or periods of time, and frequently with an eloquence that requires rereading and sharing . . . The rave reviews coming in from leading scholars suggest that Kovner already has vaulted into the front ranks of Japanese scholarship. Summing Up: Essential. All academic levels/libraries.” (R. B. Lyman Jr.)

“Sarah Kovner has written a path-breaking work of Japanese history using a broad range of sources from Japanese, American, and British Commonwealth archives. This book will serve as the base line for studies in the history of sex work in postwar Japan for many years to come. Beyond that, it is an important study of women’s history, sexuality, and military occupation in the twentieth century, and should be of interest to scholars in these fields worldwide.” (William Johnston Wesleyan University)

“It is well-researched, thoughtful and courageous, and provides much material for scholarly and social debate. Occupying Power nicely complicates our understanding of the power dynamics of occupation, and of the place of sexual interactions within those dynamics . . . I hope that Kovner’s research inspires further interrogations of sexual relations under military occupation.” (Christine de Matos Japanese Studies)