Miracle at Fushun: The Transformation of Japanese ¡¥War Criminals¡¦

from Devils into Humans[1]


Motomu Ishikawa and Megumi Makino



In Japan, there exist many war veterans¡¦ organizations. They are usually made up of the ex-military personnel who fought together in the same corps. Many commentators on Japan have criticised Japanese ex-servicemen for not discussing their wartime actions frankly, let alone acknowledging their responsibility for their conduct. In this regard, the Chûgoku Kikansha Renraku Kai (the Association of China Returnees, hereafter the ACR) is unique. This group was founded in 1957 by about 1000 Japanese war veterans who had been detained at Fushun Prison in the Northeast of China, and then repatriated in 1956. Since then, its members have devoted themselves to the promotion of better Sino-Japanese relations. However, what makes the ACR most unusual in comparison with other war veterans¡¦ organizations is that, since their homecoming, many of its members have been confessing publicly the crimes against humanity which they had committed in China in order to atone for their wartime conduct.


The behaviour of Japanese troops was so horrendous that Chinese people called them ¡§Japanese devils.¡¨ The ACR members think of their experiences at Fushun Prison as a ¡§miracle¡¨ by which they were transformed from ¡§devils¡¨ into humans with the help of the Chinese prison staff. In what follows, we will give a brief account of how this process took place in Fushun Prison during the early years of revolutionary China.


In the Sino-Japanese War between 1931 and 1945, Japanese troops inflicted colossal damage on the Chinese people. It is estimated that the imperial army killed more than 10 million people including many innocent civilians in this war of aggression.[2]  After the Japanese surrender in 1945, about 600,000 Japanese nationals including civilians were captured by Soviet troops and deported to labour camps in Siberia, the far eastern region of the former Soviet Union.  In 1950, about one thousand of these prisoners of war were sent back to the newly born People's Republic of China to be detained at the Fushun War Criminal Camp for at least six years.


It was natural that these POWs feared retaliation when they were handed over to the Chinese Communists. What awaited them at Fushun, however, was beyond their imagination. In Siberia, these POWs experienced forced labour, suffered from chronic hunger and malnutrition and survived bitterly cold winters with great difficulty for five years. Living conditions in the labour camps were such that many prisoners died. By contrast, the policy of the Chinese government was to treat the inmates in a humane way by respecting international laws.  Not only were the Japanese prisoners freed from forced labour but also given nutritious meals and plenty of free time. This so-called ¡¥lenient¡¦ policy of the Communist government of giving the Japanese detainees such generous treatment was a product of Cold War politics by which Communist China tried to gain international recognition.[3] One of the important aspects of the lenient policy was the reforming of the Japanese prisoners in order to help them realise the gravity of their wartime actions by which they had slaughtered and raped Chinese people, and looted and burned towns and villages. Through the process of reflecting on their past sins, the Chinese hoped that these men would abandon their imperialistic way of thinking and vow not to invade China again. Yet this was a very difficult task to achieve and the prison staff had to overcome many problems.


The first problem that the prison staff encountered was the difference in the understanding of the detainees¡¦ status between these two parties. The Japanese detainees saw themselves as prisoners of war. However, the Chinese made it clear that, in China, they were going to be regarded as ¡§war criminals¡¨ who had committed crimes against humanity in a war of invasion. This made the prisoners furious. They protested to the prison officers, saying that they had had no choice but to follow the orders of their superiors. Therefore, they could not comprehend why they had to take any responsibility for their actions. Being designated as war criminals was very upsetting to them because it meant punishment. With anger and desperation, they became disobedient and verbally abusive to the prison staff.[4] At the same time, they could not understand why their former enemies were so kind to them. During the war, the way the Japanese army treated Chinese prisoners was extremely cruel. Because of their own record, the Japanese detainees could not trust the prison staff and feared that they were going to be executed sooner or later.


While the Japanese prisoners were puzzled by the generosity of the Chinese people, many prison guards were terribly perplexed by the generous treatment which their former enemies were enjoying. They could not understand the rationale for it. When they were assigned to work at Fushun Prison, they were told that it was a decision made by the political leaders in Beijing. However, many Chinese people, including the prison staff, had family members and relatives who had been killed by ¡¥Japanese devils.¡¦ So, they had many reasons to feel animosity towards the Japanese and to want to settle old scores. And yet there was a strict rule which prohibited them from using any form of physical or verbal abuse against the Japanese detainees even when they were insolent. Naturally, many staff members were very upset and felt that it did not make sense that treating these ¡§Japanese devils¡¨ humanely should be part of the revolution.[5]


The following is one such example which illustrates how difficult the Fushun project was for the Chinese people to carry out. A young prison guard was shocked when he discovered that a Japanese detainee who had killed his father was among those he was in charge of. After weeks of agony, he told the prison director that he wanted to be transferred. The director said: ¡¥I know perfectly how you feel¡K But if you give up on these detainees now and walk out, they will pick up guns and invade China again. This means that there will be many more deaths like your father¡¦s. We must stop these Japanese men from becoming aggressors again. Don¡¦t you think that this is what your father wants most in heaven as well as how you can fulfil your duty as a good son?¡¦ The director¡¦s words made this prison guard realise how important the task of re-educating the Japanese prisoners was for the future of China. Not only did he continue to work at the prison but also worked even harder. One day, his ¡§enemy¡¨ suffered an acute appendicitis attack in the middle of the night. The guard carried the sick man on his back to the medical room to save his life.[6]


The prisoners witnessed many incidents like this and began to feel that they could probably trust the prison staff. Their hostility and arrogance towards the Chinese staff came to be replaced by politeness to and respect for them little by little. When the guards could see changes in the detainees¡¦ behaviour, they became proud of their job and worked even harder.


Since their arrival at Fushun, the prisoners had been doing nothing but playing games and telling dirty stories. When they finally became tired of this, they began to hold study meetings. In that process, they began to think about why they had to be detained at Fushun. They also began to reflect on what they had done in wartime China and compared this with the kindness of the Chinese staff, although this happened only very gradually. It took them many years until they finally accepted that what they had done to the Chinese people were war crimes.[7] This was because, due to nationalistic prewar education, they had deep-seated racist attitudes against the Chinese and other Asians. They were taught that Japan was a divine country and the emperor was the only living god in the world. Therefore, killing inferior peoples for the development of the divine nation was justifiable.[8]


It was very difficult for the prisoners to shake off such racist thinking. Nevertheless, they slowly learnt to see their wartime actions from the viewpoint of Chinese people through various activities. One such example was the production of dramas. The inmates organised themselves into several groups to enjoy sport and cultural activities. In the drama group, they put on Japanese and Chinese dramas at the prison. They even created dramas based on their own experiences as the perpetrators of war crimes. In one drama, one inmate performed a Chinese peasant woman who was raped by a Japanese soldier after her husband had been tortured and killed in front of her. As she tried desperately to rescue him, she screamed and struggled to no avail, he completely got into the role. Many inmates who were watching this could not help reflecting on their wartime conduct. Experiences like this gave them an opportunity to think about the war from the perspective of victims. And they finally began to understand why the Chinese regarded them as war criminals. [9]


At Fushun Prison, there were several Korean Chinese officers who were in charge of the education programme because they were fluent in Japanese. With the help of these education officers, the inmates discussed their wartime conduct in groups. But as they began to confess their own crimes, many prisoners realised the seriousness of what they had done and became very emotional and depressed. One of them was so overwhelmed by a sense of guilt that he decided to kill himself. He swallowed an unshelled boiled egg and walked to the latrine which was constructed outside the barracks. As he suffocated, he became unconscious and fell into the cesspit below.  When the guards noticed this, one of them rushed to the latrine and dived into the cesspit to rescue the prisoner. When he brought the prisoner onto the ground, both men¡¦s bodies were covered with faeces. The medical staff rushed the prisoner to the medical room, pushed the egg out of his throat and gave him mouth-to-mouth respiration. Due to the suffocation caused by the egg, they were unable to save the prisoner¡¦s life. However, such action by the prison staff moved the Japanese detainees deeply.[10]


In Communist China, another group of Japanese prisoners was held at Taiyuan Prison in Shanxi Province. Most of these 140 prisoners or so had been part of the Japanese military personnel who remained in China after Japan¡¦s surrender to continue to fight against Communists as part of Chang Kaishek¡¦s Nationalist Army. In 1956, the special military tribunals were opened to try the Japanese prisoners at Fushun and Taiyuan. By then, many detainees had reached the stage where they were ready to accept even the maximum penalty. But, to their surprise, the Chinese government was extremely lenient. More than 1,000 prisoners were released without any charge. Only 45 prisoners were convicted, but there was no death sentence or lifetime imprisonment.[11]


Back in the end of 1955, the prison officers and guards had already been told that the central government had no intention of delivering the severest sentence. As a matter of course, they were very troubled by such leniency. They felt that at least those who had been high-ranking officers of the military deserved to be executed. They protested to Premier Zhou Enlai who was in charge of the policy on dealing with Japanese prisoners. In reply, Zhou said: ¡¥You will understand the correctness of our decision in 20 years¡¦ time. Suppose these people who had committed crimes in the war of invasion reflect deeply on their wartime actions and tell other Japanese about their experiences in China. I¡¦m certain that this is a far more effective way of making Japanese people aware of the facts about the war of aggression than being told by us Chinese Communists.¡¦[12]


When the former prisoners returned to Japan, the Japanese government had no diplomatic relations with the People¡¦s Republic of China because of Cold War politics which made Japan a close ally of the United States which was antagonistic to Communists. The mass media reported that these returnees had been brainwashed by the Chinese Communist Party. As a result, many of them had difficulty in finding employment and even after they found jobs, they often experienced discrimination at work. Also, the security police kept watch over them. In some cases, this lasted until Japan normalised diplomatic relations with China in 1972.[13]


However, the former detainees were determined to be active in the promotion of peace and friendship between Japan and China. After they founded the ACR in 1957, they started publishing a series of books in which they disclosed the war crimes that they had committed in China in order to give Japanese people the true picture of Japan¡¦s wartime aggression.  The first book was published as early as 1957and fifty thousand copies were sold within 20 days. However, the publisher yielded to the threats from far-right groups, and decided not to reprint the book. Despite such a setback, the ACR members continued to publish their accounts of the war as a group and individuals in books and magazines. They have also been retelling their war experiences as aggressors at public gatherings for many years while the great majority of Japanese war-veterans have kept silent. The veterans of the ACR have spoken out in order to express their unreserved apology to the Chinese people and at the same time to remind Japanese people of the truth and gravity of the nation¡¦s crimes.[14] They have been urged to do this because the Japanese government has kept refusing to atone for them properly. To cite just one recent example, in 2000 the Women¡¦s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan¡¦s Military Sexual Slavery was held in Tokyo and two old veterans of the ACR participated in the tribunals as witnesses. They spoke out as the perpetrators of wartime rape in China to back up the plaintiffs¡¦ accounts. Those plaintiffs had been forced into sex slavery by the Japanese military in various parts of northeast and southeast Asia. The participants of the tribunals including the judges and even the plaintiffs all praised these men for their courage.[15]


After their repatriation, the ACR members never forgot Fushun. In fact, many of them began to grapple with the significance of their experiences at Fushun only after they settled and rebuilt their lives in Japanese society. As they enjoyed ordinary life with their families, they recollected their wartime activities which had been destructive to countless Chinese families. Their respect for the Chinese officers and guards deepened.  They tackled the enormous task of educating ¡§Japanese devils¡¨ to help them recover humanity with incredible kindness and patience.  From 1965 onwards, the ACR began to send delegates to China. The delegates visited the former prison camp.  However, they were unable to be reunited with those they had wished to meet again most in order to express their heartfelt gratitude. No matter how often they wrote to them, there was no response from the Chinese education officers.  What happened was that China was in turmoil during the period of the Great Cultural Revolution from the mid-1960s to mid-1970s, and the ex-officers of Fushun Prison were having a very difficult time. They were severely punished for their work at Fushun which was seen as counter-revolutionary by the Red Guards. It was alleged that the prison staff had given preferential treatment to those capitalistic Japanese war criminals.[16] This situation made it impossible for them to make direct contact with any Japanese.


It was not until 1975 that some members finally reunited with some former prison staff at Fushun. After the Cultural Revolution, the former prison officers and guards were rehabilitated and the ACR members started to receive letters from the former education officers again in the early 1980s. In 1984, the ACR invited eight former officers to Japan and many ACR members finally had a chance to see them again. On the day of their arrival, many ACR veterans came to meet them at Tokyo international airport from various parts of the country. It was a moving reunion. The Japanese media could not understand why these former enemies could hold hands and embrace each other so enthusiastically with tears of joy.[17]


Whenever right-wing critics want to discredit the war stories of the ACR, they label these veterans as ¡§brainwashed.¡¨ However, the Communist leaders had no intention of indoctrinating the Japanese prisoners to become Communists. Nor did the prison staff ever tell them to join the Communist Party when they went home. The prisoners responded to the reforming process at Fushun because their former enemies treated them as humans without showing any hostility. It is important to remember that the imperial army was the epitome of anti-humanism, and these veterans went through a brutal training process to become ¡§Japanese devils.¡¨ The 18th century German philosopher Immanuel Kant defines peace as ¡¥the end of all hostilities¡¦ (Toward Perpetual Peace, 1795).  And what happened at Fushun attests to the fact that reconciliation is possible when people strive to stop being hostile to their ¡§enemies.¡¨


The ¡§miracle¡¨ at Fushun was made possible because the Chinese prison officers took the lead in ending hostility. Nevertheless, the officers were not so sure of whether the Japanese men who had been under their care genuinely reflected on their wartime conduct when they left Fushun. It was only after many years had passed that the former staff realised how correct Zhou Enlai had been when they learnt that the spirit of Fushun continued to live in the ACR¡¦s peace activism.[18]  It is very sad that many ACR members have already departed and even the youngest ones are in their early eighties. However, the ¡§miracle¡¨ at Fushun will continue to be remembered because another ¡§miracle¡¨ has taken place by the establishment of a new group to inherit the spirit of this remarkable event. Mizuho Shimada and Megumi Makino will describe this new development in ¡¥The Society to Carry on the Miracle at Fushun: Its Origins and Activities¡¦ below.





[1] This paper is a revised version of ¡¥The Miracle at Fushun: What Really Happened?¡¦ which was presented by Motomu Ishikawa at the World Peace Forum held in Vancouver, Canada in June 2006.

[2] Shu Gong, Zhongguo Gaizao Riben Zhanfan Shimo, Beijing, Qunzhong Chubanshe, 2005, p. 46.

[3] It is beyond the scope of this paper to discuss this issue. For the origins and aims of the project to detain Japanese POWs at Fushun Prison, see: Arai Toshio Shiryô Hozon Kai, ed., Chûgoku Bujun Senpan Kanrisho shokuin no shôgen, Tokyo, Nashinokisha, 2003, pp. 14-18, 134-137.

[4] Chûgoku Kikansha Renraku Kai, ed., Watashitachi wa Chûgoku de nani o shitaka, Tokyo, Shinpû Shobô, 1995, pp. 10-13; Chûgoku Kikansha Renraku Kai, ed., Kakusei, Tokyo, Shinpû Shobô, 1995, pp. 45-50, 120-126. 

[5] Chûgoku Kikansha Renraku Kai, ed., Kakusei, pp. 36-37, 128-129.

[6] Ikeya Toyoji, ¡¥Bujun senpan kanrisho deno seikatsu¡¦, Kikan: Chûkiren, no. 14, Summer 2000, pp. 54-56.

[7] Chûgoku Kikansha Renraku Kai, ed., Watashitachi wa Chûgoku de nani o shitaka, pp. 37-38, 51-60.

[8] Ibid., p. 223.

[9] Chûgoku Kikansha Renraku Kai, ed., Watashitachi wa Chûgoku de nani o shitaka, pp. 162-171.

[10] Arai Toshio Shiryô Hozon Kai, ed., Chûgoku Bujun Senpan Kanrisho shokuin no shôgen, pp. 286-288; Chûgoku Kikansha Renraku Kai, ed., Watashitachi wa Chûgoku de nani o shitaka, p. 179.

[11] Chûgoku Kikansha Renraku Kai, ed., Watashitachi wa Chûgoku de nani o shitaka, pp. 189-204.

[12] Arai Toshio Shiryô Hozon Kai, ed., Chûgoku Bujun Senpan Kanrisho shokuin no shôgen, pp. 97-99; Arai Toshio, ¡¥Kyôjutsusho wa kôshite kakareta¡¦, in Arai Toshio et al., eds, Shinryaku no shôgen¡¦, Tokyo, Iwanami Shoten, 1999, p. 274.

[13] Koyama Ichirô et al., ¡¥Kikokugo o kataru¡¦, Kikan: Chûkiren, no. 36, Spring 2006, pp. 17-24.

[14] Chûgoku Kikansha Renraku Kai, ed., Kaettekita senpantachi no kôhansei, Tokyo, Shinpû Shobô, 1996, pp. 35-40, 172-174, 779-780, passim.

[15] Nishino Rumiko, ¡¥Sabakareta ¡§ianfu¡¨ seido¡¦, Kikan: Chûkiren, no. 16, Spring 2001, pp. 43-45.

[16] Chûgoku Kikansha Renraku Kai, ed., Kaettekita senpantachi no kôhansei, pp. 105-111, 292; Arai, ¡¥Kyôjutsusho wa kôshite kakareta¡¦, p. 275.

[17] Chûgoku Kikansha Renraku Kai, ed., Kaettekita senpantachi no kôhansei, pp. 197, 327-330, 466-467; Chûgoku Kikansha Renraku Kai, ed., Kakusei, pp. 1-2.

[18] Chûgoku Kikansha Renraku Kai, ed., Watashitachi wa Chûgoku de nani o shitaka, p. 225; Arai Toshio Shiryô Hozon Kai, ed., Chûgoku Bujun Senpan Kanrisho shokuin no shôgen, p. 163.