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‘The Honoured Guests of the Imperial Japanese Navy’

Hirohito Tsuji | University of East Anglia

After WWII, one of the problems that has often been an obstacle to reconciliation between Japan and the former Allies is the issue of the treatment of non-combatants, such as prisoners of war and civilians. In particular, in Britain, many ex-servicemen who had been Japanese prisoners of war in East Asia have long held a harsh view of Japan. For example, the large number of casualties among POWs who were sent to build the Burma-Thailand railway has long been a factor in the deep-rooted Japanese sentiment in the UK and Commonwealth. However, the indiscriminate bombing of civilians, including the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the firebombing of Tokyo, has also caused resentment against the Allies in Japan. When Emperor Shōwa 昭和天皇 (Hirohito 裕仁), visited the UK in 1971, some veterans and right-wingers threw raw eggs and thermos bottles at him and even raised a banner that read 'You are Hitler's best friend'. Also in the US, 'Remember Pearl Harbour' was used as a slogan for many years, and 'Kamikaze Attack' was even equated with indiscriminate suicide bombers targeting civilians in later contexts. The fact that relations between these countries are now better is probably a result of the efforts not only by the Allies but also on the part of Japan, including diplomatic visits by the Imperial Family, and a series of international cultural exchanges at the private level.

On the other hand, it is less well-known that one British veteran's activities contributed significantly to reconciliation between ex-servicemen. His name was Sir Samuel Falle. He and his comrades-in-arms were the beneficiaries of a remarkable lifesaving action by the Japanese Imperial Navy's Commander Shunsaku Kudō 工藤俊作, the captain of the enemy destroyer Ikazuchi 雷. Throughout Falle's life, he continued to call for attention to be paid not only to the brutal but also to the humane side of the former Japanese military, resulting in active exchanges and understandings between ex-servicemen from the UK, Japan, and the US. And now, thanks to recently released Japanese records and research by Ryūnosuke Megumi 惠隆之介, a military journalist from Japan's Self-Defence Force, the details of the rescue by Kudō are beginning to emerge.

An image of the Encounter at sea
Image of the Encounter [Public Domain]

In 1942, the Battle of the Java Sea broke out in the waters around Indonesia, where the Japanese Imperial Navy and the American, British, Dutch and Australian combined fleets fought a fierce battle. Falle was on board the destroyer Encounter as the gunnery officer. 


The result was a Japanese victory. Encounter and her flagship, the heavy cruiser Exeter, sank, leaving some 500 crew members adrift at sea. They had hoped for rescue by the Dutch Navy, but after more than a full day there was no sign of it. They did not have water and food. Many of them were blinded by heavy oil and were bleeding from fish bites. The equatorial weather was relentless in sapping their strength, and some sailors, driven mad by the fear of shark attacks, asked the military doctor for poison for suicide. It was during this time that the Ikazuchi, which happened to be on patrol alone, spotted them and made a sudden stop. 


Falle, who at the time was prejudiced against the Japanese as very savage, inhuman, and uncivilised, covered his eyes with his hands, thinking that he was about to be massacred by machine-gun fire. However, when he looked again at the Ikazuchi, he saw an international signal flag on the ship's mast indicating that a rescue operation was underway. Captain Kudō had ordered his crew to rescue enemy sailors, despite this rescue operation being fraught with several serious dangers for the Ikazuchi.  


Firstly, although the fleet battle was over, the threat of Allied submarines and aircraft units still lurked in the surrounding waters. Because rescue operations required the ships to be stopped, they inevitably became easy targets for attack. In particular, Japanese destroyers had extremely thin armour, so even a single torpedo hit would be fatal. Furthermore, many of the US Navy ships of the time attacked not only warships but also hospital ships without mercy, and in some cases, the ships and their crews were wiped out when attacked during rescue operations. For example, in 1943, the hospital ship Buenosu Airesu-maru ぶえのすあいれす丸 was sunk by a B24 bomber, and 158 wounded sailors and nurses who had drifted ashore were killed by machine-gun fire.  


Secondly, rescuing sick and wounded sailors meant that personnel and supplies were allocated to their care, which interfered with combat operations. In particular, the number of crew members and the amount of supplies that a Japanese destroyer, whose space was so limited that there is a joke that it is ‘smaller than a coffin’, can carry during a voyage is even more limited, and allocating them to enemy sailors would create a great risk.


Thirdly, there were only 220 crew on board the Ikazuchi compared to approximately 500 castaways. There were fears that the ship might be hijacked in an uprising after all the crew had been rescued. The small Japanese crew was at a clear disadvantage in close combat against nearly twice as many British sailors. 


Kudō therefore ordered guards equipped with light machine guns to be stationed on board and to be on high alert for enemy air or diving attacks. However, it was soon learnt that the castaways were more emaciated than expected and many of them were unable to climb even a rope ladder by themselves. Kudō decided that time was of the essence and sent the entire crew, except the first turret gunners, to the rescue, using all available equipment, including rattles, torpedo cranes, and ammunition transport derricks. This was a method that had never been used even in the rescue of colleagues and was extremely unusual in Japanese Naval history.


Some of the castaways sank into the sea as soon as they clung to the bamboo poles used for rescue, as if they had run out of strength. One young Japanese sailor, who could not bear to watch the situation, jumped into the sea and began to rescue them. A junior officer hurriedly told him, "You are in breach of orders, do not jump in without permission!" But several more jumped in.


The Japanese sailors wiped their enemies’ bodies covered in oil and filth with cotton, alcohol, petrol, and fresh water, gave some personal trousers and shirts, and sewed trousers and fundoshi 褌 for others. Milk, beer, and dry bread were also distributed. This was an extraordinary sight considering that at the time, the Japanese Navy was working to conserve resources under the motto 'a drop of oil is a drop of blood' and the crew could only use a basinful of fresh water per day. Kudō gave no specific orders to the British soldiers, except that he forbade smoking after sunset to avoid detection by British submarines. Ikazuchi spent the entire day searching for drifters at sea, and if even a single survivor was spotted in the far distance, the entire crew was mobilised for the rescue operation.


At the end of the day, the rescued high-rank officers were ordered to assemble on the upper deck. Kudō came down from the bridge and, after giving a neat naval salute, he is reported to have said in fluent British English: ‘You have fought bravely. Now you are the honoured guests of the Imperial Japanese Navy. I respect the English Navy, but your government is foolish to make war on Japan.’

A black anf white photograph of Kudō sitting
Image of Kudō [Public Domain]

Kudō's actions were based on the spirit of bushidō 武士道, which was to respect even defeated enemies and not to take non-combatant lives. Bushidō is a concept that describes the moral code and values of the samurai 武士 and was developed during the medieval and early modern periods. There is no clear definition, and interpretations of it vary widely depending on the period, status, and region, but it is a concept that is similar to European chivalry, such as serving society and the lord with sincerity, being polite, and not behaving in a cowardly manner, etc. This concept continued to be emphasised among the modern Imperial Japanese Army and Navy even after the samurai period ended.


Kudō also appeared to have been a very popular and capable naval officer among his colleagues and subordinates. Kudō's high level of English proficiency can be attributed to his English class when he was at the Imperial Japanese Naval Academy. In this class, all teaching and teaching material was in English, which was unusual in Japanese schools at the time. This was due to the elite training policy of the then headmaster, Kantarō Suzuki 鈴木貫太郎 (later the 42nd Prime Minister). Kudō was calm and collected; even when the Ikazuchi entered the range of an enemy shore battery and came under intensive fire, Kudō maintained his command with the same demeanour as usual. When the crew saw this, they all thought this ship would never sink. He was also known for his mild-mannered personality, to the extent that his friends nicknamed him ‘Great Buddha’. Indeed, Kudō forbade any violence on board his ships, although at this time there was widespread and customary use of corporal punishment in the Japanese armed forces. Kudō also encouraged reporting any minor incident to the captain, and when a young sailor mistook driftwood for a submarine's periscope, he did not reprimand him but praised him for his attentiveness. Therefore, crew members always tried to report any abnormalities in the ship's surroundings, which may have led to the early detection of drifting sailors. In any case, Kudō's charm, in addition to bushidō philosophy, was probably a factor in the success of this miraculous rescue operation.

A photograph of the destroyer Ikazuchi
Image of the Ikazuchi [Public Domain]

Falle survived the war thanks to Kudō’s rescue attempt. After the war, he worked as a diplomat, and was knighted by the Royal Family. In retirement, he gave a series of lectures on this rescue mission around Europe and Asia. He contributed an article by Kudō to the Proceedings, the organ of the US Naval Institute, in 1987. As noted below, after WWII, it took courage to express a positive opinion of the Japanese military. In addition, at the time, the US trade deficit with Japan was widening and anti-Japanese sentiment was rising in the Western bloc countries due to the illegal export of precision machinery to the Soviet Union by a Japanese private company. Against this backdrop, his seven-page article shocked US Navy personnel. Megumi points out that many retired US Naval officers defended Japan at this time, largely due to the influence of this article. At this time, Shunzō Tagami 田上俊三, former chief of artillery of the Ikazuchi, read this and contacted Falle. Tagami met Falle in person during his visits to Europe in 1998 and 2003 and acted as a contact person with the Japanese Ministry of Defence, which led to Falle's arrival in Japan later.

In 1998, in the run-up to the visit to Britain by the then Emperor of Japan, current HIM the Emperor Emeritus 上皇陛下 (Akihito 明仁), there was a growing anti-Japanese movement in the UK, particularly among ex-servicemen. However, when Falle submitted an article to The Times introducing Kudō, their sentiment towards Japan shifted dramatically in a conciliatory direction. Megumi pointed out that the impact of Falle's contribution was so strong that it diluted the presence of the demand for an apology to the emperor, which was published at the same time. In this way, Falle made a significant contribution to the restoration of Japan’s post-war honour in the former Allied countries.


On the other hand, this miraculous rescue was unknown in Japan for a long time. Even Kudō's family knew nothing about these events, as he did not tell anyone about them until his death from illness in 1979. The Japanese Navy did not release the information, fearing a public outcry for giving valuable supplies to enemy sailors. After 1941, food and other necessities of life were rationed in Japan, and the country was under strict control, with many of its citizens suffering from hunger and poverty. The Ikazuchi consumed all the ship's fuel, food, and clothing in the rescue operation, to the extent that the captains of other Japanese Naval ships were stunned by the sight of her. A former sailor testified that there were few crew members on the Ikazuchi who expressed displeasure at the rescue of enemy sailors.


As mentioned above, the details of this rescue story came to light after an encounter between Falle and Megumi, who happened to hear Falle's contribution on BBC radio and became interested, leading him to investigate the details. However, Megumi's ex-employer, Japan's Self-Defence Forces, were reluctant to do so, as it would be dishonourable if they were thought to be associated with the former Japanese Navy. In post-war Japan, there was a strong view that the former Japanese military was an inhuman and brutal organisation, and that anyone who praised it in any way was a right-wing extremist. In 2003, Falle visited Japan, saying that he wanted to thank Kudō before he died, and asked Megumi to investigate Kudō's disappearance through the British naval office in Japan, which was the start of a project to uncover the truth. Megumi travelled to the UK in 2004 to interview Falle and other survivors, who were unanimous in their praise of Japanese Navy. On the other hand, the research was not straightforward, as some survivors in both Japan and the UK refused to testify due to trauma from their tragic experiences and resistance to praising the former Japanese military under their own names.


Thanks to Megumi's persistence, the details of the rescue story Falle had told were revealed and Kudō's grave site was identified. In 2008, Falle re-visited Japan, overcoming the opposition of his medical team. At the age of 90, suffering from serious heart disease and unable to walk on his own, it was a very dangerous situation for a long flight to Japan, but he did his best to stand up from his wheelchair at Kudō's grave, and pay his best respects, marking the first time in 66 years that the two had been ’reunited’. The event was covered by a Japanese TV programme, which generated a great deal of response, and also stimulated a movement to uncover buried history of war veterans while they were still alive. He lived out his natural life five years later.


Further Reading

Hirohito TSUJI is a Postgraduate Researcher (PhD candidate) at the University of East Anglia. He has completed an MA in interdisciplinary Japanese studies at the University of East Anglia, an MA in history and minor programme of museology at Kokugakuin University, and a BA in Japanese history and minor field of Shinto studies at Kogakkan University. He specialises in the Imperial Family of Japan. He is also a visiting fellow at the Research Institute of the History and the Culture, and a contributor for Japanese studies, The Digital Orientalist.



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