Hitoshi Imamura was a Japanese general who, at the end of World War II, was prosecuted for war crimes committed by soldiers under his command against Allied prisoners in New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. He was sentenced to ten years in prison, a relatively mild punishment compared to other military members because he was not accused of giving explicit orders for the mistreatment but rather failing to prevent it. For the same reason, upon his release in 1954, he did something unusual: he donated all the proceeds from his memoirs to the relatives of the victims and built a replica of his prison cell in his backyard, where he secluded himself until his death in 1968.

This uncommon figure was born in Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture, in 1886. He was the second son of the marriage formed by Judge Torao and his wife Kiyumi, but both of his grandparents had been officers during the Boshin War, and their grandchildren inherited that military vocation. Three of Imamura’s younger brothers (Yasu, Hisashi, and Hosaku) chose a military profession and reached the rank of colonel. Interestingly, Hitoshi was not destined for this path but rather to study Law and pursue a judicial career following in his father’s footsteps. However, fate had other plans.

Just after finishing secondary education and preparing to enroll in university, Torao died, leaving the family in a precarious financial situation. In need of money, his mother arranged for his admission to the Rikugun Shikan Gakkō (Imperial Japanese Army Academy); four years of high school and an entrance exam were required, which he passed, earning his commission as a second lieutenant in late 1907. He then attended the Rikugun Daigakkō (War College), graduating as the top of his class in 1915, ahead of future leaders like Hideki Tojo and Masaharu Honma.

Imamura was promoted to captain two years later, and his first assignment was in England as a military attaché at the embassy. He continued to climb the ranks rapidly: major in 1922, lieutenant colonel in 1926, military attaché in British India in 1927, colonel in 1930, and entry into the General Staff in 1931.

In September of that year, the Mukden Incident (also known as the Manchurian Incident) occurred, where a false flag attack justified the occupation of Manchuria by the Kwantung Army.

This was a nationalist group made up of commanders and officers – among them the aforementioned Tojo, the future prime minister – whose pressure led to the creation in 1932 of Manchukuo, a Japanese puppet state in the heart of China. Imamura, informed of the orchestrated deception to blame the Chinese and intervene, was always reluctant to believe it because the episode had unleashed international animosity. He tried to appeal to the press, which was also critical at that time. However, the political winds in his country were changing, and the leading newspaper, Asahi Shimbun, had shifted to a more official stance.

Imamura personally traveled to Manchuria to restore order, but his efforts were in vain as the entire hierarchy there supported the Kwantung Army. Ironically, he was then assigned as a military attaché to the Japanese embassy in Manchukuo and tried to restrain military expansion into Inner Mongolia. This, too, proved futile, and he faced mockery from his colleagues. Finally, in 1933, he escaped that nightmare when appointed secretary of the Military Academy of Narashino, specializing in chemical warfare.

This position also brought troubles, as during a gas warfare drill he supervised, several soldiers were poisoned, and one died. The director of the institution, General Asago Nakajima, considered it a mere accident and intervened to prevent Imamura from being dismissed or brought to trial. Imamura retained his position until August 1937 when he moved to the secretariat of the Infantry Academy in Toyama. However, his stint there was short-lived, as in March 1938, he assumed the directorship of the personnel office of the Ministry of War.

From then on, war became the keyword. In the previous summer, the Sino-Japanese conflict had erupted, and Imamura, promoted to lieutenant general of the 5th Division operating in China, entered the real battlefield. His mission was to conquer Nanking, which he achieved after fierce hand-to-hand combat that resulted in relatively few casualties on his side: about a hundred and fifty dead and just over three hundred wounded. Defending the city against Chiang Kai-shek’s counterattack with a hundred thousand soldiers proved more challenging, but Imamura, at least in part, was no longer responsible. In 1940, he was assigned a new mission.

Now, he was the second in command of the Kyōiku Sōkanbu (Inspectorate General of Military Training), responsible for the tactical and technical training of the Imperial Japanese Army. One of the tasks he undertook was a reference manual titled Senjin Ken, for which he collaborated with Toson Shimazaki, a naturalist writer who was not particularly enthusiastic about the militaristic supremacy imposed by the government.

However, most of it was later written by General Hideo Iwakuro, a key figure in Japanese intelligence services. Imamura regretted not being able to leave his mark on the text, which served to justify the atrocities committed by the troops.

In June 1941, he returned to the front, first as the commander of the 23rd Army and later, in November, of the 16th Army. The following month saw the attack on Pearl Harbor, but Imamura would not face the Americans but their allies. He was tasked with the invasion of the Dutch East Indies. The venture almost cost him his life right from the start: the Ryuji-maru, the transport ship he was on, was involved in the Battle of the Sunda Strait against a combined American, Australian, and Dutch fleet, receiving torpedo hits that sank it. Imamura had to stay afloat, clinging to debris amidst burning oil on the surface, until rescued three hours later.

It appears that this disaster was due to friendly fire from Japanese torpedo boats that caused more damage beyond the loss of the ship. In the subsequent landing, Imamura had about a hundred fewer troops, couldn’t personally lead the attack for five days, and had lost the codebook in the shipwreck.

All these adversities, coupled with the fact that the troops were left in a more exposed area of the island, resulted in numerous casualties. However, Imamura secured the cooperation of Indonesian independence leaders Sukarno and Mohamed Hatta, providing them with material and financial support.

Moreover, he continued the tolerant policy of the previous colonial government, maintaining order, preventing looting, hiring indigenous personnel for administration, allowing local government participation, and boosting the economy by lowering prices, restoring industries (including oil refineries, which were beneficial for the Japanese), and using confiscated Dutch money to build public infrastructure. Additionally, Allied prisoners received better treatment than what the Japanese usually accorded to captives.

Two notable things should be highlighted. Firstly, Imamura’s refusal to allow Japan to take cotton from Java to address the shortage in the country, as Indonesians used it for wrapping their dead, and it could lead to religious unrest, a viewpoint shared by Hideo Kodama, a official sent to verify the issue on-site. Secondly, the permission to sing “Indonesia Raya”, the anthem of the independence movement, of which Imamura had a version recorded in Tokyo and distributed throughout the island.

While the Indonesians welcomed this, it was less well-received in Japan. If Imamura received congratulations from the General Staff for his conquest, he was cautioned for his administrative leniency. The Ministry of War sent a delegation to Java, consisting of Generals Akira Muto and Yasatsugu Tominaga, who reprimanded him for his tolerance. A heated debate ensued where Imamura was urged to implement the Guidelines for the Governance of Occupied Territories outlined in the Senjin Ken, which called for a much harsher treatment of the defeated and natives. Imamura refused and even threatened to request his own dismissal.

Imamura’s military policy contradicted the intentions of the central government. We should apply it more coercively, Muto wrote in a report. However, his colleague Tominaga was convinced of Imamura’s position, rejected his dismissal, and concluded that there was no need to make any changes to the military government in Java. It is allowed to continue with the current policy. Interestingly, later on, Muto was put in charge of Sumatra and there implemented the same policy as Imamura, admitting that he had been wrong. In any case, Imamura had to leave: at the end of 1942, he was given command of the new 8th Area Army, the 17th in the Solomon Islands, and the 18th in New Guinea.

With this, he marked his recent promotion to division general, received in March 1943, and did so in an unfortunate manner, similar to the previous time. The headquarters were in Rabaul, the city of New Britain (the largest island in present-day Papua New Guinea), and the plane supposed to take him there suffered an accident during takeoff. It didn’t result in significant injuries, but it’s noteworthy that in Rabaul, he met an old friend, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who later departed by air and had his plane shot down by American fighters, losing his life. Imamura deeply regretted it.

He himself narrowly escaped a similar fate when conducting an aerial inspection on the front lines, although he eventually managed to evade the enemy attack. It symbolized the changing tide of the war: the Japanese were starting to lose ground, having been expelled from Guadalcanal (the largest of the Solomon Islands), and couldn’t prevent the Marines’ landing in the eastern part of New Guinea. Vice Admiral Jinichi Kusaka, in charge of naval forces (South-East Fleet), established a naval blockade to cut off the Americans’ maritime route, while Imamura did the same on land.

The defense featured robust underground fortifications and arsenals, and despite the Navy ignoring his requests for a supply line, Imamura ordered the cultivation of fields to accumulate harvests. As a result, the U.S. commanders deemed capturing Rabaul too difficult and opted not to attempt a landing, instead imposing a blockade, just as Imamura had envisioned. However, they subjected it to a harsh campaign of naval and aerial bombardments. The advantage for the aircraft was that they could take off from the nearby Bismarck Archipelago, captured shortly before.

Rabaul suffered but held out until Japan’s surrender. Then came the time for the victors to settle scores. Imamura confessed to General Akira Tomizawa that at that moment, he contemplated suicide. Ultimately, he decided against it and was accused, along with Admiral Kusaka, of what the ordinances of the newly created International Military Tribunal for the Far East defined as Class B and C offenses, namely, war crimes and crimes against humanity, respectively (there was also a Class A for crimes against peace). His responsibility was not supervising and preventing the excesses committed by his troops, including the execution of prisoners.

Among the atrocities that came to light, one of the most shocking was the revelation that the navy threw prisoners captured in Java into the sea enclosed in bamboo cages. In 1949, a Dutch court in Jakarta sought the death penalty for him in a second trial, though he was ultimately declared not guilty. Two years earlier, Imamura had appeared before an Australian tribunal in Rabaul and was sentenced to ten years in prison. Not only did he not appeal, but he wrote to the enemy commander to expedite the process, admitting his guilt. Later, he requested not to be sent to Sugamo Prison, where commanders and officers were held, but to Manus Island in Papua New Guinea, alongside his soldiers.

This unusual request amazed General MacArthur, who considered it the first real example of bushidō (the samurai code of honor adopted by the Japanese armed forces) he had seen. According to rumors, MacArthur even recommended Imamura be granted parole. However, he continued serving his sentence on Manus Island from his arrival in 1950 until August 1953, when the island camp closed. He was then transferred to Sugamo, where he was released in January 1954, once his sentence was deemed complete. Whether truly completed or not, upon reaching his home, he had a cell like the one he had occupied in Manus built in the garden, immersing himself in it as if seeking self-redemption for feeling guilty about what his men had done.

The rest of his life passed with simplicity and modesty, writing several books about his wartime experience, humorously recalling the reprimands he received at the military academy for frequently falling asleep in any situation. This was due to his attempt to stay awake at night, even resorting to stabbing himself with a knife, as he suffered from nocturnal incontinence. Occasionally, he defended comrades, such as when General Nogi Maresuke was accused of incompetence for losing a standard during the Satsuma Rebellion, and Imamura defended him in an article sent to the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper.

In 1955, he was appointed as an advisor to the Ministry of Defense, but the most notable aspect of this period was that he completed and published the memoirs he had begun writing while imprisoned, donating the proceeds to the families of executed Allied prisoners. This led to some sly behavior, as some presented themselves as relatives, even if they were not, and he pretended not to notice, paying them anyway.

It is understandable that those who knew him in the war highlighted his virtues with expressions such as well-mannered and humble, general with a human heart or dignified general who loves his subordinates. He died on October 4, 1968, and was buried at Rinnoji Temple in Sendai City.

This article was first published on our Spanish Edition on January 25, 2024. Puedes leer la versión en español en Hitoshi Imamura, el general condenado por crímenes de guerra que indemnizó a las víctimas y se hizo construir una celda en el jardín


Max Hastings, Némesis. La derrota del Japón 1944-1945 | Peter Post (et al., eds), The Encyclopedia of Indonesia in the Pacific War. In Cooperation with the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation | J. Kevin Baird y Sangkot Marzuki, War Crimes in Japan-Occupied Indonesia. A Case of Murder by Medicine | Marc Lohnstein, The Netherlands East Indies Campaign 1941–42. Japan’s Quest for Oil | Ethan Mark, Japan’s Occupation of Java in the Second World War. A Transnational History | Bruce Gamble, Fortess Rabaul. The Battle for the Southwest Pacific, January 1942-April 1943 | Bill Yenne, The Imperial Japanese Army. The Invincible Years 1941–42 | Wikipedia

  • Share this article:

Discover more from LBV Magazine English Edition

Subscribe to get the latest posts sent to your email.

Something went wrong. Please refresh the page and/or try again.