Episode 57: Ishiro Honda and Crimes Against Humanity

In this episode I tackle the issue of Ishiro Honda’s time during World War II administering a comfort women camp.

I was asked how he evaded punishment for committing Class C War Crimes (Crimes Against Humanity), and I have a definitive yet complex answer.

Honda’s films were supportive of human rights, and this is what we remember his place in history during World War II.

If Honda was an unnamed Japanese man who participated in these crimes, I would have wanted him to be brought to justice and served some kind of punishment for them.

However, there are many reasons why this didn’t happen.

So put on your thinking cap and listen as I explain how complex this situation is.



I received a question after I advertised a Q and A for YouTube. I did not receive them on Twitter publicly – they were all submitted privately. Given the nature of this particular question, I can see why it was submitted anonymously. I gave my initial reflections in Livestream 2, and in this episode I’m going to further address this issue.

First I’ll give you some background. In episode 4 of the show, I covered the issue of the Tokyo War Crimes Tribunal. I utilized a few sources plus what I already knew and thought about regarding the subject. I’ve never shied away from a subject because it was too difficult for me to read about and process. But I’ll preface what I say with this: It’s not my place to forgive Ishiro Honda for what he did under the command of the Imperial Japanese Army. It also isn’t your place to forgive him. The only ones who can forgive him are the women (and men) who were put in the camps. And it isn’t Godzilla fandom experts’ place to downplay the significance of that chapter of his life. I can only give you my analysis of what I’ve learned and thought about.

Honda was in a command position at a comfort women camp during World War II. He administered actions there. He would have participated in “acquiring” women for the camp, also known as abducting, or kidnapping, and forcing them into sexual slavery. Human trafficking is another way to put this. These actions classify him as a class C war criminal, for crimes against humanity. He was not arrested, charged, or punished after the war was over.

The US only got around 5,000 of the war criminals, and some were charged by other countries like Australia. When the surrender took place the Japanese military and government destroyed the records, and the military personnel put on civilian clothes or went into hiding, or both. Without a record of who was connected to these war crimes, it’s hard to prove they did anything. Virtually everyone else threw themselves under the bus for Emperor Showa (Hirohito). Out of political expediency, the US gave Emperor Showa a way to out of it by not focusing on him in order to preserve the oldest imperial family on Earth. This action enabled nationalists in Japan and war crimes deniers, as well as anyone else who didn’t want to accept responsibility. Needless to say, denying these war crimes is beyond shameful. Nationalists say that the class A war criminals who were executed sacrificed themselves to keep the imperial family. The US also let the Unit 731 chemical and biological weapons scientists and employees free too, and judges at the tribunal weren’t even told about that.

The more you learn about the comfort women camps, the more shocking it gets. These camps were where some of the worst violations of human rights occurred during the war. Women were raped and beaten. They were pulled into a state-organized sex trafficking operation. Women were raped up to and exceeding 80 times a day in these camps. Many wished they were dead, some attempted or committed suicide, and they thought death would be better than this. It destroyed their lives. Their bodies were damaged from the abuse – some to the point that they couldn’t have children.

The US needed Japan in the struggle against the Soviet Union and China in the Cold War. The Cold War dominated US policy decisions. As the occupation was nearing its end, that was even more apparent. So this is an incentive for not going as hard on the war crimes perpetrators after the first 5,000 or so. I think if you want to ensure Japan is on your side, going after every single administrator of the whole war machine is not necessarily beneficial.

Class A war crimes are defined as “crimes against peace”. Those were the war criminals who were in the cabinet and who decided on the war. Emperor Showa was protected by General MacArthur. Class C crimes are like genocide or the Rape of Nanking and the list of other massacres committed, as well as crimes against humanity like the comfort women camps. Class B war crimes are more routine war crimes such as shooting and killing prisoners of war, which happened a lot. There are also some war criminals who were convicted of their crimes and then got government positions after the war, such as Prime Minister Nobusuke Kishi.

The Ryfle and Godziewski biography of Ishiro Honda reads:

“From 1940 to 1941 Honda was assigned to help manage a comfort station, a euphemism for the hundreds of brothels the Imperial Army established in China and the occupied territories. As the Roman Empire had done in its far-flung conquests, Japan provided its soldiers with prostitutes, purportedly to curb sexual assaults on civilians, which were widespread in Shanghai, Nanking, and other places.”

They write later about how the women were told they would be performing other jobs, only to find that that they were being taken into slavery. So while they described the working conditions and how they were forced to perform sex acts dozens of times per day, their description of the women as “prostitutes” and the comfort women camps as “brothels”, is inaccurate. A prostitute is someone who sells their body for payment and a brothel is populated by prostitutes. The comfort women were not paid, therefore they were not prostitutes, they were sexual slaves. Therefore the place they had to do this was not a brothel, it was a prison essentially with a bunch of rape rooms. I think this is a valid and important distinction to make. Sex slaves in camps is different than prostitutes in brothels. It arguably is poorly worded, but this is also the official Japanese stance on the issue, is that they were prostitutes. The girls were as young as 14 so that’s not the time women would choose to become prostitutes anyway. Actually, some of the women were taken from their homes for manufactured reasons such as they were being taken to work in a factory. The book doesn’t state that he would have been involved in the procurement and kidnapping of these women but he most certainly would have been involved in that. The book doesn’t spend much time on this part of Honda’s life.

If this was Germany, the German government would have arrested him and he would have done time in prison. No question about that. They’re still finding out about and arresting men who were guards at concentration camps, for example.

The original question asked was, “How did Ishiro Honda escape being arrested for war crimes for his role at a comfort women camp?” My answer was that the US had a hard time going after war criminals because the Tokyo Tribunal didn’t go well. A couple of the justices stuck up for Japan, even. So that was how Honda escaped arrest and punishment, or got away with it, if you want to describe it that way.

The Japanese Communist Party (which is very much for going after everyone who committed war crimes) went after Ishiro Honda when he admitted to his involvement in the war crimes.

If he had done a period of time in prison for what he did, that possibly would have ended his career as a director. This is obviously significant because he wouldn’t have made the movies that a great many people enjoy and appreciate. But because he was not punished or faced consequences for his actions, it became a difficult subject. If you gloss this over or say it’s not a very big deal, you’re going to look soft on war crimes. That opens you up to being asked “Which other Japanese war criminals do you want to excuse?” This is also difficult if you’re Japanese because you’ll look like you’re not atoning for your nation’s actions. So if you excuse Honda’s role in this, you’re arguably excusing everyone who had that position during the war. That means you’re excusing those who committed less serious war crimes, and maybe even those who were at the top of the chain, such as Prime Minister Tojo. Concurrently, excusing Honda’s actions makes you look soft on the comfort women issue. If you’re American, it makes it look like you think Japanese war crimes weren’t a big deal, which they were. Americans, especially POWs, endured horrible treatment by the Japanese Empire.

If you’re Japanese, it looks like you’re sticking up for the Empire’s comfort women camps, which looks pretty bad too. This is a hotly-debated topic in some circles and regions of the world, of course between Japan and South and North Korea. There are also some Japanese who say that the comfort women camps never happened, that it’s all a lie. You have to be a big historical revisionist in order to go that far. In 1966, Japan had a phase of discussion about the comfort women camps. It was at this time that Ishiro Honda wrote an article for a magazine where he related his perspective of what happened. A film addressing the subject of comfort women during the Roman Empire had been released in Italy, and this is what spurred Honda to bring it up.

I am not sure if he was trying to get out in front of the issue of his own conduct or if he wanted to just say his view of it regardless. Also I’ll stress that this article is not an apology. He said he hated the draft and that he didn’t want to do the job he was ordered to do, and I believe that. He said that he would talk to the women sometimes when he did their medical paperwork. I think it’s safe to assume this was when someone examined them for sexually-transmitted infections and other health issues. The women would say how they were tricked into being there because they were offered a job unrelated to being a sexual slave. Honda said he didn’t want to be there either and he listened to their stories.

I don’t have the entire article, but here’s my take on it. Him listening to their complaints and pleas for help doesn’t really affect me one way or the other. After he listened to them, they went back to being raped up to and exceeding 80 times a day. These camps were extremely bad. They weren’t like a concentration camp where they were liquidated, but I’m sure it made a lot of the women wish they were dead. So when Honda talks about his experience, some might want to say oh who cares what you went through, compared to what they went through? Ishiro Honda, after all, was not the one getting raped.

Getting back to the Honda biography, the first sentence reads “Honda was assigned to help manage a comfort station.” “Was assigned to help manage.” Makes it sound a little like he was managing a gas station. “Help manage” is a better way of putting it than “command position”, so there’s the soft language, and using passive voice. The comfort women camps were in practice going back to 1931 all the way to the end of the war in 1945. Honda was in his position from 1940 to 1941, or for about two years. Honda was by most accounts a compassionate man, a Buddhist, who hated what he was forced to do. He and his films reflected and promoted human rights and common humanity. No question about that. His own writings reflect that too, very deeply, his original works say a lot. I think fans look at him for his work and revere him a great deal, but I don’t think they should forget this part of Honda’s life.

So it is difficult for me to look at Honda’s case without thinking about the issues connected to it and what you already think about those issues. War crimes, comfort women camps, Japan’s relationship with South and North Korea, and the Japanese relationship with the international community. As for war crimes, my position is that war crimes should not be excused or looked at as justified because someone was ordered by a superior officer to commit them. I don’t condone the denial of war crimes, something Honda of course didn’t do either. I acknowledge that both the US and Japan engaged in serious actions during the war, as it was the most brutal warfare that the world has ever seen. Honda stands in stark contrast to those in Japan who deny that comfort women camps even existed.

If Honda was an anonymous Japanese man who had been in this role at a comfort women camp and was never arrested or charged with those crimes, I would have wanted him to face justice. He ended up not being among the 5000 war criminals who were punished. Did the United States get the ones who instigated this and created these horrific regimes of crimes against humanity? Yes, except for Emperor Showa who gave many of these orders and knew what was going on. He was the commander-in-chief of the military during the war. And the US deserves some culpability in the way things went down because they didn’t capture as many war criminals, but at the same time it was extremely difficult to find them because the records were destroyed and every effort was taken to turn the comfort women camps into something else (hospitals, etc) when the war was over, in order to try to cover things up.

So, how do you feel about the war crimes is how you may end up feeling about Honda. But I will stress that Honda’s case is one of reconciliation and that he spent his post-war career focusing on issues such as human rights, and I believe him when he says that he hated the draft and he did not want to do what he did.

I initially found it unremarkable that in the Godzilla fandom, there is much more emphasis on the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and the firebombing of Tokyo in the war, and less focus on Japanese war crimes, the comfort women camps, and treatment of POWs by the Japanese Empire. I believe that’s the case because the nuclear bombings are essential to Godzilla’s identity. So a lot of Godzilla fans are quite well-trained in reacting emotionally to these events. So what I’m going to do is make sure that there is awareness about the other side of the equation regarding the war. When I started Kaijuvision, I told myself that I will say something when I speak, otherwise it’s not worthwhile. I’ve always tried hard to be original and add something new to the conversation.

I think anyone who managed these camps should be brought to justice. Supporting the brotherhood of man may involve supporting war criminals to be brought to justice. If Honda is to be recognized as such a paragon of human rights, then we must also remember his place in history, and especially remember the victims of the comfort women camps and the agony that they endured.


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