Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Exercises in Human Cruelty

This post originally appeared on the first blog I ever kept. That site is now defunct

One of the stories of WWII that I have heard from my friends who lived through it has haunted me because of the pettiness that is displayed in the cruelty inflicted by the Japanese soldiers on the local Singaporeans.

Uncle Chin was a very quiet, shy man. But when he began talking to me about the things he had suffered as a boy during the war, he became very vocal, even eloquent, and could talk for hours. One day after lunch he told me, “It is strange, but the worst thing that the Japanese did, the one that affected me most, did not involve any real physical torture at all.”

When Uncle Chin was a boy, he wouldn’t dare to walk down Orchard Road, the “main drag” in Singapore. The reason? The Japanese soldiers had taken over the display window in John Little (a shopping centre by the same name still stands in that spot), and had put up a humiliating display of their own. Each day, they would take women whom they had captured, strip them naked, and force them to stand in the display window. When any man or boy passed by, if he averted his eyes out of respect to these women, he would immediately be caught by the soldiers, likewise stripped of his clothing, and forced to stand beside her for the rest of the day.

Uncle Chin, so many years later, told me that this had been the most difficult thing he endured in the war. He said that, to him, this was worse than the beatings that were often heard of or seen because it stripped the local people of a sense of human dignity. “Physical pain,” he said, “was bearable. This was not.”

But as akimoto_baby brought up in a recent discussion in the comments on another blog, cruelty didn’t travel on a one-way street during that period in Singapore’s history. (She has recommended a title that I also heartily recommend to you: Totto-Chan, the little girl by the window.) Nor did it only occur across racial and cultural boundaries. In fact, one of the groups that was worst-treated during the war were the “Han jian,” or “traitors.” This word can only be applied to the Chinese -- it means Chinese people who turn their backs on the Chinese, supporting the enemies of the Chinese instead.

The Han jian suffered greatly during the war. Naturally, they were not treated very well by the Japanese, seen only as useful in giving the information or aid, but still outsiders. But the worst treatment they received was at the hands of their own people, the Chinese whosaw them as betrayers of their race and nation. The most common form of “punishment” was to break a number of glass bottles and force the traitor to crawl across the broken shards on hands and knees. After this, he would be left to care for himself, often without any help from anyone at all.

War is a cruel, ugly thing. It causes people to do horrifying and ugly things, prompted by hatred. And, as akimoto_baby has rightly pointed out, no one has it easy during a war.

Further recommended reading about WWII in Singapore from Amazon:
The Killer They Called a God

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