THE JAPANESE assault on the Chinese is one of the least well- known facets of the Second World War. And yet that conflict was immense: At least 20 million Chinese died between 1937 and 1945 as the Japanese Imperial Army sought to turn China into a puppet state. More over, the campaign ground forward with a level of deliberate brutality nearly unequalled in modern times.
Few Japanese veterans want to con fess to crimes they committed in China, but in 2000 I met a former soldier who was prepared to speak frankly about what he did there. His name was Masayo Enomoto. I filmed an interview with him in Tokyo, at a traditional teahouse. Our exchange was one of the most remarkable encounters of my life—culminating in Enomoto explaining in detail how during the war he had raped, murdered, and eaten a Chinese villager.
This act of appalling cruelty was only possible because military training and wider cultural values had warped Enomoto. During basic training, for example, his instructors regularly beat him and other recruits. “Gradually I felt I’d missed out on something if by night time I hadn’t been beaten up at least once,” he said.
Enomoto said his superiors also taught him to look down on the Chinese: “They were one rank lower than the Japanese, and we should treat them as animals.” Once he arrived in China, officers ordered him and his comrades to use Chinese farmers for target practice. “We tried to shoot the heart and I was successful, but my colleagues sometimes hit the abdomen and other parts of the body,” the former soldier said. “So a single farmer could be shot by some 10 or 20 people…. I felt like I was just killing animals, like pigs.”
In May 1945, Enomoto entered a village in the combat zone in northern China. He met a young Chinese woman whose neighbors had fled. She had not been able to make the break. “She could speak Japanese, and she said that her parents had tried to persuade her to leave,” he said. “She said that the Japanese people aren’t such bad people, so she’d decided to stay in the village.”
Enomoto proved the woman wrong— with a personally tragic result. “When I saw a woman in this enemy zone, the first thing that would come to my mind unconditionally would be to rape her. No hesitation,” he said. “She did resist. But such resistance didn’t affect me whatsoever. I didn’t listen to what she was saying.” After raping her, “I stabbed her with a sword,” he told me. “On television you see a lot of blood flow out, but that’s not the reality.” Then, because he was hungry, he decided to “cut chunks of flesh from her arms and legs,” Enomoto said. “I just tried to choose those places where there was a lot of meat.”
He took the cuts of human meat back to camp, where he and his fellow soldiers cooked and ate the dead woman’s flesh. The meat was “nice and tender,” Enomoto told me. “It was tastier than pork.”
What I heard from Masayo Enomoto that evening appalled me. It seemed almost inconceivable that he could have done this, but I believed him. In pioneering studies, Japanese academics have documented that in Japan’s Imperial Army, soldiers engaged in cannibalism more often than had been thought.
Masayo Enomoto’s testimony is a powerful reminder that humans have an almost bound less capacity for criminality—especially when their outrages have state sanction. “Raping her, eating her, killing her, I didn’t feel anything about it,” Enomoto explained. “And that went for everything I did [in China]…. We felt we were doing it for the emperor, so everything was all right so long as it was done in the emperor’s name.”
Originally published in the June 2013 issue of World War II. To subscribe, click here.