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WHEN YOU BOIL IT DOWN to its essentials, the reason you form, train, and equip an army is to beat your enemy in battle.

But if you happened to be a soldier or sailor in the Imperial Japanese military during World War II, you might think differently. Given your daily experience—from induction through training camp and finally to operations in the field—sometimes it might have seemed as if the real purpose of the country’s fighting force was not so much to beat the enemy as to beat you.

This was a military that raised corporal punishment—physical beatings—to the status of a doctrine. You could be pummeled nearly to death for almost any reason: failing to salute smartly enough, missing a button on your shirt, a lackadaisical attitude. Failure to snap to attention at the mention of the emperor’s name was a serious offense in this world, and some particularly sadistic officers seemed to delight in mentioning the emperor solely to catch their men napping.

Whatever your offense, the result was the same: fists or clubs, or any good, solid piece of wood within your superior’s reach, would start to fly. The aftermath was a grisly parade of smashed teeth, broken noses, and shattered ribs—along with all the predictable internal injuries.

It was all hierarchical, of course: noncommissioned officers and lieutenants beat their men, captains struck their lieutenants, generals clobbered their colonels, and onward up the line. Even warlord Hideki Tojo himself, the prime minister and minister of war, was known to cuff around his subordinates during staff meetings. Sometimes the men beat each other. One sergeant famously disliked bruising his own hands by punching offenders, so he had his men do it. When they failed to show the proper devotion to their task, he screamed at them: “You are soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army! When you hit a man, do it as if you mean it!” 

Private Shigeru Mizuki was a young man during World War II, and he wasn’t in the army two days before the beatings began. Wandering into the officer’s bath (off-limits to enlisted men), accidentally standing on a newspaper bearing a photo of the emperor, failing to brace himself as he addressed a superior officer: each incident ended with Mizuki dazed and bleeding. He was a bit of a sad sack, not really cut out for soldiering, and so he usually bore the brunt. Looking back, he remembers “getting beaten up every day.” Some days were worse than others. When his rifle sight failed inspection, for example, he got it bad from his company commander: “The worst beating I had ever received,” he recalled later. “I thought it would never end.” Mizuki went on to become a world-famous artist and author of several Japanese “manga” graphic novels, along with Showa: A History of Japan (four volumes, 2013–2015), an unforgettable epic of Japan during the war and a meticulous record of life in the enlisted ranks.

It’s hard to make a case for any of this. Men have been training for war since the beginning of time, and it does require a certain process of toughening the recruit to let him know he’s not at home with his mother anymore, that he’s entered a new and dangerous world. In the Soviet army, for example, beating new recruits was a long-standing tradition. But the Japanese example is so extreme, so pervasive, that it’s difficult to see the point of it, particularly the severe beatings to veteran soldiers in the field.

During the Asia-Pacific War, the Imperial Japanese Army gained a reputation for atrocious behavior, especially toward helpless victims: comfort women, Allied POWs, Chinese civilians. Studying the way it treated its own men gives us a pretty good explanation for these horrors. As so often in life, cruelty begins in the home. 

This column was originally published in the October 2018 issue of World War II magazine. Subscribe here.