Sarah KovnerMar 24, 2021
Prisoners of the Empire
Inside Japanese POW Camps
Harvard University Press 2020
Sarah Kovner’s Prisoners of the Empire: Inside Japanese POW Camps (Harvard UP, 2020) is a nuanced look at the experiences, narratives―and the popular/historical memories of those experiences and narratives―of World War II-era Allied POWs in Japanese custody, especially in the English-language world. While never denying the horrors of war and the POW experience, Kovner finds less systemic and intentional cruelty by the Japanese camp commanders and guards than she does poor planning and preparation, and often outright neglect when it came to the fate of internees.
Simultaneously, the book is sensitive to how POWs’ experiences differed enormously due to their status in the eyes of the Japanese as well as the time and place of their captivity. In particular, Kovner contrasts the experience of white, mostly Anglophone POWs and Asians, who were more likely to be subjected to systematically poor treatment. In addition, Prisoners of the Empire also explores the ways that Japan “was present even when it was absent” in the twentieth-century history of international agreements on POW treatment and war crimes. Kovner has produced a significant and thought-provoking contribution to several different subfields of history. In addition to its obvious relevance to those interested in the history of modern Japan, World War II, and historical memory, because of its considerations of such issues as the Geneva conventions and war crimes trials, the book will also be of interest to readers interested in international law and relations.
Nathan Hopson is an associate professor of Japanese and East Asian history in the Graduate School of Humanities, Nagoya University.