Notes: Some 3000 young Korean men were recruited by Imperial Japan as civilians to work as civilians to guard Allied POWs in Southeast Asia. The prisoners were mostly forced to build airstrips and railways for the Imperial Japanese military. These included the 415-km Thai-Burma railway, which was made famous with the movie “The Bridges on the River Kwai“. One of the more notable Korean guards working on the Thai-Burma railway was Lee Hak-rae, the last surviving Korean Class-B/Class-C war criminal from World War II who died in Japan last year in March 2021.
One term that was hard to translate into English in this article was gunzoku (軍属), which I translated as “civilian members of the military”, but this classification refers to the lowest ranking civilian employees in the service of the Imperial Japanese military. So, the status of the ethnic Korean prison guards was quite low in the Imperial Japanese military hierarchy. A lot of former prison guards argued this fact before the war crimes tribunals with varying degrees of success.
This Asia-Pacific Journal article is a good overview of Lee Hak-rae’s story.
Gyeongseong Ilbo (Keijo Nippo) May 23, 1942
Direct cooperation in the Greater East Asia War
Thousands of young Korean men are recruited to monitor American and British prisoners of war
The pride of the Imperial People is getting higher and higher
The government has decided to enact a soldier conscription system for our Korean compatriots and allow them to be recruited as soldiers starting in 1944, giving them an epoch-making honor in the governance of the peninsula. This time, it has been decided to send even more talented young Korean men to serve as civilian members of the military. Due to the brilliant results of the Imperial military in the Greater East Asia War, they have been assigned to monitor the American and British prisoners of war being held in various locations. At the same time, it has been decided to bestow upon them the great mission of making these arrogant and insolent people realize the superiority of the Japanese people. On the 22nd, the Intelligence Division of the Governor-General’s Office announced the following:
Announcement by the Intelligence Division
At the request of the Army, several thousand young Korean men of merit will be recruited as civilian members of the military in order to monitor the American and British prisoners of war who are being held in various location as a result of our brilliant war accomplishments in the Greater East Asia War. In the meantime, large numbers of young Korean men have been recruited to work on urgent government projects in accordance with the National Conscription Order. It is not only a great honor for the young Korean men to have been assigned such honorable duties, but it is also a great honor for Korea to have had their qualities as Imperial subjects be recognized as sufficient to assume such honorable duties.
The duties of those recruited are not only to watch over the American and British prisoners of war, but also to teach them to recognize the superiority of the Japanese people and to make them respect the Japanese Empire from the bottom of their hearts. Since this mission is a serious one, the young Korean men who are selected to serve in such an important mission assume a great responsibility, which has an extremely deep significance in light of the current decision to adopt the policy of enforcing the soldier conscription system in Korea.
The applicants will be carefully selected by the provincial governments and related county governments south of Hwanghae Province and Gangwon Province, and those who are selected will be trained for about two months in the military and then mostly transferred to the field (partly in Korea), where they will be treated with great care and preferential treatment.
Those of you who have been recruited are requested to bear in mind the spirit of the above, and to make every effort to do your best, so that you may truly become subjects of the Imperial State, and thereby perform a splendid job of manifesting the majesty of our Empire as the leader of East Asia.
We hope that the general public will be as sincere to those who have done this honor as they would be to a soldier, and that they will cooperate in the completion of their duties without fear of regret.