Monday 8 December 2014

The Kamloops Kid and Honda-San: Japanese Soldiers in Hong Kong

Earlier in this blog, I'd written about how the Canadians fighting in Hong Kong in WWII led to my reaching a greater awareness of Remembrance Day and its significance.

December 7, 1941, is a date that many of my readers would recognize: it was the day that the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, officially launching the United States into WWII. However, this was not a singular attack. Pearl Harbor was part of a co-ordinated series of Japanese military assaults throughout the Pacific Theatre, including the British colony of Hong Kong. Due to time zone differences, the attack on Hong Kong is recorded as having started in the early hours of December 8, 1941; hard fighting for the colony ensued between the Japanese and the defenders (made up of British, Indian, Canadian and native soldiers, at least) until the surrender on December 25, 1941. The surviving Allied soldiers were held as Prisoners of War until the end of WWII in 1945, and the story of these POWs is what often comes to Canadians' minds when they think of Hong Kong at the time.

But my focus here is not on the Canadian soldiers just yet. With all these anniversaries coming around at this time of year, I feel that focusing too strongly on that can stir up old conflicts and resentments towards Japan and its people. Sounds far-fetched? Maybe. But I have seen and heard such comments in person in the past (including claims that Japan deserved the 2011 Tsunami due to the Imperial Japanese Army's actions in WWII) to know not to bring that up. Rather, I want to encourage you, my readers, to step back and look at the Japanese involved in this conflict as people. Who were they, and how did this affect their actions?

Fortunately, my examination of the Canadian role in Hong Kong during WWII has managed to unearth accounts of (at least) two very different cases: one that falls into the common image of Japanese atrocities, and one that completely contradicts it. Both men are still shrouded in mystery, but please allow me to share what I have found thus far.

Kanao Inouye: the "Kamloops Kid"

Kanao Inouye was commonly known as the "Kamloops Kid" due to his being, in fact, a second-generation Japanese-Canadian born in Kamloops, British Columbia. He appears in a number of Canadian POWs' accounts of their imprisonment as an interpreter with a sadistic streak. One interview recalls him giving a POW a severe beating for pointing out poor medical facilities in the camp to a Red Cross worker, while other accounts point at Inouye's taunts, prophesying a Japanese takeover of Canada, and threatening harm to the Canadian POWs' families in that event. After the war, he was identified by POWs in Hong Kong, and was ultimately tried and executed for treason.

Something like this would correlate with many accounts of Japanese atrocities committed during WWII. However, there is more to Kanao Inouye than initially meets the eye, and much of this depth lies upon his being a Canadian citizen at the time. Like the United States, Canada and its government took preemptive measures to prevent traitorous behaviour from its Japanese immigrant population by confining many of them to internment camps well away from the Pacific coast. This is a dark spot on Canadian history, as at the time, Japanese-Canadians had not shown any indication of disloyalty to Canada, and, like their American counterparts, often worked to actively show their loyalty to the Canadian government during this time. So the "Kamloops Kid", then, was an exception instead of an indication of the norm.

So why did he behave this way if he was a Canadian citizen? As it turns out, anti-Asian sentiment was not new to Canada, and Inouye believed himself to have been a victim of bullying during his childhood in Kamloops, British Columbia. Although it was circumstances that led to his being conscripted into the Imperial Japanese Army - he had been studying abroad in Japan there when war broke out - his post near a large group of Canadian POWs prompted a spirit of vengeance. The Canadians in Hong Kong confirm this, noting that Inouye would, in the midst of his harsh treatment of the POWs, make remarks such as, "Now where is your superiority, you dirty scum?"

In other words, Kanao Inouye cannot simply be taken as an example of Japanese soldiers acting cruelly during WWII. His story is also a warning to Canadians and Americans in the present day of the dangerous consequences of racism: in short, racism breeds more racism.

Honda-san: The Mystery Good Samaritan

There is less out there on this man, from what I have seen. I have found several accounts of a Japanese officer and interpreter with the surname Honda who seemed to treat POWs more kindly and humanely than many of his fellows, but, in fact, I do not even know if these accounts point at one man or two. So for our intents and purposes, I will simply call him "Honda-san" ("Mr. Honda" in Japanese).

One account comes from a Canadian officer, Captain S. Martin Banfill, who was captured during a Japanese attack on the Salesian Mission in Hong Kong on December 19, 1941. Prior to the surrender, many POWs were summarily executed, but Banfill was singled out from his men and spared, ending up at a POW camp at the instigation of Honda-san. Had it not been for this, it is likely that Banfill would have died. Attempts to find this mysterious Japanese officer after the war proved futile; a man fitting his description was seen in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb fell on August 9, 1945, but there is no way of knowing if this truly was him or, if so, whether he survived the blast.

A second account comes from Lieutenant C. Douglas Johnston, who was sent to a POW camp after the surrender of December 25. The account of his imprisonment, in full, can be found here. In this, he makes several references to a Sergeant-Major or Warrant Officer, also with the surname Honda, who he describes as "a real gentleman". This was someone who, although known for strict discipline, also engaged with the POWs in conversation and seemed to show genuine interest in them. After the events of the war, Johnston recalls that the Canadian POWs sought to protect him in particular, allowing him to stay at Hong Kong's Peninsula Hotel to keep him safe from any generic reprisals against the Japanese.

Are these two accounts speaking of the same man? It is hard to say based on such little evidence (note that Honda is not an uncommon surname in Japan). But, in my opinion, there is a part of me that would rather these be two different people and two completely separate stories of human decency in the chaos of war. Just like a bad apple could spoil the bunch, particularly good ones can leave behind a very positive impression.


"C. Douglas Johnston's Story." Hong Kong Veterans Commemorative Association. n.d. Web. 8 Dec 2014.

"Kanao Inouye." Wikipedia. 12 Jan 2014. Web. 8 Dec 2014.

"Remembering the Kamloops Kid." Veteran Affairs Canada. Government of Canada. 19 Nov 2014. Web. 8 Dec 2014.

Roland, Charles G. "Massacre and Rape in Hong Kong: Two Case Studies Involving Medical Personnel and Patients." Journal of Contemporary History. 32.1 (1997): 43-61. Print.

"The Kamloops Kid." WWII in Color. n.d. Web. 8 Dec 2014.

Image Credits

Photo (c) WWII in Color

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