The Kempeitai was Japan’s military police force in its occupied territories during World War II (1942–45). Specially trained in interrogation methods, the Kempeitai’s task was to crush all resistance to Japanese military rule, with the powers to arrest and extract information from civilians as well as military personnel. Records examined after the war revealed that the strength of the Kempeitai in Singapore, at the height of hostilities, was around 360.1
The Kempeitai was founded in Japan on 4 January 1881 by order of the Meiji Council of State. Its main responsibility then was to discipline army officers and farmers who opposed the conscription law. Its powers were later extended to the enforcement of Japan’s various security laws under the Acts of 1898 and 1928. In the 1930s, its political influence increased when General Hideki Tojo became the vice minister of war.2
As a semi-autonomous unit attached to the army and accountable to the war minister, the Kempeitai was responsible for ensuring military discipline; gathering intelligence and carrying out subversion work; maintaining law and order; and policing thoughts in the civilian populations of Japanese-occupied territories. Kempeitai field units accompanied the army, and were responsible for the discipline of troops and for mopping up anti-Japanese elements in the civilian populations.3 From 1895 to 1945, the Kempeitai built up a large network of influence and became omni-present in the occupied territories of Japan.4
In the occupied territories, the Kempeitai was in charge of issuing travel permits, recruiting labour, snuffing out anti-Japanese elements, requisitioning food and supplies, starting propaganda programmes, organising ethnic help groups and establishing native spy networks. The administration of prisoners-of-war camps and comfort women was also under its jurisdiction. The first Japanese military to enter the city of Singapore after the British surrendered was a garrison made up of Kempeitai and the Hojo Kempei (“auxiliary military police”) of the 2nd Field Kempeitai. The first Kempeitai headquarter was set up at the Tanjong Pagar police station. Within the same year, the Southern Expeditionary Force Kempeitai Training Unit was also established in Singapore, and Kempeitai activity in this area came under the command of its field units.5
The Kempeitai in Singapore was headed by Lieutenant-Colonel Masayuki Oishi. His headquarters at the Stamford Road Y.M.C.A. also served as the East District Branch.6
The Kempeitai was known for its brutality and the indiscriminate arrests of people with no or little evidence. Confessions were commonly obtained through various torture methods with no proper trials. Many captives died during torture and under harsh living conditions. The Kempeitai jail was in Outram, with branches in Chinatown, Oxley Road, and the Central Police Station. A residence at the intersection of Smith Street and New Bridge Road served as the Kempeitai West District Branch.7
During mopping-up operations to purge anti-Japanese elements in Singapore, massacres of civilians, especially the Chinese, took place. The most notable operations were Operation Sook Ching and the Double Tenth incident. The massacres were executed under the supervision of the Kempeitai, while the Hojo Kempei carried out the shootings under the orders of a Kempeitai officer. Inquiry into the Sook Ching massacre after the war estimated the number of deaths at 5,000, while the Kempeitai recorded 6,000.8
After the war, Oishi and six others were put on trial on 10 March 1947 at the Victoria Memorial Hall, and on 8 March 1948 at the Supreme Court, for their involvement in Operation Sook Ching. Oishi was given the death sentence, while the rest received life sentences.9 Lieutenant-Colonel Sumida Haruzo (commander of the Syonan Branch Kempeitai) and 20 other Kempeitai officers were charged on 18 March 1946 at the Supreme Court for their involvement in the Double Tenth incident. Eight of them, including Haruzo, were found guilty of war crimes and sentenced to death by hanging. Another six received various terms of imprisonment, while seven were acquitted.10
Methods of interrogation11
Those arrested by the Kempeitai were presumed guilty and had little option of receiving civilian help and no chance to appeal for clemency. The Kempeitai officer was police investigator, prosecutor, judge, jury and executioner. Often, long quiet sessions of interrogation would be used, lasting until the officer received the desired answers. If these were not forthcoming, the officer would use various brutal methods to extract a confession. Tortures to the limit of human endurance, or to the point of death, were administered. These various torture methods were attested to by survivors.
This involved hitting the victim with metal bars, sticks, bamboo, wet knotted ropes, belts with buckles, or revolver butts.
The victim was tied and placed on his back with a cloth placed over his nose and mouth. Water was poured on the cloth and pumped into his stomach until it was bloated. Sometimes the victim was beaten on his bloated stomach, or a Japanese would jump or stand on it. Alternatively, the victim was tied lengthways on a ladder, facing upwards with a rung across his throat and his head beneath the ladder. In this position, the victim was immersed head first into a tub of water and kept there until he almost drowned. After being revived, interrogation continued and the process was repeated until the answers were forthcoming.
Electric shocks were administered to various parts of the victim’s body.
The victim was burnt with cigarette butts, cheroot ends, and petrol and methylated spirits on sensitive parts of the body like the arm pits, scrotum, penis and between the toes.
Dislocation of limbs
The victim’s limbs were twisted and fingers bent backwards causing dislocation and permanent damage to limbs and joints.
The victim was led to believe that his/her execution, either by shooting or beheading, was imminent and advised to write a letter of farewell. Preparations for execution were made right up to the final stage, and would stop just before the actual act was carried out.
Threats to families
Threats were made to wives and families of the victim.
1. Raymond Lamont-Brown, Kempeitai: Japan’s Dreaded Military Police (Stroud: Sutton, 1998), 19–20, 35–36, 149. (Call no. RSING 355.13323 LAM C)
2. Lamont-Brown, Kempeitai, 16–17, 25–26.
3. Lee Geok Boi, The Syonan Years: Singapore under Japanese Rule 1942–1945 (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore and Epigram, 2005), 224. (Call no. RSING q940.53957 LEE-[WAR])
4. Lamont-Brown, Kempeitai, 17.
5. Lamont-Brown, Kempeitai, 39, 149.
6. Lamont-Brown, Kempeitai, 152, 154; Tan Beng Luan and Irene Quah, The Japanese Occupation 1942–1945: A Pictorial Record of Singapore during the War (Singapore: Times Edition, 1996), 100. (Call no. RSING q940.5425 TAN-[WAR])
7. Tan and Quah, Japanese Occupation 1942–1945, 100–01; Lee, Syonan Years, 124, 224–27; Charlie Cheah Fook Ying, oral history interview by Low Lay Leng, 16 January 1984, transcript and MP3 audio 30:12. National Archives of Singapore (accession no. 000385), 38–39.
8. Lamont-Brown, Kempeitai, 149–51, 157; Lee, Syonan Years, 110, 115, 224; “1942 S’pore Massacre Story Told,” Singapore Free Press, 10 March 1947, 5. (From NewspaperSG)
9. “Massacre Story Told”; “Part in Colony Mass Killing Alleged,” Straits Times, 9 March 1948, 7; “Singapore Massacre Japs Guilty,” Straits Times, 3 April 1947, 1; “Last Jap Gets Life Sentence,” Straits Times, 13 March 1948, 8. (From NewspaperSG)
10. “Double Tenth Trial Opens,” Straits Times, 19 March 1946, 3; “Eight Japs to Hang for Double Tenth Atrocities,” Straits Times, 16 April 1946, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
11. Lamont-Brown, Kempeitai, 18–20; Brian Montgomery, (1984). Shenton of Singapore: Governor and Prisoner of War (London: Leo Cooper, 1984), 152–53. (Call no. RSING 941.0840924 SHE)
Richard Deacon, Kempeitai: The Japanese Secret Service, Then and Now (Japan: Rutland, 1990). (Call no. RCLOS 327.1252 DEA-[GH])
“Singapore Kempei-Tai March to Gaol,” Straits Times, 23 September 1945, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
Tan Tik Loong Stanley and Tay Huiwen Michelle, Syonan Years 1942–1945: Living Beneath the Rising Sun (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, 2009). (Call no. RSING 940.530745957 TAN-[WAR])
Tan Thoon Lip, Kempeitai Kindness (Singapore: Malayan Law Journal, 1946). (Call no. RCLOS 940.54725951 TAN)
“The Y.M.C.A.,” Straits Times, 27 October 1945, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.