Photograph of Kempeitai

Mainichi Shimbun. Via Wikipedia Commons

The Kempeitai were the military police of the Japanese Army. As such, they were a harsh branch of a harsh service. In occupied territories that were placed under military jurisdiction, the Kempeitai had police jurisdiction, which they exercised ruthlessly. The Kempeitai likewise had jurisdiction over military prisoners. Among Allied internees and prisoners of war, as well as among subject peoples, the Kempeitai acquired a reputation fully as vile as the German Gestapo.

The Kempeitai was founded in 1881 as a French-style gendarmerie within the rapidly modernizing Japanese Army. As such, the Kempeitai seems to have been unremarkable in its role and activities until after the First World War.  However, Tojo Hideki was head of the Kempeitai in Manchuria from 1935 to 1937, where he made his reputation by effectively transforming the Kempeitai into the arm of a police state. The extent to which the Kempeitai thereafter became a law unto itself, rather than ruthlessly executing the policies of the Japanese Army leadership, remains unclear.

The civilian counterpart to the Kempeitai was the Tokubetsu Koto Keisatsu (Tokko in short) or Special Police, known popularly as the "Thought Police." Though the Kempeitai were better known to Westerners, due to their jurisdiction over prisoners of war and civilian internees, the Tokko more closely resembled the Gestapo and other secret police organizations. However, by 1941, Japan had become a military dictatorship, and the Kempeitai often asserted jurisdiction even in Japan itself, on the grounds that they were responsible for enforcement of conscription laws and counterespionage. As a result, they sometimes clashed with the Tokko. The Navy had its own military police in areas under its control, the Tokkeitai, which was created in part to protect Navy personnel from the excesses of the Kempeitai but was equally brutal towards conquered peoples.

The Kempeitai had a murky relationship with the Japanese criminal underworld, sometimes using gang members as informants. This reflected the older samurai practice of hiring gangsters to terrorize peasants.

The organization and methods of the Kempeitai resembled those of other historical secret police organizations. Officers and men with at least six year's service were chosen for their superior intelligence, physical fitness, and political reliability, and they were given advanced training (six months for an enlisted man, a full year for an officer) and exercised sweeping and arbitrary powers. A Kempei was empowered to arrest personnel of rank up to three grades greater than his own. An enlisted Kempei was at least a superior private, and lower ranking enlisted men were temporarily attached from other units when needed. In wartime Japan, there was no concept of habeas corpus and the Kempeitai could arrest whoever they liked and hold them for as long as they pleased. There was also no presumption of innocence under Japanese law; the burden lay on the one charged with a crime to prove his innocence, rather than on the Kempeitai to prove his guilt. The Kempeitai held their own trials (gunritsu kaigi, "martial law proceedings") at which the defendant had no right to mount a defense and was sometimes not even told the nature of the charges against him. There was no explicit legal authority for these trials, which differed from the regular courts-martial (gunpo kaigi) prescribed by Army regulations.

At the peak of hostilities, the Kempeitai numbered almost 11,000 in Japan, almost 2000 in Korea, over 11,000 in China, almost 5000 in Manchuria, and almost 6000 in the remainder of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

Kempeitai Methods

The Kempeitai made frequent use of torture. The methods most commonly reported included suspending a suspect by his wrists in a way that partially dislocated his shoulders or forcing a suspect to kneel and putting a heavy timber on his calves on which the interrogators stood, partially dislocating the victim's ankles. Other forms of torture included water torture, burning, and electric shock. Beatings were frequent. Kempei were encouraged to be creative in developing new methods of torture. A Kempeitai handbook on torture stated (Hoyt 1993):

Methods of procedure

(a) Torture

    This  includes kicking, beating, and anything connected with physical suffering. This method is only to be used when everything else has failed as it is the most clumsy. Change the interrogating officer after using torture and good results can be obtained if the new officer questions in a sympathetic manner.

(b) Threats

    (1) Hints of future physical discomforts, for example: torture, murder, starvation, solitary confinement, deprivation of sleep.

    (2) Hints of future mental discomforts, for example: not to be allowed to send letters, not to be given the same treatment as others and (for prisoners of war) to be kept back last in the event of an exchange of prisoners.

Australian lieutenant Rod Wells described his treatment by the Kempeitai at Sandakan (AWM 2010):

The interviewer produced a small piece of wood like a meat skewer, pushed that into my left ear, and tapped it in with a small hammer. I think I fainted some time after it went through the drum. I remember the last excruciating sort of pain, and I must have gone out for some time because I was revived with a bucket of water. Eventually it healed but of course I couldn’t hear with it. I have never been able to hear since.

The Kempeitai sometimes planted evidence of crimes against suspects. A British civil engineer recorded that

The real shock came to me personally this morning at 4am when I was rudely awakened by five plain clothes Kempeitai, four of whom, in true gangster fashion, were brandishing revolvers. The fifth Kempeitai officer, who carried a light machine gun, ordered me to get up and dress. Meanwhile, the other four were making a thorough search of all my belongings. At the conclusion of the search, I found that two of my cases had been filled with [anti-Japanese] papers and certain books. I was then forced to accompany the Kempeitai, carrying my cases, to a waiting car....

(Lamont-Brown 1998) This man was held for over three weeks in a wooden cage measuring 10' by 20' that held up to 42 other prisoners. Interrogations were frequent and food was limited to an inadequate quantity of boiled rice. However, he was relatively fortunate; although he could hear the screams of other prisoners being tortured, and many of the Chinese prisoners kept with him were dreadfully ill, he was eventually repatriated.

During the occupation of Singapore, the Kempeitai erected iron stakes outside the YMCA and Cathay Building, on which they periodically impaled the severed heads of persons executed for anti-Japanese activity. 

Intelligence and Counterintelligence

Kempeitai training emphasized espionage and counterespionage techniques, but, curiously, foreign language study was not as heavily emphasized. For example, Kempei sent to the Netherlands East Indies made only a perfunctory attempt to learn the Indonesian language, and the Indonesians regarded only one man in the entire Japanese military as fluent in their language. As a result, the Kempeitai relied heavily on local interpreters in occupied territories. In addition, ethnic auxiliaries were recruited in Korea and Manchuria. These were permitted to reach a maximum rank equivalent to sergeant major. Heavy use was made of native informants in other areas. Those at Rabaul were largely recruited from laborers from New Guinea who had no local roots. Known as "Kempei boys", they were feared by local villagers.

The Kempeitai had responsibility for counterintelligence throughout the Japanese Empire. They also took a leading role in the Army's own espionage efforts, modeling their system after the Prussian secret service. Permanent resident agents were established in China and other areas, often based on brothels. Kempeitai fifth columnists were believed to be active throughout southeast Asia in the opening offensive of the Pacific War, though their effectiveness was likely exaggerated by the Allies. Although the Army's Nakano espionage school was not under Kempeitai control, it would be consistent with the pattern seen in other militaries for the Nakano graduates and the Kempeitai to engage in overlapping and sometimes mutually hostile intelligence efforts. However, there are indications the two organizations were able to cooperate on some of their efforts.

The increasing success of Allied submarines against shipping in southeast Asia convinced the Kempeitai that spies were monitoring the departure of shipping from major ports, and the Kempeitai expended considerable effort to locate and arrest the culprits:

In May of 1944 the special radio-probe squadrons began working with various Kempeitai units throughout the island of Java in an effort to identify suspicious radio signals. Nonetheless we were somehow unable to to capture these spy culprits before the end of the war, although we were positive of their existence.

(Shimer and Hobbs 1986.)  There were in fact no such spies. The Allies obtained their superb intelligence on Japanese ship movements through traffic analysis and cryptanalysis.

Abuse of prisoners of war, civilian internees, and native populations

Like the rest of the Japanese armed services, the Kempeitai were indoctrinated with a twisted version of Bushido, the ancient Japanese military code, that called for the soldier or sailor to die rather than suffer the shame of surrender. The five tenets of classical Bushido were righteousness, courage, humanity, propriety, and sincerity, but humanity appears not to have made it into the modern version. Likewise, under military rule, Japanese nationalism took a virulently racist form in which the Japanese people were regarded as a semi-divine race, superior to all others, while Westerners and even other Asians (particularly the Chinese) were regarded as subhuman. The brutality shown by the Kempeitai also reflected the fact that discipline within the Japanese Army itself was brutal. It was commonplace for an officer to slap the face of a subordinate, a court-martial offense in Western armies, and even beatings were sanctioned as a form of discipline. The Kempei who slapped or beat an Allied prisoner of war or civilian internee most likely had been slapped or beaten by his own superiors.

Thus Allied prisoners of war, who were thought to have lost all honor by surrender, were treated with great cruelty. Kempei regularly searched for diaries among prisoners of war, administering brutal beatings to anyone caught with a diary. They also looked for evidence of pilfering, which was usually punished by execution.

The Kempeitai were responsible for managing prostitutes in areas occupied by the Japanese. This included registration and medical checks of prostitutes. The Kempeitai played a leading role in recruiting "comfort women" for official Army brothels set up throughout the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Many, perhaps most, of these women were recruited against their will, sometimes by being duped and sometimes by being arrested, particularly in Korea. Dutch and Australian women internees were often pressured into prostitution to escape the terrible conditions in the internment camps.

The Kempeitai were ruthless in their treatment of native populations suspected of disloyalty. Under international law, civilians in occupied territory were entitled to be tried for alleged crimes in front of a duly constituted military tribunal. The Kempeitai dispensed with these formalities, practicing kikōsaku instead. The word can be plausibly translated as "hellcraft" and referred to summary execution of suspects, usually by beheading. The Kempeitai later blamed the Dutch for kikōsaku in the Netherlands East Indies on the grounds that it was the Dutch who instigated the activities being punished and thereby overwhelmed normal legal channels. Dutch intelligence officers later determined from captured Kempeitai documents that the Kempeitai had arrested 1918 persons on Java in 1943-1944, of whom 743 died while in their custody. 439 of these were formally executed while the remainder were listed as dying from illness or heart failure while in custody.

In addition to arresting individuals, the Kempeitai sometimes massacred entire communities suspected of disloyalty. In March 1944, the Kempeitai brutally suppressed a riot in Tasikmalaya in western Java. This was a center of Muslim worship under the charismatic Mustafa. The Kempeitai later claimed that Mustafa had been organizing a rebellion against the Japanese and that his followers murdered the Kempei sent to investigate. The Muslims claimed that Mustafa's disciples had armed themselves with spears to defend themselves against criminal gangs active in the area, and that the riot broke out after the Kempeitai began physically abusing Mustafa in the presence of his followers. Several hundred Muslims were killed, and Mustafa and 23 of his disciples were executed.

In September 1944 the Kempeitai executed the Rajah of Loeang and 95 of his subjects for failing to root out guerrillas who had assassinated several Kempei. Likewise, on 7 July 1945, the Kempeitai killed 600 inhabitants of Kalagon in the Moulmein region of southeast Burma after beatings and the rape of women and children failed to uncover information on local guerrillas.

The Kempeitai in China were responsible for providing maruta ("logs"), or human guinea pigs for medical experiments, to the Army's biological warfare research program under Unit 731. Experiments were also carried out on Allied prisoners of war in Southeast Asia with the cooperation of 6 Field Kempeitai. Some Kempeitai units,including 3 Field Kempeitai, carried out extensive "anti-gas drills" in Manchuria.

In February 1944, an outbreak of tetanus among hundreds of Javanese laborers was traced to contaminated vaccines. Professor Doctor Muchtar of the Eykman Institute treated many of the victims and blamed the outbreak on botched preparation of the vaccines by Japanese military doctors. The Kempeitai intervened, accused Dr. Muchtar of deliberately contaminating the vaccines to prevent the laborers from working for the Japanese, and imprisoned him for nine months before beheading him and running over his body with a steam roller. Given the role of the Kempeitai in biological warfare research, it is reasonable to suspect the vaccines were deliberately contaminated by the Japanese doctors as part of a biological warfare experiment and Professor Muchtar was murdered to cover up this fact. Indonesian nationalist leader Sukarno accepted the Kempeitai version of the incident, inflating the number of victims to "tens of thousands" in his memoirs.


Following the announcement of the surrender, the Kempeitai began destroying their records, particularly charge sheets and information about their network of agents and informers. This also had the effect of destroying evidence of Kempeitai war crimes. It has been alleged that further destruction of records took place during the occupation, with the connivance of MacArthur's headquarters, though it is unclear what the occupation authorities' motivations would have been. Although the commander of the Kempeitai, Shirokura Yoshie, committed suicide at the time of the surrender, most Kempei were able to go underground to avoid the attention of the occupation authorities. This was facilitated both by the destruction of records and by the fact that the Kempeitai wore regular Japanese Army uniforms, distinguished only by brassards and other easily removed insignia. Following the end of the occupation, it is claimed that many of these former Kempei became successful economic espionage agents.

In areas still firmly under Japanese control at the time of the surrender, such as Java, the Japanese military authorities were required to maintain order until Allied forces arrived. The Kempeitai played a murky role in the growing independence movement in the Netherlands East Indies following the surrender. The Kempeitai clearly sympathized with the independence movement, and it seems likely that the Kempeitai helped arm the revolutionaries. The loss of the Netherlands East Indies to the Dutch was probably inevitable regardless of Kempeitai assistance.

In 1953, the Zenkoku Kenyukai Rengokai (National Federation of Kempeitai Veterans' Associations) was organized to defend the reputation of former Kempei, and a small memorial to Kempeitai war dead was set up in a secluded corner of the Yasakuni Shrine, Japan's memorial to its war dead. In 1976, the Zenkoku Kenyukai Rengokai published a history of Kempeitai operations from their own point of view, and excerpts have been translated into English (Shimer and Hobbs 1986). This history is self-justifying and unreliable, but gives the reader a frightening glimpse into the mind of this group of fanatics.


Australian War Memorial (accessed 2010-8-27)

Browne (1967)

Collie and Marutani (2009)

Deacon (1983)

Felton (2009)

Handbook of Japanese Military Forces (1944-9-15; accessed 2012-3-2)

Hoyt (1993)

Johnson (1983)

Lamont-Brown (1998)

Lone Sentry (accessed 2008-4-19)

Shimer and Hobbs (1986)

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