Famous last stands, as at Thermopylae and the Alamo, are famous because last stands are so rare, Gregory Cochran notes:
So an army that routinely executed last stands — one that always refused to surrender, that kept fighting until eliminated by firepower or starvation — would be anomalous. It’s hard to imagine, but it’s easy to remember: that’s what the Imperial Japanese Army was like in World War Two.
In a typical battle, less than 2% of Japanese forces were taken prisoner. Of those that were, many had been knocked unconscious. Wounded Japanese soldiers would try to kill Allied medics: Japanese sailors would attack Americans trying to fish them out of the water. As a young American infantry officer who faced them in Guadalcanal and Burma said, “for sheer, bloody, hardened steel guts, the stocky and hard-muscled little Jap doughboy has it all over any of us.” George MacDonald Fraser told of a Japanese soldier he encountered in August of 1945, when they had utterly lost the war: ”the little bastard came howling out of a thicket near the Sittang, full of spite and fury. He was half-starved and near naked, and his only weapon was a bamboo stave, but he was in no mood to surrender.”
The Japanese usually lost those battles (after their attacks in the beginning of the war), losing something like ten times as many killed as their Western opponents, a ratio normally seen only in colonial wars. The Japanese relied on “courage and cold steel”, which simply wasn’t very effective. They simply did not grasp the dominance of artillery and automatic weapons in modern war — partly because they hadn’t fought in WWI (except for a small naval role), but, more importantly, because they didn’t want to understand. They’d had a chance to learn in the border conflicts with the Soviet Union in the late 30?s (Khalkin-Gol), but refused to do so.
In addition, Japanese heroism is seldom fully appreciated because they were such utter assholes, in their treatment of prisoners and of conquered nations — cannibalism, vivisection, the Rape of Nanking and the destruction of Manila, germ warfare experiments on prisoners… even the water cure, although now we’re in favor of that. Under the Japanese, Asia was a charnel house. Regardless, their courage was most unusual.