The revelation adds more evidence to the toll of atrocities carried out by Japanese soldiers during the Second World War, only weeks before Japanese troops are due to be posted overseas for the first time in five decades as part of the UN peacekeeping operation in Cambodia. Japan's Asian neighbours have expressed strong reservations about the use of the troops. In recent months evidence has also come to light about the forced recruitment of Asian women as prostitutes, or 'comfort women', for the Japanese army.
Mr Tanaka, a 43-year-old scholar from Fukui in western Japan, is working at the Political Science Department in Melbourne University. The documents he found concerning cannibalism include captured Japanese army memos as well as sworn statements by Australian soldiers for war crimes investigations. Mr Tanaka says he has amassed at least 100 documented cases of cannibalism of Australian and Indian soldiers as well as Asian forced labourers in New Guinea. He has also found some evidence of cannibalism in the Philippines.
'In some cases the (Japanese) soldiers were suffering from starvation, but in many other cases they were not starving at all,' said Mr Tanaka. 'Many reports said the Japanese soldiers were fit and strong, and had potatoes, rice and dried fish.' Some Japanese press reports yesterday suggested the cannibalism was carried out simply because of shortage of food.
The researcher also denied it was a result of a breakdown in morale: 'The reports said morale was good. Often it was done in a group under instruction of a commander. I think it was to get a feeling for victory, and to give the soldiers nerves of steel.' He said it helped the soldiers to bond 'because the whole troop broke the taboo (of cannibalism) together'.
One statement by an Australian lieutenant describes how he found the remains of a number of bodies, including one 'consisting only of a head which had been scalped and a spinal column'. 'In all cases, the condition of the remains were such that there can be no doubt that the bodies had been dismembered and portions of the flesh cooked,' concluded the statement. Another statement from an Australian corporal tells how he found the mutilated bodies of colleagues whom he had earlier helped to bury in Japanese- occupied territory.
A Pakistani, who was captured when Japan overran Singapore and taken to New Guinea, testified that in his area Japanese soldiers killed and ate one prisoner a day for 'about 100' days. The corporal said he saw flesh being cut from prisoners who were still alive.
Mr Tanaka found the documents by chance while doing research in Australian government archives on chemical warfare. 'I just came across them by accident - they were labelled 'War crimes documents - closed materials'.'