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Episodes & Studies Volume 1

The Islands of Japan

The Islands of Japan

Prisoners of war taken to the Japanese home islands were no better treated, except in some minor ways, than those who remained in the newly-conquered Co-prosperity Sphere. The voyage itself was the most terrible ordeal. A prisoner who was moved from Java to Japan (by Singapore, Saigon, and Formosa) late in 1942 recorded that one man in three died on the way, the living being too weak to remove the corpses and using them as pillows in the ghastly congestion of a hold only four feet high. All who survived went into hospital in Japan. The risk of being torpedoed grew as the war proceeded. The Lisbon Maru, torpedoed in October 1942 on a voyage from Hong Kong to Japan, was carrying about 1800 prisoners. She went down by the stern and the 200 men in the after hold had no chance of escape; the 1600 in the forward holds got out into the water where the Japanese machine-gunned them; eventually 930 were picked up.

The camps in Japan were widely distributed and were usually attached to some industry: a ship-building yard, a steel-works, a coal mine, or the wharves of a large port. Some were on Hokkaido, the northern island of Japan, where the winter climate is rigorous and the summer prolific of mosquitoes. Most of the prisoners going to Japan had been given uniforms of a rough, sacklike material, but it was inadequate to keep out the cold in a region whose inhabitants wore fur in winter. The prisoners were set to work shovelling coal, working in factories, digging on the hillsides, or carpentering. Early in 1944 an English-speaking Japanese commandant, a Colonel Emoto, stopped beatings and increased rations, but next year, with his departure and the Japanese reverses, there was a new wave of ill-treatment.

A dockside work camp at Yokohama consisted of a large goods shed fitted with wooden platforms on which several hundred prisoners of all ages and nationalities slept; these quarters were infested with rats, lice, and fleas. Zentsuji camp, in the southern part of Japan, was one of the few designed to accommodate prisoners of war, but it was cramped and insanitary, though at first conditions in it were comparatively good. Some of the prisoners were sent to the Kamishi steel-works, about 200 miles north of Tokyo. This was twice shelled by the United States Fleet, and the prisoners, quartered between the sea and the factory building, suffered many casualties. Others elsewhere had bombs dropped near them in Allied raids. At the capitulation the Japanese faithfully observed its conditions, putting out 20-foot squares on the roofs of the prison barracks to guide American aircraft coming in to drop supplies for immediate use. To the delight of the prisoners, one of these mercy parcels dropped at Kamishi broke the thigh of a Japanese in the prison office.

The prisoners found Japanese civilians generally friendly and their gentleness and good manners a sharp contrast to the habits of the prison guards. They were glad to trade if prisoners had anything to barter in exchange for their own increasingly meagre supplies of food. At considerable risk page 23
Black and white sketch of building

from a painting by G. S. Coxhead

some men were able to get out of their camps at night to forage, but it was hopeless to attempt escape. Propaganda in the English newspapers printed in Japan was known to over-reach itself: for instance, it was asserted that ‘the New Zealanders were so short of meat they were eating rabbits’. The food shortage in Japan weighed on the civil population just as heavily as on the prisoners and gave everyone a fair idea of the trend of the war.

Representatives of the Red Cross and of the protecting neutral power visited many prison and internment camps in Japan, as well as in China and Malaya. Although these visitors were never allowed to speak to the prisoners and comedies of plenty were sometimes played for their benefit (well-stocked canteens were set up for the few hours of their visit and emptied immediately afterwards), they were able to send supplies into the camps. Rather more Red Cross parcels were distributed in Japan than elsewhere,* though the guards pilfered them mercilessly, saying that everything belonging to prisoners of war was legally the property of the Japanese government.

* Although a prisoner of war in Japan itself might receive three or four parcels during the whole of his captivity, a prisoner in Indonesia, Malaya, or China was lucky if he received more than one in three years. The Red Cross packed and forwarded enough parcels to permit the same distribution as in European prison camps—one to each prisoner every week.