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Prisoners of War

V: Japanese Prisoners of War in New Zealand

V: Japanese Prisoners of War in New Zealand

Although the 800-odd Japanese prisoners of war at Featherston remained under excellent material conditions until the end of their captivity, their anxiety concerning their future increased as the end of the war became imminent. In September 1944 they told a neutral inspector that unless some arrangement could be made by which they could either return to their native country as ‘honourable citizens’ or find asylum in some other territory such as an island in the Pacific, they would probably only be able to end their unhappy page 521 position by mass suicide. Their hopes lay in the possibility of the neutral observers who visited them in their camp being able to explain their predicament and negotiate on their behalf.

Once they had heard the news of the cessation of hostilities, their questions took a more precise form. They were anxious to know whether they were covered by the Imperial Rescript to the Japanese Armed Forces ordering them to lay down their arms; whether reprisals would be taken on them in New Zealand on account of the bad conditions in the prisoner-of-war camps for which their countrymen were responsible; when their repatriation would take place, and whether they would be able to take their possessions and accumulated pay with them. They were assured that no reprisals would be taken on them in New Zealand, that their repatriation would take place as soon as shipping difficulties were overcome, and that representations were being made to the Supreme Commander in the Far East so that on their return their future might be assured and they might be given credit in Japanese currency for the money they had earned in New Zealand.1

By the end of 1945 arrangements were in hand for them to leave on two large American tank landing craft. The New Zealand authorities went to a great deal of trouble to ensure that conditions on this voyage would be as comfortable as possible. Although it did not prove possible for the New Zealand representative of the International Red Cross Committee to accompany the repatriates (as the latter had requested), a detachment of the New Zealand guard from Featherston Camp who were acquainted with the prisoners was placed on each vessel in order to facilitate dealing with them during the voyage. A stock of comforts purchased by funds of the New Zealand Red Cross Society was placed on board the vessels for distribution on disembarkation. Special bunk accommodation for the prisoners was installed in the vessels, special rooms were built to accommodate the sick, and extra ventilation and steam heaters were fitted to adjust the interior temperature both to the tropics and to the northern winter. All the prisoners were embarked on 30 December 1945, and the vessels left for Yokohama on the same day.

So ended New Zealand's first experience of housing and guarding on her soil enemy prisoners of war. Before leaving on their repatriation voyage the senior officer among the prisoners wrote to the General Officer Commanding the New Zealand Military Forces thanking him for the ‘just and considerate treatment’ they had received. There can be no doubt, as the International Red Cross page 522 representative said in his final report, that the Geneva Prisoners of War Convention of 1929 was applied ‘in every respect’. By most standards the treatment was extremely generous. It is tragic that an incident such as that of February 1943 should have happened at a prisoner-of-war camp whose administering authorities were so humane and well-intentioned. The whole experience serves as another illustration of the fact that guarding prisoners is not always the simple task it seems. It also suggests that those negotiating on behalf of prisoners of war could, if their zeal to ensure humane treatment were allowed to overrule all other considerations, make control of prisoners by detaining guards almost impossible without the use of firearms.

* * * * *

In March 1945 it became Allied policy to use the Japanese treatment of their prisoners of war as a weapon of political warfare. By this time sufficient was generally known about camps in Burma and Thailand and in the recently liberated camps of the Philippines to make it clear what kind of conditions had existed there. It was felt that the Japanese in retreat would realise that their future in the world would depend largely on their external relations with the Great Powers, and that further ill-treatment of prisoners of war would count heavily against them. No suggestions of reprisals or revenge were made, and no imputations that any improvements in treatment which did occur were due to the deterioration of their military position. But it was made clear that unless local commanders responsible for ill-treatment were punished the Japanese Government would be held responsible.

Accounts of the last months of captivity by prisoners of war and civilian internees do not show that their treatment improved; but neither do they show that it deteriorated in a way or to an extent that could be attributable to definite Japanese policy in that direction. Most important of all, the Allied fear that the Japanese might in a last resort use their prisoners as hostages, and that wholesale massacres might occur, was confirmed by subsequent events in very few places. If Allied policy contributed to this result alone it was amply justified.

The capitulation of Japan concluded New Zealand's first experience of the hostility of a major Asiatic Power in aggressive mood. The threat to their own country reminded many people, who had in the past thought of it only as an outpost of European culture, that it was geographically situated much nearer to Asia. Those who came into direct contact with the Japanese found out that in spite of outward similarities they differed fundamentally from page 523 Europeans and ourselves in their standards of diet and living in general, in their conditions of work, in their military discipline, in the value they placed on human life, and in their regard for humanitarian considerations that we in our tranquil and prosperous isolation have sometimes tended to regard as inherent in human nature. If we are really to think out for ourselves more of our international relationships, we need to see more of the world through the eyes of our own people. However short our pre-war contacts with the peoples of the Far East may have fallen of what was appropriate to our position in the Pacific, there are now numbers of New Zealanders who have had close contact with them both during the war and since. Those of our men and women who suffered captivity in the Far East have first-hand knowledge of the mentality of one of these peoples at war. To take account of this knowledge does not necessarily imply continued rancour towards a former enemy; to neglect it is to be unrealistic.

1 A total of approximately £5500 was credited to the Japanese prisoners during their period in New Zealand.