The Japanese on the railway
Little is known of the experience of Japanese engineers and guards who worked on the Burma-Thailand railway …
Over 12 000 soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA), including 800 Koreans, were employed as engineers and guards on the railway. Around 1000 of them died.
The Japanese were organised into two types of unit. First, two railway regiments—the 5th and the 9th Regiments—were tasked with the construction of the railway itself. Second, the POW Organisations oversaw the administration of the workforce and guarding of prisoners. These units were overseen by the 2nd Railway Administering Department under Major-General Ishita, who in turn answered to South General Army and ultimately Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo. Japanese forces in Malaya also provided troops for the administration of POWs.
Work on the Burma-Thailand railway was difficult and dangerous for all involved. Although better supplied with food and medicine than their prisoners, the Japanese too experienced the sapping tropical weather and exposure to disease. Cholera, no respecter of national boundaries or status, was particularly feared. When the water-borne disease began to kill his friends at Konyu in July 1943, Denys Peek observed 'Cholera is a world all the Nips know, and it frightens the stuffing out of them'. 1
The Japanese lost around 8 per cent of their force of 12 000 on the Burma-Thailand railway. This death rate paled into insignificance compared to that of their workforce but it was still relatively high. Australian forces fighting in the Kokoda and Buna-Gona campaigns of 1942–43 in circumstances of comparable hardship had a death rate of around 4 per cent.
Although the Burma-Thailand railway was a vital part of Japanese strategy, many Japanese would have seen it as a backwater. Japanese engineers may have taken professional pride in their work but the average soldier would have known that he had not been assigned to more prestigious combat units.
Prisoners considered the treatment of soldiers within the Japanese Army far harsher than in Western armies. The average Japanese soldier often lived a difficult and brutalised life. Likewise the Korean guards, who were colonial subjects of the Japanese and at the lowest rung of the military hierarchy, would have found working on the railway a harsh and isolating experience.
For all this, the Japanese took pride in the railway's construction. When the two ends of the railway met at Konkoita on 16 October 1943 they held a ceremony in celebration. Dignitaries, a film crew and a band were present to see the last dog spike—made of gold—hammered into place.
In early 1944 the Japanese also built a memorial in Kanchanaburi to commemorate those who died on the railway. It remains a site of remembrance today.
Many Japanese soldiers learned of the surrender of their country in August 1945 with shock and incomprehension. For men conditioned to believe in the invincibility of their nation and emperor, the reversal of roles with those who had been their prisoners was profoundly disturbing. Nagase Takashi, a Japanese interpreter who after the war travelled with the Australian War Graves Commission survey party, described having to salute former prisoners for the first time:
I had to salute the Caucasians in the local people's presence, who had been our prisoners until recently. I never felt such a heavy saluting arm. Just then a real feeling of surrender struck me.
[Nagase Takashi, Crosses and Tigers, Bangkok, Allied Printers, 1990, 30.]
The process of accepting the surrender of Japanese units and shipping them home took a number of months. Priority was given to returning Allied troops. Some Japanese were also interned and tried for war crimes.
- 1. Ian Denys Peek, One Fourteenth of an Elephant, Sydney, Pan Macmillan, 2005, 203.