Rǒmusha beyond the railway

The ruthless occupier, who fagged us out and allowed us not a single free day and was guilty of the death daily of dozens of rǒmusha, who were made to do slave labor, received very bad and insufficient food and almost no medical treatment. Those weakened rǒmusha had practically no resistance to disease, and countless numbers fell victim to malaria. The Japanese did not care what happened to them, after all there was a new supply of rǒmushas every week.

[R. Sadhinoch , quoted in Harry A. Poeze 'The Road to Hell: The construction of a railway line in West Java during the Japanese Occupation' in Paul H. Kratoska (ed.) Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire: Unknown histories, New York, East Gate, 2005, 257.]

The creation and defence of the Japanese Greater East-Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere required not only millions of troops but also millions of labourers. These rǒmusha came from every Japanese-controlled territory, and while some worked voluntarily, most were subject to some form of coercion. Despite their large numbers and their suffering, their history has been neglected in the wider narratives of World War II in the Pacific.

In China and Korea, the use of local labour was a part of a system of Japanese control that pre-dated the war. In Northern China, more than one million labourers were used as 'unpaid volunteers'—forced labour—between 1940 and 1942 alone. In Korea almost a million people were forcibly recruited to work in Japan between 1939 and 1945.

Hundreds of thousands of labourers were mobilised in the territories the Japanese conquered in 1941 and 1942. During the war years just under 300 000 Javanese were conscripted and transported around South East Asia to work. On a single day in May 1944, the same number of Filipinos in Manila were turned out for compulsory labour to grow food. On a smaller scale, the Japanese made use of local labour wherever it could be found. In Papua New Guinea, for instance, local people were recruited or forced to carry supplies to the front line.

Some groups cooperated with the Japanese, especially after their initial military successes and their promises of 'Asia for Asians'. Indeed, the Japanese presentation of the war as a liberation from the European colonial powers encouraged many labourers to sign up willingly. Japanese promises of decent wages and working conditions also helped to induce Asians to work. Given the economic disruption caused by the war, some workers willingly exchanged one colonial master for another, focusing on the need to put food on their table rather than the nationality of their employer.

As word of the conditions under which rǒmusha were working spread, however, fewer and fewer labourers volunteered. In response, the Japanese turned to forced labour, usually operating through local power structures to meet their labour needs.

Rǒmusha were used for a wide variety of tasks depending on the requirements of the Japanese war effort. These included working on the docks in Japan and Singapore, building infrastructure such as roads and railways, and working on farms and in mines. Having captured the mineral and industrial resources of Asia, the Japanese used this civilian labour to exploit these resources.

At the same time, workers were also used directly by the military. The Japanese used local labour to dig trenches, construct fortifications, build airfields and improve infrastructure supporting the front line; for example, in Papua New Guinea.

When circumstances demanded it, thousands of rǒmusha were transported across the Pacific. The importing of rǒmusha from Malaya and Java to work on the Burma-Thailand railway is the clearest example, but small groups of labourers from Malaya and China found themselves as far afield as Papua New Guinea. Just under 300 000 workers from the Dutch East Indies were also deployed throughout the Pacific.

A particularly infamous example of the Japanese exploitation of the civilian populations of Asia was their conscription of 'comfort women'—sexual slaves—for their military forces. The Japanese operated over 400 brothels in Asia, and estimates of comfort women range from 50 000 to 200 000. The majority of these women were Korean, supplemented by locally conscripted women. They were taken by force or by deception. As one Malayan woman who was raped by invading Japanese forces and then forced to suffer the pain and humiliation of prostitution for three years said:

I had a big room with a double bed. I got two simple meals a day ... I was forced to have sex with ten to twenty men a day. Sex was excruciating. Oh, you have no idea how painful it was. If I didn't perform well, I would get beaten. Some of the men would be drunk and beat me anyway.

[Anonymous, quoted in George Hicks, The Comfort Women, New York, W. W. Norton & Co, 1995, 13.]

Last updated: 17 January 2020

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DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Rǒmusha beyond the railway, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 24 October 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/workers/romusha-beyond-railway
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