Japan conquered south-east Asia in a series of victorious campaigns over a few months from December 1941. By March 1942 many civilians, particularly westerners in the region's European colonies, found themselves behind enemy lines and were subsequently interned by the Japanese.

The nature of civilian internment varied from region to region. Some civilians were interned soon after invasion; in other areas the process occurred over many months. In total, approximately 130,000 Allied civilians were interned by the Japanese during this period of occupation. The exact number of internees will never be known as records were often lost, destroyed, or simply not kept.

The backgrounds of the internees were diverse. There was a large proportion of Dutch from the Dutch East Indies, but they also included Americans, British, and Australians. They included missionaries and their families, colonial administrators, and business people. Many had been living in the colonies for decades. Single women had often been nuns, missionaries, doctors, teachers and nurses.

Civilians interned by the Japanese were treated marginally better than the prisoners of war, but their death rates were the same. Although they had to work to run their own camps, few were made to labour on construction projects. The Japanese devised no consistent policies or guidelines to regulate the treatment of the civilians. Camp conditions and the treatment of internees varied from camp to camp. The general experience, however, was one of malnutrition, disease, and varying degrees of harsh discipline and brutality from the Japanese guards.

The camps varied in size from four people held at Pangkalpinang in Sumatra to the 14,000 held in Tjihapit in Java. Some were segregated according to gender or race, there were also many camps of mixed gender. Some internees were held at the same camp for the duration of the war, and others were moved about. The buildings used to house internees were generally whatever was available, including schools, warehouses, universities, hospitals, and prisons.

Organisation of the internment camps varied by location. The Japanese administered some camps directly; others were administered by local authorities under Japanese control. Some of the camps were left for the internees to self-govern. In the mixed and male camps, management often fell to the men who were experienced in administration before their internment. In the women's camps the leaders tended to be the women who had held a profession prior to internment.

The liberation of camps was not a uniform process. Many camps were liberated as the forces were recapturing territory. For other internees, freedom occurred many months after the surrender of the Japanese, and in the Dutch East Indies, liberated internees faced the uncertainty of the Indonesian war of independence.

Civilian internees were generally disregarded in official histories, and few received formal recognition. Ironically, however, civilian internees have become the subject of several influential books and films. Agnes Keith's account of internment in Sandakan and Kuching, Three came home (1948), was one of the first of the memoirs. More recent publications include Shirley Fenton-Huie's The forgotten ones (1992) and Jan Ruff O'Herne's Fifty years of silence (1997). Neville Shute's novel A town like Alice was filmed in 1956. Since then, films and television dramas have included Tenko, Empire of the sun, and Paradise road.

Further reading:

B. E. Archer, A study of civilian internment by the Japanese in the Far East 1941–45 ([ Essex: B. Archer], 1999)

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