Daily life in the camps Print

The Japanese and Korean guards in the POW camps were often very violent, something the European servicemen were not used to. This type of harsh action had a very intimidating effect.

At the start of the Japanese occupation prisoners of war were sometimes able to sneak out of the camp for the night, until several prisoners who had attempted to do this in various camps were executed by the Japanese. These executions, which generally took place in the camp and which the other POWs were forced to watch, had a devastating effect on the people who stayed behind. This may have been the reason that very few attempts at escape were made during the remainder of the occupation. Also, it was not easy for Europeans to hide in the Asian world outside the camps.

The Japanese decided to make good use of the many prisoners of war by putting them to work. At first the labour consisted mostly of fatigue duty in and around the camps, and general repair and cleaning duties outside them. From August 1942 onward there was also large-scale use of POWs in larger military-infrastructural construction works and industrial and mining work, especially outside Java.

In general life in the camps was not too bad for the civilian internees in the first years. The camps were not overcrowded yet like they were at the end of the occupation. Health was generally good nearly everywhere and the death rate had not risen above normal. The women’s camps initially were not strictly closed. Up to the spring of 1943 the women were allowed to leave the camp during the day on one or more days a week, provided they were back on time in the evening. In addition, Indonesian servants and vendors were still allowed into the camp for a while.

Especially at the beginning of the internment or imprisonment boredom was one of the most striking elements of life in the camps. This boredom could be chased away to some degree by keeping a diary, although this was actually forbidden. In most camp diaries three subjects are very much present: the lack of privacy, the rumours that were going around the camp - the large majority of which proved to be totally untrue -, and the food.


In the first year the food situation, in terms of quantities, was reasonable. The European camp leadership could often buy extra food collectively outside the camp. Most prisoners and internees initially had sufficient funds to supplement the meagre Japanese rations, and even to take care of those who did not.

Food rations were steadily reduced from the end of 1942 onward. As a result, the daily rations had dropped far beneath the required minimum in the course of 1944 and 1945, in terms of quantity as well as quality. In addition, due to dwindling funds that furthermore decreased in value as a result of inflation, it became increasingly difficult to buy extra food. This resulted in the majority of the prisoners and internees suffering physical ailments due to the lack of food.

The supply of food was not constant at all times or in all places. Apparently it depended to a high degree on food prices in the local market. When the cost of living rose – as it did almost continuously – there was less food in the camps because the Japanese did not increase the allotted amount of money per prisoner or internee. The fact that the food situation in the camp improved dramatically immediately following, and sometimes even days before the Japanese surrender, warrants the conclusion that the provided rations could have been less scanty than they were, especially in the last year of the war.

The combination of lack of food, poor hygiene and – particularly for POWs – heavy work, left the internees very susceptible to contagious diseases. Dysentery, jaundice, malaria, typhoid fever and even cholera, were very common in the camps, as were pneumonia and other respiratory diseases. In addition, people had to contend increasingly with vermin, such as fleas and lice (head lice, body lice, bedbugs).


Nearly every prisoner and internee suffered under the isolation they found themselves in. Because men and women were locked up in separate camps that allowed no regular contact - clandestine correspondence through Indonesian or Indo-European intermediaries was only possible if the camps were not too far removed from each other - and because people were moved around a lot over time, they frequently did not know where their family and loved ones were or how they were doing.

The exchange of messages between POW camps and internment camps was not allowed. Contact through letters with non-interned persons in the Dutch East Indies, if successful at all, was extremely difficult. This was also true of contact between the different civilian internment camps. Sporadically internees were allowed to send a postcard from or to the camps, with a limited number of words in Japanese, Malay, or English. Sometimes the messages from the camps consisted largely of positive standard sentences. Much of the post never arrived, or arrived very much later.

The International Red Cross made some attempts to get letters or telegrams from prisoners and internees to their families in the occupied Netherlands and vice versa, but this mail also reached its destination only to a very limited degree, and sometimes after being on the way more than a year.

Camp regulations

One consequence of the civilian internment camps changing from civil to military administration in 1944 was that from then on the internees came under the regulations for POWs and were treated as such. This meant a much stricter regime for them. New camp rules were introduced that made life much more difficult, for example the morning and evening roll call, a fixed daily routine, and mandatory guard duty. Also, mandatory activities inside and outside the internment camp increased. Men were forced to work, for example on the land, or on railroads and harbours; the women worked in vegetable gardens or had to sew clothing for the Japanese army.

The constant roll calls regularly generated problems, for the POWs as well as the civilian internees, because many guards had trouble counting the thousands of prisoners and they got confused easily. Infamous also were the camp inspections, that sometimes ended in looting, and the collective punishments. Sometimes the internees were forced to stand for hours or their rations were withheld, especially when the guards did not know which internee had committed a particular transgression.


Up to a point the experiences of different internees in the East Indies resemble each other, but there were also considerable differences between and within the camps. Some camps, for example, were located in the centre of a large city, others in very remote places in the jungle. Some camps were run by a sympathetic Japanese camp commander, other camps laboured under the reign of terror of an aggressive bully. Life in the women’s camps often looked different from life in the men’s camps because there were young children there. For prisoners of war it made a difference whether they were officers of subordinates, and whether they could stay on Java or were sent to some remote labour camp in, for example, the Moluccas.

The POWs and civilian internees were not always of one mind. People in the camps could display a high degree of helpfulness and altruism towards each other, but corruption, favouritism, jealousy, mutual distrust and arguments were not exactly rare occurrences.

Many camps knew a small privileged group, consisting of the people who worked in the kitchen. Although the kitchen workers worked long and hard, they had the advantage of being near food almost every day. Naturally they had the opportunity to nick a little something every now and then in order to help themselves or friends through difficult times. In general people who were part of an active and effective ‘kongsi’ - a cooperative of limited size - or the people who had an extensive network of friends and acquaintances had a better chance of survival than solitary individuals.


Dutch prisoners of war suffered a lot more under the Japanese than under the Germans. Of the more than 13,000 Dutch military men who were POWs in Germany, 300 to 400 died in captivity, this is approximately 3%. Of the 42,000 KNIL and Royal Navy servicemen in Japanese captivity 8,200 died: almost 20%.

A comparison of the death rates of non-Jewish Dutch civilians in German ‘regular’ concentration camps and Dutch and Indo civilians in Japanese internment camps shows the opposite. Approximately 11,000 non-Jewish civilians were taken to German concentration camps; about 4,000 of them died: this is almost 36%. The death toll among Dutch Jews obviously was very much higher. Of the 100,000 civilian internees in the Dutch East Indies about 13,000 died: that is 13%.

On the whole the odds of surviving a Japanese internment camp were therefore considerably better than surviving a German concentration camp. In this context it should also be noted that Japanese civilian camps also housed very fragile groups, like elderly people and very young children. Most deaths in the Japanese camps occurred during the final phase of the occupation. Internees older than 45 and very small children in particular did not survive.

Read more: Transports.