During the Second World War, the Japanese military invaded and occupied most parts of South-East Asia. The aim of the invasion was, according to their rhetoric, to emancipate Asians from Western colonial powers that had subjugated them for centuries. In reality, however, the Japanese drafted many millions of local people as labourers under the slogan 'Construction of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere'. Their regime of forced labour, while not 'slavery' in the generally accepted sense of the term, involved deprivation of freedom and immense suffering for local people.
The forced labourers were called romusha in Japanese. Existing studies inform us that romusha were taken from Java to various parts of the Japanese occupied regions, including the Thailand-Burma railway construction site. The typical images of the draftees' woeful plight can be seen exhibited in the National Monument in Jakarta and elsewhere. Although the images are well established, our knowledge of their experience is partial. The railway construction was but one of many great Japanese wartime projects, few others of which have been studied.
For most of us residing outside of Indonesia, the main source of information about Asian forced labourers is eyewitness accounts, particularly of Allied POWs forced to work alongside the drafted Asians. We are informed of the conditions observed or experienced directly by Westerners but are almost totally ignorant about the vast majority of cases that involved only Asians. This article attempts first to investigate the validity of the popularly held images of romusha, and subsequently to examine the overall structure of Japanese labour mobilization, its purposes, the methods, and the scale.
Archival sources give little idea of the work engaged in overseas by the romusha. This section, therefore, examines a few concrete cases, revealed by the reports produced in Singapore in April 1946 by the Netherlands War Crimes Investigation Team, which interviewed a group of romusha, some of whom were sent to the Riau islands. 1 As the main aim of the investigation
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Publication information: Book title: The Structure of Slavery in Indian Ocean Africa and Asia. Contributors: Gwyn Campbell - Editor. Publisher: Frank Cass. Place of publication: London. Publication year: 2004. Page number: 97.
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