Reassessing the Japanese Prisoner of War Experience: The Changi POW Camp, Singapore, 1942-45

Reassessing the Japanese Prisoner of War Experience: The Changi POW Camp, Singapore, 1942-45

Reassessing the Japanese Prisoner of War Experience: The Changi POW Camp, Singapore, 1942-45

Reassessing the Japanese Prisoner of War Experience: The Changi POW Camp, Singapore, 1942-45

Synopsis

Popular perceptions of life in Japanese prisoner of war camps are dominated by images of emaciated figures, engaged in slave labour, and badly treated by their captors. This book, based on extensive original research, shows that this view is quite wrong in relation to the large camp at Changi, which was the main POW camp in Singapore. It demonstrates that in Changi the Japanese afforded the captives a high degree of autonomy, that this in turn resulted in a prison camp society that grew and flourished, in contrast to other Japanese POW camps, and that it fostered an independent and combative spirit, and high morale.

Excerpt

This book is concerned with the experiences of British and Australian prisoners of war (POWs) held at the Changi POW camp in Singapore, 1942-5. It grew out of a very general interest in POWs that I developed as a child. I cannot claim to have known any former POWs personally nor to have had any stories of family members to foster my interest. Instead my imagination was fired by watching the many post-war films on the subject. The best known of course are the two great POW epics, The Bridge on the River Kwai and The Great Escape. From these initial sources I progressed to written accounts of captivity and later to more scholarly interpretations of the experiences of POWs. From this fascination came several broad questions. Was it really as simple to dismiss captivity at the hands of the Japanese as unremittingly brutal and captivity at the hands of the Germans as often harsh but, essentially, correct? These extremes appeared to be the opposing paradigms that governed the interpretation and remembrance of captivity, in the Second World War at least. In many ways these distinctions are not incorrect. To be an Allied POW of the Germans was far preferable to being a POW of the Japanese.

I was surprised, then, to ‘discover’ Changi, popularly immortalised in King Rat, James Clavell’s novel of captivity at the hands of the Japanese. A cursory examination of primary source evidence connected with Changi camp appeared to undermine the many assumptions and stereotypes that had grown up since 1945. At Changi, conditions were different and the men held there behaved in a fashion that seemed, to me, more like their counterparts in German camps. There also seemed to be considerable evidence of the evolution of relationships between captor and captive at Changi, relationships that had significant implications for the treatment of the captives.

Changi, it seemed, was in many ways a unique experience. This book, then, is essentially an attempt to resolve many of the questions that Changi raised, rather than answered. It details the responses of its POW population to captivity in the aftermath of the surrender of Singapore, in February 1942, and discusses how the POWs at Changi came to terms with being prisoners of the Japanese.

Fundamentally, I think, I aim to provide a rather different perspective on the lives of Allied POWs of the Japanese. The book itself demonstrates that traditional representations of Japanese-held POWs, such as those that depict the prisoners . . .

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