Nederlands / Dutch
About the camps Print

During the Japanese occupation of the Dutch East Indies a total of more than 42,000 KNIL and Royal Navy personnel were held captive, and approximately 100,000 Dutch civilians – men, women and children – were interned in camps. What was the purpose of the internment? How was it organized? Who were the victims?

Internment: why and who?

It was common for vanquished soldiers to be taken captive during a war. The large-scale internment of civilians, especially women and children, was not self-evident. During World War I the warring countries had interned a large number, if not all, male civilians of enemy nationality on their territory. The women and children were usually left alone, or they were repatriated.

After the German invasion in the Netherlands in May 1940, the DEI government had rounded up a total of almost 2,800 ‘Germans’, among whom were German Jews, Indo boys with German fathers, and about one hundred missionaries. In addition some 150 women who had the reputation of being confirmed National-Socialists, were imprisoned together with their children, and approximately one hundred German women and a similar number of children were put up in hotels that were organized as ‘protection camps’. There they were shielded from the hostile Dutch community.

After the war in the Pacific broke out more than 100,000 Japanese and Japanese-American citizens, including women and children, were confined in camps on the west coast of the United States. On 8 December 1941 approximately 2,000 Japanese, including women and children, were rounded up and interned in the Dutch East Indies. Over 1,400 Japanese men, 300 Japanese women and 200 Japanese children were subsequently transported to Australia.

The Japanese in turn interned nearly all allied European civilians in the Japanese-occupied territories. They may have had any of four different motives:

  1. the exclusion of all Western influence and the strict separation of the Asian peoples from the Western peoples;
  2. the prevention of Dutch citizens becoming a threat to the Japanese Military Administration or military operations, for example through acts of sabotage;
  3. the desire to finally be able to humiliate the Westerners, who had condescended to the Japanese for so long, and
  4. the desire to retaliate for the internment of Japanese civilians when the war broke out.

For the Japanese the first motive appears to have been the most important by far. Their intention was probably to send the interned Westerners back to their own countries after the anticipated Japanese final victory.

Prisoners of war

In the Dutch East Indies about 89,000 allied soldiers were taken prisoner by the Japanese in 1942: more than 42,000 European servicemen of the KNIL and the Dutch Royal Navy, approximately 25,000 native KNIL soldiers, some 15,200 British and British-Indians, approximately 5,600 Australians and about 1,100 Americans. The majority of the native KNIL soldiers were released after a short period of time.

In the conquered areas the prisoners of war were initially locked up in camps in the vicinity of the location of their surrender. These were often the KNIL barracks, but improvised accommodations were also used. In many locations in Java, where initially no Japanese troops were present, the allied military units were obliged to retreat to their barracks until the Japanese arrived.

After a while many small camps were cleared. The POWs were concentrated in a limited number of larger regional assembly camps. The regime the Japanese imposed on the prisoners of war became increasingly severe. Prisoners of war were put to work en masse. To this end the large majority of them were transported to work camps elsewhere in the archipelago or outside it.

The transport of prisoners of war to locations further away started on Sumatra as early as May 1942; on Java in September 1942; and on Celebes in October 1942. On Borneo, however, nearly all POWs stayed on the island for the duration of the war. The prisoners who were taken elsewhere were forced to, among other things, dig for coals in the mines in Japan, work on airfields in various locations in the Moluccas, and build railroads in Sumatra, Burma and Thailand. Eventually 8,200 of the more than 42,000 European KNIL and Royal Navy servicemen in Japanese captivity, died (19.4%).


The internment of European civilians in the Dutch East Indies by the Japanese was not the same everywhere. In the Outlying Districts the Japanese interned the entire European civilian population in camps shortly after the occupation started, separating the men from their wives and children.

On Java internment was more complicated due to the large number Europeans who lived there. The internment was conducted in stages. First Dutch civil servants and businessmen – to the extent that they were not needed to keep public life going – were interned in March and April 1942.

Furthermore, in April 1942 all Dutch citizens older than 17 who lived on Java had to be registered. The registration made a distinction between full-blooded Dutchmen and -women, the so-called totoks, and the Dutch citizens of mixed descent, the Indo-Europeans or Indos. In the end the totoks were nearly all interned. The majority of the Indo-Europeans on Java remained free, although many Indos also ended up in camps sooner or later.

Initially large and many small camps were spread across the entire archipelago; later on the civilian internees were increasingly concentrated in a few very large camps. City quarters, jails, military barracks, schools, monasteries/convents, and even hospitals were rearranged to serve as internment camps. This was the start of an internment period that for many was to last almost three years or longer, and over the course of which living conditions increasingly deteriorated. Almost 13,000 people died while being interned.

Read more: Administration.