Nederlands / Dutch
Administration Print

All matters pertaining to prisoners of war in Japanese hands were basically the responsibility of the Prisoner of War Bureau of the Japanese War Ministry. During the first months of the occupation of the Dutch East Indies, however, the camps were under the direct control of the commanders of the armies involved. This resulted in considerable differences in the way the prisoners were treated.

In the course of 1942 the Japanese Ministry of War issued general instructions, that resulted in a degree of standardization of internment practice. The Ministry decided all formal matters: number and location of internment camps, the appointment of camp commanders and other Japanese officers, camp regulations and the transports. Local or regional military organizations could in some instances deviate from the guidelines issued by Tokyo.

At the very beginning of the Japanese occupation the civilian internment camps were also under the direct rule of the occupying army. In the course of 1942, when sufficient officials had arrived from Japan, a Department of Military Administration (Gunseibu) was introduced for each region; these Gunseibu were linked to the headquarters of the army in question.

Under a Gunseibu came a Keimubu or sub-department of Police. A special section of this sub-department was responsible for the administration of all prisons and civilian internment camps. Until April 1943, supervision of the women’s camps in some parts of Java was left to local Indonesian authorities, who were of course also under Japanese control.

During the first half of the Japanese occupation the Keimubu formally came under the Japanese Home Ministry in Tokyo, i.e. under the responsibility of the civil Japanese authorities.

From civil to military administration

The Keimubu were transferred to the Ministry of War on 7 November 1943 by imperial decree. As a result the civilian camps, like the POW camps, came under direct military administration. As the implementation of this decree took several months, it came into force gradually in the occupied territories. On Java and Sumatra this was around 1 April 1944.

The transition to a military administration was prompted by the – for the Japanese unfavourable - development of the war. The allied troops were pushing forward and the army did not want to give the European internees the opportunity to have contact with the native population, or aid the enemy in any way. They therefore considered strict army supervision, similar to the POW regime, necessary. In addition the internment of enemy civilians, which was already going on much longer than anticipated, required better and more centralized regulation in the long run. Compared to the civil administration the army was better equipped for provisioning the camps.

Initially the civilian camps in the section of the Indonesian archipelago run by the Japanese Navy were under direct Navy control. They were handed over to the Japanese Navy Civil Administration Unit, the Minseibu, in 1943. Here, the development was in the opposite direction.


The internment camps on Java, starting from April 1944, were divided into three provinces (or districts). Each district had its own head office or bunsho, located in Batavia, Bandung and Semarang. They each came under a provincial commander. A provincial commander was in charge of a number of commanders of division offices (bunkensho), who in turn were in charge of one or more camps. The division commanders had the rank of lieutenant or captain. The bunsho and bunkensho for the civilian internment camps were:

  • Bunsho I (Batavia and environs), with Bunkensho Batavia-1, Batavia-2, Tangerang and Buitenzorg;
  • Bunsho II (remaining West Java), with Bunkensho Bandung and Tjimahi;
  • Bunsho III (Central and East Java), with Bunkensho Semarang, Ambarawa/Banyubiru, Solo and Muntilan.

For the civilian internees the transition to a military administration meant a more uniform and stricter regime. As of 1 April 1944 they were officially given the status of prisoner-of-war, including a POW-number. These numbers were issued per bunsho over the course of March or April. The number was preceded by I, II, or III, depending on the bunsho the camp in question came under.

Consecutive numbers were used for the different camps within a bunsho: when all internees in one camp had been assigned a number, then numbering simply continued in the next camp. In case of transportation to a different camp in the same bunsho the person kept the same number, but if the internee was transported to a camp in another bunsho he would also be assigned a new number.

Numbers were never reused: once a number was assigned it was not given to another internee, even if the original internee died or was moved to another bunsho. About the POW-numbers of the ‘real’ prisoners of war, which were already assigned in August 1942, much less is known.

The camps on Sumatra and in the Outlying Districts were probably organized in a similar hierarchical way, but we have no further information.

Camp commanders and guards

The attention of the Japanese authorities focused mainly on increasing the war effort. High-ranking Japanese military therefore did not interfere in the daily running of the camps, or as little as possible. Colonel Miyamoto Shizuo, a staff officer in the 16th Army on Java who was in charge of the internment of Dutch civilians, later testified that he never once inspected the camps in person. He had left the management to what he referred to as ‘the specialists’.

However, the persons who were put in charge of the camps were anything but specialists. In general, reserve officers or even civilian personnel were selected to fill these positions. Especially during the period of the military administration, the Japanese camp commanders and their subordinates were usually relatively simple people: low-ranking servicemen (non-commissioned officers or even common soldiers) who were barely trained for this work, just like their native assistants. Their status and influence within the army hierarchy were therefore limited.

The welfare of the POWs and civilian internees depended to a high degree on the personality of the Japanese camp commander. He had an almost unlimited and uncontrolled power to either make life as miserable as possible for his prisoners, or to improve their situation as much as he could. Some commander interpreted the rules much more strictly than others.

From 1944 onward, mostly Korean soldiers were used to supervise the civilian internment camps, as well as guard the POW camps. They had completed a short crash course on guarding prisoners of war, but that did not teach them much more than anti-Allied propaganda. The Japanese and Korean guards, apart from a few exceptions, therefore generally lacked knowledge of the customs of their European prisoners. On the other hand the Europeans also knew very little about Japanese customs and practices. As a result there was an almost total lack of mutual understanding, insofar as such a thing was possible under the circumstances.

In the eyes of the Japanese it was totally inappropriate that the captured Westerners thought they still had a right to complain about many things and make demands, even after losing the battle in such a humiliating way. On their part most of the POWs and civilian internees felt nothing but profound contempt for the Japanese. This contempt for the Asian occupier sometimes was so great that – as one internee put it – it was simply impossible to hate them.

In the civilian camps the internees did not have much contact with the Japanese. The number of Japanese and Korean guards was generally very small; in the large Batavia women’s camp Tjideng, with approximately 10,000 internees, there were probably not even ten guards. They were assisted by about one hundred Indonesian heihos (auxiliary soldiers in the Japanese army). Many civilian internees did not see any Japanese for days, except once or twice a day during roll call.

Violence was certainly present in the civilian internment camps – more in some camps than in others – but generally it was the exception rather than the rule. The large majority of internees was never punished physically.

The prisoners of war fared differently. On paper they had been assigned the lowest possible rank in the Japanese army. According to regulations from Tokyo they were to be treated fairly well. Japan had signed the Geneva Convention, an international agreement on the treatment of prisoners of war, but had not ratified it. Although the Japanese government at the start of 1942 promised the governments of the United States, Great Britain, the British Dominions and the Netherlands they would comply as much as possible with the provisions in the Convention, they did not always act upon it.

In Japanese military tradition being a prisoner of war was considered extremely dishonourable. Furthermore, as it was very common in the Japanese army for superiors to strike subordinates, it is no surprise that the guards frequently used physical violence against the POWs. Also, Korean and Indonesian guards were not always treated well by their Japanese superiors either, so they sometimes resorted to taking their frustrations out on the prisoners.

Camp leadership

The Japanese ordered allied camp leaders to be appointed in all prisoner of war camps. Usually the highest-ranking officer in the camp was made camp master; together with some lower-ranking officers or other designated assistants he formed the internal camp leadership.

The camp masters were answerable to the Japanese for maintaining discipline and order among the POWs. They had to make sure that the Japanese orders and decrees were carried out in the camp. This meant that the internal camp leaders sometimes had to discipline their own men.

The European camp leadership also had to take care of organizing and dividing fatigue duties in and outside the camp. At a later stage they also had to put together work details for forced labour in harbours or on roads, railways, or military objects. A lot depended on the internal camp leadership: a good camp master could often influence the welfare of the camp population in a positive manner; an inadequate camp master, on the other hand, could have the opposite effect.

An internal camp committee or camp administration was also established in the civilian internment camps. The European camp master was appointed by the Japanese commander or chosen by the internees. The camp master, supported by his assistants, had to maintain the contacts between the Japanese commander and the internees. In the early days arrangements were left to the internees as much as possible, for example the daily shopping, organizing a camp hospital, and managing camp finances. A few small camps on Sumatra and Borneo did not have an internal camp committee; there everything was arranged as much as possible in mutual consultation.

Under the army administration that was installed in April 1944, the internees were no longer allowed to choose their own camp committee; these officials were then designated by the Japanese commander. In practice, however, most of the sitting committees simply continued. New was the arrangement of the camp in units or blocks (han) which were in turn divided into sub-units (kumi). Heads were also appointed for these blocks and sub-units; they were responsible for the Japanese orders being carried out in their section of the camp. These deputy heads together with the central camp committee formed the executive management of the camp.

Read more: Types of camps.