Australia-Japan Research Project

Australian and Japanese attitudes to the war
Southern Cross: XIII New Guinea natives, flora and fauna

The Natives

It is stated that there are 800,000 New Guinea natives, but I have a feeling that there are more than that. They are mostly Kanakas or Papuans. The natives in the north coast region of eastern New Guinea, where our forces fought, were almost all of the Kanaka tribe. South of the central mountain range, in the Fly River area, they are of the Papua tribe, and some of them have advanced as far as the northern part of the central mountain range in the upper reaches of the Sepik River, but they are of shorter stature and lower mentality than the Kanakas. Both are Melanesian tribes, with the above difference.

There are many people who believe that the natives are savage, like fighting and are fond of human flesh, but this is completely opposed to the truth. This is probably the fault of exaggerated accounts of expeditions. Of course, the natives in the hinterland of the central mountain range area still have bad habits such as this, but in the plain area there is no such habit. On the contrary they are obedient, gentle and friendly, and their cooperation during the New Guinea campaign was no small matter. They helped with offering food and carrying the wounded. And there were countless thousands of troops who owed their lives to the natives.

With the exception of a few specialties, they are of low intelligence, particularly in regard to mathematics. They cannot reckon beyond ten – in other words more than their fingers. They signify numbers above this by saying "Plenty". If you ask them the number of houses, they reply "Plenty", the width of a river, "Plenty". At first we thought it meant a great number, but later we had a big laugh when we found it meant more than ten.

They never seem to know their age, and say "The same as this coconut tree", or "The same as this pig" and since they go round in circles by saying "The tree was planted by my parents at the time when I was born" and "This animal was born at the same time", it is impossible to know exactly.

The difference between the big ones and the little ones is not the same as in the case of civilised people. Since they have had no education, mere experience is the basis of their knowledge; it is therefore not uncommon for a child to be superior in intelligence to an adult, and often in the villages I have seen an adult and a child talking on terms of equality.

Relations between men and women are very strict, and many complications among the natives arise from this point. The men are usually for making the gardens – i.e. felling trees, burning off, and building a fence round the garden; the rest is all women’s work. Apart from this, fishing is women’s work and hunting men’s. Usually the men do not have very much to do, and spend their days in indolence, while the women and children have considerable work and do it diligently.

Their staple died is the yam and taro; sago starch is a high quality item and is the food of old people and children. Since it is a sago area – that is to say, a damp area, it is natural that sago has become one of the main foods.

For seasoning they used the liquid from the coconut tree, for edible salt is only obtainable in the coastal zone.

Animal albumen is the most precious element in their diet. To their yams and starch they add fowl or fish (they also like bats) and season it with coconut fat, and in this they have discovered an excellent, balanced diet.

Interesting to note is the fact that there are many quarrels between men and women about the preparation of this albumen (called abubu). If the women forget to put something into the preparation of it, the men become angry and burn the house down – I heard of several cases such as this.

Their villages, without exception, are built on top of a rise and to keep out the dampness the floors are high and covered in nippa (coconut leaves).

As for clothing, the natives are completely naked except for cloth wrapped around their loins. This is convenient in the daytime, but so that they will not find the cold nights unbearable they light a fire under the house.

Although there are numerous reasons why the natives have a short life, one of them is the fact that they do not wear clothes. I can agree with this fact because those of them who were given old clothes by the Japanese officers and men improved in physical strength and boasted about it, and forever afterwards could be seen busying themselves with their acquisitions.

The natives’ sight and hearing are very good. Their only form of communication is by beating a big drum (garamot), hollowed out of a piece of wood. By the tone and pitch of this they know who it is and where it is and what is being said, and civilized people cannot achieve this. The distance these garamot can send a message is 2 to 3 kilometres, so they are able to communicate very quickly.

Their entertainment is community dancing (a sing-sing). When it is moonlight, from villages everywhere comes the sound of garamots, announcing a sing-sing; from everywhere men and women, young and old congregate and spend the whole night dancing.

It is amazing how much they love their sing-sings. There are two kinds of language – so-called Kanaka words and Pidgin words. Pidgin is the lingua franca adapted from English. It can be taught to uneducated people in 12 weeks, by which time they speak it fluently. And with it they can make themselves understood wherever they go. Unless a native is a chief, he has little contact with natives from villages any distance away and so dies not have use for many words. The native language resembles Japanese in its pronunciation and structure. Once in the mountains I met a woman with a child on her back. On encountering me the woman greeted me by saying "gokurosan" (T.N. approx = Sorry to trouble you"). I was amazed and wondered how she knew Japanese. Again, on another occasion, while I was having a rest, a child came up and called "ashida" to Staff Officer ASHIDA who was with me. I asked Staff Officer ASHIDA, "Do you know this young native?" He replied, "No. He was reading what is sewn on my cap or socks in white thread." Such cases of natives speaking and reading Japanese were the result of efforts of the officers and men who pacified them; because the natives liked the language they studied it and because they liked it they used it. After three years, they spoke a composite language, half native and half Japanese.


New Guinea, being different from a continent, apart from malaria and colitis, has very few infectious diseases. In this respect the forces were extremely lucky. There were few natives and they were not often in contact with each other -–that is the reason. But their idea of hygiene was of very low standard and there was no medicine, so that if infectious diseases broke out whole villages were wiped out. There were numerous cases where this happened, and on these occasions their idea of a counter move was to transfer the whole village to another site. This method attacked the very root of the disease, and since their way of life was very simple it was very easy to effect.

Malaria was the most dreaded endemic disease and was the most common one that attacked the Japanese forces. This disease is not very hard to cure in a healthy and well-fed body, but to an exhausted body it was very serious, hard to cure and recurrent, gradually entering the marrow of the bones and causing vitamin deficiency, bringing on beri-beri and eventually death. The malignant form of this disease caused brain diseases and death or like blackwater fever brought blood into the urine and caused death. The Commander of 24th Division, Lt Gen AOKI, a talented soldier, unfortunately died of this cerebral type of malaria.


Like Malays, Borneo etc., New Guinea has not many deadly poisonous snakes. There is not a single tiger, leopard, elephant or wild horse, and there are only a few monkeys and pigs. The pigs are the favourite domestic animals of the natives, and are used as wedding and betrothal presents or as money. At dusk all the women screech to bring the pigs home. Wild pigs are very common and are everywhere in the jungles and plains. The pigs live by eating grass roots. Pig hunting is a favourite sport of the natives; they set fire to the grass of the plains, and of all the pigs that try to escape in every direction not one avoids being burnt to death. Naturally, these made a basis for Abusu. On the other hand, New Guinea has been called the Kingdom of Birds; both in numbers and varieties it is the outstanding country on earth, and the sight of these flocks of birds is really remarkable. The king of the birds is the cassowary. It is big, and weighs 400 or 500 lbs. Its head is very like that of a fowl, and its body and legs are like those of a crane, and it lives in the forest. One of its wings would make a hundred Abusu if it could be caught. The New Guinea Creoptera is called the Grea. This bird is about twice the size of a fowl and is a type of pheasant. It is a beautiful grey bird and its flesh is delicious. The pigeons and om occupy a superior position, their feathers being used in western women’s hats; the block can supply three or four hundred feathers and fly away brightly the next day. There are domestic ducks but the while ones are more plentiful. The wild ones are twice the size of the domestic ones. The natives do not eat duck eggs. The reason why they keep domestic ducks is that they make ornaments (birasu) with their feathers in order to adorn their heads.

The New Guinea birds seem to have different cries from those in Japan. There was one that kept repeating a sound like a Morse code key, and when an air attack began there was another that made an alarmed "sora, sora, sora" noise.


Varieties of fish are very plentiful in both the rivers and the sea; amongst the sea fish are bonito and tuna, and when we were in the barges, if we put an improved hook over the stern of the ship, we often caught the morrow’s dinner as we went. The fish came close to the shore so that passing ships often struck them.

Lobsters came in as far as the coconut plantation drains, so that it was often possible to catch lobsters on the land. Turtles are a speciality of southern countries and there were many of them. Big ones weighed from 4,500 to 4,600 lbs., and their blood and meat were used for the sick. These turtles came up on the beach to lay their eggs. There were many occasions when the troops found and caught them.

Often when the garrison troops were on the watch, turtles came ashore to lay their eggs. Of course they caught them, but there were sometimes troops who mistook caterpillar tracks for turtle tracks.


The jungle of New Guinea is, as recounted in literature, a dense forest where axes have not been known for countless centuries; but the trees are not as strong as they look. And there are many that fall even when the wind is not strong, because their foliage is luxuriant and their roots are shallow. There are frequent occurrences of roads being blocked because trees near them have fallen. There are very few of the sturdy teak species outside the places where they have been planted. Since the slopes are so precipitous and the transporting of timber is difficult, there is little likelihood of forestry development.

The coconut was one tree which played a big part in the war. It is no exaggeration to say that it was an absolute blessing to the Japanese forces when they had no supplies or few supplies and were engaged in desperate fighting.

This coconut tree exists all through the south, starting with Formosa, and since everyone knows it I shall not describe it in detail, but shall pass on to the sago palm.

The sago palm is a specialty of New Guinea and is very common. But there are many varieties, containing varying quantities of starch. The commonest is the water sago which grows wild in watery regions and is of considerable size; its starch content is about 5% and is quite unsuitable if one wishes to obtain starch.

The ordinary sago also grows plentifully in watery areas and has a low starch content of 20-30%. On the other hand, the dry type which grows in valleys, etc., is extremely good and has a starch content of 80%. These palms are different from the coconut palms, and it is possible to eat the woody inside. They ripen after 20-25 years and blossom opens. After the blossom opens it often withers and died of its own accord. So that if you want to eat it every year you must plant it every year. One of these sago palms can supply enough for 300 meals, so that if you cut one down it can supply enough for six months. Therefore the natives esteem it highly. If you cut these down, it meant lack of food for 20 years, so it was a matter that had to be carefully treated in order to pacify the natives. The sago starch has a high potash content and was used by the Japanese forces.

Printed on 06/20/2024 06:10:42 PM