Australian War Memorial - AJRP Essays

Home | About | Database | Research | Maps | Sitemap | Search | Links | Thanks | Translations | What's New | View this site in Japanese

Seminar paper
Self-sufficiency in Rabaul
Professor TANAKA Hiromi

The large theatre of the Pacific war included many battlefields similar to Rabaul, where Japanese soldiers were left behind on islands and had to continue their fight against starvation. This is an aspect distinctive to the Pacific War. Since the Pacific War was a war over the control of the islands in the Pacific, the Allied Forces launched fierce landing operations on the islands that were located on their path of advance to Japan and that were strategically essential for their future operations, and almost completely annihilated the Japanese defending these islands. The Allied Forces simply deprived the enemy on other islands of their transport by destroying airplanes and war ships, and thus made them immobile. These tactics had enabled the Allied forces to advance in the direction of Japan in a short period of time with relatively fewer casualties.

As a result, the Japanese forces isolated on remote islands received no supplies from Japan and faced a battle against starvation. However, few had succumbed to death by starvation on these islands. Wartime Japan was not a fully established modern country and many of the servicemen had agricultural or small industry backgrounds. Therefore, their skills and diligence enabled them to survive the shortage of supplies.

After the war, a member of the South East Force General Staff Office once said: "Rabaul was almost like a small independent country after supplies from Japan had stopped". This is a clear expression of his admiration and respect for the effort of Japanese servicemen who had successfully established self-sufficiency and protected Rabaul from attacks by the Allied Forces without supplies from Japan. Another reason for such a favorable description of Rabaul is that it was the only case where no financial assistance from Japan was required immediately after the war, when the Japanese government exhausted the national treasury to remit the money to its forces in need of food and daily essentials.

Numerous memoirs written by returned Japanese servicemen proudly introduce the success of achieving self-sufficiency in Rabaul during the war. However, their life and self-sufficiency at the internment camps under the Allied Forces have rarely been mentioned until today. The reason for their apparent omission, apart from the Japanese military ideology at that time which refused to embrace the surrender, is that Japanese servicemen generally considered that what happened during the war was paramount and their life in the internment camps was not worth mentioning. Interviews with returned servicemen were conducted by the Japanese government on repatriation ships and upon embarkation. They also focused on wartime activities so that even the interview reports compiled after the war refer mostly to what had happened before the surrender.

The Australian forces had transferred part of the captured Japanese materials to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, where they have been kept as a collection of historical materials entitled AWM 82. AWM 82 is possibly the only existing collection of Japanese military documents that illustrate how Japanese servicemen spent time, from a few months to a few years, under the control of the Allied Forces before they were repatriated. There is only one other collection of similar documents in the library of the National Institute for Defence Studies in Tokyo. It is said that the contingents of Allied Forces other than the Australians have destroyed all the materials confiscated from the Japanese. The Japanese forces in Rabaul spent the transitional period from the surrender to peace time in the internment camps. It will be interesting to reveal the historical significance of this period on the basis of a study of the extremely precious AWM 82 collection.

The Japanese forces in Rabaul formally surrendered to the Australian 1st Army under the command of Lieutenant General Sturdie, and were then placed under the control of Major General Eather. In reality, however, the Japanese were allowed to retain their wartime unit formation and General IMAMURA had continued to direct the Japanese troops in Rabaul according to Australian orders.

It is well known that Lieutenant General Sturdie did not readily believe that Rabaul alone had accommodated nearly 100,000 Japanese soldiers and military civilians. At that time, the strength of Australian Forces, both domestic and deployed overseas, numbered barely 1 million. The Australian commanders (with a force of 10,000 servicemen) in the Rabaul area must have been perplexed at the task of controlling 100,000 Japanese in Rabaul and 40,000 scattered around the neighboring islands. Since the Australians estimated the remaining Japanese strength to be about 30,000, no preparations had been made for the enormous task of providing a total of 140,000 men with food and daily essentials.

Due to the large size of the remaining Japanese forces, Lieutenant General Sturdie issued two rather unusual orders on 10 September 1945.

Order 1 - The Japanese will construct their own internment camps
Order 2 - The Japanese will produce food and daily essentials to provide for themselves

In other words, the Australians ordered the Japanese forces, which had long been self-sufficient, to remain self-sufficient after the surrender once they had moved to designated camp sites and had constructed living facilities there. The reason for these arrangements was that the transport and supply capacity of the Australians had already been stretched to meet the need of their own troops and they could by no means provide for such a large number of surrendered Japanese.

However, there were some contradicting elements in the orders from the Australian forces. Supervision of the former enemy troops might become easier by confining them to the 11 to 12 camp sites in the area. On the other hand, this meant the dissolution of the self-sufficient system that had been firmly established during the war. The Japanese had to abandon most of the existing farm land cultivated where individual units had been located and had to clear land near the new camp sites. The Japanese used up food reserves, however, while new farm land was cultivated and the new self-sufficiency system was established. If they had failed to harvest sufficient food by the time the stock ran out, the Australians would have had to guarantee the provision of supplements.

Although Lieutenant General Sturdie was well aware that the Australians were not in a position to guarantee such supplements, he insisted that the above two orders be executed. Despite the protest of the Japanese forces, his orders were carried out and ten camps had been completed by the end of October 1945 (see diagram no.1).

The Australian forces decided to assemble all Korean and Formosan nationals at the Kokopo Camp. They also abolished the Tauril Camp whose surroundings had proved to be unsuitable for agricultural production. Another change to the plan was that the Talili Camp, a special camp for high-ranking officers, was constructed after all the others. Given the highest priority, the construction of camps proceeded smoothly as planned and the Japanese troops were all transferred to these camps between October and November 1945. These camps had no names apart from the official camp numbers, but they were commonly called by the name of the place where each camp was located (see table no.1).

Table no.1: Post-surrender Japanese camps near Rabaul
Camp NumberJapanese nameNumber of residentsRemarks
No. 1 CampGazelle8,830 
No. 2 CampTauril(10,310)Abolished soon after establishment
No. 3 CampMinamizaki11,591 
No. 5 CampAkane11,606 
No. 6 CampKagamihara11,661 
No. 7 CampTobera11,603 
No. 9 CampToma11,605 
No. 10 CampNishiboekiten11,550 
No. 11 CampKokopo(9,635)Korean/Formosan camp
No. 12 CampTali(li)(2,826)Headquarters
No. 13 CampTabuna11,623 

Less than satisfactory progress was made in the cultivation of new farm land and the production of food. One of the main problems was the difficulty in securing enough labour for food production. The personnel list below from the 6th Camp for 18 to 21 February 1946 indicates that malaria sufferers accounted for about one-third of the total camp residents. The ratio of malaria patients is believed to have been at a similar level during the war. A major difference between the wartime and the period after the surrender is that large numbers of Japanese servicemen were either taken as labourers to assist the Australian forces or were engaged in maintenance duties at the newly constructed internment camps.

The ratio of personnel engaged in food production had never been as low as indicated in this list, even during the war when a number of soldiers had to be positioned for action and little time of the valid soldiers could be spared to work the fields. One advantage after the war was that the Japanese could continuously work on the land and thus improve their productivity. During the war, the enemy's bombing had often disrupted their farming work and had made it difficult to achieve high yields. Therefore, it is not entirely appropriate to argue that the allocation of less labour to self-sufficiency farming than during the war meant a lack of labour. However, it is difficult to deny that there was not enough labour allocated for the task of clearing sufficient land and initiating food production in a short period of time.

While the main cause of the declining self-sufficiency rate was the lack of labour, the relocation of farming ground gave rise to another obstacle since the camp sites were selected in haste without sufficient investigation into the suitability of the soil for farming. If the Australians had seriously wished the Japanese to be self-sufficient, they should have made a more careful selection of camp sites based on thorough investigation and allocated sufficient labour for food production.

Most of the veterans alive today were too young to understand the hardship experienced by members of the South East Area Force headquarters. They obviously were not concerned about the new self-sufficiency system at the camps in Rabaul. They enjoyed lollies, meat and ham occasionally distributed by the Australians, and believed that the Australians would offer help if they failed to produce enough food. On the other hand, the staff of headquarters, who kept records of harvests, daily consumption and the amount in reserve each month, had to deal with a 60% decrease in harvests from wartime to the end of 1945, as well as the rapidly decreasing reserves. Harvests eventually recovered to 60% of the wartime amount in March 1946. Under these circumstances, the general staff could not have helped feeling resentful about Australian orders to relocate camps and to supply labourers.

Since the Japanese forces regularly reported to the Australians about the food in reserve, the Australians should have been aware that offering some food on a personal basis would not solve the problem. Comments from veterans and AWM 82 documents suggest that the Japanese forces had initially expected to be repatriated in 1948. When they were told that the repatriation should commence in February 1946, many Japanese servicemen did not rejoice at the news, but thought that it had to be a mistake.

Despite these early warnings from poor harvests within the system of self-sufficiency, Japanese servicemen had enjoyed peace in the camps and started to engage in various activities that could be only dreamed of during the war. Although daytime labour work at self-sufficient camps was as demanding as the service during the war, they could rest without being woken up by bombardments by the enemy, study and read, write letters to family and enjoy discussions about a selection of topics.

However, the staff at headquarters, including General IMAMURA, were somewhat concerned about the fact that Japanese servicemen could enjoy time off work. It was not very difficult for commanders to maintain order and discipline during the war. When the war came to an end, however, the reason for being in battle fields disappeared, the military organisation began to crack and the command structure between upper and lower ranks became more difficult to maintain.

It was therefore necessary to give new purposes to the lives of the servicemen restless for early repatriation and to make them understand that they should be able to work towards their ultimate goals of life in the camps. AWM 82 contains a long message from IMAMURA to his men in which he repeatedly addressed the questions why they should remain in Rabaul for a while, what the benefits of them remaining in Rabaul were and what they should start doing there. After describing to the Japanese officers the war damages caused in Japan, General IMAMURA explained the meaning of camp life in Rabaul as follows:

1) Immediate repatriation of servicemen would create a burden on war-stricken Japan and, in a way, their remaining in Rabaul temporarily would help the mother land.
2) Another important purpose of life in the camps should be to acquire extensive vocational skills and to improve their knowledge of science and technology so that they would be able to contribute to the reconstruction of Japan upon repatriation.

The communication line between Rabaul and Japan, which had been cut off since February 1943, was re-established soon after the surrender. This allowed the Japanese in Rabaul to obtain fairly accurate information about the process leading to the defeat and the degree of damages inflicted on Japan. General IMAMURA was able to explain the necessity and the purpose of staying on in Rabaul and to persuade his troops probably because he was informed about the current situation in Japan. On instruction of General IMAMURA, the Japanese servicemen began tackling two major tasks at camps. One was to find out why Japan lost the war. The other was to commence education and training which should help soldiers contribute to the rehabilitation of Japan.

Japanese soldiers attempted to find the reason for the loss, believing that it would be impossible to start again without having reasonable answers to their questions about the war and coming to terms with the defeat following the life-and-death battle over several years. It is said that Japanese servicemen frequently discussed this issue during a break from work and after meals, and their debates often continued for days and months. AWM 82 includes memos and notes assumed to have been written by the servicemen before sleep. These documents suggest that some servicemen kept writing their own ideas and analyses of the war and the nation, came up with more questions through questioning themselves, contemplated further and repeated the whole process over and over again. Most of these servicemen seem to have believed that the defeat was largely attributed to Japan's poor scientific and technological capabilities coupled with underdeveloped industries as well as its prewar and wartime philosophy that disregarded the importance of science and technology.

Since these servicemen were still part of a Japanese military organisation then, though they were formerly under the control of the Australian force, none of the above documents mentions the Imperial system as a reason for the defeat. However, there were quite a few comments criticizing military dictatorship and the perception of Japan as a divine land. A particularly unique opinion was that the Law School of the Tokyo University should be closed because its graduates had become senior bureaucrats who collaborated with the military to turn Japan into a fascist nation. It is a little surprising to note that some servicemen in Rabaul were well aware of such domestic problems.

Education and training programs had commenced thanks to General IMAMURA's ideology and initiative before requests for such programs were made by the servicemen. General IMAMURA issued two policy statements entitled "Frame of mind for life at Rabaul camps" and "Guidelines for education at camps" dated October 1945 and 31 October 1945 respectively. They were addressed to Japanese servicemen moving into the new camps in Rabaul. The first statement defined the purpose of life in camps as "the development of science education and promotion of industrialisation". This effectively comforted the soldiers who were concerned and worried. The second detailed the practice of science education defined as the purpose of camp life in the first statement. However, the latter policy statement is ideologically based on the spirit of the Imperial Rescript on Education and the Imperial Military Rescript which were closely related to Japan's militarism. This exposes the way of thinking common among the Japanese soldiers at that time, who had been educated in complete isolation from dominant Western ideology.

The commissioned officers were responsible for developing curricula, compiling textbooks and giving lectures. Military surgeons, in particular, played an important role in education and training. According to the internal rules of the 12th Group, there were two one-hour lectures a day, one in the morning and the other in the evening when it was relatively cool. The 12th Group Education Rules indicates that the compulsory subjects (see table no.2) should be taught in the morning lecture and electives in the evening.

Table no. 2: Education at post-surrender Japanese camps, course structure
Total 150 hours
Civil Education
Natural Sciences

Total 175 hours
Vocational Training
College Preparatory
Basic English
Culture of Sentiments

Subjects relating to self-sufficiency were of immediate use in Rabaul and compulsory for all servicemen. Vocational subjects were designed for those who had completed only primary school in Japan and aimed at providing them with skills enabling them to find employment upon repatriation.

Basic science subjects were full and rich in content, and designed to achieve the prewar high school level, which is equivalent to the standard of the first year of university today. The university entrance subjects in the electives aimed to prepare servicemen wishing to enter university for university entrance examinations. In Japan, students have to pass difficult entrance examination to be admitted to universities and they are required to study hard for these examinations. It was considered too late for these servicemen to start preparations for such examinations after repatriation and these subjects were created to encourage them to start studying before leaving Rabaul.

It is difficult to see any disillusionment about the defeat from the way the Japanese soldiers strove to realise their educational programs. It appears that they had quickly come to terms with the surrender and started to consider how they could contribute to the rehabilitation and the future of war-stricken Japan. They were highly future-oriented, positive and assertive. Although General IMAMURA had initiated this move, it was the will and strong sense of responsibility of his men that had built up the right mood. It may be necessary to see the post-war period spent at the Rabaul internment camps in a positive light and consider it as the time when the Japanese soldiers, coming to terms with the defeat, began to strive for an improvement in individual capabilities and to prepare themselves for participating in the rehabilitation of Japan, rather than spending time idle waiting for repatriation.

The positive and assertive attitude of servicemen in Rabaul is also apparent from the fact that they had begun preparing for repatriation well before the schedule was announced. When the construction of internment camps and the cultivation of new farm land were completed on 22 December 1945, general headquarters under General IMAMURA ordered the servicemen to maintain farming tools for the time of repatriation. It was considered necessary to give the highest priority to the recovery of agricultural production in order to rehabilitate the country suffering from starvation. The headquarters of the 11th Division of the Australian forces under Major General Eather initially allowed these farming tools to be transported only on the very last repatriation ship from Rabaul. However, after tenacious lobbying by the Japanese, clothing, farming tools and food stuff were allowed on every repatriation ship.

When the repatriation from Rabaul was officially decided, the order of repatriation of over 100,000 servicemen became an issue. The South East Area Force headquarters, without hesitation, decided to give priority to those who had skills useful to the rehabilitation of Japan.

The above discussion suggests that defining the internment as the preparation for the rehabilitation of Japan made it possible to direct the long-simmering fighting spirit of the Japanese servicemen to education and vocational training without hurting the pride of the soldiers who never had an opportunity to enter combat with the enemy before the surrender. Seeing the repatriation as the beginning of a new duty of rebuilding war-stricken Japan, the troops were repatriated to Japan between May and October 1946 as if they had been on a rescue operation. It is reported that the 3rd, 4th and 5th repatriation ships alone could bring home as much as 1,850 tons of food, 8,000 items of farming tools and a large volume of clothing and paper as relief supplies.

Although there are no cases other than Rabaul where the period between the surrender and the repatriation was clearly defined as the preparation for the rehabilitation, a number of memoirs written by veterans indicate that they had been given lectures on mathematics and physics by their superiors. One can imagine that the miraculous economic recovery of Japan was attributed not only to the domestic rehabilitation policies but also to the repatriation of nearly 6 million servicemen who had been detained in such a way. As a logical consequence, one cannot help thinking that more attention should be given to the fact that the post-war rehabilitation of Japan had begun in close relation to the return of millions of servicemen who had been to the battlefield of the Pacific War.

Professor TANAKA Hiromi

Translation by:Steve Bullard and Akemi Inoue

Printer version

The AJRP has wound up its activities at the Memorial for the moment.
Please contact the relevant officer of the Australian War Memorial for assistance.
Internet implementation by Fulton Technology and AJRP staff .
Visit the Australian War Memorial home page.
Visit the award-winning web-site of the Australian War Memorial