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Brutality and hardships of Japanese internment camp brought to life in British national’s diary

Japanese internment camp

Brutality and hardships of Japanese internment camp brought to life in British national’s diary

When Sydengham Duer left his family’s house in Yokohama, Japan , for university on the morning of December 8, 1941, he had no idea it would be the last time he would see his home for nearly four years.

Before the day was out, Duer – better known as Syd – and his businessman father, William, had been arrested by Japanese police because they were registered as British nationals, and the Japanese attack on the US fleet at Pearl Harbour and advances against British forces in Malaya had made them enemy aliens and, potentially, spies.

In contrast to the experiences of ethnic Japanese arrested and placed in internment camps in the United States in the days immediately after the war broke out, very little is known about the experiences of foreign nationals who were rounded up in Japan.

Government records indicate there were initially 34 detention centres around the country, holding male civilians from enemy nations aged between 18 and 45.

The dragnet was later extended, with women and the elderly also being interned . In total, about 1,200 people are believed to have been held, with the authorities claiming that it was to prevent espionage and for the detainees’ own protection.

It is estimated that at least 50 people died in the camps, but records of the day-to-day lives of those behind the wire are scarce.

Hitoshi Dewa, Syd Duer’s son. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Fortunately, Duer kept a diary in four volumes that covers the final year of his time in detention, detailing the hunger that he and his fellow inmates suffered, his anger at the guards stealing their rations and the biting cold of the mountain town where they were held.

He also writes, with some bitterness, of the avoidable deaths of some of his fellow inmates, for whom he had to dig graves and help in their burials.

The diaries also record the 22-year-old Duer’s sense of confusion. He states repeatedly that he loves Japan deeply and considers it to be his home, but cannot understand why he and his father are being treated in this way when they have always been law-abiding and hard-working residents.

The diaries, once simply considered a family heirloom, will now be reproduced as they were written, in both Japanese and English, in the early part of next year after Duer’s son, 67-year-old Hitoshi Dewa, signed an agreement with a Tokyo publisher.

Dewa – the name the family took after they became naturalised Japanese citizens in 1973 – said the diaries were kept in a sideboard at his home, which is still in Yokohama, and that he had only started to read them after his father died in 1990. And what he read both astonished and moved him.

“I was very surprised,” he said. “I knew he had been interned, but before I read the diaries I thought they might have seen an air raid but that they had been living quite easy lives.”

The diaries indicate that life at first was relatively easy, with Duer, his father and a number of other residents of the port city held at the premises of the Yokohama Yacht Club.

Duer once told his younger brother, Eddie, who had not been arrested as he was still a child and lived with their Japanese mother, that the food was better in the camp than at home.

That changed in 1943, when they were transported to the Uchiyama Internment Camp, a converted school in the mountain town of Yamakita, nearly 70km to the west and on the flanks of Mount Ashigara.

“The diaries show that life at the new camp was terrible,” Dewa told This Week in Asia . “And I had not realised that until I read them.”

The Uchiyama Internment Camp, in about 1947.
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

Food supplies that were meant to go to the prisoners were taken by the guards. And the limited amount of food they did receive was cut as “punishment” when Yokohama was bombed by Allied aircraft.

The men were also forced to work on nearby farms, helping to bring in the crops and firewood from the surrounding hillsides. And in the winter months, icy winds blew off the surrounding mountains and into the prisoners’ huts, which had no insulation and sliding paper doors and windows.

“Oh when is this miserable internment going to end?” reads one entry in the diaries. “Will we ever get out alive?”

“Winter has come at last. The wretchedness of internment in the wintertime is fast approaching,” it reads. “It is now (at 5.30pm) 11 degrees. The dinner whistle will sound soon. Outside, a penetrating, chill rain is falling. Oh what misery!

“Alas, we must spend another winter in this frigid room! The floor is of bare wood. The ‘shoji’ doors are our only insulation. Besides, there is no heat,” he writes. “We are fed poorly. The guards, on the other hand, enjoy ‘tatami’ floors with ample heat and are fed incomparably better than we.

“They do no labour; they just lord it over us. They treat us like criminals or slaves. And they live like princes.”

Duer condemns Japan as a “parochial-minded” nation that should be ashamed of interning old people while “bragging about being Asia’s leader”.

In places, his frustrations are clear. “I was born in Japan of a Japanese mother and I have never done anything harmful to Japan’s interests, nor do I intend to in the future,” he laments. “Japan treats me as an enemy, but as for me I love Japan.”

One entry, dated January 10, 1945, is dedicated to the death of a fellow inmate, identified as Major Cardew.

“They killed him – he ought to have been released or sent to the hospital long before he got so bad, and they jolly well knew that,” he wrote. “They got him out of the camp because they wanted no deaths in the camp. The main thing was to get him out – and that journey for a weak man in such a condition, manslaughter, as many of the internees said.

“Poor Major, he was liked by everybody, something unusual in this camp.”

While Duer and his father were permitted to accept food and parcels of clothing from their family – after a long train journey and then a two-hour uphill hike under armed guard from the nearest station – others in the camp were not so lucky.

“On almost every page in the diary, my father writes about being hungry,” Dewa said. “He writes of being ‘famished’ and ‘feeling awfully hungry and miserable’.”

He said he could sense his father’s “anxiety and agony , his dilemma and internal conflicts, a sense of hopelessness”.

“And, unfortunately, he had few inmates that he could confide in. So I think the diary became an outlet for his frustrations and he kept it to spill his heart out.”

The fourth volume of the diaries is in an algebra school notebook that had been given to Duer by an American friend who had also been interned but was repatriated to the US in an exchange of civilians. The friend was an artist who had drawn some of the flowers and plants that could be found in and around the camp in the notebook. Duer’s writing scrolls around the images.

Dewa said his father kept in touch with his friend by mail after the war, but they were never able to meet up again.

The latter pages of the notebook hint that the war might be close to an end , with Duer spotting US carrier fighters flying nearby.

Syd Duer’s diaires. One volume is contained in an algebra notebook his friend had given him, right. 
PHOTO: South China Morning Post

On Aug 15, 1945, Duer heard the emperor’s speech on the radio declaring Japan’s surrender – and he confides that it is like “a dream”. Within days, rations had improved immeasurably and US aircraft began dropping food and cigarettes to the internees, but Duer and his father had to wait until August 30 before they could travel back to Yokohama.

Duer writes that he was shocked at the destruction that was wrought on Yokohama and the hovels that the survivors of repeated bombings existed in.

As September progressed, Duer applied to return to medical school and finish training as a doctor and was able to reconnect with some fellow students who had survived the fighting. His final entry was on Sept 20, 1945.

“Went to get relief (clothing) from the International Red Cross. Kawaguchi [a friend] came. Fine, but rather hot. Mother not well again.”

Duer later completed his studies, became a doctor, married and had two children. He once took his son back to the Yamakita camp, but Dewa said he was not very interested as a boy.

As an adult, though, Dewa has returned a number of times since, most recently late last year after reading the diaries, and has a far better comprehension of his father’s experiences.

“He was clearly very conflicted,” he said. “He loved Japan but felt he was being treated so unfairly. Since I have read the diaries, I have a new respect for my father.”

Asia One


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