Life in a Japanese Prisoner of War Camp

27 April 2018

History | War and Conflict

Tens of thousands of British servicemen endured the brutal treatment in Japan’s prisoner of war camps during World War Two. Foreign Office Files for Japan, 1946-1952: Occupation of Japan makes available the signed affidavits of some of these men, who documented their ill-treatment at the request of the Supreme Commander for Allied Powers to help prosecute Japanese war criminals. The significance of these documents should not be overlooked – they provide an insight into the problems that typified the prisoner of war’s experience at the hands of the Japanese.

William Marwood Flear, a gunner in the 122nd Field Regiment was captured in Singapore by the Japanese on the 15th February 1942. Flear documents his experiences as a prisoner at Ube Camp in Honshu, Japan. I wanted to highlight his testimony as it provides evidence of two issues that characterised the British Servicemen’s experience, forced labour and violent treatment. It becomes apparent whilst reading the document that activities were heavily influenced by labour imperatives. As Flear writes;

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Even though Flear had no previous knowledge of mining, himself and 60 others were sent to work in the coal mine in clearly dangerous conditions. The Japanese placed great emphasis on the use of prisoners of war as a labour resource. Servicemen were often forced to work under severe conditions to serve the tactical concerns of the Japanese – such as building airfields and railways.

A comparative study of these affidavits reveals a different perspective on the violence William Flear endured. Ernest Ackroyd was captured at the same time as Flear and describes the violent and harsh environment at the hands of their Japanese guard Eeno Matter.

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This passage reveals the vulnerability of these men – Matter appears to bully Fear, striking him on multiple occasions seemingly without reason. This is indicative of the harsh procedures that the Japanese often used. Many had served during the Sino-Japanese War in the late 1930’s and so had become accustomed to the use of violent disciplinary methods with impunity. Prisoners of war, as surrendered enemy personnel, were regarded by the Japanese as disgraced individuals, and exploited because of this.

One of the advantages of studying Ackroyd’s statement is that he provides a detailed assessment of the mental effects that the conditions had on Flear, who does not mention this in his own account. Ackroyd writes;

“Flear continued to work in my section … he appeared to become mentally affected. He became a changed person, he repeated himself time after time; he became slow in his speech, the deafness appeared to become more pronounced, and generally he became a different man.”

Ackroyd’s emphasis on Flear as a “changed man” represents the lasting effect this environment had on the British servicemen. There is a clear indication throughout Ackroyd's testimony of the mental and physical strain that was endured.

Foreign Office Files for Japan, 1946-1952: Occupation of Japan of Foreign Office Files for Japan, 1919-1952, is available now. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.All images © The National Archives, Kew. Further reproduction prohibited without permission.

About the Author

Matt Braisher

Matt Braisher

Since joining the Editorial Development team at Adam Matthew, I have worked on a range of new products. My background is in history and my main academic interests are in the Holocaust and Jewish studies.