EXPERIENCES IN A JAPANESE INTERNMENT CAMP
AN ADDRESS BY JOHN WESLEY PALMER
The President, John C. M. MacBeth, Esq., B.A., K.C.
Thursday, February 25, 1943.
MR. JOHN C. M. MACBETH: Gentlemen of The Empire Club: Amongst the guests which we have had the honour of receiving during many months, we have, so far, had no one from inside the enemy lines in the Far East. Today that pleasure is ours.
Our guest was born in Norwich, England, and, in 1925, went to Japan, where, with headquarters in Tokyo, for the next sixteen years he represented a British insurance company underwriting fire and marine risks. The nature of his business brought him into close touch with people of commerce and, as he travelled extensively throughout the Islands and also in Korea and Manchuria, he was enabled to acquire a broad and diversified and intimate knowledge of the Japanese people and their attitudes.
In 1940 he realized that trouble was not far away and, fortunately, prevailed upon his wife to take their young son and go to Canada. He himself followed towards the end of 1941 and was actually on a Japanese ship in the middle of the Pacific when war broke between the United States and Japan. The ship turned back and, avoiding attack from United States submarines, docked at Yokohama, where our guest was interned. There he remained for seven months, until the end of July last year, when, by an exchange arrangement, he was put aboard ship and started on a journey which was, after eighteen weeks, via South Africa, and South America, to end in Toronto. He will speak to us from fundamental knowledge and from personal experience.
Gentlemen: Mr. John Wesley Palmer. (Applause.)
MR. J. W. PALMER: Mr. Chairman and Members of The Empire Club: In accepting your invitation to speak at this luncheon today, I regard it as a great privilege to have the opportunity of telling this distinguished gathering something of my experiences during the last fifteen months, and also of being able to reach, through the marvel of broadcasting, that great unnumbered public to whom the radio is now an essential household adjunct. I have observed with no little concern, I frankly admit, that the list of speakers at previous gatherings of this Club has included some very distinguished names. I am afraid I can lay no claim to distinction of any sort. I am but one of a large number of ordinary business men formerly stationed in different parts of the world and occupying positions of varying responsibility. I happen to have been placed by my company in Japan for the last sixteen years and on the outbreak of war to have been caught, as it were, on the wrong side of the fence, although only just.
During the months preceding the momentous events of December, 1941, our life in Tokyo was passed in an atmosphere usually described as one of growing tension. The situation was what is known as steadily deteriorating. In point of fact, this meant simply that all those Canadian, American, British or other nationals who could do so were leaving the country. Those of us who were left felt for the most part that it was only a matter of time before the break came, and we hoped that we too would be able to get out before the crisis. The press became more uncompromisingly hostile in its attitude towards the United States and the British Empire. All shipping, except official boats mainly for repatriation purposes, had ceased. Mails, we knew, were being censored and the greatest care was necessary when using the post office telegraph. The official British evacuation ship had come and gone. Business was at a complete standstill. Above all, there was the whispered advice of the few Japanese who still dared to have any contact at all with the remaining Americans and Britons to get going while the going was good; or in their own words-"better to leave before very serious matter occurs". It was true, both literally and figuratively, that we were living on the edge of a volcano. We were waiting all day and every day for something to happen. Well, as you know, on the 8th of December, 1941, something did happen.
On that fateful morning those Allied nationals still left in Tokyo and other parts of Japan were arrested in unexpected places: the street car, the train, passing the station barrier (a favourite place for the watchful plainclothesman), walking in the street, at breakfast or even in the bath. I was one of a small company of Britons and Americans on a Japanese liner-the Tatsuta Maru--enjoying our second Sunday of the week in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. The ship was on a special mission to Panama, via Los Angeles, but turned back to Japan and arrived in Yokohama on the 15th of December, 1941; whereupon we were promptly locked up with thirty others in the building formerly occupied by the Yokohama Yacht Club.
May I pause here to acknowledge your kind hospitality by contrasting my position today with the situation in which I found myself a year ago?
On the 25th day of February, 1942, we had just completed ten weeks-seventy days-of internment under wretched conditions. The curtain seemed to have rung down on life. We were an unhappy hopeless crowd. No official word of possible repatriation had yet reached us, although there had been a rumour which we simply dared not believe. We felt we were "in" for at least a couple of years-possibly four: that is to say, this time a year ago we had, as we thought, just completed about one-tenth of our time as political prisoners, and very probably not more than one-twentieth.
Today I am the happy recipient of kindness and goodwill; am once more amongst my own people, and when I say to you, Sir, "Thank you", I say it most sincerely.
To return to the Yokohoma Yacht Club. On arrival there we were thoroughly "frisked", and all our personal belongings, including neckties, taken away. We were then shoved down below in a locker room for five hours. A scratch lunch of rice and fish was provided.
I had hoped to see some of my friends and exchange commiserations with them. When passing through the main hall of the building no one took the slightest notice of me. I was shocked to observe the change in appearance of several friends and acquaintances as we were hurried down below. I learned afterwards that they were still recovering from the effects of many hours, and, in some cases, days in filthy police cells where conditions were abominable and degrading. A week's growth of beard, makeshift neckerchiefs and shabby clothes, from which vermin were still being removed, had not improved their appearance.
That evening we were allowed upstairs into a separate room at one end of the building. Conversation or communication of any sort with the other internees was strictly forbidden under threat of being thrown into the cells.
Thus began the long period of waiting-of monotony, dullness and utter cheerlessness-that ghastly period when the first effects of the blow were wearing off and we began to realize that the thirty-six men imprisoned in this building included its.
Our guards, for the most part, a crowd of ill-dressed, evil-spoken, ignorant fellows brought in from out-lying districts for this special duty. Many of them had never had any contact with Europeans and they regarded us with ill-concealed distate. One of the more unpleasant effects of being stared at contemptuously week after week by these arrogant little men was to provoke in us an almost uncontrollable rage which simply had, somehow, to be mastered. The feeling was one of primitive fury which, if unleashed, would certainly have resulted in bloodshed.
The police remained on duty all night talking loudly and clattering round when the guard was changed quite oblivious of the wretched inmates trying to snatch a few hours sleep on the floor. No beds were provided. We slept in rows on police. quilts which, though dirty, did ease the intolerable hardness of the floor.
New Year, normally an important holiday season in Japan, was a grim time. After a couple of weeks we were informed that our probationary period was over and that we could mingle with our fellow internees. This we very gladly did, and many were the tales unfolded. In the meantime, every few days some unfortunate inmate was whisked away by the hated gendarmerie and disturbing rumours got round that these poor fellows had been thrown into prison.
The roll was called at half past seven in the morning and at eight in the evening. We were ordered to bed at half past eight, and lights were extinguished at nine. This rule was strictly enforced. No noise was permitted. One night a group of internees was severely reprimanded for indulging in a little community singing about nine fifteen. The sergeant in charge shouted out that we ought to be bowing our heads in shame at the thought of the ignominious defeats suffered by our countries instead of being frivolous and noisy. For the first two weeks the police insisted on the lights being left on all night in accordance with the custom of the Japanese who, in their own homes, rarely, if ever, turn off the lights after dark. Happily we managed, after many protests, to get this order countermanded.
Breakfast was served at eight o'clock, lunch at about twelve and supper at five thirty. Breakfast consisted of two slices of cold toast thinly smeared with margarine, tea and milk served up in urns, without sugar; lunch a small portion of fish and vegetables with two slices of bread. Supper was the same as lunch. In plain words the food was rotten as regards both quality and quantity and was very badly cooked. All too frequently the fish course consisted merely of crushed sardines served up as fish cakes-a foul tasting concoction. Except very occasionally no sugar, potatoes, meat, eggs or fruit were provided.
During those early weeks I learned for the first time in my life something of the real meaning of hunger. It was an experience I do not wish to repeat. Later, the organizing of outside supplies helped very materially not only to preserve the health of the camp, which, generally speaking, was surprisingly good, but also to keep up morale. This question of morale was one of vital importance. Up to the latter part of March we were a grim crowd. Later our spirits were sustained by the hope of repatriation and these extra supplies.
We were without heat throughout the winter. I lived in a couple of raincoats, double underwear from a more fortunate internee who had some extra clothes, and felt none the worse for the experience; although I'm afraid some of the less rotund members of the camp suffered considerably. The club-house, not having been designed as a permanent residence, was, consequently very badly ventilated at night, and it was not until several internees had been overcome that we were able to get permission to open the windows, which, like all the doors, had been carefully fastened and locked every evening at about a quarter to eight. Here I would say that being boxed up, in a country where earthquakes are frequent, gives one a most unpleasant feeling.
We were not able to get our baggage from the Tatsuta Maru for more than three months, and during that period I lived in the same suit with such extra underwear as I could borrow, together' with some weird "ersatz" garments sent in by a friend. For sixteen days we had no change of linen at all and very little opportunity for washing. Our condition at the end of that time was beastly. My pyjamas, for instance, consisted of an elderly rain coat, which meant, of course, that I slept in my underpants.
Then, too, we were not allowed to shave. We all grew beards of varying length and texture. I may claim in this respect easily to have outstripped my fellow internees. I discovered a truly magnificent growth and spent hours carefully training it until I developed some curls, which an American fellow internee described as being worthy of Henry VIII.
About one month after our internment we were given a hot bath. Subsequently we were allowed a bath once a week. Sheer desperation drove several of us to the cold showers. We started on the 28th of December and thereafter every morning at 7 o'clock the bathroom reverberated with the shrieks and groans of big bold men splashing themselves and each other with icy cold water. The winter in Japan can be severe.
Our first outing took place on the 18th of February, ironically enough, to "celebrate" the fall of Singapore. We were allowed out for about two hours under heavy guard to meet at the local park our fellow internees from the Race Course camp. I should explain here that there was another camp in Yokohama at a place called Negishi, near the Race Course, housing between fifty and sixty internees. Thirty minutes conversation was permitted.
On April 2nd we were again allowed out, also with the Race Course camp for a cherry blossom viewing party. The authorities emphasized that this outing was a special concession. Japan is rightly famous for its cherry blossoms, although in the south part of the country the trees yield no fruit. During the few days in early April when the trees are a mass of clinging colour, the whole population observes the national custom of greeting the first tangible signs of spring. On this occasion we were escorted to a well-known park on the outskirts of Yokohama where the blossoms are particularly beautiful. As a matter of fact the patty was nearly called off on account of our refusal to carry Japanese flags through the streets.
This again is the national custom on special occasions. Fortunately our camp leader was able to explain to the satisfaction of the police and with exaggerated expressions of regret our inability to comply with their request, which, luckily, was not an order. Heavy guards and propaganda speeches were features of the programme. By special arranging with the Protecting Power, Church parade was authorized on April 12th, the Sunday after Easter. Needless to say there was a full attendance. Incidentally, this service was probably the last to be held in the English church as I learned later that the building had been taken over by the Japanese Government and was converted into a local Hitler Youth Club.
From the beginning of May weekly outings were allowed. Internees with families were permitted to go home from nine in the morning to four in the afternoon. Those without homes were escorted to the local Country Club. This Club, normally the social centre of the European and American communities in Yokohama, was taken over by the police one day a week for the benefit of the internees. Nobody was permitted to enter the club house or grounds; in fact neutral members were warned to keep away from the district. Whilst the break in the monotony of our existence was welcome it was a peculiar and depressing experience to sit around in these spacious premises completely cut off from our friends in the outside world. Several of the internees had been formerly prominent in the Club's activities and at least one past-President wandered disconsolately round the grounds each Wednesday thinking and dreaming of happy times now, it seemed, gone forever.
Apparently fearful of the dissemination of "dangerous thoughts" or other alleged subversive propaganda, the authorities absolutely prohibited any meeting or speechmaking amongst the internees themselves, although ordinary conversation was freely permitted. We would gladly have formed classes for educational purposes to try to pass the time--in fact, we did run a small Bible class unknown to the police--but organized gatherings for any purpose whatsoever were forbidden. One evening, about half past six, a quiet talk on Spiritualism among some dozen internees was interrupted by a couple of uniformed guards, and only an urgent plea by the camp interpreter, accompanied by cringing apologies, saved us from being reported to Headquarters. Eventually a Church service on Sundays was permitted. Several missionaries were interned in the Yacht Club, and they obtained permission to take turns each week to conduct services on behalf of the different churches.
Now, despite all misfortunes, man is an adaptable creature, and towards the end of the first month we made a serious attempt to organize the camp and to make the best of a bad business. We had to do everything ourselves, except the cooking (of the culinary art, more later); housework, general cleaning, sweeping, washing, bed making, airing, etc., and the care of the toilets which were freely misused by our captors. All these duties were, in the main, welcomed as helping to pass the time. The building was well equipped with all facilities, but at first the greater part was locked against us until we succeeded in overcoming the indifference of the club attendants, who, our servants only a few weeks previously, now enjoyed asserting their authority.
In addition to the regulation meals which, as mentioned before, were mainly cheap fish, odd vegetables and rice prepared without salt (ask your wife what that means!), outside supplies, when obtainable, were permitted twice a week. Of the nine of us, known as the "Tatsuta Group", four managed to establish outside contacts, and extra forks, spoons, plates, together with an invaluable little charcoal stove, soon made their appearance. All supplies were shared equally among the group, even to an occasional solitary but precious apple.
Then we began, by a painful process of trial and error, to supplement our miserable fare by learning to cook. Two of the group quickly showed themselves gifted in this direction and were unanimously elected chief cooks. I had the less distinguished position of chief washer up. Towards the end of the internment many varied and tasty little dishes were served by a robust, reverend American missionary and a blunt British business man.
A change for the better took place in April when the low class police, already referred to, were superseded by regular officers from the local station. These guards were, on the whole, friendly and reasonably courteous. The club ground was placed at our disposal sand, though too small for football or cricket, was the scene of many enthusiastic games of softball. Anglo-American games were the leading feature of the camp's organized exercises. We British quickly learned to "root" as strongly as our American friends. The games gave rise to strong feelings and much healthy quarrelling. The exercise, of course, was a god-send. Seventeen times round our patch of grass was the measured mile, and many seventeens were covered during the eight months of our detention. Serious disputes among the internees were happily rare. Of actual fisticuffs there were none, due, I think, less to the threats of the police to imprison anyone discovered fighting than to the general recognition that, whatever our differences in outlook or background, we were fundamentally, brothers in distress.
There is no time to describe in detail my fellow internees. All types and ages were thrown together. The inevitable levelling process was, on the whole, a good thing for all of us. British and American citizens predominated, and there were Greeks, Dutch, a Brazilian and also one unlucky lad with no registered nationality, who was under detention for nearly six months before obtaining his release.
Towards the end of February the first hint of unbelievably good tidings filtered through. A rumour, supported by odd paragraphs in the local press, persisted that some of us might be evacuated.
Then on the 27th of March the Argentine consul officially announced that a repatriation agreement between the various warring governments had beer, concluded and that for some of us there was a good chance of evacuation. A week later we were officially advised that evacuation would take place at the beginning of May, and that, all examinations having been completed, we need no longer fear the danger of imprisonment.
Imagine our feelings when only three days after this heartening announcement we learned that the evacuation had been postponed for a month. On top of this bad news came the sudden removal by the detested gendarmerie of two more internees. I must here say a little more about this chicken-run aspect of our internment. No one, not even the police, knew who would be the next to be removed or when or why. One man, an American missionary from our Tatsuta group, was taken from his bed one evening in March, put on the train for Osaka, a night's journey, and imprisoned there on arrival. Altogether about 25% of the camp suffered in this manner. The removals invariably took place without the slightest warning and sometimes to the accompaniment of rough treatment, abuse and threats from the moment the victim's name was called.
We had known from the beginning that there was a second internment camp in Yokohama at the Race Course. The natural assumption in the early days was that those friends and acquaintances not in the Yacht Club were at the Race Course. When we met our fellow internees from that camp on February 18th, alarm and apprehension were rife on both sides when it was discovered that many of our friends were absent. This could only mean that they were in prison. Later it was ascertained that, including all Allied nationals and Fighting French, more than fifty prominent business, sea captains and missionaries, including the senior Anglican Bishop in Japan, were in solitary confinement in the Yokohama gaol; that is to say, men of all ages and in all walks of life. The oldest internee at the Yacht Club was seventy-six, the youngest just nineteen. The oldest prisoner on Yokohama we learned was seventy-four, the youngest a mere youth. In addition to actual removals from the camp, many of the internees were subject to intensive "grilling". No force was used, but in some cases the questioning lasted for days. Invariably the person singled out for this form of minor persecution was called a liar, or was accused of lying at intervals of not longer than five minutes; this vicious technique being employed deliberately to confuse the victim or infuriate him into making some "damaging" admission. These sessions with the despicable gendarmerie were a severe nervous strain for those unlucky enough to be singled out for attention and taxed the morale of the whole camp. As I have not said so before, I may state here that the Japanese gendarmerie are a perfect imitation of the German gestapo. I cannot describe these sub-human creatures in any language that would survive editorial supervision!
May I now shelve personal matters and speak briefly and in necessarily rather general terms of the Japanese as our enemies? It is satisfactory to note that there have been in recent months quite serious efforts both in the press and on the public platform to try and explain to the peoples of the United Nations, and especially the people of this continent, something of the nature of the grim adversary who prepared so carefully over a period of years for this war, and who, broadly speaking, has been, so far--we have to face it--conspicuously successful. Evacuees returning home after detention in various parts of the Far East have told their story. Journalists have had access to the press. I am especially pleased to learn that Mr. Joseph C. Grew, former United States Ambassador to Japan, has made a number of speeches on the same subject, and I hope his remarks have received the widest publicity. His recently published book, Report From Tokyo, is well worth careful study.
It seems to me that for the average person who tries to weigh up the strength of the Japanese, there is no one personality on whom to focus his interest, fears or any of the emotions evoked by the mention of Hitler. In Hitler we see the very incarnation of the system with all its rottenness that we are fighting in this war. I make no comment on Signor Mussolini, but content myself by referring you for particulars of that gentleman to the speeches of Mr. Winston Churchill. The public has to try and think of the Japanese Military as a group in the same concentrated manner as they think of Hitler as an individual. At the same time let us remember the Japanese Prime Minister, Tojo, who, although not well-known or so universally hated and despised, is no less potent a force for evil than his two more notorious colleagues. General Tojo is the head of a system of government as callous, as total and, certainly, as ruthless as any in Axis-ridden Europe. The great majority of the stories told of the brutality and fanaticism of the average Japanese soldier are true. Some days ago I had roughed out a few notes on this point, but I am now only too glad to refer you to the moving speech delivered last week in the United States by that courageous woman, Madame Chiang Kai Shek, who, in a measured assessment of the Japanese military, told the American people bluntly that Japan had gained more than Germany in this war and was potentially stronger. It would be presumptuous for me to attempt to enlarge upon Madame Chiang's speech.
I may, however, try to convey to you some idea of the vastness of the present Pacific conflict. Recalling that the coast to coast distance across this Dominion is rather more than 3,000 miles, it is worth noting that the distance from Yokohama to Singapore is 3,500 miles, from Shangai to Hongkong some 850 miles, and from Hongkong to Singapore 1,400 miles. The distance from Pearl Harbour to Sydney, Australia is 5,000 miles, and from Manila to Yokohama is 2,000 miles; from Rangoen to Singapore is 1,100 miles. The length north to south of the Philippine Islands alone exceeds 1,000 miles. I quote these round figures just to show you that the Japanese, by their conquests, have established themselves in a vast fortified area in the Western Pacific, an area which daily becomes more grimly defended and which includes some of the richest and most prolific territories as regards both produce and people in the whole world. Do not imagine that I am attempting to depress you by these remarks. Far from it. Of the outcome of this titanic struggle there is now happily little doubt, but we must not for one moment permit ourselves to relax in the smallest degree our efforts not only towards ending this struggle, but towards ending it victoriously at the earliest possible moment. There is, I think, even a danger that with the knowledge that ultimate victory is a certainty, we may by reason of this very knowledge, fail to prolong that all-out effort so urgently required to cope with our immediate emergencies.
So much publicity has been given to Nazi Germany, that it is necessary to strike a balance in these matters, and to turn not only the spotlight, but the glare of a searchlight, on the equally warped and twisted mind of the fanatic Tojo and the company of grim fanatics ranged behind him. May I say at once that I do not include the Emperor of Japan. Frankly, I deprecate the hurling of cheap abuse at the Emperor. By all means go for Tojo and the other military and naval leaders. The amount of abuse heaped on President Roosevelt and Mr. Winston Churchill in the Japanese press would supply the entire world with news print for six months, but up to the 30th of July, 1942, I was not aware of any derogatory references to our King. The person of the Emperor, blurred by the halo of semi-divinity by reason of his alleged descent from the Sun Goddess, is the core of the whole Japanese nation. To us this legend may seem reminiscent of the story of our childhood. It is, however, dangerous to smile tolerantly because it is just here that the strength of the Japanese as a nation lies. The present military clique is taking full advantage of this and similar ancient beliefs. After this mess is cleared up I cannot but feel that the Emperor himself may well be the Allies' greatest asset when the time comes for the establishment of a more settled form of government in Japan.
I conclude these remarks by suggesting to you briefly two lines of thought.
The first is to appeal for balanced thinking on the whole subject of this war. Do not emphasize one Axis group at the expense of the other. All are equally important and dangerous enemies, even Mussolini. I have today directed attention to one section of the Axis of which I can claim personal knowledge, but it is a section that, notwithstanding its already proven strength, and, I regret to say, potential strength, we are inclined to push into the background of our minds. This we must not do.
For my second line of thought I would refer you back to the period of internment. I know what it is to have lost my freedom, now, thank God, restored to me. I appeal strongly for a maximum war effort that the liberation of those millions--and let us never forget them--to whom freedom of thought and movement is still denied, may be hastened as quickly as possible. Try to imagine the feelings of those men, women and children when the United Nations find themselves faced at last with a victory as total as the total war forced upon them: the indescribable relief from tension, the dawn of a new, if wondering, hope, and the incredulous realization that there is still some vestige of humanity in this world.
Let us then look to the time and work for its speedy coming when we, who represent freedom retained, may work harmoniously with those other nationals now unhappily enslaved by Axis tyranny, who will represent freedom regained, to encourage the growth of a better understanding between the nations of this world. (Applause.)
MR. JOHN C. M. MACBETH: Mr. North Winship, the United States Consul General, and an esteemed member of this Club, will move the vote of thanks.
MR. NORTH WINSHIP: When my esteemed friend, Mr. MacBeth, asked me to thank the speaker this afternoon, I accepted with certain trepidation because it is as much a surprise to me as it probably will be to you. However, I am speaking to you as a member of The Empire Club, and a pretty regular member. (Applause.) I accepted with trepidation because I have never been in Japan and I have also never been in--insurance. However, I felt from pretty close contact some of the experiences and tragedies of this war and I feel very strongly that Mr. Palmer, whom I have had the pleasure of seeing before, has understated his story. I think there is a great deal more he could have told us. I think he has understated it because of modesty and I should like to point out his value to the Allied Nations. I believe that his knowledge of Japan and his knowledge of industry, especially of the industry in Japan, will be of great value to us when the time comes for the Allies to strike at the heart of Japan, as President Roosevelt encouraged us to believe the other day when he said that he would strike at Japan from all sides; I think that Mr. Palmer will be of great value and I know that his counsel will be not only solicited but very much appreciated.
I know he has given us certainly a very vivid, a very tragic, a very serious picture. Your attention and your applause have shown how you feel about it. I can therefore only express my sentiments and I know that I am expressing yours in thanking him for coming before us today and giving us his very wonderful story. We want him to know how happy we are that he has come through looking so well and still in good health.
In the name of the members of The Empire Club, I therefore have much pleasure in thanking Mr. Palmer for his illuminating and very interesting, though grim, address. (Applause.)
MR. JOHN C. M. MACBETH: You have heard the expression of appreciation of your address, voiced in the able words of Mr. North Winship, and you have heard the way in which it has been received by the members of the audience. We thank you sincerely. The meeting is adjourned.