Survivors of the Japanese tell Tokyo of horror years

Richard Lloyd Parry reports on the opening of a mass compensation case brought by former PoWs
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The Independent Online
A former British prisoner-of-war and a civilian internee appeared in a Tokyo court yesterday to describe the inhumane treatment which they suffered 50 years ago at the hands of the Japanese Imperial Army.

Arthur Titherington and Phyllis Jameson are among a group of five Second World War captives suing the Japanese government on behalf of veterans' organisations in Britain, Australia, New Zealand and the US. The groups filed a suit in January demanding pounds 14,000 for each of their 25,000 members.

Mr Titherington, 73, secretary of the Japanese Labour Camp Survivors' Association, was a despatch rider in the Royal Corps of Signals. He was captured after the fall of Singapore in 1942. In his submission to the Tokyo District Court, he described a typical day at the Kinkaseki copper mine in Taiwan, where he spent two and half years. "We were awakened each morning at dawn by the Japanese guards bursting into the hut, and beating all of the occupants with whatever they had in their hands, from a rifle but to a bamboo stick," he said. "The morning rice was about one cupful per man except for the men who were not working, usually the sick. This meant that since we shared our rice out equally, we all got that much less.

"On leaving the camp, we descended about 1,500 roughly cut steps down to the minehead where we were again counted, more violence, and were then handed over to the mine hanchos [supervisors]."

At first, prisoners were required to fill one or two carts of copper ore every day but as time passed this was increased to 25 carts every day. Those who failed to match the quota were beaten with a hammer or forced to run up and down a flight of 80 steps for an hour. "Men died of this punishment, since it was always the weak and sick who failed to fill their quota," he said.

"We were often kept on parade for two or even three hours before being allowed to go. In the evening, after climbing back up the steps on their hands and knees, prisoners were kept on parade for two or three hours before being allowed another bowl of rice.

"There was always some men being punished or tortured for some misdeed or other," he said, "and there was always a prisoner in the eiso, a small cell about eight feet square where you were not allowed to lay down or sit, but to kneel at all times. This kind of day went on mainichi, mainichi, mainichi [every day] for two and half years. Of the 523 men who went into the mine in December 1942, only about 100 were alive at the war's end."

Mrs Jameson was 13 in 1942 when her mother, brother and sisters were evacuated from their home in Singapore. En route to India, their ship was torpedoed by a Japanese submarine. "My brother managed to get his wife and I on to a lifeboat before the ship sank, taking him, my mother and my five other sisters to their deaths," she told the court. The shipwrecked survivors were picked up by a Japanese ship and transferred to the Palembang slave camp in Indonesia. She was forced to saw down trees and dig graves for fellow inmates who died of thirst and malnutrition while building roads.

"We had to capture snakes and monkeys to supplement our diet. I was once caught climbing a fruit tree and made to stand in the sun for 12 hours without food or water, and with heavy baskets hanging from my neck. On one occasion I can remember having to dig a grave. A guard complained and when I answered back he went berserk, punching and kicking me until I fell in."

Mrs Jameson wept as she described being sexually abused by the prison guards. "I probably only avoided being raped because my sister-in-law shaved my head to make me look less attractive. Even to this day I still have a feeling of great shame over what happened to me. I suffered from malnutrition, tropical disease, malaria and leg ulcers. As a result of my treatment, I have been unable to have my own children and I have suffered from the most severe depressions that have led to me twice trying to take my own life. The Japanese have inflicted upon me a legacy that has hung over my life like a dark cloud."

The Japanese government has not questioned the truth of the claims, but maintains that wartime compensation issues were settled in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which exempted it from reparations.

Last year the Japanese Prime Minister, Tomiichi Murayama, launched a 100 billion yen war atonement fund for education and welfare projects in countries whose citizens were affected by Japanese mistreatment, but this gesture has been rejected by veterans' organisations, who demand individual compensation. Keith Martin, of the Association of British Civilian Internees, said: "How can you go to a blind, paralysed 85-year-old ex- soldier and say, 'cultural exchange'?"

The plaintiffs had hoped to settle the matter outside court, but meetings with representatives of the Japanese foreign ministry produced no results. Further hearings will be held in October, and the survivors' solicitors hope the case will be settled by mid-1996.