Joetsu’s history is dominated by the exploits of 16th century daimyo, Uesugi Kensin, during the period of the “Warring States”. The 16th century is far enough behind us to be able to ignore the terrible wars fought in those days but it is harder to ignore Joetsu’s role in the second world war, or Greater East Asia War (大東亜戦争).From 1942 to 1945 Naoetsu was home to the Tokyo POW Camp #4 branch. The camp gained a particularly poor reputation as regards treatment of its prisoners. 

But let us start at the beginning.

At the beginning of the war, Japanese forces captured in total about 350,000 allied prisoners-of-war. About 36,000 military and civilian prisoners were subsequently transferred to Japan, allocated to 130 different camps and in most cases used as slave labour. At the end of the war 91 camps were still in operation. About 3,500 prisoners did not survive.

When Singapore surrendered on February 15, 1942, 50,000 British and Australian troops were imprisoned. Groups of these prisoners were subsequently moved to different locations in Japan and its occupied territories. One group of 563 Australians was shipped to Japan on November 29, 1942 on the “Kamakura Maru”, together with about 1,400 Dutch, US, and British prisoners, as well as Japanese civilians.

Upon arrival in Japan the Australians were split in two groups. One group went to Kobe, and the second group of about 300 men was sent to Naoetsu, where they arrived on December 10, 1942. Most of the men belonged to Infantry Battalion 2/20, some to Battalions 2/18 and 19.

Niigata Prefecture suffered a severe labour shortage resulting from the military draft. Niigata companies had therefore requested the government in Tokyo to explore the possibility of using POWs as forced laborers. The headquarters of the Tokyo Horyo Shuyojo (Tokyo POW Camps) established 7 branch camps in Niigata Prefecture. The Naoetsu camp (#4B) was opened in a facility of Shin-etsu Chemical Company.

Tokyo Camp branches in Niigata, including Naoetsu #4 branch

The Naoetsu Camp

Initially the prisoners were put to work for Shin-etsu Chemical and for Nippon Stainless Steel, later adding Nippon Soda and two transportation companies.  

On April 2, 1943 the prisoners were moved to Kasuga-shinden, Arita-mura, Nakakubiki-gun, what is now Kawara-machi, Joetsu.

Arrow points at the camp location (now Kawara-machi, Joetsu)

During the course of 1943, prisoners had started dying as a result of malnutrition, exhaustion and abusive treatment. The first man to die at Naoetsu, on March 31, 1943 was Andrew Robertson, the most senior officer of the group.

At the end of the year 28 prisoners had died. The high fatality rate had raised questions in Tokyo and the commanding general of Tokyo Horyo Shuyojo visited Naoetsu in February 1944. At that point a total of 54 prisoners had died, many suffering from beri-beri and pneumonia.

After the inspection visit from Tokyo, treatment of the prisoners improved. Medical care and food rations improved but the men continued to be used as forced labor. Officers were allocated jobs in the camp but were free from hard labor. The different treatment generated tension between officers and men.

Camp life became gradually more tolerable and the last (60th) Australian fatality was on August 24, 1944.

At the end of March 1944 an additional group of US, British and Dutch POWs were sent to the Naoetsu camp, increasing the total occupation of the camp to well over 600. Overcrowding created its own problems and did little to stimulate a good relationship between the Australians and the newcomers.

On VJ-day, August 15, 1945 there were 698 prisoners in the camp. In addition to 231 Australians, there were 338 Americans, 90 British and 39 Dutchmen.  

Sketch of the camp buildings
Morning Assembly Christmas Day 1944

After the war ended

As soon as the war ended, the camp administration in Tokyo issued detailed instructions how to deal with POWs.

These orders provided for full protection to all POWs, maintenance of hygiene standards, adequate food supply, distribution of clothing, medication and food sent by allied countries. Most importantly, they instructed the camps to cease the use of POWs as laborers. Finally, they instructed the camps to incinerate all unnecessary documents. These instructions significantly complicated efforts by the occupation authorities to reconstruct the whereabouts and status of former prisoners-of-war, as well as to gain insight in what transpired in the camps during the war years.

The Australian POWs left Naoetsu for Tokyo on September 5, 1945. They carried with them the boxes containing the ashes of their 60 fellow prisoners who died in Naoetsu. In January 1945 these boxes had been transferred from the camp to the Buddhist temple Kakushinji. Its head priest, Fujito Enri-san wished to make sure that these ashes were kept safe in an appropriate and dignified place.

Naoetsu POWs in Tokyo, September 1945

Did the Geneva Convention apply and was it upheld?

International law relating to the treatment of prisoners of war was at the beginning of the Pacific War based on the 1929 Geneva Treaty on the Treatment of Prisoners of War. Japan had signed but did not ratify the treaty due to internal opposition from the Army, Navy and Privy Council.

In December 1941, the US government issued a statement expressing the hope that in the event of hostilities the Geneva treaty would be “mutually applied.” It was followed by similar statements from the governments of England, Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

Japan’s Foreign Ministry held a meeting on 21 January 1942 with representatives of the Army Ministry, the Police Department and the Overseas Development Ministry. Their recommendation was that “every effort should be made to correspondingly apply the provisions of the treaties regarding any prisoners of enemy countries that fall under the authority of Japan, including issues such as food, clothing, and the treatment of the prisoners in accordance with internationally recognized standards of human rights.” The Vice-Minister for the Army informed his counterpart of the Ministry for Foreign Affairs: “While we cannot proclaim our open support for the (Geneva) Convention, we have no objections to measures taken with regard to the treatment of prisoners of war.”

In a statement Foreign Minister Togo then confirmed that the Geneva Convention would take precedence over domestic laws and regulations that came into conflict with its provisions.

 These statements may have signified good intentions but when in April of the same year the treatment of POWs was debated for the first time in the Bureau Heads Meeting of the Army Ministry, a new set of regulations for the treatment of prisoners of war was adopted. It was at this time that the Japanese military also decided that Caucasian prisoners would be useful in replenishing labor shortages on the Japanese side, in occupied territories as well as in Japan. In February 1943 the Foreign Ministry accordingly issued a statement that POWs could and would engage in “non-hazardous labor.”

Yokohama war trials

From reading diaries of former POWs, it is clear that their experiences differed from one camp to the next. An important factor often was the quality and effectiveness of Japanese camp management. Treatment of POWs in Naoetsu under first camp commander Sakata was relatively humane. After he was transferred though, conditions in the camp rapidly deteriorated, claiming the lives of 60 members of the 2/20th Battalion through disease, starvation, and the brutality of the guards. A greater percentage of men died at Naoetsu than in any other prisoner-of-war camp in Japan. The later Naoetsu camp commanders (Ota, Ishikawa) bore a heavy responsibility in this regard. Camp commanders were held directly responsible for what happened in the camps. There is a question of course to which extent responsibility for war crimes lies in first instance with the individuals who committed them, or with those indirectly involved, for instance in planning, decision making or organization. In Japan’s case ultimate responsibility was with the Army Ministry. It should also be recognized that the matter of prisoners did not sit high on the Ministry’s priority list. The camps were often managed and run by men who lacked training and qualifications for this purpose.

The decision to use Caucasian POWs, in addition to Korean and Chinese civilians, as slave labor — to address the labour shortages that started to occur in Japan from 1942 – was one taken at the highest level, at the Military Bureau of the Army Ministry. Their decision was in contravention of the provisions of the 1929 Geneva Convention (not ratified by Japan).

Fifteen of Naoetsu’s military and civilian guards were prosecuted for war crimes. They were classified as Class B or C war criminals, defined as “perpetrators of war crimes and those who abetted or permitted them”. All were found guilty; 7 received prison sentences and 8 the death sentence. In terms of convictions, Naoetsu rated worse than any other camp in Japan.

The executions provided closure to no one, not to the former POWs but also not to the families of the executed men. The camp and its aftermath remained a sensitive subject in Joetsu.

It is too easy to explain the war crimes tribunal away as “victor’s justice”. Real crimes against at least the spirit of existing treaties and against humanity were committed.

The party that is victorious in a conflict will always claim that justice is on its side. Determination who is victorious is difficult. A victor one day may be vanquished the next as reflected in the outcome of the Pacific War. In reality of course, war knows no victors, only losers.

Does anything remain of the camp, physically or in the form of a collective memory?

Did the citizens of Naoetsu know about the conditions in the camp and the atrocities committed there? If they did, the military would have made sure that the subject was not brought out in the open.  

Could they have done anything about it had they known? Highly unlikely, because the military exercised total control and could not under any circumstances be overruled, at least not until the Emperor took the initiative to declare the war over on August 15, 1945.

This changed of course after the war ended. Although the country generally became focused on its reconstruction, Japanese prisoners of war returned from abroad and their families, and especially families of Japanese convicted of war crimes were sometimes ostracized, which is an often overlooked but tragic aspect of Japan’s post-war history.  

We are inclined to let wartime memories fade away. However, efforts on the part of citizens of Naoetsu and former POWs have given us the opportunity to know and learn from the past and to pass lessons learned on to following generations.

The Naoetsu camp no longer exists. At its former location the Peace Memorial Park has been established, consisting of a building housing a small museum and meeting rooms for activities related to the keeping the camp memory alive, cenotaphs for the Australian and Japanese victims and a peace memorial sculpture. For a more detailed description of the Peace Memorial Park, how it came into existence and how and why Naoetsu connected with Cowra, NSW, Australia, please see my posts “Peace Memorial Park, Naoetsu” and “The Cowra Breakout”.  


上越の歴史といえば、16世紀「戦国時代」に活躍した大名、上杉謙信が有名である。16世紀の悲惨な戦の記憶は遠い昔のことだが、第二次世界大戦 (又の名を大東亜戦争)の中で上越が担った役割は無視できない。1942年から1945年まで、直江津には東京捕虜収容所第四分所があった。この収容所は捕虜の扱いに関して特に評判が悪かった。


1942年2月15日のシンガポール降伏時、5万人の英軍とオーストラリア軍が収監された。これらの捕虜の集団は、その後、日本とその占領地域の各地に移送された。1942 年 11 月 29 日、オーストラリア人 563 人の捕虜は、オランダ、米国、英国の捕虜約 1400 人と共に「鎌倉丸」で日本へ移送された。









収容所の生活は次第に耐えられるようになり、最後の(60 人目の)オーストラリア人捕虜の死亡者 が出たのは 1944 年 8 月 24 日のことであった。

1944年3月末、直江津収容所には米国、英国、オランダの捕虜が追加で移送され、収容所の総人員は600人を大きく上回 った。収容所の過密状態はそれ相応の問題を引き起こし、オーストラリア人捕虜と新入りの捕虜の間に良好 な関係が生まれることはほとんどなかった。

1945 年 8 月 15 日の 終戦記念日には、直江津収容所には 698 人の捕虜がいた。オーストラリア人 231 人のほか、アメリカ人 338 人、イギリス人 90 人、オランダ人 39 人がいた。
























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