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Rōmusha(労務者) is a Japanese language word for "laborer", but has come to specifically denote forced laborers during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in World War II. The U.S. Library of Congress estimates that in Java, between 4 and 10 million rōmusha were forced to work by the Japanese military, [1] many of whom toiled under harsh conditions and either died or were stranded far from home. However, the term was not closely defined by either the Japanese or the Allies and the numbers stated sometimes encompass both the kinrōhōshi unpaid laborers, as well as native auxiliary forces, such as troops of the PETA and voluntary transmigrants to other islands in Indonesia. [2]

Japanese is an East Asian language spoken by about 128 million people, primarily in Japan, where it is the national language. It is a member of the Japonic language family, and its relation to other languages, such as Korean, is debated. Japanese has been grouped with several language families, such as Ainu or the now-discredited Altaic family, but none of these proposals has gained widespread acceptance.

World War II 1939–1945 global war

World War II, also known as the Second World War, was a global war that lasted from 1939 to 1945. The vast majority of the world's countries—including all the great powers—eventually formed two opposing military alliances: the Allies and the Axis. A state of total war emerged, directly involving more than 100 million people from over 30 countries. The major participants threw their entire economic, industrial, and scientific capabilities behind the war effort, blurring the distinction between civilian and military resources. World War II was the deadliest conflict in human history, marked by 50 to 85 million fatalities, most of whom were civilians in the Soviet Union and China. It included massacres, the genocide of the Holocaust, strategic bombing, premeditated death from starvation and disease, and the only use of nuclear weapons in war.

Allies of World War II Grouping of the victorious countries of World War II

The Allies of World War II, called the United Nations from the 1 January 1942 declaration, were the countries that together opposed the Axis powers during the Second World War (1939–1945). The Allies promoted the alliance as a means to control German, Japanese and Italian aggression.



The rōmusha were paid conscripted laborers, mobilized in Sumatra and eastern Indonesia as well as Java. Some ten percent were women. [2] Their tenures of service ranged from one day to the time required to complete a specific project. The types of work required were very diverse, ranging from light housekeeping work to heavy construction. As a general rule, the rōmusha were mobilized within each regency and were able to walk to work from home. However, for very large construction projects, the rōmusha could be sent to other regencies. When their specified period was up, they were returned home and replaced with new workers. [2] However, some were sent away from Indonesia to other parts other Japanese-held areas in South East Asia. There included some 270,000 Javanese laborers, of whom only 52,000 were repatriated to Java, suggesting a high death rate or post-war migration.

Sumatra island in western Indonesia, westernmost of the Sunda Islands

Sumatra is a large island in western Indonesia that is part of the Sunda Islands. It is the largest island that is located entirely in Indonesia and the sixth-largest island in the world at 473,481 km2.

State of East Indonesia

The State of East Indonesia was a post-World War II federal state (negara bagian) formed in eastern Netherlands East Indies by the Netherlands. It was established in 1946, became part of the United States of Indonesia in 1949, and was dissolved in 1950 with the end of the USI. It comprised all the islands to the east of Borneo and of Java.

Javanese people Javanese people are an ethnic group native to the Indonesian island of Java.

The Javanese are an ethnic group native to the Indonesian island of Java. With approximately 100 million people, they form the largest ethnic group in Indonesia. They are predominantly located in the central to eastern parts of the island. There are also significant numbers of people of Javanese descent in most provinces of Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Suriname, Saudi Arabia and the Netherlands.


The practice of unpaid Corvée labor had been common during colonial period Netherlands East Indies. Although the fact that rōmusha were paid was an improvement, their wages failed to keep pace with inflation, and they were often forced to work under hazardous conditions with inadequate food, shelter or medical care. The general Japanese treatment of laborers was very bad. The rōmusha were supplemented by true unpaid laborers, the kinrōhōshi, who performed mostly menial labor. The kinrōhōshi were recruited for a shorter duration than the rōmusha via tonarigumi neighborhood associations and were theoretically voluntary, although considerable social coercion was applied to "volunteer" as a show of loyalty to the Japanese cause. In 1944, the number of kinrōhōshi in Java was around 200,000 people. [2] The brutality of the Romusha and other forced labor systems was a key reason for the mass death rates among Indonesians under the Japanese occupation. A later UN report stated that 4 million people died in Indonesia as a result of the Japanese occupation. [3] About 2.4 million people died in Java from famine during 1944–45. [4]


Corvée is a form of unpaid, unfree labour, which is intermittent in nature and which lasts limited periods of time: typically only a certain number of days' work each year.


The Neighborhood Association was the smallest unit of the national mobilization program established by the Japanese government in World War II. It consisted of units consisting of 10-15 households organized for fire fighting, civil defense and internal security.

From 1944, PETA also made use of thousands of rōmusha for the construction of military facilities, and in economic projects to help make Java more self-supporting in face of Allied blockades. [2]

The Japanese military made very extensive use of such forced labor during the construction of the Burma-Thailand Railway during 1942–43 and the Pakan Baroe Railway on Sumatra in 1943–45. [5] The death rate among rōmusha, from atrocities, starvation diet, and disease far outstripped the death rate among Allied prisoners of war.

Burma Railway former railway between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma

The Burma Railway, also known as the Death Railway, the Siam–Burma Railway, the Thai–Burma Railway and similar names, was a 415-kilometre (258 mi) railway between Ban Pong, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Burma, built by the Empire of Japan in 1943 to support its forces in the Burma campaign of World War II. This railway completed the rail link between Bangkok, Thailand, and Rangoon, Burma. The name used by the Japanese Government is Thai–Men-Rensetsu-Tetsudou (泰緬連接鉄道), which means Thailand-Myanmar-Link-Railway.

Pekanbaru City in Riau, Indonesia

Pekanbaru is the capital of Indonesian province of Riau, and a major economic center on the eastern part of Sumatra Island. It has an area of 632.26 km² with a population of 1,093,416. Located on the banks of the Siak River, which drains into the Strait of Malacca, Pekanbaru has direct access to the busy strait and was long known as a trading port. Pekanbaru was originally built as a market by Minangkabau merchants during the 18th century. Its name is derived from the Malay words for 'new market'.


  1. Library of Congress, 1992, "Indonesia: World War II and the Struggle For Independence, 1942-50; The Japanese Occupation, 1942-45" Access date: February 9, 2007
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 Post, The Encyclopedia of Indonesia in the Pacific War , pages 505, 578-579;
  3. Cited in: Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986; Pantheon; ISBN   0-394-75172-8).
  4. Van der Eng, Pierre (2008) 'Food Supply in Java during War and Decolonisation, 1940–1950.' MPRA Paper No. 8852. pp. 35–38. http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/8852/
  5. Hovinga, Henk (2010). The Sumatra Railroad: Final Destination Pakan Baroe 1943–45. Leiden: KITLV Press. ISBN   9789067183284.

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