Time to lay the past to rest, Fujio Kano and Duncan Campbell

The Featherston Chronicles: A Legacy of War
Mike Nicolaidi
HarperCollins, $29.95,
ISBN 1 86950 295 7

Within the wider framework of the history of New Zealand’s involvement in World War Two, the “happenings and events” that took place in No. 2 Compound of the Featherston POW camp on the morning of 25 February 1943, during which 48 Japanese prisoners and one New Zealand guard died, merit little more perhaps than a sombre footnote. As Mike Nicolaidi’s recent book makes clear, however, the incident raises a series of troubling questions and leaves us with a problematic legacy.

With the advantage of hindsight, problems at the camp seem all but inevitable. It was established at the shortest of notice in September 1942; within a week or so of the decision having been taken to site it a few kilometres outside the Wairarapa town, the New Zealand authorities were told to expect 450 Japanese POWs. By February the next year, construction of the main compounds not yet complete, the camp housed over 800 Japanese. They were guarded by a small, disparate and largely inexperienced group of New Zealanders. Further, ultimate responsibility for the prisoners remained in itself a matter of some debate between the New Zealand Government and the US military authorities throughout the war.

More crucial, in terms of Nicolaidi’s analysis of the incident, was the belated appreciation on the part of their captors of the tensions that split the POW community, focused particularly around their attitudes to the issue of forced labour. The largely non-military POWs housed in
No. 1 Compound proved willing to co-operate with the camp authorities in their insistence on enforcing Article 27 of the Geneva POW Convention that required all able-bodied prisoners to be made available for work. To the military POWs of No. 2 Compound, such co-operation and the work it involved were demeaning. When on that February morning, faced with a sudden demand for a much increased work party, the military POWs decided to stage a passive sit-in, their action was directed as much at their fellow prisoners as a reminder to them not to “neglect their Japanese character” as it was at the camp authorities. And further, although efforts had been made to explain in Japanese to the POWs their obligations under the terms of the Convention, translations of the document itself only appeared in the camp many months after the shooting.

The Court of Inquiry into the incident, convened in March 1943, proved something of a cover-up. It sought to make sense of much conflicting evidence by reconstructing a convincing sequence of events, all to prove that the guards had “acted with commendable patience, tolerance, calmness and wisdom”. As this book makes clear, however, the report produced by this inquiry left a large number of questions of detail unresolved, many of which have remained resistant to Nicolaidi’s own exhaustive research. Quite remarkably, though, given the circumstances of the time and despite this convenient finding, overall the report was both a balanced and even-handed one, for the Japanese too were exonerated from blame.

The refusal of the POWs to co-operate with the camp authorities was motivated by “the natural and understandable desire of the fighting personnel to continue the fight against their enemies notwithstanding their captivity”, it argued, and the major factor leading up to the incident was “the fundamental psychological and racial divergence between captor and captive and the lack of a common language”. Significantly, in the light of Nicolaidi’s argument towards the end of his book that New Zealand has failed since to deal adequately with the continuing legacy of this incident, this full report was embargoed until 1974, and the uncompromising edited version that was dispatched overseas at the time claimed that the prisoners had been in a state of “open mutiny”.

Nicolaidi’s method for his provocative retelling of the incident is an innovative one which makes obvious the contingency of whatever “truth” can be derived from the evidence about it. He juxtaposes old and new information as it came to hand from both local and Japanese sources and allows us to follow his tracks as his own understanding of the incident changes with every new piece of evidence accumulated. If he refuses to claim any definitiveness for his findings about the incident itself, he is nonetheless unequivocal about the lessons we should draw from it:

Why is it we New Zealanders can make great play of our peacemaking role in the world, strongly condemning nuclear testing and weaponry, yet seem unable to finish war business with Japan? Why cannot we peacefully lay this past to rest? We buy their cars and technology. We welcome their investment and their tourists. Why is it so difficult to deal with the past?

Two issues in particular remain to be resolved. What happened to the ashes of the 67 Japanese POWs who died in New Zealand during the years 1942-46, including the 48 who died on that February morning in Featherston in 1943? Were they in fact ever dispatched back to Japan, as various official sources seem to suggest? And why is New Zealand still seemingly so reluctant to respond to the Japanese suggestion that the site of the camp become a Peace Garden? Now that Japanese is the most widely taught language in our secondary school system, surely the time has come for these ghosts of the Japanese war dead to be finally laid to rest?

No similar full-length treatment of this incident exists in Japanese. Perhaps a commissioned translation of this book would serve to encourage something of the dialogue across cultures and languages that will help reduce the likelihood of such incidents, and the circumstances that lead to them, ever happening again.

Fujio Kano and Duncan Campbell both teach in the Asian Languages Department at Victoria University of Wellington.

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Posted in History, Non-fiction, Review, War
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