Remembering the Railway of Death

About a week ago the New York Times had an article entitled “Seeking Recognition for a War’s Lost Laborers” on the lack of recognition for the Asian victims of Japanese forced labor in the construction of the famous “Railway of Death.” According to the article, the history of the 200,000-300,000 Asians who were employed, and often killed, in the construction of the railway, which was being constructed to link Bangkok and the Burmese (Myanmarese) capital of Rangoon (Yangon) to provide logistical support for Japan’s invasion of Southeast Asia, has been almost completely overshadowed by stories of the smaller number of Western POWs.

Between 200,000 and 300,000 Asian laborers — no one knows the exact number — were press-ganged by the Japanese and their surrogates to work on the rail line: Tamils, Chinese and Malays from colonial Malaya; Burmans and other ethnic groups from what is now Myanmar; and Javanese from what is now Indonesia.

“It is almost forgotten history,” said Sasidaran Sellappah, a retired plantation manager in Malaysia whose father was among 120 Tamil workers from a rubber estate forced to work on the railway. Only 47 survived.


By contrast, the travails of the 61,806 British, Australian, Dutch and American prisoners of war who worked on the railway, about 20 percent of whom died from starvation, disease and execution, have been recorded in at least a dozen memoirs, documented in the official histories of the governments involved and romanticized in the fictionalized “Bridge on the River Kwai,” the 1957 Hollywood classic inspired by a similarly named best-selling novel by Pierre Boulle.

One reason given for this inequality of historical memory are that virtually none of the Asian victims were from Thailand, giving the local government little incentive to commemorate them. Another is that, unlike the American and British POWs who wrote memoirs and gave countless interviews to journalists and historians, virtually none of the Asian laborers were literate, and they lacked ready access to mass media.

At this point, I would like to present some photos I took at a very peculiar museum that Adam, his (now) wife Shoko, and I visited when we were in Kanchanaburi, the location of the famous Bridge on the River Kwai.

The Jeath War Museum (JEATH is an acronym for Japan, English, American and THai) is a rather eccentric museum based on the collection of a wealthy Japanese history buff, who apparently purchased a building a number of years ago, stocked it haphazardly with local WW2 memorabilia of both great and small interest, and has not had arranged to have it cleaned since.

First, some photos from outside the museum itself.

This is a picture of the famous Bridge which I quite like.

Here are Adam and Shoko posing with the bridge behind them. I do not know the sleeping man, but I have to assume that he is a war criminal of some kind.

This is a silly little train which lets  tourists ride across the bridge and 1 or 2km into the jungle on the other side, and then ride backwards to the other side.

I blurrily snapped this memorial obelisk in the jungle across the river, from aforementioned silly train. It says something along the lines of “the remains of the Chinese army ascend into heaven.”

This plaque is location near the bridge. I did not, however, see one for the British POWs, although I certainly could have just missed it.

And now we reach the museum portion of our tour. I do not seem to have any photographs of the entrance area, but the first thing you see upon approaching the entrance to the museum proper are these statues of historical figures, with biography written on the wall behind them. I will transcribe the highly amusing text another time.

Here is Tojo.

Adam and Shoko again, with their good friends Josef Stalin and General Douglas MacArthur.

The lovable Albert Einstein gets a wall as well.

Inside the museum we are confronted with more dramatic statues, such as this tableau of POWs constructing the railway.

Here is one in a cage. Note the real straw.

Eerie closeup of another caged POW statue’s face.

Adam and his new friend, the WW2-era Japanese soldier driving an old car.

The driver.

Another old car. I do not recognize the make, but it is covered in dust that may weigh as much as the steel.

US Army signal core teletypewriter

Recreation of Japanese army tent

Read the text carefully. Do you know when the CD was invented?

A message from Japan to the Thai people. It’s a bit hard to read, so if anyone wants I can transcribe it.

A British anti-Japan political cartoon

Overall, the museum is a complete shambles. While it has a huge array of cool stuff, it is strewn about almost at random, covered in dust, and sometimes behind other stuff. Not to mention placed in crowded and un-lit cases with poor labeling. Despite the numerous flaws, it is certainly worth a visit if you are in the area, but I can’t say that it will do much to provide any sort of historical narrative, and certainly does not even try to meet the standard hoped for by the Times article I began this post with.

17 thoughts on “Remembering the Railway of Death”

  1. Is it just me, or were Tojo, Stalin, and Einstein actually triplets separated at birth?

    The car is a post-war Morris (British car) almost certainly no earlier than 1948 and probably post-1952. It’s a four-door version of the famous Morris Minor. The two-door esp. is still very (well, fairly) common as an older but generally reliable car and has a large following.

  2. “Is it just me, or were Tojo, Stalin, and Einstein actually triplets separated at birth?”

    Perhaps. Another fact lost to history was that they were all pale green.

    I sometimes wonder when newspapers refer to “forgotten” episodes in history as to what exactly they mean. Who has “forgotten” that the Japanese press ganged Allied POWs and South-East Asians into building railways? Aren’t most of the finer details of the Second World War, including the configurations of the state protagonists famously a bit of an enigma for young people today? If that’s the case, I guess it doesn’t really make much sense to single out particular parts of the war and say that they are “lost to history”. Historians certainly haven’t forgotten this episode. One of the most famous films about WWII was made about use of POW labour for railway construction and I think most people with a passing interest in the war on the Asian continent have some idea of what happened here.

    What I’d be interested to know, however, is whether and in what way this period of Asian history pops up in Japanese narratives of the war.

  3. I don’t know about Thailand,but they were never “overshadowed” here in Japan or at least in Indonesia.Romusha has even become a Bahasa Indonesian term and it’s in the textbook.Perhaps it has something to do with Thailand being Japan’s ally during the war.

  4. When an English-language media source says something is “forgotten” it basically just means that it’s been forgotten by the English-language media.

  5. “It says something along the lines of “the remains of the Chinese army ascend into heaven.””

    The memorial obelisk says “中国遠征軍功高如天”, which roughly means “The value of the distinguished service of the Chinese expedition army is as high as the sky”.

    Also, the caption of the last photograph, “A British anti-Japan political cartoon”, seems to be incorrect. The explanation in the photograph reads as follows.

    Political cartoon about Japanese War in Thailand.
    “Do destroy England – the Asian’s enemy”
    Asian together with Japanese army fought with England who have been invaded [sic] Thailand for a long time. Japanese always help Thailand to be a civilized country.

    (細かいことですみません。気付いてしまったら、気になるので書かずにいられませんでした。<- I couldn’t write this in English, since I am not so good at commanding English. Sorry.)

  6. And looking more closely at the pictures,I see some mistakes.Roy.

    The one with Adamu with J-soldiers in the car,it looks to me an American Willys jeep,of which may not be a Japanese military vehicle unless it was captured.(Imperial military did use DODGE trucks along with NISSAN and I’ve heard some captured allied vehicle was used by the IJA though).

    And “A British anti-Japan political cartoon”is probably “A Japanese anti-British political cartoon.(Notice the armband.A Japanese soldier fighting shoulder to shoulder with a Thai soldier stabbing a Briton in the arse.)

  7. “Jade, you sound like Sir Humphrey Appleby!”

    Thanks – I’ll take that as a compliment. Love “Yes Minister”….

  8. “stabbing a Briton in the arse”

    It actually looks like they are stabbing him UP the arse = more funny. In any case, they are not playing around.

  9. Incidentally, readers may find this article on the POW museum (and others) to be of interest – it gives some interesting background. While largely about the Changi museum, it has some interesting stuff about the JEATH, such as the fact that the Bridge Over The River Kwai is not actually over the River Kwai – the river was renamed to capitalise on the tourist market.

  10. Just finish reading this week’s issue(March 27) of shukan Shincho’s column 変幻自在 by ex-Sankei reporter Takayama Masayuki高山正之 coincidentally on the same subject as this post.And it’s the most bizzarre revisionist take on the issue i’ve ever read.Shincho is never a left wing weekly.But this column is totally insane,especially Shincho is one of the most circulated magazine of the nation.
    I take back some of the content of my previous comment.

  11. “But this column is totally insane”

    What does it say? (I’m not in Japan right now….)

  12. Basically it says Thai loves Japan and they respect our historic ties because we helped them fight nasty colonial French who are exploiting Vietnamese and Cambodians.And Japan left Thai some precious infrastracture(which is the railways to Burma,ofcourse) and this was mentioned as if Japanese built it singlehandedly.(There are no mention of atrocity toward NEITHER allied POW nor Asian slave labors).
    And he goes on to say Thai government tried to prove Japanese empire not just fought the battle to “liberate” South East Asia,but built the foundation of prosperity,left a plaque on the bridge in Kanchanapuri to commemorate that the bridge was built by no one but the Japanese.
    All this bull crap in one page essay with no irony of what so ever.

    But then again,Takayama has always been the most warped bigot among Sankei reporters when he was correspondent in Lps Angels during 90’s and reknown to be a polemic and a village fool at the same time.I always skip his page in Shincho,but somehow my eye had caught nthis essay right after I wrote “But…,But…we, Japanese DO recognize Asian sacrifice in the railway of death”comment.Am I ashamed or what.

    This column 変幻自在is now edited in two volume of books with jaw-dropping titles like ”サダム・フセインは偉かったSadam Hussein was a great man””スーチー女史は善人か?Is Aung Sang Su Kyi.a nice person?”and piled in bookshops all over the country.While I’m certain his influence to the Japanese opinion is almost zero,still the fact remains Shincho is allowing him to write these ultra nationalistic pieces.

  13. Aceface, Takayama Masayuki’s parents most likely named him after this guy at the Sanjo Bridge in Kyoto. Although the guy went by the name of Takayama Hikokuro, his true name was Takayama Masayuki (高山正之). Althgough I have not read the article you mentioned, I guess the reason he tends to give insane discourses is that he has the same name as Takayama Hikokuro who is known by his extreme (and often insane) behavior.

  14. The big secret of this museum is that behind the loincloths, all the slave laborers are not only anatomically correct but EXTREMELY well-hung, especially considering their emaciated states.

    Thanks for getting around to posting this. That was one of the best museums I’ve ever been to. Felt like I was wandering around the attic of some eccentric old man while listening to his foggy recollections of the war.

    There is apparently an official museum a little further away from the actual bridge but that looked way too normal.

  15. The museum was just as crazy back in 2001, when I visited. And as dusty.
    The dirty grey car was not built until after the war, it’s a Morris Oxford MO, bigger than a Morris Minor,they were first made in 1948, I think the JeEATH museum says it’s a japanese army staff car… (
    The jeep? yep. definitely american in origin. Perhaps that soldier captured it somewhere else. There weren’t any in Thailand.
    Aki’s translation “Political cartoon about Japanese War in Thailand.
    “Do destroy England – the Asian’s enemy”
    Asian together with Japanese army fought with England who have been invaded [sic] Thailand for a long time. Japanese always help Thailand to be a civilized country.——————”shows the further inaccuracies of the museum. Britain never invaded Thailand, although Japan did, on december the ninth 1941, following which Thailand declared war on England.
    The prisoners of war used on the railway were mostly taken from the Changi prisoner of war camp in Singapore.
    The Asian slave labourers were never forgotten by the prisoners, who saw them, worked alongside them, and died alongside them.
    More about them here:-

    There are several other museums, worth a visit, one is on the other side of the river, at Chunkai, near the war-graves cemetery, another is in the centre of Kanchanaburi, yet another about 40? miles away up the line of the railway.
    The one in the centre of the town in particular tries to present the history in a non-partisan way, acknowledging the losses of all nations involved there.

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