to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

20.1 the term

As I read about this group of Asian workers on the TBR, the collective noun that is used to describe them began to concern me. It is useful to have one such word that encompasses the whole of this diverse group. This includes the Thai and Burmese laborers who were locally hired and the many nationalities that were ‘imported’ to work the TBR as “economic soldiers’.

In America, there is a great controversy over the use of certain terms especially when specific words are used to describe ancestral or nationalities. The hottest topic involves words referring to race. There is the dreaded ‘N-word’ which (finally) has all been driven from polite usage and is found only in Rap songs and ethnic slang, apparently, it is only ‘acceptable’ when spoken by someone of a selected race.

I was concerned that the word ‘romusha’ that appears so often in the WW2-era accounts might be a word that was falling into disfavor in modern (read more sensitive times) usage. So I turned to a Japanese speaking friend to try to clarify. His reply was that it still seems to be a word acceptable in polite (and academic) company, even if it has fallen from common usage. It is a word that seems stuck in the WW2-era. I suppose we could compile quite a list of such words. But unlike the more derogatory terms that were applied to some ethnic and racial groups at that time, ‘romusha’ seems to fall outside the standard of bad language. IOW it is still an acceptable term, even as an archaic one.

Here is his etymology description:

the Japanese characters for Romusha are  労務者, mostly translated as forced laborer. It is also often referred to as the equivalent of ‘coolie’.

 労 labor

務 duties

者 person

See also労務者

romusha (複数形 romusha または romushas)

  1. forced laborerespecially those made to work in the Dutch East Indies under Japanese occupation during the Second World War.
  2. Javanese workers were known as romushas (the Japanese translation for the colonial term ‘coolie’) and put to work on Java, its neighbouring islands and across Southeast Asia.

Romusha (労務者 Rōmusha, “laborer“) were forced laborers during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in World War II. The U.S. Library of Congress estimates that in Javabetween four and 10 million romusha were forced to work by the Japanese military. About 270,000 of these Javanese laborers were sent to other Japanese-held areas in South East Asia. Only 52,000 were repatriated to Javameaning that there was a death rate of 80%.

It is also described as a “propaganda term” coined by the Japanese in an attempt to instill the sense that such work was in some way ‘heroic’ (Sato, 2005: 129).

Satō defined the term “rōmusha” as follows: “rōmusha is a Japanese word meaning an unskilled laborer who carries out temporary construction work. Such a laborer typically is a single male, lives in laborers’ quarters as long as his employment lasts, and moves on when it ends, looking for another job”. Satō, “Rōmusha”, p. 197. In her classic work on the history of rōmusha, Kurasawa underlined the fact that in Indonesia the term “rōmusha” does not mean just “labourer”. Rōmusha were “persons who were recruited by force during the Japanese occupation period to do hard physical work”.

Kurasawa, Aiko, Nihon senryōka no Jawa nōson no henyō [Transformation in the Rural Areas of Japanese-Occupied Java] (Tokyo, 1992), p. 180 Google Scholar.

In the pre-occupation period, the term “coolie” (Dutch koelie) was commonly used for day labourers or contract workers. The Chinese transcription of “coolie” (苦力) included the characters 苦(), which can be translated as “suffering”, “pain”, or “sorrow”, and 力 (li), for (physical) strength or labour. Because of this quite negative connotation, the Japanese occupying force introduced the term “rōmusha (労務者)”, using the characters 労 () to mean “work”, “labour”, 務 (mu) meaning “duty”, “service”, and者 (sha) meaning “person”. Satō, Shigeru, War, Nationalism and Peasants: Java under the Japanese Occupation, 1942–1945 (Armonk, NY, 1994), p. 154 Google Scholar, fn. 1.

According to Lieutenant Colonel Sugiyama, it was forbidden for Japanese soldiers on the Burma-Siam Railway to use the term “coolie”. One alternative to “rōmusha” was the neutral term “kōin” (工員), meaning a factory worker. But the use of the term “kōin” caused problems on the Burmese side: “But, since the [Japanese] soldiers who come from the north of the Kanto district pronounce ‘i’ as ‘e’, ‘Koin’ became ‘Koen’. This word ‘Koen’ is somewhat similar to Burmese ‘KOE’, ‘dog’, which at times gave rise to their [Burmese forced labourers’] feelings of animosity towards us.” In Kratoska, Paul H. (ed.), The Thailand-Burma Railway, 1942–1946: Documents and Selected Writings, vol. 4 (London, 2006), p. 71 Google Scholar

Tai-men-tetsudo is 泰緬鉄道 in Japanese: 泰 tai Thailand緬 men Burma鉄道 tetsudo railroad

NOV 2021 Update:

In a conversation with a Malaysian gentleman whose father was one of the romusha, I have satisfied myself that this is not a pejorative term and so I will continue to use it in this context.

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