Bayah – the remaining traces of Romusha

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A resident walking near the relics of the Japanese railway track bed, at Sawarna Beach area, Bayah, Banten. (IO/Muhammad Hidayat)

Bayah, IO – Rōmusha in Japanese literally means “laborer”, but tends to refer specifically to those men dragooned by the Imperial Japanese Army to work as forced laborers during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in World War II. 

Japan needed laborers to build fortifications, roads, railways, bridges, and airfields in Indonesia and in other countries its Army invaded in the region. 

Sarjo, 96, one of the living former Romusha workers. (IO/Muhammad Hidayat)

Romusha workers came from villages in Java, and were partly voluntary workers and in part unpaid slave laborers. The Romusha system lasted for three years, from 1942 to 1945. While some Romusha workers were employed voluntarily, staying close to where they lived, they eventually became forced laborers who toiled under harsh conditions and died, or were stranded far from home since the Japanese military effort was disrupted and destroyed in the later stages of the Pacific War. Families were frequently forced to give up their sons to work as Romusha. 

A Japanese heritage sword, kept by one of the Bayah residents. (IO/Muhammad Hidayat)

Romusha laborers were tortured and starved. They were forced to do punitive work such as leveling hills, pounding rocks in the mountains, to chopping wood in the forest. The laborers were also brutally tortured, leading to the deaths of Indonesian laborers. Too many suffered and died from illnesses, lack of food and work accidents. The Romusha system impacted several structural changes in Indonesia. Young farmers disappeared from villages, out of fear of being sent away as Romusha. Japan also exploited the country’s resources by seizing plantations, their harvests and transportation facilities. They imposed strict limits and distorted the Indonesian economy to support their war effort.