Civilian Internment

Japanese internment in Australia during World War II

In 1935 there were 1,146,462 Japanese and people of Japanese descent living outside of Japan. During World War II both the Allied and Axis Powers interned people of enemy origin in the name of national security. Before the outbreak of the Pacific War, Japanese migrant communities had been well established throughout the Asia-Pacific region. When the war in Europe began in 1939, Australia interned Germans and, later, Italians. The internment of Germans and Italians was in principle selective, but when Japan entered the war on 8 December 1941, almost all the Japanese residents in Australia were taken into custody within 24 hours. The promptness and thoroughness of the internment of Japanese can be explained by the security implications of Japan’s entry into the war, exacerbated by Australia’s long-held belief that Asian countries threatened Australia. 1141 Japanese were interned in Australia, including naturalised subjects, Australian-born children and wives of Japanese residents.

Internees who were transported to Australia

As part of pre-war planning, Australia had agreed to accept civilian internees of many origins from other governments. During the war 7877 civilians of enemy nationalities were transported to Australia from around the world for internment. The locally interned Japanese were joined by 3160 other Japanese internees who were transferred from neighbouring countries – 1949 from the Dutch East Indies, 1124 from New Caledonia, 50 from New Zealand, 34 from the New Hebrides and three from the Solomon Islands.

Taiwanese Internees

Many internees categorised as Japanese were in fact of various origins. The Dutch East Indies government interned approximately 500 men, women and children of Taiwanese origin and some Koreans (numbers unsubstantiated). They were regarded as Japanese subjects because they had been under the Japanese rule since 1895 in Taiwan and 1910 in Korea. Under the Japanese assimilation policy, Taiwanese and Koreans were indoctrinated to accept their roles and responsibilities as Japanese subjects. While Taiwanese kept their Chinese names, many Koreans were forced to adopt Japanese surnames, and so it was not always easy to distinguish Koreans from the Japanese internees.

Movements of internees

The Japanese internees arrested in Australia were initially held in local prisons and transported to staging camps either by land or sea before reaching their permanent camps. They were divided into three groups – single males went to the Loveday internment camp in South Australia and the Hay internment camp in New South Wales, while women and family groups were held at the Tatura internment camp in Victoria. Most of the internees had arrived in their designated camps by the end of March 1942. For the first 12 months or so, the population of the camps continued to change due to transfers of internees. In August 1942, the first civilian prisoner exchange with Japan took place and 867 people, including 34 diplomatic officials, left Australia. A second exchange was contemplated but did not eventuate.

Camp life

Eventually life for the internees settled into the artificially imposed rhythm of camp routine. Internees were treated in accordance with the Geneva Convention. Their camps were run by their own elected internee committees and many internees at Loveday and Tatura willingly participated in paid employment schemes for one shilling a day. At Loveday many fit men worked in fire-wood cutting camps, while others worked on vegetable and poultry farms. At Tatura, many women were employed in a clothing factory. However, at Hay the participation rate in paid work was much lower than in the other two camps because of the protests against PWJM reclassification. All three camps organised sports events and concerts. At Tatura, they established a camp school where children were taught Japanese language, history and culture. All of the internees who needed medical attention were treated either at a camp hospital or at a local Australian general hospital. A total of 193 internees, including 11 Taiwanese and one Korean, died during internment from illness and old age. Some of the others failed to adjust to life in internment and a few took their own lives.


During the war, a small number of local Japanese were granted release back into the Australian community. When the war ended, there were still over 3268 internees classified as Japanese in Australia, including Taiwanese and Koreans. Those Japanese who were born in Australia or who had family members born in Australia were allowed to remain. Only 141 were in this category and the rest left Australia by ship in February and March 1946.

The Cowra Japanese War Cemetery Database Project ( 2016-2024 ) © Embassy of Japan, Canberra