Rōmusha (労務者) is a Japanese language word for "laborer", but has come to specifically denote forced laborers during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in World War II. The U.S. Library of Congress estimates that in Java, between 4 and 10 million rōmusha were forced to work by the Japanese military, many of whom toiled under harsh conditions and either died or were stranded far from home. However, the term was not closely defined by either the Japanese or the Allies and the numbers stated sometimes encompass both the kinrōhōshi unpaid laborers, as well as native auxiliary forces, such as troops of the Japanese-supported Indonesian volunteer army Pembela Tanah Air (PETA) and voluntary transmigrants to other islands in Indonesia.
The rōmusha were paid conscripted laborers, mobilized in Sumatra and eastern Indonesia as well as Java. Some ten percent were women. Their tenures of service ranged from one day to the time required to complete a specific project. The types of work required were very diverse, ranging from light housekeeping work to heavy construction. As a general rule, the rōmusha were mobilized within each regency and were able to walk to work from home. However, for very large construction projects, the rōmusha could be sent to other regencies. When their specified period was up, they were returned home and replaced with new workers. However, some were sent away from Indonesia to other Japanese-held areas in Southeast Asia. These included some 270,000 Javanese laborers, of whom only 52,000 were repatriated to Java, suggesting a high death rate or post-war migration.
The practice of unpaid corvée labor had been common during colonial period Netherlands East Indies. Although the fact that rōmusha were paid was an improvement, their wages failed to keep pace with inflation, and they were often forced to work under hazardous conditions with inadequate food, shelter or medical care. The general Japanese treatment of laborers was very bad. The rōmusha were supplemented by true unpaid laborers, the kinrōhōshi, who performed mostly menial labor. The kinrōhōshi were recruited for a shorter duration than the rōmusha via tonarigumi neighborhood associations and were theoretically voluntary, although considerable social coercion was applied to "volunteer" as a show of loyalty to the Japanese cause. In 1944, the number of kinrōhōshi in Java was around 200,000 people. The brutality of the rōmusha and other forced labor systems was a key reason for the very high death rates among Indonesians under the Japanese occupation. A later UN report stated that 4 million people died in Indonesia as a result of the Japanese occupation. About 2.4 million people died in Java from famine during 1944–45.
From 1944, the PETA also made use of thousands of rōmusha for the construction of military facilities, and in economic projects to help make Java more self-supporting in face of Allied blockades.
The Japanese military made very extensive use of such forced labor during the construction of the Burma-Thailand Railway during 1942–43 and the Pakan Baroe Railway on Sumatra in 1943–45. The death rate among rōmusha, from atrocities, starvation diet, and disease far outstripped the death rate among Allied prisoners of war.
- Library of Congress, 1992, "Indonesia: World War II and the Struggle For Independence, 1942-50; The Japanese Occupation, 1942-45" Access date: February 9, 2007
- Post, The Encyclopedia of Indonesia in the Pacific War , pages 505, 578-579;
- Cited in: Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986; Pantheon; ISBN 0-394-75172-8).
- Van der Eng, Pierre (2008) 'Food Supply in Java during War and Decolonisation, 1940–1950.' MPRA Paper No. 8852. pp. 35–38. http://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/8852/
- Hovinga, Henk (2010). The Sumatra Railroad: Final Destination Pakan Baroe 1943–45. Leiden: KITLV Press. ISBN 9789067183284.