Art created by Japanese prisoners of war in New Zealand

A fellow blogger wrote this fascinating snippet about the art created by WW2 Japanese prisoners of war in New Zealand. My fellow blogger attends a series of very interesting talks for ‘third age’ people in Canterbury (our province) called U3A, dedicated to the stimulation of lifelong learning.

Here’s her blog-piece –

Oriental Art

7 June 2022 by realruth

The story of the Japanese Prisoners of War who were interned in Featherston in the 1940s is a fascinating one, not well known in Aotearoa. Richard Bullen, the Associate Professor of Japanese Art History at the University of Canterbury gave an engrossing talk about these men and the art they created. 850 Japanese men had been captured and were on their way to Aotearoa before the American forces told our government they were coming.

On 1 September 1942 the N.Z. Government made the decision to house them at Featherston where there had been a World War One military training camp, which was now bare. On 8 September troops were sent to make the area ready, put up tents, etc, and on 12 September the Japanese arrived. They were given old WWI uniforms to wear, including lemon-squeezer hats. Their names and occupations were recorded, but it’s apparent that the names, and probably many of the occupations were false. For all the time they were interned they had no correspondence with their families back in Japan.

The prisoners were expected to join work parties, as allowed under the Geneva Convention, but these ordinary men had no idea their government had signed the Geneva Convention and they resisted the call to work. In 1943 this led to a riot where 48 Japanese and one New Zealander were killed.

Huts were built to replace the tents the prisoners were first housed in, and remnants of building materials were used by them to create artworks, mainly relief sculptures. Their tools were made from wire, nails, and cutlery. They used these nostalgic Japanese pictures to decorate their quarters and to trade with the guards for cigarette tobacco. They also carved some NZEF badges, which were presumably commissioned by guards. Some materials, e.g. coloured paints, were donated to the prisoners by the Red Cross and the Society of Friends (Quakers). Paua shell used for decoration probably came from the same sources, as it was known to have been given to the 20 Japanese civilians housed in a camp at Pahiatua. The chaplain Hessell Troughton established an organised system for making and selling items of art. All the items were well made, especially considering the artists were amateurs, although art was a compulsory subject in all Japanese schools from the 1890s.

Figure Viewing Mt Fuji – courtesy of Featherston Heritage Museum.

The prisoners also made Mah Jong sets, and/or playing cards from cigarette packets. They practised ikebana and were surprised at the lack of botanical knowledge among the guards and camp staff. When the Japanese left at the end of 1945 they took some items they’d made with them, but couldn’t take them all as some were large wooden pieces. Some can now be seen in the Featherston Heritage Museum and the Waiouru Army Museum. Richard and his colleague published a book about this art which brought great interest from Japanese media, but nothing from the Japanese public.

No contact with folks far away
art must have helped to fill their day

Header pic: Memorial plaque at Featherston WWII POW camp.

5 thoughts on “Art created by Japanese prisoners of war in New Zealand

  1. Anna

    This is fascinating, Katrina. My mother used to attend U3A, a great resource for those of a certain age. And I have an interest in Japan. Thank you for re-blogging this.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I hadn’t read anything about Japanese POWs in New Zealand before, so this was very interesting. (That said, history as taught in US schools tends to be very America-centric.) I’ve read a bit about the way Japanese troops were treated by their own officers in the Pacific Theatre, and it wasn’t good: I’m surprised that more Japanese soldiers didn’t simply surrender to Allied troops since many of them were starving by the end of the war. I’m guessing they feared retaliation by Allied soldiers, so it’s nice to find they were decently treated, at least in NZ.

    Prisoner art is its own genre, I’ve been told. I don’t know if you can see the difference between art produced by amateur/hobbyists and POWs, unless the subject matter is drawn from prison experience. The example posted above doesn’t indicate it was produced in a prison, but I suspect the artist was very homesick when he made it.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. From what I can ascertain, the picture in the blog is a Japanese prisoner of war artwork in the Featherston Heritage museum in NZ.

      As a side note, when we had our big earthquake here in Christchurch in 2011, and the Japanese search and rescue team came to help search for and retrieve bodies from under the rubble of buildings, each time they found one the team would pause to honour each victim. That image stayed with me. I can send you two or three photos of the Japanese team at work, if you like? If you’re interested, email me at .


  3. Vicki

    Fascinating. I hadn’t heard this story before or anything about the Japanese Prisoners of War interned in Featherston.

    I was intrigued enough to go in search for more photos of the art, but only found a few pieces.

    Thanks for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

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