Tuesday, July 22, 2014


Japanese in Guam during the Occupation

Yesterday's paper included a statement by a war survivor, pointing out something that I had known for quite some time. Life under the Japanese wasn't all pain and suffering for everybody.

Eddie Camacho, a well-known Guam businessman, said that, in the beginning, the Japanese "left the Chamorros to themselves."

What then, was the reality, based on all accounts from those who went through that experience?


  • Anxiety. This was something, one can say, the vast majority of Chamorros on Guam experienced during Japanese Occupation. This anxiety was both the broad kind ("Will the Americans ever come back?" "Will the Japanese be here forever?") and the narrow kind ("Is that Japanese guard upset with me? "Will I get punished today?").  People have shared how they had this general uneasiness, not knowing the future, and not even knowing what might happen day by day. Life under the American Navy was all very predictable. Life under the Japanese was unstable. Chamorros had to watch their moves and their speech for fear of the Japanese. They weren't used to that with the Americans.
  • Material Security. The Japanese could come along, and often did, and just take whatever they wanted. Many Chamorros gave up some material things they enjoyed before the war, like cars and radios. Even homes were requisitioned by the Japanese, but usually the family was living at the ranch house.
  • Occasional Beatings. Usually, Chamorros suffered slaps to the face, for things such as forgetting to bow to a Japanese, or for bowing incorrectly (too low or not low enough). There were many more possible infractions such as slipping into speaking English, saying anything remotely disparaging about Japan or Japan's chances of victory. Some Chamorros were punched or kicked. Some were arrested for more serious things like failing to show up for work.
  • Boredom. One older woman, now deceased, told me that the worst thing she suffered during the Japanese Occupation was boredom. Before the war, she was a top student and enjoyed school. But the Japanese focused on Japanese language training for a select group of future teachers, so she didn't go to school the whole time the Japanese were on Guam. "There was nothing to do," she said. "Not even Church."
  • The last several MONTHS before the American return, and some say just the last few WEEKS before the American return, were truly the days when nearly all Chamorros suffered and feared death the most. When American planes strafed Guam, and American ships circled the island, that's when the Japanese panicked and the American threat brought the worst out of them. This is the period of forced labor followed by killing, the rapes, the massacres, the roughest treatment of all. Some even died from American bullets.
Of course there were exceptions. Some Chamorros suffered quite a bit for a lot of the Occupation, especially those considered higher status, as they stood out more and were suspected more of having pro-American sentiments.

Those married to Americans (who were sent to POW camps in Japan) were always eyes cautiously.

Those suspected of helping Tweed also had more attention from the Japanese than they cared for.

But, for the majority of Chamorros, life under the Japanese was not a brutal experience until the last phase.


  • Starvation. Even in the last several weeks before liberation, when most people were herded into camps, people had some food. From the time the Japanese came and stores ran out of goods and people had no cash anyway with which to buy, the people returned to farming. The weather cooperated during the whole Occupation. While people didn't have luxury food items anymore, they did have the basic foods needed for survival. This they carried with them into the concentration camps. Walking to the camps, sleeping on the earth in cramped huts, dealing with mud and rain, contending with the lice and the rats wasn't fun. But they had something, even a little, to put in their stomachs.


  • A Kind of Freedom. The picture above is there because one man, long deceased, told me he had terrific fun as an older teenager during the Japanese Occupation. His family owned a considerable number of cattle. As he was the oldest son on Guam at the time, his father put him in charge of the cattle. This placed him in a position to deal with the Japanese, looking for meat. He negotiated with the Japanese but he also gained a sense of importance with his fellow Chamorros. The Japanese always got the best cuts, but many Chamorros were happy with the less desirable parts which the Japanese would never touch. He admits that he used his position as a beef provider to his own advantage, especially with the ladies who now had a friendliness towards him unseen before the war. He told me, "I was never a good student, so I was so happy when the schools closed when the Japanese came." Unlike others who became very bored, this man used his new freedom from school to become a valuable supplier of food to the Japanese. He was active and important.
  • Friendship with the Japanese. Many Chamorros became friends with the Japanese, both military and civilians. Japanese Catholic priest, Father Komatsu, was treated like a son by several Chamorro matriarchs. Individual Japanese officers befriended some Chamorro families and even helped them escape danger. One family benefited from their mother's friendship with the Japanese in their southern village. She was a pre-war nurse, trained at the Naval Hospital. In her small village, she gave simple treatments to Japanese soldiers who needed minor medical attention. In return, the Japanese in that village made sure that family was safe and sound. Other Chamorro women became girlfriends of Japanese officers. Some of these ladies became girlfriends of American soldiers quickly after the liberation.

As one Chamorro man told me, "Wartime was bad only in the very beginning and the very end. When the Japanese Army was in charge."

"The Japanese Navy, which came after the Army, was much better. And then came the Japanese civilian government, which was tame. The Japanese just wanted you to grow food. Grow food and don't get into trouble. That was it."

A Chamorro lady told me, "Other than not having our priests and Mass, and our church to go to, we went back to the old way of life during the Spanish times, the time of my parents and grandparents. We farmed, we fished and as a family we helped each other. We were careful not to use English, but we spoke Chamorro in the family anyway. We just missed our priests and our church life."

"Didn't you miss the Americans?" I asked her.

"Oh yes we did! We loved the Americans. To us, the Japanese were a strange kind of people. Not Christian, not what we were used to. But honestly it was hard to know if the Americans would ever come back."

They did.

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