Each camp had its own commander. The internees were expected to organize life in the camp themselves in accordance with the rules he issued. Committees were set up for this purpose – in any case in the larger camps – whose members were sometimes elected and sometimes designated by the Japanese. The committee’s chairperson was made responsible for the contacts with the camp commander, who usually wanted to deal with one man or woman only. This is why the other internees considered him or her as the camp leader.
Formally, the camp leader chaired the committee that managed the camp as a single entity. In practice, he/she was the most influential internee. Many things, for instance buying food or fitting out a camp kitchen, required the authorization of the camp commander, who communicated only with the camp leader. Moreover, the camp leader passed on the camp commander’s orders and was responsible for seeing to it they were carried out. Having to compromise between the inmates’ wishes and the demands made by the Japanese commander did not make life easy for the camp leader.
Every internee received a number and had to carry it on his or her person at all times. Many inmates added a personal touch to their number. There are, for instance, numbers decorated with an embroidery referring to the kind of work the wearer was doing in the camp; others were burnt into wood and bore Japanese characters.
In order to avoid conflicts as much as possible, the committee drew up rules governing the daily routine in the camp. It goes without saying that these rules were not always adhered to. Thefts took place, for instance by people who worked in the camp kitchen. Others tried to back out of chores. In case of smuggling, the whole camp often ran the risk of being punished and it was, therefore, in the inmates’ interest to prevent smuggling activities as much as possible. Often the internees had their own police whose task it was to maintain order and solve disputes. Some camps even had their own prison.
The internees had to do all the work in the camp themselves. In the beginning, native workers were still allowed to carry out maintenance work or build new barracks in the women’s camps. Shifts were set up in all camps for doing the chores, first on a voluntary basis, but later on the work became a requirement. There were shifts for cleaning, collecting refuse, preparing food, gardening and chopping wood. New duties were added in the course of the war: the houses, the barracks and the fence around the camp had to be kept in repair. On the arrival of a new transport, there were pieces of furniture and crates to carry and the rice rations had to be taken to the kitchen.
From the very beginning, roll calls were held in many camps. They were a real ordeal, especially if it was a Japanese who took the roll. The internees had to stand perfectly still in line in a central place in the camp, all their face turned in the direction of Japan. At the commander’s order, they had to bow at an angle of precisely twenty degrees. It often took a log time before all the internees had been counted.
In general, the native policemen, who were in charge of surveillance in the beginning, were not ill-disposed towards the internees. However, starting in 1943, the Japanese began to call in native recruits, so-called “heihos”, to help guard the camps. These young soldiers were much less kindly disposed towards the Dutch internees, although they seldom hit or punished them. When an internee ran into a Japanese or native guard, he was supposed to make a bow. The inmates experienced these bows as humiliating. In Japanese eyes, however, bowing in front of a soldier was in fact bowing in front of the emperor. If an internee failed to make the obligatory bow, he could expect to be severely punished.