A Japanese songbook

Image credit: Japanese song book crafted at the Featherston prisoner-of-war camp, 1943. Ref: MS-1079 Alexander Turnbull Library.

Colour studio photo of a handmade songbook made of cigarette packets bound together. The cover shows the 'Tasman' cigarette branding.

This songbook was found on the body of a Japanese soldier held in a prisoner-of-war camp at Featherston, in the Wairarapa, during World War 2. Its owner died when guards opened fire. Find out more, and explore our collections and curated resources.

Read a story about the prisoner-of-war songbook

This beautiful and unique manuscript was found on the body of its maker, killed in a massacre of prisoners at the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Featherston during the Second World War. It is a songbook handmade from cigarette packets, with a song in elegant cursive Japanese script inscribed on the reverse side of each opened-out carton. There are 50 songs altogether, obviously recorded from memory and mostly popular in, or from films of, the 1930s and 1940s. They concern love, Japanese places, travel stories, melancholia and soldiers’ letters home from the Japanese colonies, among other things.

The Featherston prisoner-of-war camp was established in September 1942 to accommodate soldiers and sailors from the Imperial Japanese Army and Navy, along with their Korean labourers, who had been captured by Allied forces during the Battle of Guadalcanal. The camp housed more than 800 prisoners in four compounds.

By 1943, tensions were running high between the prisoners and their New Zealand guards. At issue was the work that the prisoners were expected to undertake, including clearing gorse, gardening, cooking and clearing the compounds. Along with the dishonour of capture, many of these ex-combatants felt deep shame at having to participate in such daily labour.

On 25 February, 240 prisoners went on a sit-down strike. Eventually, a confrontation between the two groups erupted after a guard fired a warning shot. As the prisoners armed themselves with stones and approached the guards, the latter opened fire with pistols, rifles and sub-machine guns. During the melée, 49 people died — 48 Japanese prisoners and one New Zealand guard.

Both labour and creativity continued as part of camp life. Some prisoners produced elaborately carved artwork as well as furniture in traditional Japanese styles in the onsite workshop. Others fabricated items for New Zealand’s burgeoning state house construction industry. Chimneys, fireplaces and washtubs, all made from concrete, were produced at the camp.

At the end of the war, the camp was closed and all remaining prisoners were repatriated by ship to Japan. Today, a grove of cherry trees, popularly known as the Peace Gardens, acts as a memorial to those who died at Featherston. A plaque there quoting a haiku by the seventeenth-century poet Matsuo Bashō commemorates those killed:

Behold the summer grass
All that remains
Of the dreams of warriors.

Story written by: Seán McMahon

Copyright: Turnbull Endowment Trust

A page from the songbook

Image credit: Japanese song book, page 39 ‘Niizuma Kagami’, 1943. Ref: MS-1079 Alexander Turnbull Library.

Colour photo of a page in a handmade songbook. It shows the words to a song 'Niizuma Kagami' written in Japanese.

Niizuma Kagami

The song on this page, ‘Niizuma Kagami’ (‘Bride Mirror’), comes from a 1940 film of the same name, a love story about a new wife and the travails of her life after marriage. Reads top to bottom, right to left.

A Japanese prisoner

Image credit: Japanese prisoner of war lighting his cigarette, Wairarapa, 1943 by John Dobree Pascoe. Ref: 1/4-000774-F Alexander Turnbull Library.

Black and white photo showing a Japanese prisoner of war lighting a cigarette next to a European Aotearoa NZ soldier.

About this photo

A Japanese prisoner of war lights up during a break from loading shingle onto a truck near the Featherston prisoner-of-war camp, 1943. The photo was taken by John Pascoe on a visit to the camp to document it as part of his work as an official wartime photographer.

Find out more

The collection of 52 cards, including covers, is bound by thread and has an index of titles. Each prisoner received cigarettes as part of their rations.

Explore the Alexander Turnbull Library collections further: Japanese prisoners of war, Featherston.

Topic Explorer has New Zealand and the Second World War.

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Te Marautanga o Aotearoa

Tikanga ā-iwi:

  • Te whakaritenga pāpori me te ahurea
  • Te ao hurihuri
  • Te wāhi me te taiao.

Te Takanga o Te Wā (ngā hītori o Aotearoa):

  • Tūrangawaewae.

New Zealand Curriculum

Social sciences concepts:

  • Identity, culture, and organisation
  • Place and environment
  • Continuity and change.

Aotearoa New Zealand’s histories:

  • The exercise of power
  • Relationships and connections between people.