Featherston incident

Two kilometres north of the quiet little Wairarapa town of Featherston, a small memorial garden marks the site of a riot that resulted in the deaths of 48 Japanese prisoners of war and one guard. A further 63 prisoners were wounded.

A plaque commemorates the site with a 17th-century haiku:

Behold the summer grass
All that remains of the
Dreams of warriors.

Plaque with haiku poem

The memorial plaque

Featherston was the site of New Zealand's largest military training camp during the First World War, housing 7500 men, before being dismantled after the war. It was re-established in 1942 to house 800 Japanese prisoners of war.

The riot broke out as a result of some of the Japanese prisoners refusing to work. Capture was humiliation enough for some of these men. News of the riot was kept relatively quiet as a result of war-time censorship. There were fears that the Japanese might retaliate against Allied POWs in Japanese camps. An inquiry was quickly organised in early March and the guards were cleared of any wrongdoing. It pointed to a clash of cultures made worse by the language barrier. The Japanese seemed unaware of the terms of the 1929 Prisoners of War Convention that stated that compulsory work for POWs was permitted; the camp had only a fragmentary translation of this available to the prisoners.

Two of the Japanese officers, Adachi and Nishimura, were found to have stirred their fellow prisoners into action. The Imperial POW Committee in London edited the New Zealand report to minimise any propaganda value that the Japanese government might have gained from the incident. The report claimed that the guards acted in self-defence when charged by a crowd of 250 prisoners throwing rocks. It also noted that the shooting ended as quickly as possible, lasting about 20 seconds.

Featherston memorial

Memorial garden at Featherston

Others claimed, however, that the actions at Featherston were in retaliation for the mis-treatment of Allied POWs held in Japanese camps. Those who defended the actions of the guards that day were quick to point out that the Japanese prisoners had been generally well fed and housed and that this incident was an exception to the rule. It was noted that the Japanese were in no position to complain about one isolated event for many Allied prisoners fared much worse in Japanese POW camps.

Other recommended resources

  • Te Ara – The Encyclopedia of New Zealand also has an account of this incident – 'Dreams of Warriors'
  • The NZHistory Calendar also has a link to an article that appeared in the Wairarapa Times Age.

NCEA history

  • This incident is a useful case study for carrying out an investigation of an historical event or place of significance to New Zealanders at all levels.
  • As an item of broad historical interest it could also be used as a starter to a lesson. There are a number of events covered in other history topics where unarmed crowds have been fired upon, such as the Sharpeville incident. The Featherston incident is an opportunity to consider this type of event in a New Zealand context.
  • Classes studying the Origins of the Second World War could consider the incident as a way of exploring how war had an impact on life in New Zealand; it also brings the war into a New Zealand context for students.

Social studies

Events from 'This week in NZHistory' can be used in ways similar to the incorporation of current events into your programme. This particular event could be used as part of a one-off activity based on a significant event or as part of a wider study of a theme or topic, such as Life in New Zealand during the Second World War or human rights themes.

The event provides a context with which to explore 'Place and environment' and Continuity and Change.

Teaching and learning activities

To cater for a broad range of needs in terms of age and curriculum levels, these activities should be modified to meet the needs of your classes. The ideas and activities enable you to find something suitable to explore in the depth appropriate for your class.

A. Discussion points

1. One explanation for the events that occurred at Featherston revolves around the sense of shame and humiliation that some of the Japanese POWs felt about being held captive. Under the 1941 Japanese Military Field Code, physical capture equated to spiritual death and would ostracise prisoners from their family as well as the Japanese nation. In light of this, consider the following questions. You may wish to turn these into a written activity at the conclusion of a class discussion.

  • Why did some of the Japanese POWs believe it to be the ultimate disgrace to be captured?
  • Why was it considered to be deeply shameful to work for the enemy?

2. In view of the sense of shame some of the Japanese POWs might have felt, do you believe:

  • it was appropriate or right to expect the Japanese POWs to work while being held in captivity?
  • there was justification for putting them to work?

B. Your opinion

1. An inquiry exonerated the guards of any wrong doing, although the Japanese government disagreed. Was this an incident waiting to happen? Could it have been prevented? The differences between the first and second group of prisoners interred was cited as a key to explaining what took place. In 2001, a Featherston local speaking about the incident claimed that the second group of Japanese prisoners who arrived in 1943 were very different from the first. The early group comprised labourers who had an expectation that they would be put to work; the second group was made up of soldiers who were described as being 'much less likeable'.

  • What did the Featherston local mean when he described the second batch of prisoners as being 'much less likeable'?
  • In what way might this opinion have influenced the guards on duty at the camp?

2. Former prisoner Michiharu Shinya described Donald Donaldson, the camp commandant, as 'a lean figure and a man of few words and chilly manner, a character ever so much the stamp of an English gentleman'. [Shinya mistakenly referred to the commandant as Captain R.H. Perrett in his account, but Perrett was no longer in charge at the time of the riot]. When the stand-off between the guards and the prisoners reached a critical stage, Perrett rejected calls for a meeting and instead instructed his adjutant to get the prisoners back to work.

  • How important do you believe the personality and manner of Captain Perrett was to the events that took place at Featherston?

3. Central to the outrage some historians and commentators expressed in the wake of this incident was the fact that the guards opened fire on unarmed prisoners and that no orders were given to shoot.

  • What did the POWs do that might be considered justification for opening fire?
  • Why did the guards open fire, despite there being no orders to do so?
  • In your opinion, was the military court of inquiry verdict fair?
  • Pretend that you are part of the military inquiry investigating what happened. Write a report for your superiors in which you outline why you believe this incident occurred. Include in your report what you believe to be the three critical mistakes made at the camp by those in command who, in your opinion, were responsible for the events that took place. Your report should be no more than 125 words.

C. Entering into the past with imagination

1. Report to the prime minister. This was a highly sensitive issue not just because so many had been killed but because there were fears that the Japanese would retaliate by harming the many New Zealanders held in Japanese POW camps should news of the incident spread. You are an advisor working in the Prime Minister's Department. Prime Minister Peter Fraser must discuss this matter urgently with his Cabinet and requires the following from you:

  1. a brief (75 words maximum) summary of events, i.e., what took place
  2. your verdict about who was at fault for what happened
  3. your advice as to whether or not the event should be made public. Here the prime minister wants reasons to justify the action the government might take, so he needs to know the pros and cons of any decision to hush up the event or to come clean about it.

2. Newspaper headlines and coverage. War-time censorship suppressed most of the details of this event. You are a reporter. It is September 1945 and the war with Japan is now over. The newspaper you work for is keen to unravel the events of 25 February 1943. The editor of your newspaper (you can make up the name of your newspaper) has asked you to:

  • come up with three possible headings for a front-page story revealing what happened at Featherston on 25 February 1943; and
  • write an introductory paragraph for a front-page story about what happened.

3. Editorial. You are the editor of a newspaper. Write an editorial of between 75 and 100 words and outline why you either agree or disagree with the government's initial decision to keep this event quiet. The purpose of the editorial is to express an opinion one way or the other, so there is no sitting on the fence!

Some other ideas and resources to explore

  • If you want to incorporate art or literature into your social studies programme, then there are some good pieces to consider obtaining. Vincent O'Sullivan's play about the incident, Shuriken, was first performed in 1983. In 2002 artist Robin White exhibited 12 panels depicting what was left of the camp. She had been moved by examples of art completed by prisoners from the camp that reflected their response as outsiders to the prison camp and its surrounding landscape. Her work 'captures the straw-coloured dryness of a classic Wairarapa summer' while Japanese elements give a familiar landscape a somewhat alien feel. A hawk flies high, making it possible to imagine the prisoners who spent summer days lying on their backs in the long grass watching hawks sail freely above. In this sense the work is a companion piece to the haiku at the top of this page.
  • Susan Brocker's Dreams of Warriors is an historical novel for intermediate and secondary school students set in the Wairarapa during the Second World War. The story encompasses some important events in our wartime history, such as the riot at the Japanese prisoner-of-war camp in Featherston and the impact of the arrival of the American troops in New Zealand. These topics become real when woven into the story of Bella, her family, friends, and a horse called Gypsy. It is a gripping tale, with plenty of historical content about a time that today’s students will find fascinating. Accompanying teachers’ notes can be found here
How to cite this page

'Incident at Featherston', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/te-akomanga/contexts-activities/featherston-incident, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 14-Jun-2023