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Captive Fathers, Captive Children: Legacies of the War in the Far East

Author: Terry Smyth

Somewhere in the heat and humidity of Java, my father,Edwin Smyth, was captured by the Imperial Japanese Army. It was the spring of 1942, and he was to spend the next three and a half years as a prisoner of war.Until his death in 1995 he remained troubled by his memories, and his traumatic wartime experiences had a profound effect on me and on the wider family. As the years rolled on, I continued to wonder why seven decades after the war so many of us remained fascinated by our fathers’ experiences of captivity and why we invested countless hours and days researching the facts and attending remembrance events.

           After retiring from full-time employment in 2003, I began to read through my father’s papers. This reading, together with burgeoning online resources, were the triggers for my wife and I to travel to Japan in 2010 where we were able to visit the site of my father’s incarceration (Hiroshima 6b camp, near Mine City).At that point, I needed to make a decision: either I would have to commit to taking this research further, or accept that I had gone as far as I could. Faced with this fork in the road, I decided on the former and, in 2013, I started a full time PhD in the Sociology Department at the University of Essex, graduating in 2017 just days after my 70th birthday. From what I have written so far, it will be clear that the motivation behind my research was very personal;I wanted to know how my experiences compared with those of other FEPOW children,and in what ways our memories of childhood had shaped our later lives.  

             Over the next three and a half years, I made contact with almost one hundred children of FEPOWs, and interviewed forty, mainly face to face with a few by email. Using semi-structured,in-depth interviews, I listened to what the children told me about their childhoods, the changing relationship they’d had with their fathers, and how their memory practices - past and present - had evolved. The term ‘memory practice’ refers to any activity that gives meaning to memory, and includes official remembrance events, the study of military family history, pilgrimages to sites connected with the war, commemorative activitiesin the home (e.g. how we curate photographs, mementoes and other artefacts),and online representations, such as tribute websites and social media platforms.

             Being so emotionally close to the topic, I knew I could never be totally objective. However, ‘insider’ research of this type has unique advantages, most obviously by giving the researcher a‘head start’ when establishing rapport with interviewees. To build on this, I chose to use a ‘psychosocial’ approach for my interviews and analysis. This method draws on concepts from psychoanalysis and encourages each interviewee to tell their story in their own way; it also requires researchers to reflect on how their own past experiences have an impact on the research process. In this way,the relationship between interviewer and interviewee becomes a central and indispensible part of the research. A psychosocial approach also provides a helpful frame work for exploring the links between the psychic and the social, the personal and the geopolitical forces that became intertwined in the lives of the FEPOW children.

             So, how did the research go? As expected,interviews were wide-ranging, challenging and emotionally demanding, made more so by the fact that they covered several decades of lived experience. Without exception,each interview offered new insights and fresh understandings, and I am exceedingly grateful to every participant for their trust and openness.

             In June 2020, I accepted a book contract with Bloomsbury Academic, one of the UK’s leading publishers. To the best of my knowledge, this is the first book to describe research into the lifetime consequences of having a FEPOW father, and it aims to show how memory and trauma became ‘worked into’ the psychic, social and cultural lives of the children.

             During the interviews, I revealed very few of my own experiences, aside from basic facts such as which camp my father had been in. However, once I started to put pen to paper, I realised that I would need to share more of my personal memories and feelings with readers, and that this would be consistent with the psychosocial approach. Every family was affected in one way or another by the father’s FEPOW trauma, and I have not shied away from describing and analysing the more troubling aspects of the children’s experiences, my own included. But, taken together, these examples provide incontrovertible evidence of the incredible strength, resilience and courage of the participants in this research.

The seven chapters that make up ‘Captive Fathers, Captive Children’ are as follows:

  1. Life in  captivity
  2. Bringing war  into the home
  3. Remembering and  commemorating
  4. Finding meaning  in memories
  5. Home as a site  of remembrance
  6. The search for  military family histories
  7. Place and  pilgrimage

Sir Tim Hitchens, British Ambassador to Japan from 2012 to 2017, was kind enough to write the Foreword.

             Although the book is being published by Bloomsbury Academic,I have written it in such a way as to attract a wider audience, including the families of FEPOWs, as well as those scholars interested in methodology,inter-generational trauma, and the legacies of war more generally. At the moment, the book is only available in hardback and digital forms, but I do hope that a soft cover version might become available in future. You can find further details on the publisher’s website:

             In conclusion, I’d like to thank everyone in the COFEPOW community for their inexhaustible willingness to share information and experience - online, in newsletters and face to face - without which I would never have started, or finished, this book.