Sonei Kenichi

Sonei Kenichi, Captain

Sonei Kenichi
Sonei appearing at his War Crime Tribunal

Sonei Kenichi was a Captain in the Imperial Japanese army, and as of September 1942 was placed in charge of a number of prison camps in and around Batavia ( Jakarta). His first assignment was the Petakoan “Cycle Camp” where Allied Prisoners of War were interned upon capitulation. This camp was used as a transit facility to flow POWs from elsewhere on Java to the various slave labour operations in South East Asia and Japan. Sonei’s notoriety as a brutal camp commandant was first established here.

In early 1944 Sonei was re-assigned to take over the supervision of the ten or so women’s and children’s prison camps in Batavia and surroundings. This was part of the policy of placing all civilian prison camps under military supervision. Prior to that Japanese civilians conscripted by the army (“economists”) had performed this function. A summary of his reign of terror is provided in chapter 9 of Tjideng Reunion.

He established his residence in a house by the main gate of Tjideng , the prison camp that under his supervision soon became the largest in Batavia and also one of the most notorious civilian prison camps in South East Asia.  In July 1945 he was re-assigned  to other duties in Bandung and promoted.

Many observers, including his Korean colleagues, saw the man as being an unstable individual, and literally attributed lunacy to his behavioural pattern, noting a correlation between his brutal and irrational excesses and the phases of the moon.  His supposed persona appears as a prominent figure in the novel Sunken Red (Jeroen Brouwer), in my opinion, unfairly. There is no evidence that he raped or stole.

vanveldenDr van Velde devotes a lot of attention to this man in her book. Sonei was born in Japan, served in China before coming to Java as a member of the 16th Army. He was convicted in Batavia on 2 September 1946  as a class B war criminal  and executed  on 7 December 1946. Shortly before his execution he wrote a letter to his parents, stating “when one takes part in the struggle, he offers his life for his country, but this time retribution has been exceptionally hard, and based on a one-sided judgement…. I do not feel that the death penalty is a source of shame. I feel instead that it is a punishment inflicted on me by the Gods and Buddha, because of the wrongs I have done during my  existence. I will use the time remaining to confess my sins to the higher powers. The path to spiritual insight is difficult to detect for those who are not holy, but I have always sought this. Some will pity me for my fate as wartime victim but no one will despise me. I feel no shame.” (1)

Hubertus van Mook, the Governor General of Netherlands Indies sought in vain to overturn the death penalty.  His wife had been interned under Sonei and was fully aware of his brutal behaviour. The post war hatred of his former prisoners, replacing war time fear, however knew no bounds. He remains a highly controversial figure in a dramatic confrontation between East and West.

(1) Dr D. van Velde: de Japansche Burgerkampen, pp 497, T. Wever, Franeker, 1963 ISBN 90 6135 241



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