Rōmusha (労務者 ?) is a Japanese language word for "laborer", but has come to specifically denote forced laborers during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in World War II. The U.S. Library of Congress estimates that in Java, between four to 10 million rōmusha were forced to work by the Japanese military, many of whom toiled under harsh conditions and either died or were stranded far from home. However, the term was not closely defined by either the Japanese or the Allies and the numbers stated sometimes encompasses both the kinrōhōshi unpaid laborers, as well as native auxiliary forces, such as troops of the PETA and voluntary transmigrants to other islands in Indonesia.
The rōmusha were paid conscripted laborers, mobilized in Sumatra and eastern Indonesia as well as Java. Some ten percent were women. Their terms of service ranged from one day to the time required to complete a specific project. The types of work required were very diverse, ranging from light housekeeping work to heavy construction. As a general rule, the rōmusha were mobilized within each regency and were able to walk to work from home. However, for very large construction projects, the rōmusha could be sent to other regencies. When their specified period was up, they were returned home and replaced with new workers. However, some were sent away from Indonesia to other parts other Japanese-held areas in South East Asia. There included some 270,000 of Javanese laborers, of whom only 52,000 were repatriated to Java.
The practice of unpaid Corvée labor had been common during colonial period Netherlands East Indies. Although the fact that rōmusha were paid was an improvement, their wages failed to keep pace with inflation, and they were often forced to work under hazardous conditions with inadequate food, shelter or medical case. The rōmusha were supplemented by true unpaid laborers, the kinrōhōshi, who performed mostly menial labor. The kinrōhōshi were recruited for a shorter duration than the rōmusha via tonarigumi neighborhood associations and were theoretically voluntary, although considerable social coercion was applied to "volunteer" as a show of loyalty to the Japanese cause. In 1944, the number of kinrōhōshi in Java was around 200,000 people.
From 1944, PETA also made use of thousands of rōmusha for the construction of military facilities, and in economic projects to help make Java more self-supporting in face of Allied blockades.
The Japanese military made very extensive use of such forced labor during the construction of the Burma-Thailand Railway during 1942–43 and the Pakan Baroe Railway on Sumatra in 1943–45. The death rate among rōmusha, from atrocities, starvation diet, and disease far outstripped the death rate among Allied prisoners of war. About half the forced laborers engaged on the railroad construction died.
- Library of Congress, 1992, "Indonesia: World War II and the Struggle For Independence, 1942-50; The Japanese Occupation, 1942-45" Access date: February 9, 2007
- Post, The Encyclopedia of Indonesia in the Pacific War , pages 505, 578-579;
- Hovinga, Henk (2010). The Sumatra Railroad: Final Destination Pakan Baroe 1943–45. Leiden: KITLV Press. ISBN 9789067183284.