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Bleak life under the Rising Sun

Millennium markers - Japanese Occupation

FROM the time I first visited Malaysia in 1971, people have told me stories about the Japanese Occupation of Malaya during World War II.

Some are predictable: Japanese sentries slapped people, the kempeitai or military police tortured people, the military administration forced people to hand over huge sums of money.

Others are surprising: it was easy to outwit the Japanese, and many Japanese soldiers were corrupt.

And some reminded me that, in the midst of cataclysmic events, people still need to get food and clothing and medicines and shelter, and during the Occupation such simple, everyday things became very difficult to manage.

In 1977 I became a history lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia where students expressed interest in writing on the Occupation. I urged them to go beyond the familiar stories of killings, torture and forced donations and try to find out about daily life under Japanese rule. They talked with their parents and grandparents and family friends, and came back with details that had never made it into the history books. Some of the information they provided is included here.

A close study of the Occupation produces a number of surprises. For example, it seems logical to assume that Japan invaded Malaya to get hold of the country's natural resources. In reality, tin and rubber and palm oil were of no immediate use to the Japanese. Moreover, Japan did not have enough ships to carry raw materials from Malaya and other parts of South-East Asia to the industries of north-east Asia, and this problem grew worse as the war progressed.

Malaya's tin, rubber and oil palm industries closed down during the war. Small quantities of rubber were used to make oil and petrol, although these products were so full of rubber particles they clogged up engines when they were used. The tin dredges were cannibalised to get machinery for factories.

Labourers employed by the estates and the mines found themselves out of work. So did the people who processed rubber, tin and palm oil, those who transported these products to the ports and loaded them onto ships, and the clerks and company officials who handled administrative arrangements and did the paperwork. And so, too, did the shopkeepers who sold these people food and clothing, the trishaw peddlers and bus drivers who carried them to and from their jobs, and many others in the service sector.

Unemployment remained a serious problem for about two years. Gradually, though, the Japanese military administration found a use for Malaya's surplus labour.

Japanese troops advancing through Malaya

The Japanese needed ports and airfields and railway lines, and they recruited labourers to work on construction projects. Some people volunteered for these jobs, which promised good wages and, more importantly, food, clothing and shelter.

When still more workers were needed, the Japanese turned to forced recruitment. The most infamous project was the so-called Death Railway, the line linking the rail systems of Thailand and Burma, but there were other construction sites in southern Thailand, throughout Malaya and in Sumatra. Conditions were extremely bad, and the workers - if they survived - generally came home suffering from malaria, malnutrition and skin ulcers.

Before the war, Malaya imported two thirds of its rice, all of its cloth and clothing, steel and heavy equipment, medicines, soap and a great many other things. Lacking sources of supply for these products and ships to carry them, the military administration tried to make Malaya self-sufficient.

Japanese firms opened steel mills, using local iron ore and locally-made charcoal for fuel. They built chemical plants that produced caustic soda, hydrochloric acid, bleaching powder, oxygen, carbonic acid and paint. They made grease for heavy equipment from vegetable oils. And they planned factories to produce cloth and other consumer goods. Under wartime conditions, however, these arrangements did not work very well and what production there was went mainly to the Japanese military.

To overcome the shortage of food, the Japanese forced farmers to give up part of their crops. They opened agricultural settlements and encouraged people to leave the cities and grow their own food. And they turned a blind eye when smugglers brought rice into the country from Burma or Thailand.

Because there was far from enough rice, people survived by eating root crops such as tapioca, yams, and sweet potatoes. The British returned expecting to find the population starving. At first, things seemed much better than anticipated, but when doctors began doing checks in the schools, they discovered that children who looked like healthy eight-year-olds were actually 12 to 14 years of age. Their growth had been stunted by malnutrition.

By the end of the war, much of the rural population was clothed in rags. Some families had only one intact sarong: if the husband was out, the wife had to stay indoors, and if the wife went out, the husband stayed inside. People tried to make cloth from kapok, or fibres collected from banana skins and banana stems, the leaves of castor oil plants, pineapple leaves, and the bark of certain trees. Muslim burials, which required white cloth to serve as a shroud, were carried out using woven mats.

In the kampongs, people revived all but forgotten skills to make mats, coconut oil and palm sugar. They produced soap substitutes from ash, palm oil and lime, or by pounding together mixtures of leaves, flowers and cinnamon bark. For toothpaste, they used salt, or finely ground charcoal, and they chewed the end of certain fibrous twigs to get a sort of toothbrush. To take the place of soy sauce, local factories made a sauce out of coconut milk, peanuts, potatoes and starch.

Money caused considerable problems during the Occupation. The Japanese began with careful currency policies. The $50mil donation demanded from the Chinese community was intended not only to weaken and frighten the Chinese, but also to combat inflation by withdrawing this money from circulation. (The sum was almost half of the currency in circulation in Malaya in 1938, and around 18% of the money circulating in 1942.) Within six months, the Japanese had brought inflation under control.

However, the military government had no sources of revenue. There was no trade to tax, little industry, and people had almost no money to spend. To meet expenses, the Japanese printed currency notes, and by the end of the war had placed around $3bil in circulation, more than 30 times the pre-war level.

Prices shot up. In Kota Star, Kedah, salt cost 2 cents per kati before the war, and $6 per kati in February 1945; a tin of coconut oil cost $2.40 before the war, and $315 in 1945. During the same period the price of a sarong increased from $1.80 to $1,000, and a pair of trousers from $4 to $700. In Singapore the cost of living in February 1945 was 59 times greater than in February 1942.

The Japanese tried to control inflation by collecting money through lotteries and licensed gambling, and running forced savings campaigns, but they had little success.

The British, keeping watch on the situation through intelligence reports, finally decided to demonetise the wartime currency, and one of their first post-war decrees declared that Japanese money had no value.

Everyday life, then, was a struggle during the Occupation. People got what they could through the rationing system, but it was far from enough. They improvised, and they bought things on the black market. Life became extremely dreary. The Japanese were dangerous, but people had learned how to avoid trouble, and the later years of the Occupation were less a time of terror than of boredom. People lost their sense of purpose. In the words of one Singaporean, ``There was no future.''

The end of the war lifted peoples' spirits. They stopped planting tapioca, and began pouring back into the cities and towns. But economic recovery took time, and shortages continued to plague the country. Rice remained scarce, and those returning to the cities found crowded slums and settlements of squatters. It would be years before prosperity returned, and life got back to normal.

Dr Paul H. Kratoska is the author of `The Japanese Occupation of Malaya' (Allen & Unwin, 1998); a former History lecturer at Universiti Sains Malaysia, he is now with the History Department at the National University of Singapore (NUS). He would enjoy hearing from any former students; write to him at NUS.

Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya

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