Tuesday, January 16, 2018
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Masa Jepun: Money and memories

Millennium markers - Japanese Occupation

JAPAN invaded South East Asia during World War II to gain access to resources necessary to sustain its war against China and the Allied Powers. Military demands took priority over the people's livelihood. Though Japanese rule mobilised local materials and labour for that short period, it was harsh and the measures used were coercive and brutal.

The Japanese military government presented an economic plan for South-East Asia in November 1941, just before the invasion of Kota Baru, Malaya, on Dec 8, 1941. Their principal objective was to get strategic materials such as crude oil and bauxite from the Dutch Indies (as Indonesia was then known) and rice from Siam (Thailand) and French Indochina (Vietnam).

They also wished to deny Allied powers the rubber and tin found in Malaya and Indonesia. Moreover, British Malaya (comprising at the time of Peninsular Malaya and Singapore) was important strategically because of Singapore Naval Base.

Economic policy for Malaya

Malaya's production of rubber and tin greatly exceeded the demand of Japan's industries, so there were plans to restrain Malaya's production. check rewrite Later, however, Japan changed the policy to keep to pre-war production levels and maintain the predominant position of Malayan rubber and tin on the world market. But production never recovered to those levels during the short Japanese colonial period.

After the invasion, rubber estates were controlled by an association (kumiai) and the factories taken over by Japanese companies; tin mines came under the Japanese military administration. However, Japan could not utilise Malaya's rubber and tin due to the damage they caused in the beginning as well as the lack of shipping; stocks simply accumulated in the ports and mines and on the estates.

It is interesting to note that sales of opium represented a significant part of the military government's budget. Like the British colonial government, the Japanese military government wanted to hold the monoply on opium.

The Japanese military government also extorted a 50mil yen ``gift'' from the Chinese in Malaya as a ransom in 1942. This ``contribution'' is still a big issue when discussing compensation in Malaysia.

Food shortages

The Japanese military administration did not indeed, could not supply enough food and the necessities of life to the local economy and many people suffered severe shortages of food and goods during the Occupation.

Before the war, Malaya imported rice from Siam and Burma as domestic production only supplied a third of local demand. After the autumn of 1942, rice supplies fell well below the level of pre-war imports because of the deteriorating war situation, irregular railway and marine transport services, and damage to Thai rice production as a result of floods.

To deal with this situation, the Japanese military government reduced rations. For instance, the Selangor government reduced the rice ration from a generous 36 katis (about 20kg) per month for males over 12 years old to 17 katis (about 9kg) by late January, 1943.

The food shortage caused malnutrition and contributed to a substantial rise in the number of deaths. The military government tried urging people to grow their own food crops by utilising empty space, and, later, experimenting with double crop rice farming; it also tried relocating people from towns and cities to rural areas where they could grow their own food. But there was no real food relief in sight until the end of the war.

When I interviewed residents about their experiences during Masa Jepun in Kota Tinggi, Johor, all the interviewees mentioned the hardships and food shortages. They planted tapioca to survive and lacked medicines.

Villagers' memories and experiences of Masa Jepun differ according to ethnicity.

Many Chinese ran away to hide in the jungle to avoid the Japanese army.

Malays, on the other hand, welcomed the Japanese army at first; they were glad to hear that the Japanese wanted to work toward the liberation of Malaya. Young men were recruited for the army while Malay women stayed at home.

Yet, there was no doubt that these were invaders: Villagers said that the Japanese army would take ``papaya, kelapa, ayam, prempuan (coconut, chicken, women).'' Also, many villagers were frightened by the brutal behaviour of the Japanese soldiers, who murdered Chinese villagers and talked proudly of it. They sometimes placed severed heads on public display.

Indeed, many Chinese died in a massacre at Kota Tinggi; in fact, in addition to the Dai-Kenshou, or Great Inspection, which was conducted in Singapore, Japanese soldiers murdered many unresisting Chinese in Peninsular Malaya indiscriminately old people and women as well as children and babies. They did this without proper procedures such as inspecting, investigating, etc. They could not prove that these people they killed were involved with Communist guerrillas, or in cases of murder of Japanese or Malay men.


After the war, the British returned to Malaya and collected war damage claims from individuals here; the plan was to prepare compensation claims to submit to Japan.

However, with the Cold War situation that developed after World War II causing tension between the United States and the USSR, the United States declined to demand reparations from Japan they needed to build Japan up as a buffer against the Communist threat posed by the USSR. The British Malayan government followed suit and renounced claims for compensation under the San Francisco Treaty in 1951.

Still, the British Malayan government did have the right to requisition Japanese owned properties. Such properties were auctioned off and the money from the sales was placed in a war damage compensation fund. As the auction lots were quite large and beyond the reach of most local individuals, British companies and a few rich local businessmen purchased them.

So, despite the insistence of the Malayan people that the compensation fund should be used for the social welfare and the relief of war victims and the war bereaved in Malaya, the fund was spent largely on industrial rehabilitation especially of British rubber and tin companies.

These companies obtained loans under the recovery scheme put in place by the government; they also profited greatly later from price increases caused by the Korean War's demand for raw material.

Thus, the war damage compensation fund was distributed in favour of big corporations, mostly British.

The Japanese Occupation, though lasting a short period, brought chaos to the local economy.

Currently in Japan, there are people who try to justify the Japanese invasion of Asia. After all, during the war Japan told Malays here that Japan was working towards the liberation of Asia. However, this was patently untrue, for even as late as June 1945, the Japanese government confirmed that Malaya would remain Japanese territory permanently.

The people who experienced the truth and reality of World War II are now old. It is important to record their memories and experiences. It is crucial, especially for the next generation, to know the facts and to learn from history.

Dr Yoshimura Mako, Assoc Prof in the Sociology Faculty of Hosei University, Japan, was a Visiting Prof in the Department of East Asian Studies, Universiti Malaya. when?She is the author of Economic Development and Labour Structure in Malaysia: Ethnicity, Gender and Nationality (Japanese, Hosei UP) and one of the authors of Japanese Occupation in Malaya (Japanese, Iwanami Shoten Publishers, forthcoming).

Notes: STF- Malaya's three and a half years of `Masa Jepun' had a strong impact on society then, writes Dr YOSHIMURA MAKO in this third part of the series marking the Japanese surrender this month in 1945.

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