THE first period of the Malai Gunsei (Malay Military Administration) under Colonel Watanabe Wataru (left), from March 1942 to March 1943, was characterised by coerciveness and the demand that indigenous people account for their past mistakes in being subservient to colonial rule and indulging in a materialistic Western way of life. The Gunsei had different policies for Malaya's principal ethnic groups. The Chinese were treated harshly because of their anti-Japanese activities during the Sino-Japanese War (1937 to 1941) and Japan's Malayan campaign in 1941. The Malays and the Indians were dealt with under a relatively moderate policy because of Malay cooperation. The policy included the formation of the Kesatuan Melayu Muda (Association of Malay Youths) and Japanese support for the Indian National Army.
Watanabe, executive director and the architect of the Malai Gunsei, maintained a unique philosophy for administering occupied peoples. For nationality and youth training policies, Watanabe strongly believed that indigenous people who had submitted to British rule for such a long time must be taught to endure hardship with physical and seishin (spiritual) training.
And to transform Malayans through education and training, Watanabe de-manded that they cleanse themselves with misogi (ablutions) and get rid of the hedonistic and materialistic Western way of life in which they had indulged for many years. He felt they must also be ready to give their lives if necessary to establish Hakko Ichiu (the whole world under one roof) and the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.
To achieve these objectives, Watanabe emphasised the importance of Japanese language education and of youth training aimed at inculcating Nippon seishin. The Japanese language was not merely a means of communication but primarily a tool of infusing Nippon seishin into Malayans. Watanabe pinned his hopes particularly upon the country's youth in building a new Malaya because he did not think much of established leaders; he felt they were too steeped in the British way of life so he had little faith in them when it came to reconstructing Malay society.
From the outset, Watanabe introduced Japanese as the kokugo (national language) in primary schools, where it was taught in place of English and Chinese - which were abolished. In tandem with language instruction, teachers taught Japanese culture and seishin to accomplish the "Japanisation'' of indigenous people.
In order to effectively implement the Japanisation programme, particularly among young people, Watanabe established kunrenjo (training schools) for agriculture, fishing, handicrafts, home economics, marine engineering, interpreting, postal and railway services, teaching, telecommunications, and youth.
Of all the kunrenjo, the Koa Kunrenjo was best known. A brainchild of Watanabe's, the first opened in Syonan (the Japanese name for Singapore) in May 1942, followed by one in Malacca, which remained operational until the end of the war.
The curriculum was designed to train promising Malayan youths for further leadership. About 1,000 young men of all ethnic groups had gone through the training programme by the time war ended.
Some 85 young men, ranging in age from 17 to 25, recommended and selected through a rigorous screening process, enrolled in the first batch. At the opening ceremony, Watanabe delivered a speech impressing upon the cadets that the objective of the kunrenjo was to get rid of the tainted Western way of life, and to infuse in them principles of the Nippon seishi such as endurance, sincerity, cooperation and diligence.
From the first day, cadets were indoctrinated with Nippon seishin through Japanese language lessons and military and physical exercises. From 6am to 9pm, they breathed and lived with seishin, there was no escaping it. Instructors constantly pounded it into the minds of trainees by saying: "If you don't have seishin, you count for nothing in the world.''
In Japanese language and lecture classes, students often listened to seishin discourses on self-sacrifice, bravery, and fighting exemplifying the yamato damashii (the Japanese spirit).
In military and physical exercises, seishin was demanded of students as they underwent the rigorous training. For instance, in sumo wrestling a loser stayed in the ring until he either won a match or blacked out from exhaustion. And the physical exercise and military training consisted of marches of more than 60km with full military kit in the tropical heat. No one was allowed to drop out and exhausted ones, even if assisted by fellow cadets, had to finish the march. This was a gambari (stay to the end of the race) seishin that was honoured at the kunrenjo.
The cadets were rewarded with extra rations of food for undergoing the rigorous training and exercise - but the young men were always hungry. Yet, they were prohibited to purchase food from peddlers.
One student caught violating this principle was severely punished not only for the violation but also for failing to maintain seishin. As in the code of bushido (the way of the samurai or warrior), the cadet had to gaman (endure) hunger. This was seishin.
Military administrative and training officials were very pleased with the physical and spiritual changes evident in cadets who had "imbibed'' seishin over a three-month or six-month period of training. They were vigorous, agile and disciplined.
Moreover, many former trainees expressed appreciation for the quality of the kunrenjo programme and recorded positive effects on the formation of their character.
One former trainee said: "One thing I learnt to appreciate most from the kunrenjo is what is known as gambari.
"The spirit of every graduate is that he never gives up in anything. Nanigotoni mo doko made mo gambari owaru, which means 'never give up anything no matter how difficult', was taught to us. I shall always follow it.''
Asked to evaluate the impact of the training, Dr S. Underwood, who was a cadet at the Malacca Koa Kunrenjo and who studied medicine at Tokyo University after the war, recalled: "The kunrenjo's training is a real education that has taught me such Nippon seishin as gambari, kanto (fighting), gisei (self-sacrifice), and kiritsu (discipline).
"With such seishin, I have been able to achieve what I am today. Steeled with such seishin, I am confident of my ability to overcome any difficulty.''
Tun Dr Hamdan Sheikh Tahir, Penang's present Yang diPertua Negri who was a cadet at the Syonan Koa Kunrenjo, pointed out the usefulness of the training programme for developing his ability and testing it to the limits of endurance.
Royal Prof Ungku Abdul Aziz was a Tokugawa Scholarship student studying in wartime Japan and also a student in postwar Japan. He said in 1976 that there were few leaders in Malaysia who did not have kurenjo training, and many graduates had become leaders in political, business, military, academic, and legal circles as well as in the civil service and the mass media.
These include the late Tun Abdul Razak Hussein, former prime minister; Tan Sri Ghazali Shafie, former foreign minister; Tan Sri Khir Johari, former Malaysian ambassador to the United States; Datuk Mansor Osman, former mentri besar of Negri Sembilan; Tun Raja Mohar Raja Badiozaman, former chairman of Petronas; Tan Sri Dr Abdullah Ayub, former president of Petronas: General (Rtd) Tan Sri Mohd Sany Abdul Ghafar, former commander-in-chief of the army; Datuk Idis Babejee, former dean of the Faculty of Arts at Universiti Sains Malaysia; and the late Datuk Eusoffe Abdoolcader, former judge.
The period of the Japanese Occupation of Malaya is remembered as an era of hardship, deprivation, and suffering; a reign of terror, violence and surveillance. It did indeed produce more negative than positive effects. But the kunrenjo training with its emphasis on seishin, discipline, and physical exercise had a positive impact individually on former cadets.
n Akashi Yoji, Professor Emeritus at Nanzan University at Nagoya in Japan, is author of several Japanese language publications on the Occupation of Malaya during World War II.
Notes: STF - : In this week's Millennium Markers, AKASHI YOJI examines one aspect of the Japanese Occupation of Malaya during World War II that left a positive mark on some Malaysians.
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