Filling a void in our history


Japanese Occupation of Sarawak — 1941-1945

GLOBALISATION in its worst form arrived at our shores on December 16, 1941, with the first landing of Japanese troops and the people of Sarawak soon found themselves sucked into the throes of the Second World War.

What followed were four painful years of Japanese military rule that ended on September 11, 1945 — nine days after the Second World War officially ended with the formal signing of surrender by Japan on board the USS Missouri on Sept 2 that year.

The wounds have now healed but some scars and memories will remain forever etched in the minds of those who lived through those brutally tragic years. However, for those born after the war, the Japanese Occupation is now no more than a vague collection of anecdotes of their fathers and grandfathers.

It is, therefore, timely that Gabriel Tan, one of the pioneers in local journalism, has written and published a book, titled Japanese Occupation Sarawak 1941-1945, to prevent the permanent loss of important and interesting recollections of that tumultuous period in the history of Sarawak.

Tan’s latest book is actually a second and enhanced edition of his earlier book on the same subject, published in 1997, and many readers, especially the younger generation, will find it a historical eye-opener.

It is written more as narrative, and sometimes in anecdotal style, that makes for easy and pleasant reading instead of as a staid chronological record of the war years.

Despite the tragic situation, Tan managed to bring out some gentler sides of the Japanese occupiers and even moments of humour in his book, moderating the perception that all of them were monstrous bullies, rapists and looters.

One Japanese soldier, Zensaku Yoshida, who survived the war, was so smitten with Sarawak that he came back to visit his many friends as often as he could after war and declared Sarawak as his second home.

In the chapter — Badminton saved his life — Tan spoke of Ong Poh Lim, arguably the most successful badminton player Sarawak ever produced, who, despite having worked in the police department, was spared any form of punishment but tasked with giving badminton lessons to Japanese girls brought in to Kuching as clerks and administrative helpers.

Apparently, the girls, feeling uncomfortable in the tropical heat, went about naked in their house much to the astonishment of Ong when he first met them.

The pick of the lighter side of the occupation is the order for fowls to be transported upright because the Japanese deemed it cruel to transport them the usual way — tying their legs and carrying them upside down.

Japanese Banana notes, now collectors’ items.

Japanese Banana notes, now collectors’ items.

There were sombre and sad moments too in the book and ignoring them would make a mockery of the suffering the people of Sarawak endured under Japanese rule.

However, rather than reopening old wounds, Japanese Occupation Sarawak 1941-1945 is a kinder reminiscence of the occupation than the other books I have read on the period but without being an apology for the occupiers.

As Tan wrote in the first chapter, he will not dwell on the atrocities of the war but write on some of the day-to-day observations during the occupation.

One of the ironies of Sarawak’s historical records is the dearth of materials written about the state’s experience during the Second World War by the then Brooke and later the British colonial government.

For example, the Japanese Occupation was only given one sentence in the ‘Outlines of Sarawak History under Brooke Rajahs 1839-1946, as follows: On September 11th 1945, the Australian Forces entered Kuching and took surrender of the Japanese Army.

It was left to war veterans like Tom Harrison to write about their personal experience and thankfully, authors like Gabriel Tan to give a local perspective of the time when Sarawak was under Japanese rule.

As Tan aptly puts it at the end of his book: This volume — JAPANESE OCCUPATION — SARAWAK 1941-1945 — will, it is hoped, fill in a little of the vacuum in the history of Sarawak.