Japanese immigrants in North Borneo before World War II

Somewhere near the Tanjung Batu Street of Tawau, Sabah there is an old cemetery site. There, Japanese people were laid to rest.

One might assume that they died during World War II (WWII) when Sabah was under Japanese occupation.

However, a vast majority of them died way before the Second World War.

Who were these Japanese immigrants and why were they buried so far from their home?

The four stages of Japanese immigrants entering North Borneo

According to Hara Fujio in his paper Japanese activities in North Borneo before World War II: Focus on Labour Immigrants, the Japanese penetration into North Borneo (present day – Sabah) can be divided into four phases.

The first stage took place from 1884 to 1910 when the British North Borneo Company (BNBC) who administered North Borneo needed cheap labour.

At the same time, the Japanese government wanted to push out the surplus population who mainly consisted of poor peasants.

Hence, more than a few hundred Japanese peasants entered North Borneo during this first phase.

Unfortunately for them, the harsh tropical climate was too much to handle. Moreover, their welfare were not well taken care of and many died from sickness. Due to this, the Japanese immigration into North Borneo came to a standstill from 1896 to 1910.

Then, the second phase of immigration started from 1911 to 1920. During this time, many large scale concessions were granted to Japanese plantation companies.

However, the British government began opposing the immigration of Japanese into her territories including British North Borneo. The British suspected the Japanese had an ulterior motive for willing to ship out their citizens as labourers.

Regardless, the BNBC was in need of labourers and was reluctant to refuse the entry of the Japanese immigrants.

From 1921 to 1936, a new type of immigration was introduced to those who came to North Borneo.

The labour immigrants were allowed to invest in projects , subsidised by the Japanese government. Meanwhile, the hard work of manual jobs were given to the Chinese or local Sabahans.

The secret Japanese state scheme in North Borneo

Finally, the final phase of Japanese settlement scheme in North Borneo started from 1937 till 1941 in Tawau

Hara pointed out, “The fundamental difference from former Japanese immigration schemes was that it was secretly initiated and subsidized by the Ministry of Colonisation (MC). In other words, it was a secret state project under the disguise of a private project by Nissan (a Japanese company). This was because the Japanese authorities thought that of the government’s involvement was known to the British or the Sabah government, the project would not have been approved in the first place.”

Under this secret scheme, the MC’s subsidy was used for the construction of a hospital and a school for settler families and the passage fees. On top of that, the MC also provided low interest-rate loans for constructions in North Borneo.

They were more than labourers, they were spies for the Japanese empire?

If you have never watched The Americans (2013), it is period spy thriller television series.

It is about two Soviet KGB officers posing as an American married couple living in the suburbs of Washington DC.

Similarly, the British government began to suspect that the labourers sent to North Borneo at that time were spies.

In the book British Intelligence and the Japanese Challenge in Asia, 1914-1941, its author A. Best noted that there was a spate of reports of Japanese land purchases in Malaysia, the Dutch East Indies, the Philippines and North Borneo.

“To those in the intelligence community it appeared that all too often the Japanese bought plantation land in areas of strategic importance,” Best stated.

Outside of North Borneo, there were reports Japanese nationals involved in the distribution of pan-Asian propaganda to the indigenous people in Dutch Indies. Even in Malaya, there were Japanese planes flying their flags in a manner designed to impress Japanese power on the Malays.

“Watching these activities from London, MI2c, the branch of the Military Intelligence Directorate (MID) that dealt with East Asia, noted in July 1917 that the Japanese, utilising their ‘intricate and highly organised system of secret service’, were extending their influence into every corner of the region, and that it was possible that they would be willing to support rebellions against European colonial rule.”

Espionage activities in North Borneo by Japanese immigrants

Meanwhile in North Borneo, there were some incidents which were considered as proof of Japanese espionage.

In the paper Anti-Japanese Activities in North Borneo before World War Two 1937-1941, Danny Wong Tze-ken gave several evidence which ‘lend credence to the theory that intelligence networks operated in North Borneo prior to the war.

Giving one of the proofs, Wong stated, “One example is the sudden expansion of Nomura and Company after August 1940, when it opened a rubber estate near Sandakan. Thai authorities arrested one of the managers at its Sungai Golok office (in the Malay Peninsula) for making a map of the surrounding country and police buildings, strengthening the view that the firm acted as a course of intelligence.”

Then in October 1940, the consul at Sandakan Taku Taniguchi, made an extensive tour of North Borneo, Sarawak and Brunei. Some said the tour was a thinly disguised exercise to select suitable landing sites for an invading force.

Looking back, was it just coincidence that the reports of espionage coincides with Japanese government’s secret settlement scheme in Sabah?

Life as Japanese immigrants in North Borneo

The Japanese community in North Borneo numbered 1,737 in 1941. 84 per cent of them were living in Tawau or on Si Amil island. Many of them had been living there since the 1890s.

In North Borneo, these Japanese immigrants took up all kinds of professions, apart from labourer in fishing and plantation companies.

For the young female Japanese immigrants, they were working as hairdressers and masseurs and even as prostitutes in Japanese-owned brothels.

The book Sandakan Brothel No.8: Journey into the History of Lower-class Japanese Women by Tomoka Yamazaki offered a glimpse of how a teenager named Osaki was forced to work as a prostitute. She came to Sandakan thinking that she was working as a cleaner.

Others came here working as barbers, dentists, physicians and traders.

Overall, according to Ooi Keat Gin in Rising Sun over Borneo, the Japanese communities in North Borneo kept a low profile, living their lives inconspicuously.

“The Japanese as a whole, maintained a cordial and hospitable attitude towards the local government and population, particularly the indigenous peoples,” Ooi stated.

Repatriation of Japanese immigrants

Japanese civilians leaving North Borneo AWM 121690
Japanese civilians leaving North Borneo after the surrender of the Japanese. Credit: Public Domain due to copyright expired.

Things changed drastically for the Japanese immigrants in North Borneo after WWII ended.

The Japanese companies which invested in North Borneo lost their investment immediately after the Japanese surrendered.

All Japanese citizens (military and civilians alike) were repatriated back to Japan.

Shigeru Sato in his paper More Bitter Than Sweet: Reflecting on the Japanese Community in British North Borneo 1885-1946 stated that about 2600 Japanese were shipped from Tawau to Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu) after the war.

There, they waited for several months in an internment camp. Altogether the civilians consisted of 720 men, 505 women and 608 children.

They even formed temporarily school in the camp which enrolled 250 primary school pupils and 30 high school students.

Finally, the repatriation ship for civilians left Jesselton on Mar 25, 1946 and arrived a week later in Hiroshima Bay.

Japanese troops disarmed Jesselton North Borneo
Japanese troops disarmed, Jesselton, North Borneo. Credits: Public Domain due to copyright expired.

Life back in Japan

Those who came from mainland Japan were allowed to proceed to their home villages.

However, those who were from Okinawa’s fishing villages were made to wait in Kagoshima. They waited there until mid-August in makeshift shelters in the cold weather.

For the children who were born in the tropical climate of Borneo, they could not stand the harsh cold conditions. Furthermore, they did not have access to warm clothes, medicine and food.

Sadly, more than half of the children died while awaiting repatriation.

As for the Japanese military men from British Borneo, many of them were civilians before they conscripted into army in the late 1944. More than 10 per cent of them died while working during the war and waiting for their repatriation ship.

Explaining about their situations, Shigeru stated, “In prewar Japan, primogeniture was widely practiced, and eldest sons inherited most of the family property, if the family had any. There was pressure on the other children to leave and find a livelihood elsewhere, like Borneo. When they left for Borneo, they had little to to lose in Japan.”

Nonetheless, how these people re-adapted to postwar Japan is poorly studied and information is hard to obtain.

One thing for sure, Shigeru claimed, some repatriates were eager to return to Borneo.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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