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Rising Sun over the Land of Hornbills: Sarawak during the Japanese Occupation

After the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec 8, 1941, US and Britain immediately declared war on Japan.

The result? The Pacific War spread over around Southeast Asia including Sarawak.

By Dec 16 that year, the Japanese force secured Miri and by Christmas eve, they took over Kuching.

About less than a month later, the Japanese conquered the whole island of Borneo. And it was the first time in modern history that all of Borneo was under a single rule.

For the next three years and eight months, the Japanese occupation did little for Sarawak development. There was a lack of food supply and other basic necessities.

Even so, the Japanese did  – in their own way –  try to govern Sarawak.

Sarawak Constabulary under the Japanese occupation

Just like in most civil sectors, many Malay policemen kept their jobs in Sarawak Constabulary during the occupation.

Before the Japanese arrived, there were only a few Dayaks in the force. During the occupation, the Japanese intensively recruited the Dayaks as they found them to be hardworking, honest and loyal.

Besides the infamous kempeitai, the Japanese also set up a couple other law enforcement groups.

There was a vigilante system comprised of about 30 houses under a local man called jikeidan.

Apart from that, there was a militia called kyodohei consisting mainly of Ibans but with Malay senior officers.

Even with a day job, the constabulary personnel overall suffered from malnutrition due to lack of food supply.

Both jikeidan and kyodohei were not that successfully implemented due to strong resistance from the local people.

Japanese building of Kuching.

Land policies under the Japanese occupation

According to Vernon L. Porritt in British Colonial Rule in Sarawak, the Land Department reopened its office only few weeks after the Japanese arrived.

But with reduced staff and of course a Japanese officer in charge of the department. Then in 1942, the Japanese demanded that all land titles be confirmed and ratified, charging $2 for the service.

They also imposed special tax on transfers of land valued at more than $1,000.

Generally, the local staff handled the departmental affairs according to Brooke legislation and procedures.

Women under Japanese occupation

Ooi Keat Gin wrote in Rising Sun over Borneo that there was only one single case of rape reported during the occupation. It involved a 14-year-old European girl.

Five Japanese soldiers sexually assaulted her when she and her family were arrested. After the incident, she was treated at the hospital. Apparently, one of the rapists was later imprisoned and badly beaten by the Japanese police.

While the rest of Southeast Asia as well as Taiwan and South Korea had appalling cases of women being coerced or abducted to serve as ‘comfort women’ (the numbers have been reported to be as high as 200,000 women), surprisingly there were no official reports of sexual assaults even at Batu Lintang Prisoners of War (POW) Camp.

Historians contributed it the strict discipline enforced by the camp commander Lieutenant-Colonel Tatsuji Suga.

It was believed that Suga had a ‘soft spot’ for women and children, even allowing children to ride his car within the camp compound.

A kempeitai (Japanese police) would wear this headgear and leggings during the World War II.

Education under the Japanese occupation

Speaking of Suga and Batu Lintang Camp, the Lt Col reportedly allowed books brought into the camp for the prisoners to read.

They were even given university certificates after the prisoners mastered various languages.

Meanwhile, the rest of education system in Sarawak suffered tremendously. The Japanese closed mission schools while allowing most government Malay schools to continue to function.

Only some Chinese schools were allowed to open. Regardless of these, attendance and enrolment decreased during the Japanese occupation.

In Kuching, St Thomas’ School was turned into a labour camp while the main building of St Mary’s School was used as an army mess and brothel.

Overall, 17 schools were completely destroyed and another 35 schools damaged.

After the Japanese occupation

On Sept 11, 1945, the Allied Force under Major General Wooten arrived in Kuching to receive the formal surrender of the Japanese Army.

After that, Australian Military Administration immediately took over Sarawak administration for about seven months until Apr 4, 1946.

Read more:

What you need to know about the Japanese Building of Kuching

Toshinari Maeda, the Japanese nobleman who died off the coast of Bintuly during WWII

Alber Kwok, the Kuchinite who led the Kinabalu Guerrillas during WWII

Patricia Hului
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 worked for The Borneo Post SEEDS, which is now defunct. When she's not writing, you can find her in a studio taking belly dance classes, hiking up a hill or browsing through Pinterest. Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at Kajomag.com or Twitter at @patriciahului.
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