Bintulu, once a sleepy fishing village on the island of Borneo is largely known today for its booming oil and gas industry.
What lies deep down in the seabed off its coast is not just large reserves of natural gas, however, but a silent witness to one of the most mysterious air crashes during World War II.
A tragedy, mostly forgotten by many.
Toshinari Maeda – a samurai lord in Borneo
Toshinari Maeda was a Japanese marquis and a military general. Born to the former daimyo of Nanokaichi Domain* in Kozuke province (modern Tomioka city) in 1885, he was later adopted as the heir to the main branch of the Maeda clan in 1900.
The Maeda clan ruled the Kaga Domain from 1583 until 1868 and was one of the most powerful samurai families in Japan. The clan became daimyo (feudal lords) during the Edo period.
He became the 16th head of the Maeda clan on June 13, 1900.
*Domain or han is the Japanese historical term for the estate of a warrior after the 12th century of a daimyo in the Edo period (1603-1868) and early Meiji period (1868-1912).
Toshinari Maeda’s military career and death
Maeda had served as a battalion commander in the 4th Regiment of the Imperial Guard of Japan. He had also served as military attache to Great Britain from 1927 till 1930 and had actually retired from active military duty in 1939.
He was later called out of retirement to command operations in Borneo on April 1942 after the Pacific War broke out. By then, Sarawak had already been under Japanese occupation since Christmas Eve of 1941.
During World War II, the lieutenant-general became the first commander of the Borneo Defence Army which encompassed Japanese forces in northern Borneo (Sarawak, Brunei, Labuan and North Borneo).
His office of the Borneo Head of Military Defence Army, at first headquartered in Miri, was then moved to Kuching according to his orders.
On Sept 5, 1942, after witnessing the execution of five men at Padungan, Kuching for allegedly stealing petrol, he boarded a plane with two other officers to Labuan to officiate an airport named after him.
They never arrived.
A month later, the plane he was on was found to have crashed off the coast of Tanjung Batu in Bintulu.
Maeda was 57 years old.
The island of Labuan itself had been renamed Maeda Island or Pulau Maeda during the Japanese occupation in remembrance of the marquis. Maeda had also been promoted to ‘General’ posthumously.
Was it a curse?
The Japanese suspected the cause of the crash to be sabotage or suicide; but the Sarawak people attributed it to a curse brought on by Maeda himself.
In his post as commander of the Borneo Defence Force (which later became the 37th army), Maeda took up residence at the Astana.
J.B Archer, a Batu Lintang camp internee and the last chief secretary to Rajah Vyner Brooke, in a June 1, 1948 issue of the Sarawak Gazette details how Maeda may have brought this curse down upon himself:
The main entrance of the Astana is the imposing and rather ancient tower overlooking the chief door to the palace.
Now there is a Brooke tradition that the exterior of this tower must not be whitewashed or renovated.
If this should occur, so runs the legend, some disaster will take place.
The tower had therefore became covered by an ivy-like creeper, and parts of the original building were crumbling in venerable decay.
The Japanese, vainglorious and victorious, saw fit to put this ruin into apple-pie order.
The creeper was torn down, masons, plasterers and white washers got busy.
Shortly afterwards Field Marshal Prince Maeda, cousin of the Emperor Sun god and Generalissimo, fell miserably to earth in a crashed plane somewhere round about Miri.
To this day, no one knows the cause of the crash and Maeda’s body was never found.
Toshinari Maeda’s legacy
After Borneo was liberated from Japanese occupation, Labuan assumed its former name. It became part of the North Borneo Crown Colony on 15 July 1946.
The Japanese had set up a Belian post at the beach of Tanjung Batu not far from the crash site in honor of Maeda, which was later taken back to Japan by the Maeda family after the Japanese occupation ended.
So now, there is no trace or anything in Sarawak to remember that the air crash ever happened.
But back in Japan, his former home built in Meguro, Tokyo in 1929 still survives to this day and part of the estate is now host to the Japan Museum on Modern Literature.
His former summer home in Kamakura is now used as the Kamakura Museum of Literature.
Photo courtesy of AJ Creations Photography.