Sarawak and the Japanese occupation
By Danielle Sendou Ringgit
Most would probably think that ‘Pussy in the well’ was just an English nursery rhyme.
But back during the Japanese occupation in Sarawak, it was the last message sent on December 24, 1941 from Sarawak to the outside world by the British officers stationed at the then Headquarter of Sarawak Defense Force in Kuching (now the General Post Office), which meant Sarawak had fallen in the hands of the Japanese.
“Described by many people here in Kuching as the War in the Pacific, War in Asia, Second World War in Asia, Perang Jepun, Masa Jepun, Musim Jepun, many terms were used, but the proper term is the Pacific War for the simple reason that it involved the nations around the Pacific ocean,” pointed out history enthusiast, Edward Lakin Mansel during a talk on the Japanese occupation at St. Thomas Secondary School on August 19th.
Why Japan invaded Sarawak
On December 7th 1941, when Japan attack the US navy fleet at Honolulu, Hawaii, their trip from Japan to Honolulu took them about 11 days to reach Honolulu.
“While carrying out the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Japanese were not able to be detected since they used good premium oil from Miri,” said Edward.
“When the war started, the Japanese had only two years of oil supply, so they needed Borneo to be captured,” explained Edward on why the Japanese needed to invade Southeast Asia.
As a small country where natural resources were scarce and the population kept on increasing, Japan encouraged people to look for natural resources elsewhere.
Since the early 1900s, the Japanese navy and merchant ships had been buying premium diesel fuel from Miri and were therefore familiar with Borneo.
“The Japanese navy ships made many visits to Kuching especially a few years before the war,” said Edward.
While most would probably be half awake listening to their history teachers talking about the Japanese Occupation, some might be lucky to hear more thrilling tales from their grandparents of their encounters with the Japanese army during those time.
Here are some of the interesting Japanese individuals involved in the Pacific War in Sarawak that every Sarawakian should know about.
The Japanese first came to Sarawak in 1910
While we are aware that the Japanese army began to invade Sarawak in 1941, did you know that Sarawak’s first encounter with the Japanese was in October 1910?
Among the first to arrive was Shozo Yorioka who came to Sarawak to survey land in the Samarahan area for rubber plantations on behalf of Messers Nissan Shokai Limited. Charles Brooke had approved 1,000 acres for rubber planting, in which the rubber was exported back to Japan.
“In fact, this company was actually a cover for the Japanese to sniff around at whatever we had here,” said Edward, adding that their search for natural resources included looking at mercury mines and heading to Miri for its petroleum resources and many more.
By 1918, the allotted rubber plantations had expanded to 3,000 acres, with about 100 Japanese employees and their families moving to Sarawak.
Among them were two Japanese hawkers who were popular with the local Kuching population. One sold firewood from house to house pulling his cart all the way from Matang while the other one carried his ware on a bamboo pole selling cheap shirts, towels and children’s toys and advertised his presence by playing the harmonica.
“Now these two men, their favourite past time was fishing in the Sarawak river. While fishing, what they were actually doing was measuring the water levels. They were taking notes of what they saw in Sarawak,” said Edward.
The local populace hadn’t suspected that the Japanese hawkers were spies for the Japanese military. Throughout their stay in Kuching, they were actually taking notes, sketching everything they saw and passing whatever information they found in Kuching to Tokyo.
“Three days before the Japanese landed in Kuching, these two men disappeared, only to reappear with the Japanese invading troop.”
During those times, the entrance to India Street and the road near the central police station was also known as the red light district in Kuching where gambling, drinking, smoking and selling opium took place.
Among those working in the red light district were women called the Japanese ‘Madams’, who also served as masseuse.
“The European officers, after having a drink at the Sarawak Club, would wander around and then land in the red light district wanting a nice massage, somehow landing with these Japanese ladies,” said Edward.
“So, they were given sake or rice wine to loosen their tongue and with their ‘magic fingers’, they could extract information from these high ranking officers,” he added.
With the information extracted by the ladies from the officers, they were sent to the Japanese espionage center known as ‘Yorioka Kikan’ down at India Street, which were then passed on to Japanese military intelligence in Tokyo.
Jalan Kimura at Kampong Quop
There is a small road called Jalan Kimura as you head down to Kampong Quop at 10th Mile, named after one of the earliest Japanese settlers in Sarawak before the war, who happens to be Edward’s maternal grandfather.
Although he was one of the many Japanese encouraged to leave Japan in search of more natural resources, Kimura ended up settling in Quop, marrying a Bidayuh woman and becoming a farmer.
A priest named Peter Howes (who at that time was serving at the Quop Parish) had befriended Kimura. In his book called ‘In a Fair Ground’, Howes recalls how peaceful and retiring Kimura had been treated when the Japanese invaded Kuching in 1941.
When Howes was brought in to the 10th mile police station on December 26, 1941 for questioning by a Japanese officer, they were furious to find that Kimura had not brought him in himself.
Howes recounted in his book how Kimura was struck on the cheek several times by the officer.
“He kept pointing to me as he harangued the luckless Kimura, banging his fist on the desk with such violence that the whole room came to a still as all waited to see what was going to happen next and no knowledge of Japanese was necessary as it was easy to deduce that Kimura was being cursed for not bringing me along when he had collected the gun,” according to a piece from Howes’ book read by Edward.
The first university in Sarawak is not UNIMAS
When war broke out, Lieutenant-Colonel Tatsuji Suga volunteered to serve as a prison camp commander since he had some English-speaking skills. He was subsequently assigned commander of all prisoner-of-war (POW) and civilian internment camps in Borneo.
Lt Col Suga was based at the Batu Lintang internment camp, and often went on business trips to the other Japanese-run internment camps at Jesselton, Sandakan and Labuan.
He was said to be a kind man and had a good relationship with the prisoners of war (POW) at the Batu Lintang internment camp which housed both Allied POWs and civilian internees.
To keep them sane, Lt Col Suga allowed many books to be brought to the camp, so the prisoners could occupy their minds. Besides that, they also organised themselves to learn various languages so that by the end of it, they became proficient and they were given university certificates.
“So, the first university in Sarawak was not Unimas, but was Batu Lintang,” said Edward of the underground university.
Five days after being taken prisoner by the Australian forces in September 1945, Lt Col Suga committed suicide after believing his family to have perished during the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings.
Although his family was still alive, since he was the commander of the POW camp and responsible for the atrocity that took place there which included food shortages, disease and sickness, forced labour, brutal treatment, and lack of adequate clothing and living quarters, he would still be found guilty and executed had he not committed suicide.
Despite spanning a short period of time, the Pacific War that began December 7 1941 and ended September 2, 1945 was nonetheless one of the major conflicts in the history of the world, claiming the lives of approximately 10 million people.