Unbowed

Gareth Richards

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Japanese soldiers in Singapore afer their victory in 1942. Photo: Stephen Wynn

World War II Singapore: The Chosabu Reports on Syonan
Greg Huff and Shinobu Majima (eds)
NUS Press: 2018
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Some time in occupied Singapore in late 1943, an auxiliary nurse — a girl in her mid-teens — enters a hospital ward carrying a tray of medicines. A Japanese sentry guarding the entrance to the ward barks out an order. She doesn’t understand or else responds too slowly. She barely registers the rifle butt before it cracks into her skull, the medicines scattering, followed by a momentary silence and then more shouting. She hadn’t bowed in the correct manner. She’d shown insolence. She was taught a lesson.

In popular memories of the Japanese occupation of Singapore, that short but traumatic period from February 1942 to the end of the war in 1945, indiscriminate force and violence are commonplace. The oral testimonies gathered by Brenda S.A. Yeoh and Kamalini Ramdas vividly recall the matter-of-fact encounters between sentries and ordinary people: “You had to bow to a Japanese sentry otherwise you’ll get slapped, a couple of slaps on your face and then told to bow again.” Sentries — working alongside spies and the secret police — were the most visible reminders of the system of constant surveillance, essential if the Japanese were to manage and control the daily compass of social life and work. The exercise of power required constant scrutiny, regulation and the ritual of public humiliation in order to effect compliance in the grind of everyday life. “This showed that they would not tolerate any rebellion, that they were the masters and we the servants.”

The broad history of Japan’s struggle to become the master of Southeast Asia is well known, the scale of the literature enormous. Its antecedents lay in China’s war with Japan. Though war was formally declared in 1937, it was the culmination of decades of Japanese encroachment onto Chinese territory and the de facto occupation of north-east China in 1931. The ruthlessness of Japan’s military offensive, generating hideous casualties, devastated vast swathes of the country. At the same time, control over the coastal regions and most of the major cities emboldened the Japanese military and bureaucratic leadership to advance an ambitious imperialist project and to prepare for total war. On 1 August 1940, Foreign Minister Matsuoka Yosuke announced the government’s policy to build a so-called Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. In effect, the dictates of war and empire meant that the primary focus of expansion would be directed to Southeast Asia.

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