Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 35

Bob Reece, Masa Jepun: Sarawak under the Japanese 1941-1945, Kuching, Sarawak, Sarawak Literary Society, 1998, xix + 254 pp., map, illustrations, bibliography, rrp hard cover A$65, soft cover A$45 (incl. packing & postage)

Reviewed by: Dr Ooi Keat Gin, Universiti Sains Malaysia, Penang.

Until the appearance of Masa Jepun, the period of the Japanese military occupation (December 1941 to September 1945) in Sarawak historiography had received cursory attention. By far the most illuminating work to appear was a section in Reece's doctoral thesis, published in 1982 as The name of Brooke. It was not until the mid-1990s that some other works on this much-neglected period begin to emerge, including Reece's biography of Datu Bandar Abang Haji Mustapha.

What is most striking about Masa Jepun is the wide array of illustrations, from dual-tone photographs and colour posters to caricatures and reproductions of archival documents. Secondly, this work has an impressive list of oral sources. Eighty-four people, from diverse backgrounds in Sarawak, the United Kingdom, Australia and Japan, were contacted. The majority of these are eyewitnesses, and participants in the events they describe. Corroborating and supporting the oral evidence is a wide spectrum of documentary source materials: published and unpublished; official and private; in English, Dutch, Iban, Malay, Chinese and Japanese. Even footage from wartime newsreels has been consulted. As a consequence, the author is able to offer not only a panoramic coverage of the Japanese occupation from various perspectives, but also provide an insightful, anecdotal and vivid account of events as experienced and recollected by those who lived through them.

In sixteen chapters, the author weaves an interesting and compelling narrative of the situation in Sarawak throughout the three years and eight months of Japanese military rule. Four of these (Chapters Twelve to Fifteen) record the situation in the country when the tide of war turned against the Japanese. They cover, inter alia, the special operations undertaken behind enemy lines by Allied personnel and their local agents, the Australian landings, the Japanese surrender, mopping-up operations, and the question of collaboration during the immediate post-surrender period. The final chapter (Chapter Sixteen) evaluates the Japanese legacy.

Essentially Masa Jepun is a social history of the wartime years from various viewpoints. It candidly portrays the war and the occupation years as experienced by the European internees behind the barbed wires and fences of Batu Lintang Internment Camp; the anxious urban Chinese dwellers and their less stressful rural counterparts; the Malay civil servants and policemen who worked for the Japanese; the Ibans who resented Japanese policies; and the minority Indian community whose loyalties were torn between their new and old masters.

Regrettably several pertinent issues were not addressed or given the emphasis that they deserved. Although some attention is given to ethnic relations, more could have been made on this important issue; in particular, the extent to which Japanese wartime policies directly or indirectly affected ethnic relations in post-war Sarawak. Likewise, the collaboration issue could have been expanded to gauge the impact of the occupation on post-war political developments. Considering Reece's deep knowledge of the tumultuous period immediately after the war, his "take" on the interrelated issues of ethnic relations and collaboration would have given added understanding of the "legacy" of the Japanese occupation.

Furthermore, a crucial question in the ongoing debate on the historiography of the Japanese occupation in South-East Asia is whether this brief period ushered in profound transformations in the political, socio-economic and other fields, or merely represented a rude disruption without any long-term consequences. Sadly, Masa Jepun did not address this historical question in relation to Sarawak's experiences.

Nevertheless, for the general reader, Masa Jepun is a comprehensive work which encompasses almost all aspects of the wartime period in Sarawak. Those who lived through those fateful years will appreciate the detailed narrative of events. For the younger generation, the insightful prose and generous quotes will offer them a glimpse of how it was back then, when the Hinomaru fluttered at the Astana flagstaff.