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  • “The ‘Slapping Monster’ and Other Stories: Recollections of the Japanese Occupation (1941–1945) of Borneo through Autobiographies, Biographies, Memoirs, and Other Ego-documents”
  • Keat Gin Ooi

Three years and eight months of Japanese military occupation of most parts of Southeast Asia was a tumultuous period to the inhabitants – indigenous and immigrants – of the region. It impacted significantly on the minds of the peoples, firstly the shattering of the myth of the superiority of the white man and secondly the Japanese military as the “liberators” of Southeast Asia from Western colonial domination. They also witnessed the emergence of Japan as the “champion” of Asia, but at the same time, during the occupation years experienced the “true colors” of Japanese ethnocentrism, brutality, inhumanity, and the horrors of modern war.

By the early months of 1942 the island of Borneo then partitioned into British Borneo (present day the East Malaysian states of Sabah and Sarawak, and Brunei) and Dutch Borneo (contemporary Kalimantan, Indonesia) came under the Japanese military. British Borneo (Kita Boruneo) was under the rule of the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA), whilst the Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) administered Dutch Borneo (Minami Boruneo). Apparently owing to the different treatment of the various ethnic communities of Borneo by the Japanese military authorities, each community perceived the Japanese in different light (Ooi, 199a: 39–88, 96–98). Overall sharp differences were conspicuous between Japanese attitudes (hence treatment) towards the native population and the immigrant Chinese community. Singled out as the enemy owing to the on-going Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945), the Chinese faced harsher treatment. Consequently, such discrimination was reflected in the differences of perspectives of the Chinese and the natives towards the Japanese. Furthermore amongst indigenous inhabitants, Malay-Muslims appeared to be favored by the invaders whilst others were oppressed. Consequently there were interethnic antagonism and strained relations that were acted out in racial clashes shortly after the Japanese capitulation.

Utilizing the war experiences of individuals the question to ponder is to what extent that personal documents or ego-documents like autobiographies, biographies, memoirs, diaries, personal correspondence, and private papers reveal of the past in comparison with official documents (policy proposals, proclamations, memoranda, minutes of government meeting, interdepartmental correspondence, official letters, etc.). Official documents were and continue to be the mainstay of the professional historians’ source materials. Ego-documents not unlike oral sources are less tapped or desired by the researcher commonly because of their perceived subjectivity as well as their unavailability and fragmentary state. Without denying their limitations, ego-documents provide an insightful and penetrating venture into the minds of their author to reveal information far more significant than official or other formal materials could. In light of this possibility and their potential utility, a closer examination of ego-documents appeared prudent.

Based on two memoirs and three biographies the present study attempts to evaluate the usefulness and reliability of ego-documents as source materials in the reconstruction of the past whilst keeping in mind their limitations, pitfalls, and drawbacks. It is also a part of an on-going comparative work that analyzes the impact and effects of the Pacific War (1941–1945) and of the Japanese occupation on the multiethnic and multicultural peoples of East and Southeast Asia.

The Pacific War and Japanese-Occupied British Borneo (December 1941 to September 1945)

Borneo to Japanese military planners was important in terms of oil and strategy. The oilfields of Seria in Brunei, Miri in Sarawak, and Tarakan and Balikpapan in Dutch Borneo were prized objectives in the Japanese push to the south. Strategically, the seizure of Borneo would allow the Japanese a naval and air base for offensives against Singapore, the major British naval base in the region and British Malaya, and Java and the rest of the Netherlands (Dutch) East Indies (NEI). Borneo’s central position in command of the sea routes of insular Southeast Asia, namely the Straits of Melaka (key to British Malaya and Dutch Sumatra), and Sulu Sea and Java Sea (pivotal to the conquest of NEI particularly Java and Sulawesi [Celebes]).

With scant opposition to the IJA landings in Miri on 15 December 1941, by January 1942, British Borneo became a part of the Imperial Japanese Empire. The...

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