Five Interesting Legacies of the Japanese Occupation

To commemorate the 73rd anniversary of the Japanese surrender in Southeast Asia, we bring to you five legacies that are not commonly spoken about.

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People were hungry, dressed in rags, and struggled with unemployment. Some were captured and severely tortured.

To most Singaporeans, the Japanese Occupation was a period of darkness and agony.

This is the part of the narrative that gets highlighted in the National Education programme Singaporean students go through.

More so when the media chooses to glorify the men and women who have survived the war.

On the 73rd anniversary of the Japanese surrender in Southeast Asia, have we ever considered the other side of the story?

Here are five interesting legacies.

1. Comics and Cartoons by Abdullah Ariff

Was he truly Pro-Japanese or was he merely trying to make a livelihood to provide for his family?

This is the controversy that continues to surround the now deceased Abdullah Ariff, a prominent Malay artist who wrote numerous comics and propaganda cartoons for the Japanese during the Japanese Occupation between 1942 to 1945.

In 1942, his works were published in a 25-page book titled Perang Pada Pandangan Juru-Lukis Kita (The War As Our Cartoonist Sees It) in Penang by Shu Seicho Shimbun Renraku Jimusho, a Japanese newspaper. Abdullah’s cartoons depicted the poor war efforts of the Allied Powers of Britain and the US in the Pacific and elsewhere. For instance, “Heartbreaking – for the Allies” showed how 90 per cent of the world’s rubber supply was flowing into the hands of the Axis Powers (Japan, Germany and Italy) while Uncle Sam and John Bull were only left with 10 percent. The main aim was to demoralise the supporters of the Allies in Penang and Malaya.

Despite the controversy, the self-taught artist continues to be known as someone who had “contributed so much to Malaysian art”. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Art, and one of his works earned a place in the prestigious Le Saloon gallery in Paris.

Today, his works during the Occupation is regarded as first-hand historical evidence and an invaluable primary source.

The Hill Spring, 12th Milestone, Penang, 1944 | Abdullah Ariff

2. War Memorial on Bukit Batok Hill

Everyone knows about the famed Bukit Timah Hill, but what about Bukit Batok Hill?

Currently known as Bukit Batok Nature Park, a war memorial named Syonan Chureito was erected to commemorate the soldiers who had died in battle. This was built by Japanese soldiers after they landed in Singapore and used to be in Bukit Batok. It was torn down after they surrendered, and nowadays we only see the stairs in this area.

Syonan Chureito shrine at Bukit Batok Hill 1942, built by the British and Australian Prisoners of War |

A similar British Memorial Cross was also built, according to The Syonan Times (1942), to “commemorate the spirit of the enemy troops who died at the battlefront and those civilians who were victims of the war.”

Students and community leaders were forced to participate in marches and ceremonies at Syonan Chureito and these footages were broadcasted to the Japanese back home to ensure their continued support of the war efforts in Asia.

But the memorial was eventually destroyed post-surrender by the Japanese themselves in order to prevent the dishonour of their fallen soldiers and country men when the island was returned to the English.

Japanese Memorial | Wikipedia

3. I Found A Bone Poem

“I held the arm bone in my hand,

And let my warm tears fall;

My brothers were slain at Ponggol Beach,

My brothers Peter and Paul.”

It was an emotional tale of brotherly bond discovered by a stranger more than 10,000km away.

One of the first notable works of English poetry by a local writer, I Found A Bone describes a man who found his brother’s arm fragment at Punggol Beach, where the latter was slain by Japanese soldiers during the Sook Ching massacre.

The identities and the reunion of both brothers, both established poets, were then uncovered by Dr Eriko Ogihara-Schuck. The Japanese scholar came across F.M.S.R. A Poem by one of the brothers Francis P. Ng when she was studying how the poet T. S. Eliot had influenced Asia with his modernist masterpiece, The Waste Land.

Intrigued by the piece, she embarked on a quest to locate the author of that poem in Singapore. As she dug further, she stumbled across the astonishing fact that Francis P. Ng was the pseudonym for Teo Poh Leng, whose poems had won the approval of British and Cornish poets Sylvia Townsend Warner and Ronald Bottrall, respectively.

After a two and a half year hunt, Dr Ogihara-Schuck, who is currently teaching American Studies and Japanese at Technische Universität Dortmund in Germany, finally found the whereabouts of Poh Leng through his brother, Teo Kah Leng’s poem, I Found A Bone.

Workmen clearing up debris raid debris in Singapore, 1942 | BNSS Operation Sook Ching

4. Syonan: Singapore Under the Japanese 1942-1945 by Lee Geok Boi

Making history come alive is no easy task.

But author Lee Geok Boi took up the challenge and wrote two books – one in 1992 and the second edition in 2017 – to commemorate the 50th and 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore, respectively.

She only had six weeks to complete her first book, where she consolidated all the interviews which the Oral History Department did with survivors of the Japanese Occupation from all walks of life. Her second book, focused on the legacies of Japan’s war in Asia, fixing the shortcomings of the first book, and included transcripts of fresher interviews which “perpetuated the horrors” of the Occupation.

These stories not only provided “a Singaporean and ultimately an Asian view of the Occupation”, it also brought to light some of the daily experiences of ordinary people holding their heads up in such a time as this.

A chronicler of the Japanese Occupation, Lee Geok Boi (above) has launched the second edition of her 1992 book, Syonan, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the fall of Singapore | Dios Vincoy Jr, The Straits Times

5. Eat to Live: Wartime Recipes’ Documentary Series

Savoury papaya soup. Sweet potatoes pudding. Baked fish custards.

These dishes may sound delicious, but were envisioned out of necessity during the Occupation where food shortages were common.

While limiting the food supply was a strategic attempt by the Japanese to exert power and control on Singapore, what followed was sheer ingenuity.

A six-part documentary series produced by the National Museum of Singapore in 2014 titled Eat to Live: Wartime Recipes explores the experience of food consumption during the Japanese Occupation. These videos share about the changing diets that would be adapted; methods in which the limited spices and ingredients were maximised; and how thoughts of food would persist during the uncertain times.

Behind each recipe lies a poignant backstory that is definitely worth exploring.

Eat to Live Wartime Recipes
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