When Showa Japan invaded the Dutch East Indies in 1942, different groups began to compete for the goodwill of their new colonial masters. In the course of these events remaining Europeans were either killed or sent as forced labour into Japanese concentration camps. Many Indonesians had welcomed the Japanese as liberators but their hopes were soon balked. The occupying power brutally quelled resistance since its ultimate aim was to incorporate the East Indies into the ’Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere – a Japanese dominated imperial order.
Nonetheless, in their attempts to mobilize the population for World War II, the Japanese gave Indonesia’s Nationalist and Islamic organizations political opportunities they had been denied by their old colonial masters. And when the Showa leaders finally realized that they could no longer win the Pacific War, they began to actively prepare a selected national elite for Indonesia‘s independence. The aim of such policy was to frustrate the reconquest of the allied powers, so that when the Dutch returned to Indonesia in 1945 their old colonial order no longer existed. Instead, Sukarno’s armed independence movement was ready to challenge the Dutch presence in the archipelago. After four years of guerrilla warfare the Nationalist movement finally succeeded in ending more than 300 years of the Dutch colonial presence in the East Indies.
Among historians there is a consensus that the Japanese occupation was a turning point and decisive factor in the history of Indonesia paving the way for independence. Ever since the Ethical Policy’s education program provided a native elite with the intellectual weapons to articulate resistance against the Dutch, the premises for Indonesian Nationalism were laid.
However, given the success that the Dutch had in opressing the small and mainly Javanese Nationalist movement, it is unlikely that Indonesian Nationalism would ever have grown into a political force capable of both unifying the multi-ethnic population and challenging Dutch military power, if the Japanese had not intervened and provided the Nationalists with, first, a platform to spread their ideas; and second, military training and weapons for their war of independence.
In assessing the impact of the Japanese occupation the main question at issue is whether social conflicts in post-independent Indonesia were to a greater or lesser extent the product of Japanese occupation policy, or rather the result of Dutch colonialism. This series of articles is going to address the debate by identifying the ramifications of the Japanese occupation on the Indonesian archipelago. During the course of this series it will be demonstrated that whereas the Dutch had ’divided and ruled’ their colony, Japanese occupation policy stimulated Indonesian revolt. All in all, it will therefore be argued that Japan’s occupation policy had a unifying effect on Indonesian society. However, the Nationalist movement cultivated by Showa Japan predisposed the country to an ’authoritarian’, ’militaristic’ and ’Javanese dominated political culture’ that has proved to be an ongoing source of conflict in Indonesia.
Japanese occupation policy had two priorites: firstly, to wipe out Western influence, and secondly, to exploit Indonesia‘s economic and human resources for the Japanese war effort. This was achieved through the establishment of the most opressive and devastating regime in Indonesian history. A deadly combination of forced labour, deprivation, food shortages, and day-to-day terror by the military police made the Japanese occupation the only period in the 20th century in which the overall population of the East Indies declined.
The archipelago was divided into three regions. Each was governed according to its economic and strategical importance. Since Java was considered, on the one hand the most cultural and political advanced, but on the other the least economic and strategical significant area – its main resource being people – it was not governed as repressively as outer areas under the navy‘s control. The eastern islands at the periphery of the archipelago, such as the Mollucas, were on the front-line of military activity and subject to a much greater exploitation of economic and human resources. Military destruction and the decline of important agricultural sectors and industries would further intensify the pre-existing disparate socio-economic development of Java and the periphery islands in the turbulent years following independence.
To be continued in part 2