Unity or Division? Assessing the impact of the Japanese occupation on modern Indonesia: Part 3

Alex concludes his assessment of the impact of Japanese occupation on modern Indonesia…

The elimination of Dutch influence and mobilization of the population for the Japanese war effort demanded the systematic indoctrination of Indonesians throughout the archipelago. Although this constant propaganda failed to convince Indonesians of the apparent superiority of Japanese culture, it did, however, intensify anti-Western and nationalistic attitudes, which in the process helped unify Indonesians in their commitment to independence.

Patriotic flag ceremonies and military rituals were introduced into schools. Western languages were banned and there were some unsuccessful efforts to promote Japanese among the population. Ultimately though, Malay had been used as the major language to spread propaganda and it became Indonesia’s national language. The unifying factor of this move was significant given there are over 20 different languages spoken within the archipelago. Indeed, it was only after Japanese occupation that Malay was declared the national language and subsequently widely adopted by Indonesians. Finally, the Japanese replaced the euro-centric education focus of the Dutch with one that emphasized East Indies culture, arts and music, thereby contributing to the development of a common sense of identity. The sum of these changes proves that without Japan’s intervention, Indonesian nationalism would have never emerged as a mass movement.

Nevertheless, the kind of nationalism promoted by Showa Japan was one that predisposed Indonesia to a radical nationalist, authoritarian and militaristic political culture – a trend that has been further reinforced by a high level of diversity and conflicting interests, which in turn entail the need for increased repression by the central government in order to maintain the appearance of superficial harmony. What unified most Indonesians during the war of independence was not a common cultural identity but widespread opposition to a Dutch colonial state that was considered worse than Sukarno’s centralistic political order. For this reason, the central government failed to maintain the loyalty of many Indonesians in the outer islands, meaning that the stability of the system could purchase tetracycline only be achieved through the same nationalist, authoritarian and militaristic political culture which Showa Japan had promoted.

Other reasons for such authoritarian tendencies can be ascribed to the propaganda of Showa Japan: emphasizing values such as self-sacrifice and obedience only perpetuated a pre-existing tendency within Asian societies to prioritize commitment to the community over individual freedoms. And most importantly, by providing arms and military training to large segments of the population, the Japanese contributed to Indonesia’s militarization. Since the war for Indonesia’s independence was one in which military and political aims converged, the roles of political and military leaders were, from the very beginning, indistinguishable. As a consequence, the army did not restrict itself to political neutrality in the years following the National revolution. By pointing out the sacrifices that it made for the sake of Indonesia’s independence, the military demanded it play an active political role in the Indonesian state.

Accordingly, Indonesia’s army leaders have always assumed a priviliged role for themselves which has enabled them to intervene in politics whenever their grip on power became threatened. As long as Sukarno was able to balance the power between the army and its main political rival – the Indonesian Communist party – the stability of the Guided Democracy system could be maintained. However, in the 1960s, when Sukarno allied himself more closely with the PKI, internal power struggles turned out to be too much for the system to bear. After leading army officials were murdered in 1965 by what was claimed to be a PKI plot, a brutal political cleansing campaign was launched, during which more than half million suspected Communist symphatizers were murdered. The dramatic events of 1965-66 thus unleashed the worst excesses of the kind of militarism that had been cultivated during the Japanese occupation.

Eventually, the left-leaning and politically weakened Sukarno was forced to cede power to General Suharto – who would govern the country for the next 30 years as an authoritarian despot.


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Alex Beck 8 Articles
Alex is a history student from the London School of Economics and Political Science. He is of German-Iranian descent and has written about foreign policy analysis and strategic studies.

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