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Wartime Borneo, 1941-1945: a tale of two occupied territories.

Within a brief campaign period of less than two months (December 1941 to February 1942), the whole island of Borneo was militarily occupied by Imperial Japanese forces. Bornean oil and rubber were assets coveted by Imperial Japan. Strategic-wise, Borneo was a stepping stone for the invasion of British Singapore and Dutch Batavia. Therefore the early and swift capture of the island fulfilled Imperial Japan's needs for resources as well as facilitated the capture of Singapore, Malaya, and the Netherlands East Indies.

The Japanese Occupation of Borneo, 1941-1945 (1) is a long overdue piece of scholarly work that detailed the circumstances leading to the invasion and occupation of Borneo by Imperial Japan. There had been works on the wartime occupation of the respective territories of Borneo particularly of Sarawak but none covered and/or treated the entire island as a whole during the Pacific War (1941-1945) until the present volume. Undoubtedly the significance of The Japanese Occupation of Borneo is its scope of coverage that envelops all of the various diverse territories that comprised the island of Borneo, each with its respective background and historical developments under different European colonial powers. Moreover, the fact of the partitioning of Borneo between the Imperial Japanese Army (IJA) and Imperial Japanese Navy (IJN) makes comparison an imperative aspect that the present work attempts to explore.

Occupied Borneo was administratively partitioned into two halves, namely Kita Boruneo (Northern Borneo) that coincided with pre-war British Borneo (Sarawak, Brunei, and North Borneo) was governed by the IJA, whereas Minami Boruneo (Southern Borneo), formerly Dutch Borneo (western and southern portion of the island) came under the control of the IJN. This territorial separation between the military services was in line with Tokyo's policy that differentiated occupied areas in Southeast Asia in terms of their respective nature and importance.

In general, the Army has been charged with the administration of densely populated areas which demand complex administrative tasks, while sparsely populated primitive areas, which shall be retained in the future for the benefit of the Empire, have been assigned to the Navy (Ooi 2011:39).

It was the intention of Imperial Japan to possess "permanent retention" of the southern and western portion of Borneo that were then resource-rich (especially oil) and sparsely populated. The IJN having fewer personnel than the IJA was entrusted with military administration of this vast territory. The IJA on the other hand took responsibility for the ex-protectorates of Great Britain that have a bigger population comprising an assortment of native peoples and the largest number of Chinese on the island.

The Japanese Occupation of Borneo commences with an overview of Borneo under European colonial rule (Chapter One). Sarawak, occupying the greater part of the island's northwest, was from the mid-nineteenth century governed by the maverick paternalistic Brooke White Rajahs. Located towards Sarawak's northeast is Brunei. This ancient Malay Muslim sultanate of Brunei once wielded political influence over the whole island of Borneo and to as far north as Manila in the Philippines. By the last quarter of the nineteenth century, however, following a series of territorial cession to its neighbors, Brunei was reduced to merely a small kingdom, Territory on the northeast of the island known as North Borneo was managed by the British North Borneo Chartered Company, a London-based, public-listed capitalist enterprise. The remainder western and southern portion of the island was under Dutch control, a component territory of the Dutch (Netherlands) East Indies.

Borneo in the pre-war era appeared to showcase, "A tranquil tropical paradise,"

... romanticized by the exploits of White Rajahs and head- hunting Dayaks. Most of the urban centres were small when compared to those on Java or the Malay Peninsula, and a multitude of ethnic groups roamed freely in the interior, practicing slash and bum farming while others continued with a hunter-gatherer lifestyle in the vast, abundant rainforest. Settlements dotted the non-swampy coastline and resembled sentinels to the unknown interior via chocolate-coloured rivers on native dugouts or motorized launches. Towns were far and few, and the pace of life pedestrian, even sluggish, when time hesitantly turned the page to reveal another mundane day where little happened and the rituals of routine continued uninterrupted (Ooi 2011:10).

The subsequent section detailed the activities of Japanese settlers in Borneo prior to the occupation (Chapter Two). There were Japanese fishing communities in North Borneo, cash cropping of rubber and trade and commerce in Sarawak, and the logging enterprises in Dutch Borneo. In this context, fifth column activities of Japanese residents is examined. At the same time the rise of anti-Japanese feelings in Bornean territories sparked by the IJA all-out invasion of the Chinese mainland (2) is observed among the local populace, particularly of the Chinese communities, and the European colonial authorities.

The importance of Borneo, both strategic and resource-wise, are explained as part of the thinking and planning of the Tokyo military elites (Chapter Three). The policy of southward expansion namely to occupy the territories of Southeast Asia favored by the IJN, the Anglo-American oil embargo, and the forced circumstances and fateful events that subsequently led to the assault on Pearl Harbor are analyzed and evaluated in unravelling the reasons, motivations, and justifications of Prime Minister Tojo Hideki's ultimate decision to embark on war. From the Japanese standpoint it appeared that they went to war "for the sake of its self-existence and self-defense," but was this the reason (Ooi 2011:27)? Was Imperial Japan "forced" to embark on hostilities in the Asia-Pacific region? Or did "The onset of winter showed that war was inevitable as well as imminent?"

In offering the perspectives of both invaders and defenders in events leading to the outbreak of hostilities, a more balanced scenario of the Bornean situation is portrayed on the eve of the Miri landings and thereafter (Chapter Four). It was apparent that the Japanese invaders were well-prepared and motivated whereas the respective colonial regimes as defenders appeared to be fumbling and disorganized.

Against a well-planned and equally efficiently executed military operation of the Japanese were an ill-prepared, both militarily and psychologically, British and Dutch side (Ooi 2011:28).

Meanwhile it was clear that the bulk of the native populace, in reality and rather sadly, were practically clueless of what was happening and developing on their homeland.

Apart from the Chinese community, the majority of the diverse indigenous peoples of Borneo were not consciously aware of what the Pacific War (1941-195) entailed, the repercussions, and the implications on their lives and livelihoods (Ooi 2011:28).

The partitioning of Borneo into Kita Boruneo and Minami Boruneo under the IJA and IJN, respectively, is amply addressed with its rationale, justification, and operation (Chapter Five). This is followed by a detailed examination of each respective territory (Chapters Six and Seven). One of the key intentions of The Japanese Occupation of Borneo is to offer a comparative analysis of IJA and IJN military administration covering various aspects, viz. policies and implementation, political participation, Japanization, and others (Chapter Nine).
   A wide range of issues are discussed, including the incorporation
   of the economy in the Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere and
   the effects of this on Borneo's economy.... also covers issues such
   as the relationship with the various indigenous inhabitants, with
   Islam and the Muslim community, and the Chinese, as well as topics
   of acculturation and propaganda, and major uprisings and mass
   executions. It examines the impact of the wartime conditions and
   policies on the local multiethnic peoples and their responses,
   providing an invaluable contribution to the greater understanding
   of the significance of the wartime Japanese occupation in the
   historical development of Borneo (blurb, back cover).


The delicate subject of wartime atrocities is objectively deliberated, covering incidents such as the Long Nawang massacre, pogroms in Banjarmasin and Pontinanak, and the infamous Sandakan Death Marches (Chapter Eight). Notwithstanding the ironfisted and harsh military administration there were anti-Japanese elements among the local inhabitants. The most significant of these subversive movements that erupted into open revolt was the Chinese-led Double Tenth uprising in October 1943 in North Borneo. The tragic outcome that consumed hundreds of lives begged the question of why an ill-prepared group of Chinese and indigenes launched a revolt against the Japanese occupying force?

The re-conquest of Borneo was undertaken by Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) with US naval and air support (Chapter 10). The three OBOE operations (I, VI, and II) are outlined and discussed including their questionable contribution to the overall war strategy.

What then did the three years and eight months of military occupation referred to as musim jipun (masa jipuri) bring forth in Borneo? Was this period a watershed in the historical development of the various territories on the island? Or merely a rude interregnum? Were the various peoples of Borneo mere pawns in this epic struggle between imperialistic powers, or were they, too, involved in this high-stakes gamble?

If it comes to identifying the single most important legacy of this undoubtedly important, but brief, military occupation, the following seems to be the most insightful.

The experiences garnered during the Japanese occupation period contributed to a changed world-view, mindset, and mentality among the various communities. At the same time Imperial Japan's harsh, iron- fisted imperialism and forceful colonialism convinced many local leaders and the common people that all forms of imperialism, oriental or occidental, was simply unacceptable. Witnessing and perceiving that certain communities were cooperating and benefitting from the Japanese while others were discriminated against heightened ethnic consciousness. Each ethnic group begun to be consciously aware of other ethnic communities, 'the other'; consequently each group became more concerned with their parochial interests, rights and identity vis- a- vis other groups. The rise of ethnic assertiveness contributed towards inter-ethnic tension (Ooi 2011:145).

Overall, The Japanese Occupation of Borneo enriches our understanding of the Pacific War's and Imperial Japan's impact and legacy on one of the peripheral areas of modern Southeast Asia.

Ooi Keat Gin

Professor of History

Coordinator, Asia Pacific Research Unit (APRU)

School of Humanities

Universiti Sains Malaysia

Visiting Professor

Academy of Brunei Studies

Universiti Brunei Darussalam

(1) London: Routledge, 2011.

(2) Although commonly referred to as the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), mainland Chinese scholars preferred the usage of the politically-laden War of Resistance to Japanese Aggression.
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Author:Gin, Ooi Keat
Publication:Borneo Research Bulletin
Geographic Code:9JAPA
Date:Jan 1, 2013
Words:1698
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