Heroic Narrative of South East Asian Nations in World War II


This essay examines the hypothesis that Japan took advantage of the abuses of Western colonialism on South East Asian nations by promising ‘an Asia for Asians’, and that the South East Asian people used this idea coupled with their own heroic narrative to achieve their respective national independence and that they were the real victors of the war and not the Western allies.

The essay then develops the theme that the people of South East Asia did not consider the Japanese as ‘bad’ and ‘evil’ as was understood by the West and that ‘good’ and the ‘bad’ Japanese could exist simultaneously. The Japanese understood the eastern mind and successfully portrayed themselves as liberators of Asians from exploitative Western colonialism.

The essay develops these ideas by examining the behaviour of indigenous people in light of their individual racial and historical memories of the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore during the Second World War. India, though strictly not a South East Asian country by Western definition is also discussed because of the linkage of some factions of the Indian freedom struggle to the Japanese emanating from Singapore.

The essay concludes by summarising the findings and stating emphatically that Western colonial abuse, Japanese propaganda of liberating the Asians from Western colonialism supported by their own racial memories was used by the inhabitants of South East Asia as stepping stones to finally overthrow colonialism and achieve independence and thus they were the real victors of the Second World War and not the Western allies.

Heroic narrative is an important ingredient in nation building. Heroic narratives are usually facts, fiction, myths and folk tales interwoven to cement the shape of a national identity. This is true for all nations irrespective of their location, ideology and philosophy. The heroic narrative of the Second World War as propounded by Western (victorious) historians would have the world believe that it was the Japanese cruelty and appeal of western democratic ideals that galvanized the people of South East Asia to rise up against the Japanese occupation and that it was the Allied heroic efforts that liberated South East Asia from eternal subjugation. This essay argues that the actual heroic narrative of South East Asia is more nuanced. The essay examines the hypothesis that Japan took advantage of the abuses of Western colonialism on South East Asian nations by promising ‘an Asia for Asians’, and that the South East Asian people used this idea coupled their own heroic narrative to achieve their respective national independence and that they were the real victors of the war and not the Western allies.

Prior to the Japanese invasion of Philippines, the archipelago had been under American colonial rule. Though the Americans established democratic principles propounding American values, the Filipino had much deeper cultural memories of a distinct national identity that had been tempered by over 350 years of Spanish rule before the Americans took over (Narangoa and Cribb 251). Those three centuries of harsh colonial rule had catalyzed a nationalistic movement that yearned to be free from the White Man’s yoke. The Japanese promise of a ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ ideally fitted with the Filipino view of an ‘Asia for Asians’. When Japan overran the archipelago and installed a puppet government in Philippines, the ruling elite faithfully carried out the policies of the Japanese government. This act of ‘perfidy’ as depicted by Western historians, was in fact, a pragmatic approach adopted by the Filipino elite as it helped soften the harsh policy directives of the Japanese occupiers and protected ordinary Filipinos from greater atrocities (Reyes 7). Nationalist agendas were not forgotten and just to ensure that all Filipino ‘eggs’ were not put only in the Japanese basket, the Filipinos continued their resistance forming guerrilla units to wage a people’s war against the Japanese (Reyes 4). The overriding impulse as far as the Filipinos were concerned was an independent archipelago for the Filipinos shorn of either Japanese or American rule.

Indonesian memories of a glorious past harks back to the days of the Hindu Islamic empires of Srivijaya in 7th century A.D and the Buddhist Majapahit Empire in 14th Century A.D when Indonesia was the key economic powerhouse trading with “Burma, Siam, Cambodia and China” (Lamoureux 14). Subsequent Islamic kingdoms such as the Mataram Empire managed to bring most of Indonesia under their sway. Constant amongst these historical shifts in power had been the concept of Bhumiputeras or the ‘sons of the soil’ that proclaimed that it was indeed the indigenous people who through their perseverance and diligence had brought glory to the land. The Dutch colonial excesses chafed at the Indonesian identity of a previously exalted nation causing Indonesian nationalists to look elsewhere for solutions. The Japanese provided one such solution as the Indonesians considered that the Japanese success in learning from the West was a model that could be followed by the Indonesians in their quest to free themselves from Dutch colonial rule (Frederick 17). Japan’s victory over the Russians in the Russo-Japanese war (1905) signalled to South East Asians that here was an Asian nation that had the power and ability to defeat the omnipotent West. Consequently, in 1914, many delegations from the Indonesian archipelago travelled to Japan asking for support (Frederick 18) which did not yield satisfactory response. Nonetheless, through the 1920s, Indonesian nationalists continued to view the Japanese as a potential ally in their quest to throw out the Dutch. Through the 1930s, an opposite number of nationalist groups advocated uniting with the Dutch to counter possible future Japanese aggression in return for greater autonomy, which was rebuffed by the Dutch forcing the Indonesian nationalists to reinforce their hope in the Japanese (Frederick 19). The Japanese exploited the popular resentment against Western colonialism by propounding an “Asia for Asian” policy. Thus when the Japanese first advanced into Indonesia, some of the groups initially supported the Japanese whom they perceived to be allies in their liberation against colonial rule. The Japanese, on occupying Indonesia, initiated a number of reforms such as eliminating “separate forms of government, administration and law for Indonesian and European communities” (Frederick 20) that further cemented their greater acceptability over the Dutch. The Indonesian understood that this was just a temporary arrangement and that the final aim of achieving full independence was constant. Hence, resistance to Japanese forces of occupation by some Indonesian groups that included the communist groups continued along with support from some quarters of Indonesia.

Malaysian racial history like that of Indonesia is tied to the cultural influence of India. When Islam conquered the Malayan peninsula, it did not create any contradictions with the original Hindu and Buddhist lineage and in fact just like Indonesia, the Malays absorbed Islam into their rich cultural tapestry. So while Hinduism, Buddhism and Islam melded into the society, British exclusivist colonial practises did not. The proud bhumiputeras, a concept common to Indonesia-Malaysia, looked for alternatives to throw out the British. The Japanese provided one such alternative. The Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM), a left wing nationalist group “provided support for the invading Japanese 25th army” (Wong 224). There were other groups that resisted Japanese invasion such as the Malayan Communist party (MCP) whose armed wing, The Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) offered stiff resistance to the invading Japanese forces (Wong 225). The Malays thus proved adept at keeping all options open by having some groups allied with the Japanese and others in opposition so as to ensure the fulfilment of their long term goal of complete independence from foreign domination.

During the British rule over the Malay, Singapore was a part of the territory. The Malayan Communist party which was active in rest of Malaysia was active too in Singapore. The British attempted suppression of the MCP in Singapore in the 1930s. By the time the Japanese arrived at the gates of Singapore, the ethnic Malay, Chinese, Indian and other communities that made up the kaleidoscopic society of Singapore were deeply apathetic to British predicament and in fact many welcomed the chance of being liberated from the White colonial masters. Unlike the British who gave only nominal positions of responsibility and jobs to the locals, the Japanese army on occupation threw open all arms of administration open for local recruitment that gave opportunity not only for the Malay elite but also peasantry to participate and earn a livelihood (Wong 224). The Japanese however, later overstepped their authoritarian rule by resorting to extreme measures and punitive actions by resorting to a pervasive domestic security system with constant surveillance of religious groups, collective security of households (Tremewan 11). Such actions catalyzed a counter reaction in which the MCP soon allied with the British to help overthrow the Japanese out of the Malayan peninsula. After the defeat of the Japanese, Singaporean nationalism had strengthened to a point where the British had no option but to grant the Singaporeans independence and retreat from the peninsula.

India, though not strictly within the western definition of South East Asia requires examination because the linkages of the Indian freedom struggle against British rule find their roots in Japanese occupied Singapore during the Second World War. Indian civilization dates back to 3300 B.C.E, where sophisticated cities existed while most of Europe were still in a barbaric stage. The two great Indian epics, Ramayana and Mahabharata, known to every Indian child by heart, preach the need to fight against injustice and the equality of all human beings in the eyes of God. Even the later 300 year long rule by the Mughals did not diminish the national identity of India as a land of culture, learning and tolerance where even a monotheistic religion like Islam was absorbed. The fact that the former ‘barbarians’ now ruled an 8000 year old civilization rankled every Indian and the Indian Nationalist movement drew succour from such a perception. The Indian National Army (INA) was specifically tailored to ally with the Japanese army and Japanese support to liberate India from British rule. In fact the INA charter was drawn up in Farrer Park, Singapore two days after the fall of Singapore to the Japanese forces (Wong 224). The Indian Independence League under the leadership of Subhash Chandra Bose established the first Provincial Government of Free India in Singapore in 1943. The underlying rationale for the Indians was the same as had been for South East Asian countries, the use of a powerful Asian ally to overthrow the British. Amongst Indian intellectual circles it is still widely debated that had Subhash Chandra Bose not died prematurely under mysterious circumstances, India with Japanese help would have achieved independence much earlier than 1947.

In conclusion it can be reiterated that the heroic narrative of South East Asian

Nationalism during the Second World War was a more nuanced phenomenon than just being a reaction against Japanese aggression and the lure of western type democracy. South East nationalism drew its vitality from their respective racial memories of having been proud independent peoples who had an impressive lineage of arts, culture, and history that was being destroyed by the White Colonialists. That the Japanese found collaborators in every South East Asian nation during the Second World War reflects the appeal of a pan- Asian identity that in turn was subtly used by the inhabitants as stepping stones to finally overthrow colonialism and achieve independence. Western heroic narrative of South East Asia during the Second World War thus requires a rethink as the real victors were not the Western allies but South East Asian countries who successfully transformed the Japanese ‘Asia for Asians’ idea coupled with their individual heroic narratives to achieve national independence.

Works Cited

Frederick, William H. “Reflections in a Moving Stream: Indonesian Memories of the War and the Japanese.” Remco, Rabin. Representing the Japanese Occupation of Indonesia. Amsterdam: Waander Publishers, 1999. 16-35.

Lamoureux, Florence. Indonesia: A Global Studies Handbook. Oxford: ABC-CLIO, 2003.

Narangoa, Li and R.B. Cribb. Imperial Japan and National Identities in Asia, 1895-1945. NY: Routledge, 2003.

Reyes, Portia L. “The Nation’s Interrupted Path: The Pacific War in Philippine History Textbooks.” 2005. International Institute for Asian Studies New Letter. 2009. Web.

Tremewan, Christopher. The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore. NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 1996.

Wong, Diana. “Memory Suppression and Memory Production: The Japanese Occupation of Singapore.” Fujitani, Takashi, Geoffrey Miles White and Lisa Yoneyama. Periloud Memories: The Asia-Pacific War(s). Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001. 218-238.

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