History Optional Paper-2 Solution – 1990: Q.8

Q.8 How did the Japanese occupation of South-East Asian countries during the Second World War give a boost to nationalism in the regions? Explain with examples. [1990, 60 Marks]


Japan began the expanding to South-East Asia in early 1941, concurred with the weakening of Western power in Southeast Asia due to the war in Europe, which devastated the colonists. Japanese occupation, which ended in 1945 following the bombing in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, played a major role in giving a boost to nationalism in the regions. Consequently, Japanese occupation created circumstances that hindered Europeans’ attempt to re-conquest the region.

Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia was a part of Japan’s plan to create a self-sufficient, Asiatic empire, which has united cultural and economic sphere consisting of countries in East and Southeast Asian region. The expansion to Southeast Asia, was first discussed in 1930s during the then Prime Minister Konoye Fumimaro’s administration, focusing primarily on trade and economic matters. However, the outbreak of war in Europe, which devastated European powers and disrupted the trading activity with the colonies encouraged Japan to secure a foothold in Southeast Asia and practically colonise the region. Thus, the term ‘Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere’ (GEACPS) was introduced in 1940 to address Japanese Asiatic empire; consisting of ‘inner ring’ and ‘outer ring’ sphere of influence, in which the former was intended to be the area to develop heavy industries and the latter, was meant to be raw materials provider. The element of hakkoichiu, an ultra-nationalistic doctrine which views Japanese as the ‘Chosen people’ to rule East Asian empire, was added in the scheme to justify the conquest and the doctrine was repeatedly used in Japanese imperialist propaganda.

The period of occupation began in 1940; marked by the fall of Paris to German which granted Japanese access to French Indochina. Afterwards, Thailand, British Malaya (Malaysia and Singapore), Hong Kong, Dutch East Indies (Indonesia), British Burma (Myanmar), and the Philippines followed suit after Japanese army successfully defeated Western armies. Before the Second World War, colonial peoples believed it would be impossible to defeat the militarily superior Europeans by force of arms. Japanese successes in the early Part of the war showed that it was possible for non-Europeans to defeat European armies.

At that time, Japanese occupation process can be divided into 3 periods, the first was Japan’s arrival and colonial campaign, the second was exploitation and transformation of political system, and the third was their retreat. The first phase was the beginning of the conquest, when the Japanese tried to gain a foothold in the former Western colonies. After they were sure that they had ensured a foothold in a colony, they started the real process of colonialism, including exploitation and demolition of Western colonial system. While the procedure was in fact varied in different regions, in general, Japanese method had similar elements: Anti-white or anti-western campaign, the doctrine of hakkoichiu, and emphasis the abolishment of racial inferiority; that Western people are not essentially superior to Asians.

The Japanese occupation in Southeast Asia changed the course of events in Southeast Asian colonial history, as it was intended to abolish Western colonists’ administration and installed Japanese model imperialism. However, the initial plans of GEACPS were hard to apply, because the nature of Southeast Asian societies was complex and this was significantly influenced by their Western colonies. Nor did Japan can apply policy of assimilation as they did in Korea and Manchukuo because Southeast Asian people were very diverse. Thus, Japan applied practical tactic which was intended to gain support from nationalists movements; often by giving permission to display nationalistic symbols and limited political activities, and promise of independence. This tactic gained relative success as Japan was welcomed by nationalist movement in most Southeast Asian colonies, excluding Philippines, who were given promise of independence from the US already.

  • In Burma, for example, Japanese collaborated with Burma Independence Army (BIA) led by Aung San (Pro-democracy Activist Aung San Suu Kyi’s father) to repel the British. Aung San, who received military training and indoctrination and got appointed as ‘war minister’ when Japan granted Burma an ‘independent’ status within GEACPS in 1943. Under British rule, Burma experienced both direct rule via annexation to India and autonomy starting from 1935. The annexation had created social inequality since Indians already dominated strategic sectors in Burma. British, who claimed to uphold the tradition of self-government was hesitant to grant Burma independence and Burmese did not get to run internal affairs at least until Japan came.
  • The Japanese was also supported by young Malayan radicals called Kesatuan Melayu Muda (KMM) in British Malaya and cooperated with Muslims, who were given special protection.
  • Supportive response also came from East Indies, where Japan was also greeted warmly by various native groups and Muslims who were hostile to social classification resulted from the Dutch rule. At that time, Dutch applied the ‘divide-and-rule’ to conquer East Indies and its colonial rule did not in fact give benefits to the majority of Indonesian people. Under Japanese rule, a degree of political freedom was given and administration was handed to Indonesians with the supervision of the Japanese. Japan also provided Indonesians military training as it also provided to Malaya. Peta (Pembela Tanah Air; Defenders of the Homeland), a voluntary youth garrison, was formed in 1943. Apart from that, political movement in East Indies was limited except Japanese-made mass organisation called Pergerakan Tiga A (AAA movement) who promoted the ‘Asia for the Asiatics’ and Japan as the ‘guardian’, ‘light’, and ‘leader’.
  • In Indochina, French colonial administration persisted because Japan was satisfied with indirect rule by maintaining military presence there, but Admiral Decoux, the governor general, was forced to hire more Vietnamese to press anti-French sentiment. French colonial system resulted in the limitation of political freedom because the initial aim of the colonialism was to assimilate the colonies’ cultural, political, and social spheres with the motherland, therefore terminating Indochina’s rights of self-determination.
  • In Philippines, Japan wooed the Filipinos by declaring independence and establishing Filipino-led government with Jose Laurel as the chief.

Japanese rule did not last long; nor did the Japanese fulfill their promises to Southeast Asian colonies. Japanese colonial rule in fact was highly exploitative and independence was not granted until they realized that their defeat was coming close. However, the occupation actually allowed Southeast Asian countries to run their own administration, used their national language; cementing their national identity, and the false-hope of independence only made them more determined to be free.

Japanese had to retreat from Burma when Aung San aligned with British to repel the Japanese and later, negotiated independence from Britain, which was granted in 1948. Malaya also followed in 1957. In East Indies, shortly after the bombing Japanese surrendered and was ordered to keep control of the region until Allied forces’ arrival. However, nationalist leader Sukarno took advantage of the power vacuum to declare independence in August 1945, as did Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam by the end of the year. Later on these two countries had to fight attempted re-conquest.

Although the Japanese were eventually defeated, the nationalists, many of whom had fought against the Japanese, had no intention of tamely accepting European rule again. After all, Britain, France and Holland had failed miserably to protect their subjects, thus destroying any claim to legitimacy they might have had. If necessary,. nationalists would continue to fight against the Europeans, using the guerrilla tactics they had learned fighting the Japanese. This is exactly what happened in Indo-China, the Dutch East Indies, Malaya and Burma.

            In conclusion, Japanese occupation in Southeast Asia caused such significant shift of political constellation in the region. Japan had taught Southeast Asian colonies to run modern countries and established basis of their own government although they was still yet to gain independence. This also, in consequently cured racial inferiority issues and cemented Southeast Asian colonies’ nationalism. In addition, Japan’s false-hope of liberation also strengthened Southeast Asian people’s determination to gain independence or self-determination. These circumstances thus made it extremely hard for the European colonists to resume their colonial practice because their system was replaced and they had to face determined and trained nationalists movement. This then led to decolonisation; at that time British was forced to grant Malaya and Burma the right to self-determination. Some colonists such as French and Dutch, attempted re-conquest but eventually had to give up their colonies after exhausting battles.


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