Ja­panese com­mu­nity in North Bor­neo long be­fore World War II

The Borneo Post (Sabah) - - HOME - BY MAR­CEL JUDE

IF not for World War II in Bor­neo, Sabah and even Sarawak would have had a very size­able Ja­panese com­mu­nity to­day. The fall­out be­tween Ja­pan and North Borneans is the rea­son why the his­tory of Ja­panese pres­ence in North Bor­neo is a very rare sub­ject of study.

How­ever, the con­nec­tions of Saba­han an­ces­tors to the Land of the Ris­ing Sun is closer than you may have re­alised. For ex­am­ple, two prom­i­nent roads in Tawau are Jalan Kuhara and Jalan Kobuta.

Did you know both th­ese names are Ja­panese? Be­fore the 1900’s, the Ja­panese were in Tawau ven­tur­ing into agri­cul­ture, tim­ber and fish­ing ac­tiv­i­ties be­fore 1900.

By the 1930’s, Kuhara (Nis­san) and Kub­ota (Mit­subishi) were the two largest com­mer­cial es­tab­lish­ments in Tawau.

The two roads named af­ter th­ese two plan­ta­tions still ex­ist in Tawau un­til to­day.

Jalan Kuhara was named af­ter Kuhara Fu­sanosuke, the owner of Kuhara Min­ing Co., later called Nis­san, while Jalan Kobuta on the other hand was named af­ter an­other big Ja­panese com­pany the Kub­ota Cor­po­ra­tion which is a trac­tor and heavy equip­ment man­u­fac­turer based in Osaka, Ja­pan. The com­pany was es­tab­lished in 1899 and is listed on the Tokyo Stock Ex­change.

Most young peo­ple think that the Ja­panese first came to Sabah to con­quer dur­ing World War II. This is in­cor­rect but nev­er­the­less to the Ja­panese the con­quest of Bor­neo is­land was very strate­gic.

Ac­cord­ing to Ooi Keat Gin, Pro­fes­sor of Mod­ern His­tory, Univer­siti Sains Malaysia, the con­quest was swift and strate­gic.

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. Strat­egy-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 con­trol of Bor­neo was then di­vided be­tween the Im­pe­rial Ja­panese Army (IJA) and Im­pe­rial Ja­panese Navy (IJN). 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.

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.

While World War II was the rea­son why the most num­ber of Ja­panese came to North Bor­neo the Ja­panese pres­ence in North Bor­neo was much longer stretch­ing as far as the 1800s.

There­fore, ac­cord­ing to Os­man Sahibah's writ­ings on Sabah’s so­cioe­co­nomic de­vel­op­ment fo­cus­ing on the roles played by the Bri­tish and other Euro­peans but ne­glect the con­tri­bu­tions of the Ja­panese, who have played a ma­jor part in the eco­nomic de­vel­op­ment of Sabah since the 1890s.

Ja­pan was a source of skilled and un­skilled work­ers, and also pros­ti­tutes, in the 1890s, while the early 1900s brought a grow­ing num­ber of peas­an­ta­gri­cul­tur­al­ists, shop­keep­ers and small busi­ness­men.

Re­stric­tive im­mi­gra­tion mea­sures in­tro­duced in the United States, Canada and the Philip­pines af­ter 1900 forced the Ja­panese govern­ment to give se­ri­ous con­sid­er­a­tion to Sabah as a po­ten­tial des­ti­na­tion for Ja­panese set­tlers.

Ja­pan sent its Con­sul in Batavia, Nari­aki Someya, to San­dakan in 1910 to carry out a fea­si­bil­ity study on this is­sue. As a re­sult, the num­ber of Ja­panese in Sabah be­gan to in­crease af­ter 1910.

By the 1930s, both in­di­vid­ual Ja­panese im­mi­grants and firms were al­ready ac­tive in eco­nomic ac­tiv­i­ties, with two con­glom­er­ate gi­ants, Kuhara (Nis­san) and Kub­ota (Mit­subishi), as the ma­jor in­vestors.

Un­der the rule of the Bri­tish North Bor­neo Char­tered Com­pany (BNBCC), Sabah was unique in South­east Asia in that it re­cruited not only Chi­nese work­ers but also Ja­panese im­mi­grants to over­come a short­age of man­power.

The plan to ob­tain Ja­panese labour be­gan as early as 1893 when Gov­er­nor C.V. Creagh wrote to Ja­pan of­fi­cially af­ter fail­ing to se­cure In­dian and Ja­vanese labours.

The Ja­panese For­eign Min­istry, re­act­ing to the ef­forts of the Sabah govern­ment, in­tro­duced “em­i­gra­tion agen­cies” for this pur­pose. In part, the Ja­panese re­sponse was mo­ti­vated by its prob­lems of over­pop­u­la­tion and un­em­ploy­ment.

The Ja­panese govern­ment thus en­cour­aged em­i­gra­tion to the less pop­u­lous and un­de­vel­oped coun­tries. For this pur­pose, it amended its em­i­gra­tion law in 1894 in or­der to in­crease pro­tec­tion for Ja­panese im­mi­grants, a move that led a large num­ber of Ja­panese to go over­seas. Be­sides mi­gra­tion to Sabah, Ja­pan sent mi­grants to Mi­crone­sia, the Caribbean, and North and South Amer­ica.

His­tory through the eyes of the West records that World War II started in 1939 when Ger­many at­tacked Poland. This is in­ac­cu­rate if you look through an Asian per­spec­tive as the war ac­tu­ally started when Ja­pan at­tacked China in 1931 and 1937.

Ac­cord­ing to lo­cal his­to­rian Danny Wong Tze Ken, the winds of war touched North Bor­neo as early as Septem­ber 1931, fol­low­ing the Muk­den In­ci­dent when the Ja­panese Army en­tered Manchuria and set up the pup­pet govern­ment of Manchukuo.

Ja­pan’s ag­gres­sion against China prompted a con­certed ef­fort by the Chi­nese in South­east Asia to raise funds in aid of the KMT govern­ment’s mil­i­tary ef­fort.

In North Bor­neo the Chi­nese com­mu­nity set up a China Re­lief Fund, and by July 1937, when the next phase of the Sino-Ja­panese War broke out, had raised a to­tal of $600,000.

How­ever, most of this money came from the mer­chant com­mu­nity, and the re­sponse of the ma­jor­ity of North Bor­neo Chi­nese was tepid.

Even when news of the out­break of open war­fare af­ter the Marco Polo Bridge In­ci­dent of 7 July 1937 reached the towns in North Bor­neo, much of the Chi­nese com­mu­nity re­mained in­dif­fer­ent.

One North Bor­neo Com­pany of­fi­cial noted: ‘Every­where in North Bor­neo the Ja­panese have in­gra­ti­ated them­selves with the Chi­nese and have con­tracted friend­ships with lead­ing Chi­nese and this pro­vides some safe­guard.’

The same of­fi­cial main­tained that ‘so far South China has not been badly hurt, but if Ja­pan se­ri­ously dam­ages the South, the hurt will be brought more closely home and tem­pers are likely to be strained’.

That Chi­nese work­ers con­tin­ued to flow in from the South, ‘chiefly for em­ploy­ment' on the Ja­panese prop­er­ties shows that the lo­cal Chi­nese had lit­tle re­ac­tion to the sit­u­a­tion in China.

In con­trast with the sit­u­a­tion else­where in South­east Asia, there was no boy­cott of Ja­panese goods or any other in­ci­dent re­flect­ing anti-Ja­panese feel­ing among the North Bor­neo Chi­nese.

The Chi­nese Ad­vi­sory Board in North Bor­neo de­cided to leave it to the con­science of in­di­vid­ual traders as to whether or not they im­ported Ja­panese goods, and Chi­nese shops con­tin­ued to sell Ja­panese goods, although most did not re-stock them.

Two fac­tors ac­count for the ab­sence of an im­me­di­ate hos­tile re­ac­tion from the North Bor­neo Chi­nese fol­low­ing the Dou­bleSeventh In­ci­dent.

First, the lo­cal Chi­nese were mainly South­ern­ers and did not per­ceive the Ja­panese ad­vance into North­ern China as a di­rect threat to their homes and fam­i­lies.

Per­haps they were in­flu­enced by their con­fi­dence in the abil­ity of the Kuom­intang-led United Front to cur­tail the Ja­panese ad­vance, but in any case pro­vin­cial loy­al­ties seem to have pre­vailed over the na­tional cause.

Se­condly, the lo­cal lead­er­ship, which con­sisted mainly of prom­i­nent busi­ness­men, had long-es­tab­lished busi­ness ties with Ja­panese traders and stood to lose valu­able busi­ness op­por­tu­ni­ties if they be­came in­volved in an an­tiJa­panese move­ment.

Why this lack of in­ter­est in the af­fairs of the moth­er­land by the lo­cal Chi­nese di­as­pora? Per­haps the root lies in the China of that time when it was un­der the reign of the war­lards like Gen­er­al­lisimo Chi­ang Khai Shek.

There was a sense of dis­il­lu­sion with China and its end­less cy­cle of wars, famines, lack of a strong and united govern­ment and end­less eco­nomic woes that made the lo­cal Chi­nese di­as­pora to be more con­cerned with the daily go­ing ons in their life in the greener pas­tures of North Bor­neo than the land they had left.

Take for ex­am­ple the ex­pe­ri­ence of the fa­mous Chi­nese writer Chi­ang Yee who was born in 1903 in Ji­u­jiang, Jiangxi Prov­ince.

In 1911, the Manchuria em­peror was de­throned, and the feu­dal sys­tem was re­placed with a new repub­lic. Chi­ang went to col­lege in Nan­jing and grad­u­ated in 1926 with a bach­e­lor of sci­ence de­gree in chem­istry.

He as­pired to help bring pros­per­ity to China with an ex­ten­sive train­ing in sci­ence. Un­for­tu­nately, the country, un­der the Na­tion­al­ist govern­ment, was plagued with civil wars, famines, cor­rup­tion, crimes, and poverty.

In­flu­enced by his older brother, who served in the Na­tion­al­ist govern­ment, Chi­ang joined the North­ern Ex­pe­di­tion, hop­ing to de­feat war­lords and unite the country. Later, he served as county mag­is­trate for three years in three dif­fer­ent coun­ties, in­clud­ing his home­town, Ji­u­jiang.

He at­tempted to bring about re­forms and im­proved the lives of the peo­ple. He pro­moted ed­u­ca­tion, ef­fected tax re­form, and curbed bribery and other crimes.

His lofty ideals, how­ever, col­lided with the in­ter­ests of some lo­cal of­fi­cials. He opted to re­sign from of­fice af­ter the new pro­vin­cial gov­er­nor took the of­fice.

Chi­ang went to Eng­land to study for­eign govern­ment at the Univer­sity of Lon­don for a year, in­tend­ing to bring about so­cial re­forms in China in the fu­ture.

Un­ex­pect­edly, for var­i­ous rea­sons, in­clud­ing the sub­se­quent Ja­panese in­va­sion of China, the Sec­ond World War, and the po­lit­i­cal sit­u­a­tion in China, he stayed abroad, first in Eng­land and then in Amer­ica as fac­ulty at Columbia Univer­sity.

To be con­tin­ued. Send your com­ments by What­sApp to 0142438685.

Jalan Kuhara in Tawau was named af­ter Kuhara Fu­sanosuke, the owner of Kuhara Min­ing Co., later called Nis­san.

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