Japanese community in North Borneo long before World War II
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.