Michigan War Studies Review
Reviews, surveys, original essays, and commentary in the field of military studies.
2019-082
19 Sept. 2019
Review by Lizzie Oliver, Far East Prisoners of War History Group
Japan's Occupation of Java in the Second World War: A Transnational History
By Ethan Mark
New York: Bloomsbury, 2018. Pp. xii, 386. ISBN 978–1–350–02220–1.
Descriptors: Volume 2019, 20th Century, World War II, Asia-Pacific Theater Print Version

Few studies of the Asia-Pacific War have focused closely on events in the Netherlands East Indies (today's Indonesia). However, historian Ethan Mark (Leiden Univ.) has now produced a rich and illuminating narrative of Japan's occupation of Java, highlighting a range of cultural and military figures to explore the perspectives of both Japanese and Indonesian communities. Based on over two decades of research, this immensely detailed and comparative work helpfully clarifies Japan's concept of a Greater Asianism in the context of vanishing Dutch authority and emerging nationalism.


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Most of the book concerns the first eighteen months of the Japanese occupation, especially the work of the Jawa sendenhan (Java Propaganda Squad)—a "group of [Japanese] civilian specialists in the production of culture for mass consumption—writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians and dramatists—along with military officers and administrators under whom they served and with whom they worked" (6). Mark looks specifically at the experiences of Indonesian communities that encountered the propaganda squad and so "became involved in the Greater Asian mission"; these comprised mostly student activists and their political heroes—"men (and a smaller number of women) who constituted a representative spectrum of the nation-building subelite" (7). Through this cultural lens, Mark reveals the intricacies of the Japanese forces' representation of their geopolitical vision to the Javanese peoples, in an archipelago-wide context of burgeoning postcolonial, non-Western sentiment.

Chapters 1–2 survey the political, social, and cultural motives that drove Japan's mission to create a "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere" free of Western or pre-occupation Javanese influence. Mark outlines interwar trends that informed Japan's move away from Western ideas and institutions toward older cultural norms. In so doing, he astutely explores how Japan's wartime ambitions paralleled the growing appeal of anti-colonial nationalist sentiments across the East Indies. Calls for independence from Dutch colonial rule gave Indonesians hope that Japan could inspire such liberation. Furthermore, the Sino-Japanese war, the global depression 0f the 1930s, and Dutch authorities' emphasis on protecting their resources and markets made it easier for the propaganda squad to generate domestic support for Japanese empire building.

Chapter 3 turns to Japanese "planning and organization for the invasion of Southeast Asia and the Pacific" (53), and the development of the propaganda squads in each occupied area. Emulating the Nazi Propaganda Korps, the squads were meant to win hearts and minds across Southeast Asia. But, although they held the status of military affiliates, they did not receive the military training given to the Nazi corps. As a result, the Japanese military had little regard for them.

Chapters 4–6 detail the first months of the occupation and early encounters between the Japanese and locals. The author maintains that the "Dutch departure and the Japanese arrival" (97) accelerated an Indonesian cultural revolution.

Thanks to his scrupulous archival research, Mark is able to show how skilfully radio stations and theatrical productions were used to foster nationalist sentiment in a population generally welcoming of the Japanese. However, he also notes, in this early period, occupying forces perpetrated physical and verbal assaults against local inhabitants, particularly those deemed to have shown inadequate deference to their "liberators" (107).

A gradual change of mood followed. Mark demonstrates that factors like, for instance, Japanese ignorance of Muslim culture, the appearance of the brutal kenpeitai (Japanese secret police), and the lowering of the Indonesian flags across Java undermined Indonesian optimism about Japanese imperialism. A real strength of these chapters is Mark's close reading of several influential Japanese writers of the time and the ensuing response of the Indonesian cultural elite to Asianist rhetoric and propaganda.

Moving from cultural to political matters in chapter 7, Mark examines the return home to Java in 1942 of the nationalist Indonesian leader Sukarno after eight years of exile and the subsequent founding of a new Peoples Organization (Poetara) to encourage local support for the Japanese mission.

Sukarno declared full support and cooperation with Japan and its aims, staking his energies and his reputation on the dream of a brighter Indonesian future under Japanese auspices…. Sukarno was also seduced by the cultural—and racial—essentialist charms of Asianism. He saw in Japan the glimmer of an alternative Asian trajectory to modern nationhood, the realization of an Eastern old within a Western new—offering, alongside eventual national independence itself, a model for the successful execution of nationhood. This was a model that avoided the tensions of class, faction, and gender inherent in Western modernity—tensions that Sukarno, like so many others of his class, yearned to believe were nothing more than an unwelcome, and expellable, foreign import. For Sukarno, no less than for his ostensibly more conservative, opportunist cooperator counterparts, the Japanese example offered reason to believe. (181)

Chapter 8 tracks the transformation of the Japanese occupation into a "prototypically colonial arrangement," starkly symbolized by the "military-colonial normalization" of "comfort stations" throughout Java (209, 211, 217). In an important passage, Mark details the occupying forces' systematic abuse of women across Java, little trace of which appears in Japanese postwar memoirs.

Moving into 1943, Mark describes the widening disparity between rich and poor and the rapid growth of a black market. State control of the economy included government-imposed production targets of staple goods like rice and a monopolization of their distribution that denied Indonesian communities access to basic provisions. Meanwhile, the Japanese lived in a comparative luxury that further alienated the hearts and minds of the local population. A renewed focus on colonial policymaking and governance led the Japanese to dissolve the propaganda squad and tighten military oversight of national newspapers.

The final chapter traces the mounting distrust of Japan during its increasingly harsh treatment of Java's native population through the second half of the occupation. A concomitant increase of secret activism by student communities helped give rise to the Indonesian war of independence after the Japanese surrendered in August 1945. Japan's abuses included "sustained … drives … for the intensified recruitment of hundreds of thousands of workers from Java's cities and countries to assist in local, regional, and overseas projects" (261). Known as romusha (laborers), these forced workers toiled on projects across the Japanese empire in grossly inhumane conditions and died in their tens of thousands. Mark highlights the political and social contexts of their experiences and the involvement of key Indonesian figures like Sukarno in their recruitment.

In an otherwise comprehensive, avowedly "transnational" study, one misses any discussion of the capture and incarceration on Java of more than thirty thousand Dutch, Indo-European, British, and Australian POWs and civilians. Though most were shipped to other occupied territories (including Sumatra, Burma, and Thailand), several thousand were still held in camps in August 1945. We learn only that "Dutch males were generally rounded up and placed in newly established prison camps" (107), while women and children and military POWs go unmentioned.

Nonetheless, Ethan Mark has made a welcome, major contribution to our understanding of the experiences of diverse communities across the Asia-Pacific theater during the Second World War. It will long remain essential reading for students of its subject, especially those exploring the postcolonial, transnational impacts of the conflict.

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