Koreans in the Philippines in Second World War

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmailby feather

Lydia N. Yu Jose’s article, “The Koreans in Second World War Philippines: Rumour and History,” is interesting in that she devotes considerable interest in establishing something that is not true

(Yu Jose 2012). It reminds me of something from Lee Sigel’s work. When he told people he researched magic, he was asked, “Real magic?” He replied no, just tricks and illusions. So, Sigel said, “real magic” refers to the magic that actually is not real, while “the magic that is not real” refers to the magic that actually is real, slight of hand tricks and illusions. Jose is concerned with the rumor she expresses in English as “The Koreans committed more atrocities than the Japanese in Second World War Philippines.” She devotes considerable efforts to establishing that in fact this rumor is in wide circulation in the Philippines, using anecdotal evidence, evidence from a national high school essay contest, and a survey of a total of 225 students and 137 public and private high-school teachers, of which about 75% responded (Yu Jose 2012, 329). Yu Jose finds that in the works by historians, there is not a unequivocal rejection of this rumor, either; those that reject it argue simply that there were too few Koreans actually in the Philippines during the Second World War to have “outdone the Japanese” in terms of atrocious behavior. Therefore, having established that in fact the rumor is widespread, Yu Jose turns to archival evidence to attempt to either dislodge it or confirm it.

First, Yu Jose attempts to determine the number of Koreans operating in the Philippines during the Second World War through archival materials in the National Archives Administration in Washington, DC, using materials related to the US Military Commission in Manila and Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers’ Legal Section. Wading through reports concerned primarily with prisoners of war in the Allied POW camps, Yu Jose estimates that around 600 Koreans were captured, and the majority of these were attached as civilians to the Japanese Imperial Army (Yu Jose 2012, 333). It is noteworthy, however, that “prison guards [of POW camps]” was a civilian position, and it was later testified that most of the prison guards were Koreans (Yu Jose 2012, 334). Of the 600 Koreans, however, only 13 were tried by the US Military Commission in Manila, and two found guilty of war crimes and sentenced (Yu Jose 2012, 333).

One Korean who played a leading role, and was one of the two convicted of war crimes, was Lieutenant General Shikoku Kou; Kou oversaw POW camps in the Philippines from March 1944 to January 1945 (ibid). It was for crimes against POWs that Kou was tried and convicted. Yu Jose considers the cases of three other Koreans who were tried, but they provide little support of a wide number of “atrocities,” with the one other convict having been found guilty of killing a civilian under orders. Hence, despite the persistence and widespread distribution of the rumor, Yu Jose ultimately finds it is unsubstantiated by the historical record.

Yu Jose, Lydia N. 2012. “The Koreans in Second World War Philippines: Rumour and History.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 43 (02): 324–39. doi:10.1017/S0022463412000082.

Konyu Camp Life

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmailby feather

The Thailand–Burma railway was constructed in 1942-1943. It was built for the purposes of supplying and moving Japanese troops in South and Southeast Asia. The railway was constructed largely by the forced labor of local populations and Allied POWs. Often times, paths for the railway had to be cut through rock in order to overcome obstacles or steep gradients. Much of the excavation of these cuttings was done by hand, using a “hammer and tap” method whereby dynamite holes were drilled into the rocks using a ten pound hammer and chisel held by another man (“Cuttings” 2015). Among the most notorious of these excavations was “Hellfire Pass.” The commemorative Web site, created by the Australian government, states

Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) was the deepest and longest cutting along the entire length of the Thai–Burma railway which over the years came to symbolise the suffering and maltreatment of Australian prisoners of the Japanese across the Asia–Pacific region. (“Hellfire Pass” 2015)

Many of those working on the pass were among the first Australians to arrive in Thailand. These were members of “D Force” or Dunlop Force, named for their commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Edward ‘Weary’ Dunlop (“Thailand | Australian Prisoners in the Asia-Pacific” 2015). This group nearly 900 men were part of a larger force, including Dutch, that had been captured in early March of 1942 in Java (ibid; (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 106). After being interred primarily in Bandung POW Camp, they left Java in early January 1943 and had been interred at Changi, Singapore temporarily before being transported to Kanyu region (ibid).

The majority of D Force were interred at a camp known as “Konyu 3;” the other camp nearby was known as “The Malay Hamlet” (also known as “Kanyu 2”) and housed mostly men from H Force (“Thailand | Australian Prisoners in the Asia-Pacific” 2015). At least two other camps were also located nearby. Not only were the physical conditions deplorable, with cholera breaking out and malnutrition contributing to the demise of many men, and the work grueling and difficult, but the POWs were also subjected to violence and abuse by their Japanese captors.

Leonard Appleby, of the Royal Air Force, spend around seven months in the camp after being transported there, like so many others, from Singapore’s Changi Camp. His information, as well as those that follow, is taken from materials collected by the Australian government during efforts to identify potential war crimes and their perpetrators. Appleby reports on a Japanese soldier known to him only as the “Kanu Kid,” whom Appleby described as “brutal” (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 105) Among the acts of brutality ascribed to him, one included parading the camp including those in the hospital, as well as physical assault on prisoners.

Many such characters such as the Kanu Kid emerged in the testimony of the POWs, but perhaps few as often or as in such detail as the “The Mongrel.” Robert Baker, a member of D Force who, like Dunlap’s other men, had been captured in Java, described him as a Korean guard at Camp Hintok, all “Hellfire Pass” camps, and attributed to him “all the bashing” (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 106). Hugh Vincent Clarke, another POW captured in Malaya and sent along with members of D Force to Thailand described “Koreans [were] in charge of us as far as discipline was concerned” (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 117). Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Dunlop, leader of the D Force, reported that even before being transported from Bandung POW camp, Koreans guards were beginning to replace Japanese guards (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 127)

Robert Baker, who had arrived in December 1942, occupied three camps before eventually being sent to Japan, via Singapore, one year later (ibid). The Hintok River Camp was the “last camp to be occupied by Australians working on the section of the Thai–Burma railway that stretched from Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting) to Compressor Cutting” (“Hintok River Camp” 2015).

Jack Blyth, of the Fourth Australian Anti-Tank Regiment, was captured in Singapore on February 15, 1942 and transported to The Malay Hamlet on April 25, 1943 (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 116). He also reported his encounters with “the Mongrel” or “The Mad Mongrel.” He identified the man as a Korean guard from a photograph that had been shown to him, He first recounts of the story of being forced to stand, along with General Horgan, of his same regiment, within three feet of a “roaring bamboo fire” at bayonet point for about twenty minutes. The general was shirtless, and suffered severe burns all over his torso, while Blyth, wearing a shirt, had his arms and legs severely burned (ibid). Horgan died two weeks later, never recovering from the burns which were complicated by malaria. He recounts another time when the Mongrel had swindled a POW, and after the POW complained and the Mongrel was reprimanded, the Mongrel severely beat the prisoner using his rifle butt (ibid). Hugh Vincent Clarke also reported the Mongrel beating a soldier over the head and injuring him while at Kanyu-on-the-River Camp (perhaps the Hintok River Camp; although Clarke says he was next sent to Hintok, there were two camps known as Hintok—Hintok River Camp and Hintok Road Camp) (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 119). Clarke, like Robert Baker, would eventually be sent to Japan to work as forced labor there.

The conditions in the camp were deplorable, with cholera, malaria, malnutrition, and physical abuse compounded by 12 and 14 hour work shifts that continued around the clock. Hugh Vincent Clarke recalled having one day of rest in a five month period (“Kanu Camp,” 2015, 118). The testament of the POWs who were forced to serve in these camps underscores this; however, with occasional examples of Japanese officers intervening to stop abuses or reprimand a soldier for swindling a prisoner adds an additional complexity, along with the fact that “discipline” was attributed to Koreans, and individuals such as the “Mad Mongrel” played a notorious role in abuse. While the more informative testimony of officers such as Lieutenant-Colonel Edward Dunlop (see “Kanu Camp,” 2015, 129-130) clearly implicated Japanese officers of gross abuses as well, and the image of life that emerges at these camps is clearly horrific, these testimonies do add more subtlety to our understanding of Japanese conduct towards Allied prisoners of war during the Second World World.

“Cuttings.” 2015. The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass. Accessed October 20. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/building-hellfire-pass/cuttings.php.

“Hellfire Pass.” 2015. The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass. Accessed October 20. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/building-hellfire-pass/hellfire-pass.php.

“Hintok River Camp.” 2015. The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass. Accessed October 22. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/living-in-camps/hintok-river.php.

“Thailand | Australian Prisoners in the Asia-Pacific.” 2015. The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass. Accessed October 20. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/australian-prisoners-in-the-asia-pacific/thailand.php.

“Kanu Camp.” 2015. Accessed October 22. https://laulima.hawaii.edu/access/content/group/MAN.79181.201610/Kanu%20Camp.pdf.

The Burma-Thailand Railway

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmailby feather

The Thailand–Burma railway was constructed in 1942-1943. It was built for the purposes of supplying and moving Japanese troops to support an Indian theater of the war, and allow Japanese to stage attacks on British India and Allied positions around the Indian Ocean as they did in early 1942 when bombing raids on Ceylon (Sri Lanka) were carried out. The railroad gained urgency after Japan suffered heavy losses in the Battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942 (“The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass” 2015). “Hellfire Pass” was the name of one of the “cuttings” on the railway. Cuttings were paths carved out of hills, often of solid stone, that “allowed the rail track to climb at a steady gradient” (“Cuttings” 2015). Much of the excavation of these cuttings was done by hand, drilling dynamite holes into rocks using a hammer and chisel after clearing the area by hand; thanks to a Japanese policy of rapid building, no doubt further motivated by their loss of naval capacity following Midway and the Coral Sea engagements, this work continued through the night, lit by bamboo torches and oil lamps (see map below) (ibid.; “Hellfire Pass” 2015).

(“Hellfire Pass” 2015b)

Among those engaged in work on Hellfire Pass were H Force; this a group of nearly 3270 men consisted of 1141 British, 670 Australians, 588 Dutch, 26 Americans, Malay Volunteers and Indians who arrived from Singapore’s Changi POW camp in mid-May 1943 (see map below) (“Details of Groups Moved into Death Railway and Death Statistics” 2015).

They were primarily interred at The Malay Hamlet, one of at least two POW camps in the area and one of the closest to Hellfire Pass (“Thailand | Australian Prisoners in the Asia-Pacific” 2015.; “The Malay Hamlet” 2015). The other camp, known as Konyu 3, was the internment location of part of D Force (ibid.). The conditions in the camp were miserable. R. F. Oakes described the setting up and conditions of the camp:

We had a heart breaking job building that camp, [Oakes recalled] but it was done at last and we found ourselves at the end of two days with 24 half rotten, leaking tents, set up in a small clearing amongst giant bamboos in the wilds of Siam … The accommodation worked out at 28 men to a tent, but once the work started that many were never in them at the one time, for there were no holidays and half of them formed each shift. (Quoted in “The Malay Hamlet” 2015).

Within three weeks of H Force’s arrival, cholera broke out among the prisoners with up to 12 POWs perishing every day. By mid-July, however, conditions had dramatically improved, with medical treatment being provided and meat being supplied in abundance (“The Malay Hamlet” 2015). However, “the death rate in H Force was 27.4% or 885 [individuals]” of which 179 were Australians (“Details of Groups Moved into Death Railway and Death Statistics” 2015).


“Cuttings.” 2015. Accessed October 19. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/building-hellfire-pass/cuttings.php.

“Details of Groups Moved into Death Railway and Death Statistics.” 2015. Accessed October 20. http://www.mansell.com/pow_resources/camplists/death_rr/movements_1.html.

“Hellfire Pass.” 2015a. Accessed October 19. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/building-hellfire-pass/hellfire-pass.php.

———. 2015b. Wikimapia. Accessed October 19. http://wikimapia.org/#lang=en&lat=14.357031&lon=98.945789&z=15&m=b.

“The Malay Hamlet.” 2015. Accessed October 19. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/living-in-camps/malay-hamlet.php.

“The Thai–Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass.” 2015. Accessed October 19. http://hellfire-pass.commemoration.gov.au/.

POW Experiences at Changi

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmailby feather

Brynmor Roberts, a British signalman who served as wireless operator with Royal Corps of Signals in the 3rd Indian Corps Signals in Malaya, was inprisoned in Changi from February 194 to May 1943 when he was then sent to work on the Burma-Thailand Railway (Roberts 1980). On his first day in “captivity,” a Sunday, he stayed at a YMCA, but the following day all the soldiers that had been interred there were forced to march to Changi. Roberts noted that they benefited from the fact that the barracks used to intern the soldiers had recently been constructed (as part of the so-called “Singapore Strategy”) and therefore the creature comforts if afforded were of quality, such as good floors. The day after arriving, however, the army rations were pulled and the soldiers were made to eat local fair. “I soon got myself on to eating rice,” Roberts explained, with the Western food (the army rations) being greatly restricted; when these rations were distributed, however, Roberts noted it was with great equality “so no one got more to the detriment of anyone else” (ibid). Roberts remarked the fact that he had “never been much of an eater” greatly assisted him in making this transition, which we glean from his interview, was the greatest hardship he was forced to endure at Changi. He noted, however, that many of the strong, those who “gloried in their strength” suffered the worst and were the first to die, presumably from the ravages of malnutrition as Roberts claims that some of these men went from “fourteen or fifteen stone to seven or eight stone, and their hearts could not stand it” (ibid). There was a dysentery outbreak after the first month of capture, and this contributed to the weight loss of many individuals.

For the first period, Roberts reports that the prisoners were “ left to [themselves] for a time” and organized for the usual barracks duties of soldiers. He agrees with Havers, who writes that

this freedom complicated matters as it delayed the realization of becoming a POW and made the necessary transition that much harder. However, the comparatively gentle introduction to POW life that occurred at Changi helped those captured at Singapore to overcome the alleged stigma of losing Singapore. (Havers 2003, 5)

Roberts says that “it tied us over from being masters of our fate up to a point to being prisoners,” but eventually the Japanese “ordered us to organize working parties to go out to Singapore to clear up, we had not lost any of our discipline because our officers were still with us (Roberts 1980). This helped maintain the morale of troops. During the work parties, they were given breaks and lunch. Roberts relates a telling story during one of these lunch breaks. As he and five or six other POWs sat on their lunch, they were laughing. A Japanese officer approached them as asked them why they were laughing so much, assuring their answer would remain only between them and him. The Japanese officer told them, “Yes, Singapore has fallen. Yes, you are Japanese captives. If my men had been in my position, they would have committed hari-kiri. But you are laughing” (Roberts 1980). The men told him simply, “The British will be back,” using an analogy of a many-armed octopus that, if one arm is cut off, still have seven more with which to respond. When asked if there were many such conversations with the Japanese, Roberts stated there were “many sensible Japanese” whom were quite willing to have conversations with the POWs.

Lieutenant Eric Richmond Moore was a British officer served with 75th Signals Regt, 18th Divisional Signals in Singapore, Malaya, January and February 1942, and was a POW in Changi POW Camp the entire duration of the Japanese occupation. As such, he was able to report on the conditions and happens at Changi for the duration of the occupation, and the changing conditions there was well (Moore 1987a). His perspective as an officer in command also added something to his experienceHis story begins by relating how ill-equipped his regiment was, so much so that they asked to borrow arms from locals to resist the Japanese. When they “first encountered” the Japanese, they simply handed over their rifles and were instructed to remain where they were, in a school house; all communications came through their commanding officers (ibid). Twenty four hours later they were, like Roberts, marched (actually, transported most of the way by truck) to Changi where he would stay for three and a half years. Individuals who were wounded were treated by the British themselves, the Japanese not providing assistance; the medical officers were interned along with the Lt. Moore. The camp, Moore reported, had been completely looted, down to the lamps, with only a blanket (ibid). The camp had previously been barracks, and some individuals were eventually assigned quarters in huts, houses, and former barracks, but Moore noted that Australians who arrived later in the war were given only tents.

Although organized into work groups, conditions at Changi were not overly harsh aside from rationing. For example, Lt. Moore relays the story about how two Australians sneaked away from a work party to gather coconuts. On being discovered, they were briefly detained, but in the end they merely had their coconuts confiscated. They even requested to Lt. Moore that he ask if they could have them back, but he cautioned them against making such a request given the circumstances (ibid). Another group caught cutting down a coconut tree were forced to stand for hours with their knees bend (ibid). Rations were limited to eight ounces of rice per day. Hospitalized POWs received only six ounces. No additional food was provided. The main infractions were individuals leaving the camp to see out additional food for purchase with the small allowance each week by the Japanese (ibid). All purchases with such an allowance were illicit, however, since they were not permitted to leave camp (ibid). Lt. Moore conveys that the senior officers were invited to watch two others who had attempted to escape be shot in the head; as such, escape was not something often attempted (Moore 1987b).

He also tells the story of being marched at four o’clock in the morning to a camp, built for 800, that was made to house 5,000 after refusing to sign “non-escape forms” which they refused to do. Havers notes that this was “[t]he only manifestation of coercion, on a large scale, occurred when the Japanese attempted to extract, from the prisoners, a declaration promising not to attempt escape” (Havers 2003, 4). Lt. Moore reports, though, that after this event the brutality increased, and that non-commissioned Japanese officers were placed into the work parties with sticks, and that brutal beats, often requiring hospitalization, occurred at the hands of the Japanese (Moore 1987b). As an officer, Moore stated that slaps or a blow to the head was often coming if “the Japs did not agree with something” (ibid). Once, he removed a one-armed soldier from work duty after a severe beating, noting that the Japanese expected officers to provide a number of men, but who was left up to the officers, again indicating that there was some autonomy given to the POWs in meeting the demands of the Japanese.

The primary problems seemed to stem from the deteriorating health conditions caused by the lack of adequate nutrition, particularly after responses to slipping out of camp became more heavy-handed. The beds of the hospital were terribly lousy (Moore 1987b). By the end of the Occupation, when the Japanese’s own supply lines were strained, conditions became even less tolerable, with daily roll calls to ensure all POWs where were they were meant to, stricter rationing, and the appropriation of Red Cross and other medical supplies by the Japanese (Moore 1987c). Lt. Moore reports during this period that one of his duties was to supervise individuals afflicted with sores (pressure ulcerations brought about by malnutrition) to bath in the river (ibid).

The conditions described by both Roberts and Moore are not the unrelenting brutality and work-to-death conditions often ascribed to Japanese POW camps in the second World War, but both do reveal the brutalities of war. Both identified the lack of adequate food as the most difficult challenge while at Changi, but Roberts goes on to report about far more trying conditions during his time in working on the Burma-Thailand railway. Overall, the stories of these two POWs largely accord with the claims Havers has made in his text, Reassessing the Japanese Prisoner of War Experience the Changi POW Camp, Singapore, 1942-5.

Havers, R. P. W. 2003. Reassessing the Japanese Prisoner of War Experience the Changi POW Camp, Singapore, 1942-5. London; New York: RoutledgeCurzon. http://www.crcnetbase.com/isbn/9780203423011.

Moore, Eric Richmond. 1987a. Moore Eric Richmond IWM interview (10005). 10005, Reel 1. Imperial War Museums. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80009788.

———. 1987b. Moore Eric Richmond IWM interview (10005). 10005, Reel 2. Imperial War Museums. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80009788.

———. 1987c. Moore Eric Richmond IWM interview (10005). 10005, Reel 3. Imperial War Museums. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80009788.

Roberts, Brynmor. 1980. Roberts Brynmor IWM interview (4796). 4796, Reel 2. Imperial War Museums. http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/80004755.

The Changi Prisoner of War Camp

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmailby feather

Changi prison” is the named used to refer to not only the actual prison, built by the British in 1930 and later used to house civilian prisoners by the Japanese, but also to the nearby prisoner of war camp that housed some 50,000 Allied POWs (“Changi Prison” 2015; Havers 2003, 11). R. P. W. Havers claims that Changi prison camp “probably ranks as the greatest untold story – and certainly the greatest enigma – of the Second World War” (Havers 2003, 1). Part of what marks Changi out as so interesting is the seeming contradictions, the extremes experienced at the prison itself, as well as the way it fits into and complicates the entire question of the treatment of prisoners of war by the Japanese. This is because, for Havers, Changi does not represent the case of total brutality and inhumanity that seems to form so many descriptions of the life of the POW in Asia. Havers presents Changi as a “shared experience” of the captors and captives, and argues that in Changi this was no clear “master-slave” relationship but instead required navigation through a system in which there was a certain amount of fluidity and “maneuvering room” for the captives, and certain powers or rights that were observed by their captures. At Changi, captives had a considerable degree of autonomy—much more so than say a federal prisoner in the United States today. That upwards of 50,000 prisoners of war (February 1942, Changi contained 45,562 POWs) were accorded such autonomy, not in some Texas outpost but in an occupied territory during a fierce war, complicates the very idea of what it is to be a POW (Havers 2003, 11). And where this is such an autonomy and rights, there comes an obligation to respect that autonomy and those rights, and as such Japanese power was “curtailed” if voluntarily. Hence, Havers highlights this with a quotation from Kenneth Harrison, who was captured on the Malayan mainland, who wrote that his initial impression of Changi, after having be interred elsewhere was, “rather incredible to us Pudu [Pudu gaol in Kuala Lumpur] men, and in many ways [it] could have been called a POWs’ paradise” (Havers 2003, 4). Further complicating the picture, however, is that Changi was a “jumping off point” for many of those who would endure the much more brutal conditions of forced labor, sent to assist with the construction of the Burma–Thailand railway.  As such, investigating Changi brings new perspectives, questions, complications and nuances to our understanding of both the Japanese and Allied experience in Southeast Asia during World War Two.


Changi Prison.” 2015. Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Changi_Prison&oldid=685163987.

Havers, R. P. W. 2003. Reassessing the Japanese Prisoner of War Experience the Changi POW Camp, Singapore, 1942-5. London; New York: RoutledgeCurzon. http://www.crcnetbase.com/isbn/9780203423011.

Life during sook ching

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmailby feather

The Japanese relationship with the ethnic Chinese in occupied Singapore was a problematic one. Because Chinese loyalties were seen to extend beyond Singapore, to the Communists, Guomindang, or even international secret societies, they were people of marked interest and distrust for the Japanese occupiers. (Abshire 2011, 102). This distrust was exemplified in a program termed, “sook ching or “purging for purification”” (ibid.). The response of Mr. Milton Tan Hong Moh, who passed away at the age of 87 in March of 2010, in an interview conducted a decade earlier is telling. When asked if he recalled sook ching, he helpfully suggested it was a “massacre” (“Road Safety Champ Milton Tan, 87, Dies,” 2015; Tan 1999). Japanese attempted to identify potential subversives uses interrogations of the entire fighting-age male population as well as by other features of their personal identities such as profession or associations (Abshire 2011, 103). Those under suspicion were executed in-mass,with estimates ranging as high as 50,000 individuals being killed, leading to Mr. Tan to refer to it as simply a massacre (ibid.). The sook ching was just the most extreme example of many policies aimed at pacifying the Chinese populations of Singapore .

Although he was 19 at the time of sook ching, Mr. Tan was not required to go to the screenings. This lucky break came from the fact that, because his father occupied a key position at the Electrical Department, his father and immediate family were given “an armband.” Such armbands were issued as passes to individuals, such as doctors, by the Japanese military government that allowed them certain freedoms, such as the freedom of movement (Oehlers 2008, 83). Mr. Tan’s family were also harboring the son the Tan Kah Kee, an important Chinese businessman and philanthropist, sometimes called the “Henry Ford of Asia,” in Southeast Asia who was also a ardent supporter of China’s efforts to resist the Japanese (Tan 1999). Because of this support, he and his family were Japanese targets. Mr. Tan relates that the Japanese, after seeing the family were in possession of armbands, left without further inquiry. Tan Kah Kee himself managed to escape to Java, no doubt escaping death or imprisonment (“Tan Kah Kee International Society” 2015). Mr. Milton Tan’s extended family were, however, not spared from the sook ching, and he reported cousins and friends being taken away “and shot” (Tan 1999). And despite being “vital,” Mr. Tan’s felt Japanese abuses. He records being beaten by a Japanese soldier after having been sent to the Japanese camp as part of his duty as a electrician. When he told the man that a starter was required to start a generator, otherwise it would continue to blow a fuse, he was beaten for his troubles (Tan 1999). When he repaired a radio at the camp, however, he impressed the Japanese and was immediately put to work in radio. This not only entailed supporting and repairing the Japanese communication equipment, but Tan was also sent to school to learn Japanese so he could work with the occupiers more effectively (Tan 1999). This accords with the larger program of “Japanization” undertaken in Singapore (Abshire 2011, 104).

Chin Kah Chong’s experiences were quite different. First, as a Baba Nyonya, the family’s ansertral home being thought of as Malacca, Ms. Chin did not speak Chinese but Malay (Chee 1996). Her father was a civil servant, and she was just nine or ten years old at the time of the Japanese occupation, a full ten years younger than Milton Tan (ibid). She recounted watching the Japanese march into Singapore and taking control of major arteries as her extended family concentrated to a single house, as “gathering in numbers gave some kind of comfort” (ibid). After they dispersed, though, a gruesome sight met them—headless bodies along the road, “all Chinese” (ibid). When the sook ching began, they were ordered, along with “thousands of other men, women and children,” all Chinese, to report to Song Lim Sawmill on Sungei Road; after a few days of staying there without leaving, even sleeping there, Ms. Chin reports that most of the women and children were permitted to leave. However, this indicates that it was not only men who endured sook ching (ibid). It was, however, the “young men” who were suspicious that were weeded out, and as Ms. Chin reports, executed “somewhere off East Coast Road” (ibid). Her own family’s males had relocated themselves to Hooper Road, and for whatever reason, they were not required to report for sook ching, and never were called to present themselves for screening. In a few weeks her father, who worked as a court clerk, went back to work, this time for the Japanese administration; it has reconstituted the courts (ibid). Ms. Chin was sent to a new school, her old one being taken over as an administrative office by the Japanese, where she, like Mr. Tan, began learning Japanese, taught by local teachers who themselves were being schooled in Japanese. School life was also transformed by the addition of a daily radio announcement, which the children listened to, and then bowing towards Japan to honor the emperor.

Just outside of her school, the Japanese created a “comfort zone.” She reports that weekly women would come to bath, “perfectly nude” and in clear sight through the school windows, causing the expected uproar (ibid). Ms. Chin reported all these women “spoke Japanese” but she could not distinguish whether they were Japanese or Korean, but concluded in restrospect many of them were Koreans. These were meant for the “Japanese officers” and besides fueling a rooftop peep shows for the “boys who showed leadership” in the school, it also created an unexpected trade—school boys would gather used condoms, wash and powder them, re-roll them and sell them back to the Japanese, much to the chagrine of the schoolmaster (ibid).

Although Mr. Tan’s story and Ms. Chin’s stories are quite different, they reflect that few if any lives were untouched by sook ching and occupation. Mr. Tan’s experience of being spared because of his father’s position and concealing the offspring of one of Singapore’s most prominent anti-Japanese Chinese and recruitment is one considered touched by luck. Ms. Chin’s family was largely spared, despite some discomfort from being interned for a few days at a sawmill, but her male family members someone, almost inexplicably, escaped having to endure sook ching. But both saw changes, such as the adoption of Japanese language, and both attested to the loss of life during sook ching.

Abshire, Jean E. 2011. The History of Singapore. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood.

Chee, Keng Soon. 1996. Oral History Interviews: CHEE Keng Soon. Accession Number 001776, Reel 1. National Archives of Singapore Oral History. http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/oral_history_interviews/record-details/9cb96316-115e-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad?keywords=sook%20ching&keywords-type=all.

Oehlers, J. 2008. That’s How It Goes: Autobiography of a Singapore Eurasian. Select Pub.

Road Safety Champ Milton Tan, 87, Dies.” 2015. Accessed October 16. http://news.asiaone.com/News/the+Straits+Times/Story/A1Story20100311-203879.html.

Tan Kah Kee International Society.” 2015. Accessed October 16. http://www.tkkfoundation.org.sg/biography/e_timeline.shtml.

Tan, Milton Hong Moh. 1999. Oral History Interviews: TAN, Milton Hong MohMp3. Accession Number 002121, Reel/Disc 2. National Archives of Singapore Oral History. http://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/oral_history_interviews/record-details/a48d3c52-115e-11e3-83d5-0050568939ad?keywords=sook%20ching&keywords-type=all.

Singapore in WWII and the sook ching

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmailby feather

Generally, after the end of the first World War, the British began developing the “Singapore Strategy” which saw Singapore developed as a major defensive mode between the Pacific and Indian Oceans (Abshire 2011, 84). Japanese aggressively gave further justification to the strategy, which was supported by air bases and plans on how to move forces to Singapore in case of a Japanese attack, but these efforts proved not to be well executed or optimistic, and in the end would not be enough. When the Japanese invasion came, from the northern part of Malaysia as expected, British forces were inadequate and subsequently were forced to continually fall back. Key cities fell in quick succession: Penang on December 17, Taiping on December 22, Kuala Lumpur on January 11, and Japanese troops here in Johor by January 15 which fell on the 27th of that month (Abshire 2011, 92, 94). Japanese bombing raids inflicted causalities as the British attempted to hold out. On February 8, 1942, Japanese troops began crossing the Straits, commencing their invasion while British leadership, including that of Lieutenant-General Arthur Ernest Percival, suffered from inconsistencies and was largely ineffective in coordinating defense. On February 15, the British waved the white flag and surrendered Singapore to the Japanese. Occupation officially began the following day.

Under occupation, the Japanese furthered a system of ethnic differentiation, with Europeans being considered prisoners of war and Indian and Malay soldiers being given the option to join the Japanese “pan-Asian” efforts. Those incarcerated had a range of experiences, from very comfortable to forced labor. The relationship with the ethnic Chinese was more problematic. Because the Japanese sought to make Singapore a permanent colony, the goodwill of its large Chinese population was essential, but there was also a great distrust of the Chinese, perhaps because of Japan’s earlier and ongoing conflict in China itself (Abshire 2011, 102). This led to a program termed, “sook ching or “purging for purification”” (Ibid.). Japanese attempted to identify potential subversives uses interrogations of the entire fighting-age male population, but also information from informers or details such as one’s profession, suspected ties to secret societies, or the area of origin in China (Ibid.). Those under suspicion were executed in-mass,with estimates ranging as high as 50,000 individuals being killed (Abshire 2011, 103). The sook ching was just the most extreme example of many policies aimed at pacifying the Asian populations of Singapore .


Abshire, Jean E. 2011. The History of Singapore. The Greenwood Histories of the Modern Nations. Santa Barbara, Calif: Greenwood.

Did José Laurel Collaborate in 1942?

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmailby feather

The image of José Laurel that emerges from one bundle of correspondence is far from the collaborator attempting to help realize a Japanese vision of the Philippines as part of a pan-Asian empire, but rather as an opportunist in a position of power. The bulk of the correspondence contained in this bundle of letters that José Laurel wrote as Commissioner of Justice in 1942 are primarily requests from contacts of Laurel, and Laurel’s own requests and intersessions on his own and others’ behalf to other Philippine authorities, the Japanese authorities, and private businesses and citizens.

Many letters are directed towards other Philippine civil servants, as in the case of the letter to Leon Guinto, the mayor of Greater Manila, who is asked to ensure police investigate the looting attempts against a Chinese merchant living on Manga Road, San Francisco del Monte, dated March 30, 1942 (Letter 19). In letters received and sent by Laural, requests for the removal for sale of goods from warehouses, dozens of job placement requests for friends and their family members, and requests for car permits were made, including those for Laurel’s physicians as well as himself. Rarely, such requests noted the esteem held in the Japanese community for the benefactor of such requests, as in a letter to Laurel from the Governor of Davao, R. C. Quimpo, dated May 7, 1942. In requesting Laurel look into the appointment of two individuals he notes of one that he would be “of much help in our pacification program” and of the other he was one of those who “surrendered early to the Japanese” (Letter 32). It is impossible, of course, to judge the consideration that these “qualifications” were given by Laurel, and no reply seems to be included in this bundle of correspondences. The bulk of such correspondences are instead like that sent by Laurel to the city mayor Manila, Leon Guinto, on August 10, recommending one of his office’s typists for a job as a “census enumerator” (Letter 79).

Such personal intersessions were common, and were sent not only to Philippines but also Japanese authorities. One such letter was sent to the Japanese Military Adviser based in Manila, a Mr. Kodaki, on April 10, 1942 requesting that the Military Administration connect with his personal friend, Dr. Nicanor Reyes of the Far Eastern University. Dr. Reyes was concerned about the preservation of materials and equipment, no doubt wishing to protect them from the ravages of war, and was requesting either assistance or permission from the Japanese authorities to do so (Letter 22). On May 23 of the same year Laurel sent a letter to a Col. Wanatabe, Commander of the Imperial Japanese Forces in Southern Luzon, to intercede in the investigation against Mareele Miranda, mayor of Bacoer. In this correspondence, Laurel vouched for his character as his friend, and suggested that the antipathies of local politics were behind his “harassment.” Laurel requests the colonel not be “carried by local political differences” (Letter 39). In another letter, dated July 11 of that year, Laurel asks that the military authorities allow one Isidra Filarf, a former student of Laurel’s, to testify on her brother-in-law’s behalf, who it seems was arrest by military authorities (Letter 59).

Laurel was not merely an opportunist, however, and this is reflected in some correspondence regarding administrative matters. On April 24, 1942 correspondences note that given that the American Red Cross were no longer welcome in the occupied Philippines that organizing a local Red Cross was required (Letter 26). Letter 56, on July 4, 1942, outlines the judicial reform that had been implemented. Perhaps most interesting is a letter dated August 10, on the same day he asked a a job placement for one of his typists, and this letter is addressed to the Director-General of the Japanese Military Administration (Letter 80). In this letter, Laurel makes the case that clear “spheres of jurisdiction” need to be outlined between the Philippine civil administration and that of the Japanese Military Administration. Laurel notes that the “supremacy of the Military Administration must be recognized as the source of powers and concessions granted to the civil administration.” He then references Order Number Two, issued by the Commander in Chief of the Japanese Imperial Military Forces, on education in the Philippines. Laurel’s point is clear enough—while one may rule by decree, one must also have some way of implementing such decrees. I read Laurel’s argument here as a subtle move to try to ensure more “powers and concessions” are granted to the civil administration. One the face of it, this is because such concessions are necessary for implementation of Japanese policy. And as latter exchanges show, there was an initiative afoot to rationalize this relationship.  But given the context, in which Laurel seems to be navigating the system to maximize its benefits for his own benefactors, it seems difficult not to read this as an attempt to create more “elbow room” in which to allow civil authorities to navigate and continue a system of patronage, albeit one now under a new foreign regime.  As so often is the case, and individual in a position of power is making the case to preserve or strengthen that position.  Given what we know about Laurel’s own aristocratic tendencies, this is unsurprising.


On “Jose P. Laurel: A ‘Collaborator’ Misunderstood”

Facebooktwitterlinkedinmailby feather

Sometimes, the things that we say can haunt us. This is particularly true if they are captured in print, as were many of the speeches and pronouncements of José P. Laurel, the president of the Japanese occupied Second Philippine Republic during the second World War, from 1943 to 1945. Laurel suggested, after occupation, that he was coerced into serving in that role by the Japanese. However, David Steinberg has argued that in fact Laurel chose to serve and that he could have avoided serving in the role had he wanted to. Furthermore, Steinberg argues that Laurel accepted the position because Laurel saw the opportunity as one that would allow him to transform Philippine society into something more disciplined and progressive.

Steinberg’s argument is built primarily on Laurel’s own words, using his works such as his Forces that Make a Nation Great (1943), his autobiographical War Memoirs of Dr. José P. Laurel (Manila, I962), recorded speeches, the wartime constitution, and some official communiqués. Steinberg’s arguments rest on the following premises: many men of power were able to avoid serving in the Second Philippine Republic by either expressing disinterest or using health issues as excuses. Laurel had been shot and hospitalized in serious condition for seven of the twelve weeks prior to his appointment (652-653). Therefore, like them, had he not wished to have served he could have used his health as an excuse. Therefore, he served because he wanted to.

Steinberg’s second claim is that the reason he wanted to serve was because he wanted to change Philippine society. In his own works and speeches, he expressed the desire to reform Philippines society on numerous times, and expressed admiration for the Japanese own “duty-centric” society with a high regard for the rule of law (654, 660). The wartime constitution, which reflected Laurel’s influence, concentrated power in the executive, a structure which Laurel had identified as important were one to accept social change as in Japan along with rule by an intellectual and moral aristocracy (655, 662). He also took measures to try to ensure some such changes could be enacted even after the Japanese departures, as expressed through his Proclamation 30, which declared a state of war, and his efforts to reconcile guerrilla forces (659). Steinberg concludes that in fact Laurel assumed power when he did not have to, he had a reason to do so. Laurel’s own stated professions of his goals, aims, and conception of a reformed Philippine society, and the actions he took to realize those reforms, provide evidence as to what that reason was.


Steinberg, David. “Jose P. Laurel: A ‘Collaborator’ Misunderstood.” The Journal of Asian Studies 24, no. 4 (August 1, 1965): 651–65. doi:10.2307/2051111.