Indonesia 1939-1942: Prelude to the Japanese Occupation

By Sato, Shigeru | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2006 | Go to article overview

Indonesia 1939-1942: Prelude to the Japanese Occupation


Sato, Shigeru, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


On 17 August 1945, two days after Japan surrendered, Indonesia declared independence and a national revolution ensued. Since then it has become a historiographical convention to view the Japanese occupation as a prelude to Indonesian independence. (1) Decades later, when Japan's increasing economic influence in Southeast Asia came to alarm some observers, a tendency emerged among historians to seek a prelude to this phenomenon in Japan's pre-war economic penetration into Southeast Asia. Japan's military expansionism in the Second World War ended as a crushing blow to Japan but, according to this view, it effectively removed the Dutch colonial order and prepared the road for Japan's post-war 'peaceful expansionism' that had begun in the interwar period. (2) Both perspectives examine Japan's pre-1945 expansion to explain the post-war phenomena. This article, in contrast, focuses on the years before the Japanese invasion with the goal of examining the socio-economic impact of the Japanese occupation in a historical context.

The Netherlands Indies authorities had long suspected that Japan's pre-war economic penetration into their colony was a prelude to a subsequent military invasion, regarding even Japanese commoners, such as fishermen and retailers, as possible spies. (3) Dutch suspicions were reinforced when they saw these Japanese repatriate prior to the invasion and then return together with the invading forces while donning 'military' uniforms. The Japanese occupation forces employed Japanese civilians with some experience in, and knowledge about, Southeast Asia for administrative purposes and provided them with a uniform that was almost identical to the military uniforms. As a result, some Dutch and local people mistook these civilians for military personnel, and imagined that they had clandestinely operated in the pre-war Netherlands Indies by disguising themselves as civilians. The focal point of this article is, however, not Japanese activities but rather Dutch economic policies in Indonesia after 1 September 1939, when the Second World War broke out in Europe as the result of the German invasion of Poland. In Asia before that, Japan and China had been at war for more than two years but the 'war' in Indonesia began on 1 September 1939, at least in the thinking of the Dutch colonial authorities, due to the special relations between the Netherlands and its colonies. The Dutch colonial authorities responded immediately to this event and commenced systematic economic preparations.

The existing literature on Indonesian history depicts early 1942 as a moment of sudden and irrevocable change. Commonly used expressions such as 'the end of the Dutch colonial rule' have created the image of fundamental changes occurring in that year. As far as social and economic changes are concerned, this image is rooted in ignorance about the events before the Japanese invasion. Most economic studies of the so-called 'late colonial era' focus on the Great Depression in the first half of the 1930s and gradual recovery from it in the second half. Their inquiries stop in 1939 or thereabouts, leaving the final few years unmentioned, thus giving a wrong impression, or statements, that nothing noteworthy happened thereafter and the recovery process continued until it was dashed by the Japanese invasion. (4)

In the introduction to the most comprehensive economic study of the Outer Islands of Indonesia in the period 1900-42, Jeroen Touwen reiterates the commonly held view: 'The final period, 1935-1942, showed a slow but steady recovery. During these years, trade regained its impetus and the government strengthened its grip on the economic processes within the colony. After 1942, the economy of colonial Indonesia was disrupted by the Pacific War.' (5) To this he adds a footnote: 'Although the Japanese invasion of the Netherlands Indies began on 10 January 1942, world trade had been seriously disrupted since 1940.' The author was evidently aware of the serious economic changes in the final stage of the Dutch colonial era but he, like so many others, decided not to pay attention to them. …

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