History Beneath Our Feet – Imagining the Japanese Occupation in the Classroom

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Students of the ‘Southeast Asia Under Japan: Motives, Memoirs, and Media’ course  visiting the former Ford Motor Factory.

Photo: Sandeep Ray

Early 1942 was a historically confounding time for Singapore. The Imperial Japanese Army had rapaciously made their way down Malaya, crossing the Johor Causeway within weeks. Malay nationalists entering from the north with the Japanese troops dreamt of a new nation while others watched – bewildered by the sudden attack, the likes of which the peninsula had never seen before.

Days later, a gaunt Arthur Percival, leader of the British forces, walked across the island in khaki shorts and surrendered the Union Jack to General Yamashita, much to the shock of Winston Churchill.

The British Empire had never fallen more spectacularly. Then, after a brief pause in the assaults, a systematic murder of local Chinese began.

Nothing washes away the memory of spilled blood, divided loyalties, and a lowered flag more effectively than a robust GDP and the promise of enduring peace. Singapore has risen.

Older citizens, nearing the end of their lives, walk around in a gleaming metropolis of steel and concrete with uncanny normalcy.

“My grandfather does not talk about it”, says one of my students. “But I want to understand what happened.”

This past year we studied the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia in a new history course at the Singapore University of Technology and Design.

Chronically underslept, the students – these overachievers in the sciences – have rarely missed a class.

We have now spent 14 weeks analysing that period of violent rupture in Southeast Asia, when Japan took over politically and militarily across Malaya, Burma, Indochina, the Philippines and Indonesia.

Airplanes frequently appear outside our classroom, low on the horizon, preparing for descent. We are close to Changi Airport and Changi beach.

One is a spectacular modern edifice, the other a former site of wartime mass killings.

Most of the students are Singaporeans, but a handful come from Indonesia, India, Malaysia and China. Their interest is keen.

Given that they are all training to become engineers or architects, this is an opportunity for them to be historians for a few months.

We don’t memorise dates and proper nouns; students can check online sources any time, even during exams.

Using information available, at times literally at our fingertips, we strive for a window to complex aspects – sequentially analysing that period, how it shaped Asia, and how its legacy lingers on.

We look at films depicting that period—carefully curated newsreels, documentaries and fiction.

We read and discuss diaries of survivors and aggressors. Weekly reviews of military history provide us with a useful scaffolding to discuss events as we grapple with the social consequences of war.

Many questions are debated: Was the Japanese invasion purely an act of aggression based on a top-down societal structure? Given knowledge of atrocities in Manchuria and Nanking, can one ethically justify the collaborations of Aung San, Sukarno, and Subhas Bose?

Who are the forgotten armies in post-war portrayals of the Japanese Occupation—have we glorified certain heroes and neglected others? Should surviving comfort women receive reparations?

The questions abound, papers are submitted and grades are anxiously awaited. Compared to my former students in the United States, this group takes the history of the Japanese Occupation more personally, perhaps because its legacy lingers at our doorsteps.

Leaving the confines of our new, modern campus founded in collaboration with MIT just seven years ago, we made a trip in November to the former Ford Factory, now a repository for the history of the Japanese Occupation.

Led by veteran guide Jeremy Koh, my students quietly walked through the carefully curated exhibit, pencil in hand, fact-checking, comparing their notes.

Coming face-to-face with material objects was meaningful.

Elaine Cheong Yu Shan, a junior, observed: “Primary sources do help to relate to us in a personal way and promote a deeper understanding of history as a series of human events, not just stories that we read from our textbook that made it felt so distant and unreal.”

Indeed, it is that evanescent feeling of history that is hard to evoke in a classroom, the visceral realisation that events in the past actually happened right beneath our feet.

Careful not to oversentimentalise, the students are vigilant in considering how the past is presented in the present context.

In the words of Ang Beng Huan, a sophomore, “history consists of both the facts of the matter, but also the narrative of the facts.”

“In the case of this particular exhibit, there exists a clear objective in the narrative which is to educate Singaporeans on the significance of the war on Singapore’s history,” he adds.

Later, they reflect on various aspects of the exhibit. Most conclude that it is challenging to accurately represent the complexities of a war but that the very effort is a step in the right direction towards healing.

The students have since submitted their final papers. The topics were diverse and probing.

How does the Hollywood film The Bridge on the River Kwai compare to historical accounts of the construction of the death railway? What were the effects of the Japanese interregnum on nationalism in Southeast Asia? What was the role of ‘fake news’ during this time of war?

Chen You Liang, a sophomore, feeling constrained by books and films, has been interviewing survivors in Chinatown while playing chess with them.

It is heartening to imagine an undergraduate walking around, talking to veterans, seeking to create his own primary source.

One of his subjects, Lim Boon Seng, a roadside barber, begins his interview as follows: “The British started firing at the Japanese near my school and so we climbed up a tree…”

The 80 year-old’s animated face fills the screen. The students watch the wrinkled man in the quiet peaceful lane, trying to imagine that moment from seventy five years ago.

Sometimes books aren’t enough.

-This article first appeared in Today on 5 January 2018.-