On Friday 28 November, Sabah tour guide Akmal gave 33 Japanese Peace Boat passengers a whistle stop tour of the Sabah Museum in Kota Kinabalu. The group filed past glass-cased Bajau drums and skull relics of the Kadazan-Dusun tribe’s headhunting days towards the portion of the museum dedicated to Borneo’s colonial history.
74 years earlier, on December 13 1941, a Japanese invasion convoy led by Major-General Kawaguchi Kiyotake left Cam Ranh Bay in French Indochina, bound for British Borneo. The Japanese Imperial Army, who occupied Borneo until 1945, decimated many local populations and killed Malay intellectuals.
As Akmal annotated the museum’s installations, the Peace Boat group learned about the Malay and Sea Dayak pirates, British colonialism, and the Jesselton Railway that hefted spices to the seaport in present day Kota Kinabalu. Then Akmal paused in front of the placards depicting the Japanese Imperial Army’s occupation of Borneo. “Is it okay to continue,” he asked volunteer Peace Boat interpreter Erica Nakanishi-Stanis.
“He was sensitive to how the group would react,” Nakanishi-Stanis said later. “But I told him that it was a part of his history, and just because we were a group of Japanese tourists, he shouldn’t have to hold back.”
Peace Boat guest educator Kobayashi Katsuko has faced this predicament many times as a guide for Japanese and other tourists in Singapore over the past 30 years.
Kobayashi gave a series of lectures onboard Peace Boat before leading a group on a tour of sites pertaining to Japanese massacres of mainly ethnic Chinese during the Japanese military occupation, during which Singapore was renamed ‘Shonan-to’, or Shonan Island.
“Some of my colleagues, the guides that are older than me, say that they don’t want to do the Shonan Tour, and even if they do, they just give the brief commentary,” Kobayashi said. “They say they don’t want to look back, and they don’t want to know.”
According to Kobayashi, most Japanese people are taught about the Pearl Harbor attack on December 8, but know little of the Imperial Army’s campaign in the Asia Pacific. School textbooks, she said, mention that Singapore was once called Shonan-to, but do not detail why the invasion occurred or what happened during the occupation.
“Somebody has to talk. Somebody has to let them know what has actually happened on the Asian side,” Kobayashi said.
In a lecture that spanned back to the uneven treaty terms of the 1854 Convention of Peace and Amity between the United States and the Empire of Japan, Kobayashi gave an account of events leading up to the Japanese Imperial Army’s invasion of Singapore.
Among myriad other factors, she cited the Russian expansion of the Siberian Railway and the Japanese drive to control Korea as a buffer zone for its territory; the First Sino-Japanese war in 1894; the Russian invasion of Manchuria; and the shifting political and economic relationships between Japan and the US.
Kobayashi also discussed the Japanese occupation of Singapore after the British surrendered to General Yamashita Tomoyuki, and the ‘screening’ process by which the Japanese military sought to eliminate ‘undesirables’ in the country, now known as the Sook Ching massacre. “After the Japanese military occupied Singapore, they were aware that the local Chinese population was loyal to either Britain or China,” Kobayashi said.
Shonan’s undesirables included wealthy men who had contributed to the China Relief Fund; men with tattoos, perceived to be triad members; and civil servants and those who were likely to sympathize with the British. Yamashita instructed the Shonan garrison to cooperate with the Japanese military secret police to “punish hostile Chinese severely.”
Kobayashi said that these men were rounded up and taken to deserted spots around the island and killed systematically. Women were also forcibly taken away to be “comfort women”.
Unlike other massacres that occurred during Japan’s aggression in the Asia Pacific, Japan acknowledges that the Sook Ching massacre took place. However, official Japanese statistics show around 5,000 deaths, while official Singaporean figures are closer to 50,000.
In a 2009 interview with National Geographic, Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s first prime minister, said that the estimated death toll was between 50,000 and 90,000.
On Peace Boat, a question and answer session was scheduled to allow passengers to discuss Kobayashi’s lectures. But the Shonan invasion – and the massacres of ethnic Chinese in Singapore – was markedly absent from the discussion.One passenger wanted to know about municipal garbage disposal in Singapore, another about tax and pension systems in the country.
The allotted hour ebbed away with Kobayashi talking about the popularity of manga comics among Singaporean children and the financial challenges of retiring in the country.
When Peace Boat docked at Singapore this Monday, a group of 39 passengers accompanied Kobayashi on a tour that took in the Changi War Museum, built on the site of a former prison for supposed rebels and Prisoners of War; Changi Beach – one of the sites of massacres of ethnic Chinese men in Singapore; a Japanese graveyard, and the Civilian War Memorial, unofficially known as the Blood Debt Tower, near Singapore’s Raffles Hotel.
At the foot of the monument, on earth covering thousands of bone remains of unidentified war victims, the Peace Boat passengers left origami cranes they had folded onboard the ship, traditional symbols of peace in Japan.
On Thursday, another discussion session was scheduled so that participants on the Shonan tour could share their experiences with others on the ship.
Taga Shunsuke, a 64-year-old passenger from Hiroshima told a Peace Boat audience that the museum depicted some of the horrific things that Japanese soldiers did to supposed Chinese rebels; he described learning about how people accused of spying would have poles pushed through their eardrums.
An exhibit at the Changi Museum also explained the role of Shinozaki Mamoru, he told the group. Shinozaki, sometimes referred to as the Schindler of Singapore, was a Japanese government official who managed to issue transit passes to allow some Chinese to escape the screening.
“I was born after the war ended, but if I had been born at that time perhaps I would have been sent to Singapore, and perhaps I would have been ordered to do these things,” said Taga. “Would I have been able to act like Mr. Shinozaki? I thought about this on the way to Changi Beach.”
In Japan, Taga volunteers as a guide at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. In part because some of the troops that invaded Singapore came from Hiroshima, he is interested in how the atomic bombing of Hiroshima is depicted in Singapore.
Contemporary Singaporean textbooks for fourth-graders use illustrations to depict Japanese massacres of ethnic Chinese in Singapore according to Taga, but also portray a nuanced perspective of the Hiroshima bombing. “In the past the description used to simply be, the bombs were dropped and that led to our liberation; [contemporary text books] describe the Japanese massacres of Chinese men in Singapore, but in parallel with that they also describe the dropping of the atomic bombs. And while there are still elements of ‘this directly led to liberation,’ the books also touch on how many innocent civilians were killed alongside soldiers, and try to humanize the losses on the Japanese side as well,” he said.
Miyakawa Toko, a 23-year-old passenger who had joined the Shonan tour and participated in the discussion onboard said, “It was very difficult to look at the war from a non-Japanese point of view, but I realized that the most fearful thing is to only be able to see an event from one perspective.”
Miyakawa had previously taken part in a shorter Peace Boat Voyage through Asia, in which half of the passengers had been Korean and half Japanese.
“It is very difficult for me to take in all the things that I’ve learned. Everything was shocking to me, and I was scared of how little I knew about Singapore,” said 21-year-old Jinno Akari from Ehime prefecture. “Often in school we learned about all the ways that Japan was a victim, but we learn very little about what Japan has done to other countries, so I question the education that is taking place in Japan,” she said.
On December 14 Japan will go to the polls for its general election. While it is seen as likely that Abe Shinzo will remain as Prime Minister, domestic and international debate continues regarding Abe’s policies such as revision of Article 9, the war-renouncing clause of the Japanese Constitution; visits to Yasukuni Shrine, which memorialises war dead including Class A war criminals; and alterations to textbook guidelines, requiring the inclusion of a patriotic view of wartime history.
NB: Quotes for this story are derived from interviews or lectures interpreted by volunteers on Peace Boat, with the exception of those from Kobayashi Katsuko, who was interviewed in English.