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The Japanese Empire occupied Indonesia, known then as the Dutch East Indies, during World War II from March 1942 until after the end of War in 1945. The period was one of the most critical in Indonesian history. Under German occupation, the Netherlands had little ability to defend its colony against the Japanese army, and less than three months after the first attacks on Borneo[1] the Japanese navy and army overran Dutch and allied forces. Initially, most Indonesians optimistically and even joyfully welcomed the Japanese as liberators from their Dutch colonial masters. This sentiment changed as Indonesians were expected to endure more hardship for the war effort. In 1944–45, Allied troops largely by-passed Indonesia and did not fight their way into the most populous parts such as Java and Sumatra. As such, most of Indonesia was still under Japanese occupation at the time of their surrender in August 1945. The occupation was the first serious challenge to the Dutch in Indonesia—it ended the Dutch colonial rule—and, by its end, changes were so numerous and extraordinary that the subsequent watershed, the Indonesia Revolution, was possible in a manner infeasible just three years earlier.[2] Unlike the Dutch, the Japanese facilitated the politicisation of Indonesians down to the village level. Particularly in Java and to a lesser extent Sumatra, the Japanese educated, trained and armed many young Indonesians and gave their nationalist leaders a political voice. Thus through both the destruction of the Dutch colonial regime and the facilitation of Indonesian nationalism, the Japanese occupation created the conditions for a claim of Indonesian independence. Within days of the Japanese surrender in the Pacific, Indonesian independence was declared. However, the Netherlands sought to reclaim the Indies and a bitter five-year diplomatic, military and social struggle ensued resulting in the Netherlands recognising Indonesian sovereignty in December 1949.


Map prepared by the Japanese during World War II, depicting Java, the most populous island in Dutch East Indies.

Until 1942, Indonesia was colonised by the Netherlands and was known as the Dutch East Indies. In 1929, during the Indonesian National Awakening, Indonesian nationalists leaders Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta (later founding President and Vice President), foresaw a Pacific War and that a Japanese advance on Indonesia might be advantageous for the independence cause.[3]

The Japanese spread the word that they were the 'Light of Asia'. Japan was the only Asian nation that had successfully transformed itself into a modern technological society at the end of the 19th century and it remained independent when most Asian countries had been under European or American power, and had beaten a European power, Russia, in war.[4] Following its military campaign in China Japan turned its attention to Southeast Asia advocating to other Asians a 'Greater East Asian Co-Prosperity Sphere', which they described as a type of trade zone under Japanese leadership. The Japanese had gradually spread their influence through Asia in the first half of the 20th century and during the 1920s and 1930s had established business links in the Indies. These ranged from small town barbers, photographic studios and salesmen, to large department stores and firms such as Suzuki and Mitsubishi becoming involved in the sugar trade.[5] The Japanese population peaked in 1931, with 6,949 residents before starting a gradual decrease, largely due to economic tensions between Japan and the Netherlands Indies government.[6] A number of Japanese had been sent by their government to establish links with Indonesian nationalists, particularly with Muslim parties, while Indonesian nationalists were sponsored to visit Japan. Such encouragement of Indonesian nationalism was part of a broader Japanese plan for an 'Asia for the Asians'.[5] While most Indonesians were hopeful for the Japanese promise of an end to the Dutch racially-based system, Chinese Indonesians who enjoyed a privileged position under Dutch rule, were less optimistic. Also concerned were Indonesian communist underground who followed the Soviet Union's popular united front against fascism.[7] Japanese aggression in Manchuria and China in the late 1930s caused anxiety amongst the Chinese in Indonesia who set up funds to support the anti-Japanese effort. Dutch intelligence services also monitored Japanese living in Indonesia.[8] In November 1941, Madjlis Rakjat Indonesia, an Indonesian organization of religious, political and trade union groups, submitted a memorandum to the Dutch East Indies Government requesting the mobilization of the Indonesian people in the face of the war threat.[9] The memorandum was refused because the Government did not consider the Madjlis Rakyat Indonesia to be representative of the people. Within only four months, the Japanese had occupied the archipelago.

The invasion

Japanese advance through Indonesia, 1942

On 8 December 1941, Netherlands declared war on Japan.[10] In January the American-British-Dutch-Australian Command (ABDACOM) was formed to co-ordinate Allied forces in South East Asia, under the commander of General Archibald Wavell.[11] In the weeks leading up to the invasion, senior Dutch government officials went into exiles taking political prisoners, family, and personal staff to Australia. Before the arrival of Japanese troops, there were conflicts between rival Indonesian groups where people were killed, vanished or went into hiding. Chinese- and Dutch-owned properties were ransacked and destroyed.[12]

The invasion in early 1942 was swift and complete. By January 1942, parts of Sulawesi and Kalimantan were under Japanese control.[13] By February, the Japanese had landed on Sumatra where they had encouraged the Acehnese to rebel against the Dutch.[13] On 27 February, the Allied navy's last effort to contain Japan was swept aside by their defeat in the Battle of the Java Sea.[14] From 28 February to 1 March 1942, Japanese troops landed on four places along the northern coast of Java almost undisturbed.[15] The fiercest fighting had been in invasion points in Ambon, Timor, Kalimantan, and on the Java Sea. In places where there were no Dutch troops, such as Bali, there was no fighting.[16] On 9 March, the Dutch commander surrendered along with Governor General Jonkheer A.W.L. Tjarda van Stankenborgh Stachouwer.[13]

Outline of the Japanese entry in Batavia, as depicted by the Japanese

Liberation from the Dutch was initially greeted with optimistic enthusiasm by Indonesians who came to meet the Japanese army waving flags and shouting support such as "Japan is our older brother" and "banzai Dai Nippon". As the Japanese advanced, rebellious Indonesians in virtually every part of the archipelago killed groups of Europeans (particularly the Dutch) and informed the Japanese reliably on the whereabouts of larger groups.[17] As famed Indonesian writer Pramoedya Ananta Toer noted: "With the arrival of the Japanese just about everyone was full of hope, except for those who had worked in the service of the Dutch.[18]"

The occupation

Example of a Japanese identity card issued to a local Indo-European woman during the occupation. Written in both Indonesian and Japanese with thumbprint and photo.

The colonial army was consigned to detention camps and Indonesian soldiers were released.[citation needed] Expecting that Dutch administrators would be kept by the Japanese to run the colony, most Dutch, had refused to leave. Instead, they were sent to concentration camps and Japanese or Indonesian replacements could be found for senior and technical positions.[19] Japanese troops took control of government infrastructure and services such as ports and postal services.[20] In addition to the 100,000 European (and some Chinese) civilians interned, 80,000 Dutch, British, Australia, and US Allied troops went to prisoner-of-war camps where the death rates were between 13 and 30 per cent.[21] The Indonesian ruling classes and politicians cooperated with the Japanese who kept the local elites in power and used them to supply Japanese industries and armed forces. Indonesian cooperation allowed the Japanese to focus on securing the archipelago's waterways and skies, and using its islands as defence posts against Allied attack.[22] Japanese rulers divided Indonesia into three regions; Sumatra was placed under the 25th Army, Java and Madura were under the 16th Army, while Borneo and eastern Indonesia were controlled by the Navy 2nd South Fleet. The 16th and 25th Army were headquartered in Singapore[2] and also controlled Malaya until April 1943, when its command was narrowed to just Sumatra and the headquarters moved to Bukittinggi. The 16th Army was headquartered in Jakarta, while the 2nd South Fleet was headquartered in Makassar.

Internment camp in Jakarta, c. 1945

Experience of the occupation varied considerably, depending upon where one lived and one's social position. Many who lived in areas considered important to the war effort experienced torture, sex slavery, arbitrary arrest and execution, and other war crimes. Many thousands of people were taken away from Indonesia as forced laborers (romusha) for Japanese military projects, including the Burma-Siam Railway, and suffered or died as a result of ill-treatment and starvation. Between four and 10 million romusha in Java were forced to work by the Japanese military.[23] About 270,000 of these Javanese laborers were sent to other Japanese-held areas in South East Asia, Only 52,000 were repatriated to Java, meaning that there was a death rate of 80%. Tens of thousands of Indonesians were to starve, work as slave labourers, or be forced from their homes. In the National Revolution that followed, tens, even hundreds, of thousands, would die in fighting against the Japanese, Allied forces, and other Indonesians, before Independence was achieved.[24][25] A later United Nations report stated that four million people died in Indonesia as a result of famine and forced labor during the Japanese occupation, including 30,000 European civilian internee deaths.[26]

Netherlands Indian roepiah – the Japanese occupation currency

Materially, whole railway lines, railway rolling stock, and industrial plants in Java were appropriated and shipped back to Japan and Manchuria. British intelligence reports during the occupation noted significant removals of any materials that could be used in the war effort.

Next to Sutan Sjahrir who led the student (Pemuda) underground, the only prominent opposition politician was leftist Amir Sjarifuddin who was given 25,000 guilders by the Dutch in early 1942 to organise an underground resistance through his Marxist and nationalist connections. The Japanese arrested Amir in 1943, and he only escaped execution following intervention from Sukarno, whose popularity in Indonesia and hence importance to the war effort was recognised by the Japanese. Apart from Amir's Surabaya-based group, the most active pro-Allied activities were among the Chinese, Ambonese, and Menadonese.[27]

Indonesian nationalism

Young Indonesian boys being trained by the Japanese Army

In the decades before the war, the Dutch had been overwhelmingly successful in suppressing the small nationalist movement in Indonesia such that the Japanese proved fundamental for coming Indonesian independence. During the occupation, the Japanese encouraged and backed Indonesian nationalistic sentiments, created new Indonesian institutions, and promoted nationalist leaders such as Sukarno. The openness now provided to Indonesian nationalism, combined with the Japanese destruction of much of the Dutch colonial state, were fundamental to the Indonesian National Revolution that followed World War 2.[24]

Nonetheless within two months of the occupation the Japanese did not allow the political use of the word Indonesia as the name for a nation, neither did they allow the use of the nationalistic (red and white) Indonesian flag. In fact "any discussion, organisation, speculation or propaganda concerning the political organisation or government of the country" (also in the media) was strictly forbidden. They split up the Dutch East Indies into three separate regions and referred to it as the 'Southern Territories' (Indonesian: Daerah Selatan). While Tokyo prepared the Philippines for independence in 1943, they simultaneously decided to annex the Indonesian islands into the greater Japanese Empire. Until late 1944 when the Pacific war was at a turning point the Japanese never seriously supported Indonesian independence.[28]

The Japanese regime perceived Java as the most politically sophisticated but economically the least important area; its people were Japan's main resource. As such—and in contrast to Dutch suppression—the Japanese encouraged Indonesian nationalism in Java and thus increased its political sophistication (similar encouragement of nationalism in strategic resource-rich Sumatra came later, but only after it was clear the Japanese would lose the war). The outer islands under naval control, however, were regarded as politically backward but economically vital for the Japanese war effort, and these regions were governed the most oppressively of all. These experiences and subsequent differences in nationalistic politicisation would have profound impacts on the course of the Indonesian Revolution in the years immediately following independence (1945–1950).

1966 ABC report examining Sukarno's alliance between imperial Japan and the Indonesian nationalist movement

To gain support and mobilize Indonesian people in their war effort against the Western Allied force, Japanese occupation forces encouraged Indonesian nationalistic movements and recruiting Indonesian nationalist leaders; Sukarno, Hatta, Ki Hajar Dewantara and Kyai Haji Mas Mansyur to rally the people support for mobilization center Putera (Indonesian language: Pusat Tenaga Rakyat) in 16 April 1943, replaced with Jawa Hokokai in 1 March 1944. Some of these mobilized populations were sent to forced labour as romusha.

Japanese military also provided Indonesian youth with military trainings and weapons, including the formation of volunteer army called PETA (Pembela Tanah Air – Defenders of the Homeland). The Japanese military trainings for Indonesian youth originally was meant to rally the local's support for the collapsing power of Japanese Empire, but later it has become the significant resource for Republic of Indonesia during Indonesian National Revolution in 1945 to 1949, and also has leads to the formation of Indonesian National Armed Forces in 1945.

On 29 April 1945, Japanese occupation force formed BPUPKI (Indonesian Independence Effort Exploratory Committee) ([Dokuritsu Jyunbi Choosakai] Error: {{Lang-xx}}: text has italic markup (help)), a Japanese-organized committee for granting independence to Indonesia. The organization was founded on 29 April 1945 by Lt. Gen. Kumakichi Harada, the commander of 16th Army in Java. Indonesian independence meeting and discussion were prepared through this organization.

In addition to new-found Indonesian nationalism, equally important for the coming independence struggle and internal revolution was the Japanese orchestrated economic, political and social dismantling and destruction of the Dutch colonial state.[24]

End of the occupation

Japanese commanders listening to the terms of surrender

General MacArthur had wanted to fight his way with Allied troops to liberate Java in 1944–45 but was ordered not to by the joint chiefs and President Roosevelt. The Japanese occupation thus officially ended with Japanese surrender in the Pacific and two days later Sukarno declared Indonesian Independence. However Indonesian forces would spend the next four years fighting the Dutch for independence. American restraint from fighting their way into Java certainly saved many Japanese, Javanese, Dutch and American lives. On the other hand, Indonesian independence would have likely been achieved more swiftly and smoothly had MacArthur had his way and American troops occupied Java.[29] A later UN report stated that four million people died in Indonesia as a result of the Japanese occupation.[30] Liberation of the internment camps holding western prisoners was not swift. Conditions were better during post-war internment than under previous internment, for, this time, Red Cross supplies were made available and the Allies made the Japanese order the most heinous and cruel occupiers home. After four months of post-war internment, Western internees were released on the condition they left Indonesia.[citation needed]

Most of the Japanese military personnel and civilian colonial administrators were repatriated to Japan following the war, except for several hundred who were detained for investigations into war crimes, for which some were later put on trial. About 1,000 Japanese soldiers deserted from their units and assimilated themselves into local communities. Many of these soldiers provided assistance to rebel forces during the Indonesian National Revolution.[31][32]

Japanese soldiers on trial.

The final stages of warfare were initiated in October 1945 when, in accordance with the terms of their surrender, the Japanese tried to re-establish the authority they relinquished to Indonesians in the towns and cities. Japanese military police killed Republican pemuda in Pekalongan (Central Java) on 3 October, and Japanese troops drove Republican pemuda out of Bandung in West Java and handed the city to the British, but the fiercest fighting involving the Japanese was in Semarang. On 14 October, British forces began to occupy the city. Retreating Republican forces retaliated by killing between 130 and 300 Japanese prisoners they were holding. Five hundred Japanese and 2000 Indonesians had been killed and the Japanese had almost captured the city six days later when British forces arrived.[33]

I, of course, knew that we had been forced to keep Japanese troops under arms to protect our lines of communication and vital areas...but it was nevertheless a great shock to me to find over a thousand Japanese troops guarding the nine miles of road from the airport to the town.[34]

Lord Mountbatten of Burma in April 1946 after visiting Sumatra, referring to the use of Japanese Surrendered Personnel.

Until 1949, the returning Dutch authorities held 448 war crimes trials against 1038 suspects. 969 of those were condemned (93.4%) with 236 (24.4%) receiving a death sentence.[35]

Japanese military governors

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This article does not contain any citations or references. Please improve this article by adding a reference. For information about how to add references, see Template:Citation.

  • March – November 1942: Hitoshi Imamura
  • November 1942 – November 1944: Kumakichi Harada
  • November 1944 – September 1945: Shigeichi Yamamoto

See also


  1. Klemen, L. (1999–2000). "The conquer of Borneo Island, 1941–1942". Dutch East Indies Campaign website. 
  2. 2.0 2.1 Ricklefs 1991, p. 199.
  3. Friend, p. 29.
  4. Vickers, pp. 86-87.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Vickers, pp. 83–84.
  6. Mayumi Yamamoto, "Spell of the Rebel, Monumental Apprehensions: Japanese Discourses On Pieter Erberveld," Indonesia 77 (April 2004):124–127.
  7. Vickers (2005), p. 86
  8. Vickers, p. 83.
  9. Bidien, Charles (5 December 1945). "Independence the Issue". pp. 345–348. Digital object identifier:10.1525/as.1945.14.24.01p17062. ISSN 0362-8949. JSTOR 3023219. 
  10. "The Kingdom of the Netherlands Declares War with Japan". ibiblio. 15 December 1941. Retrieved 5 October 2009. 
  11. Klemen, L. (1999–2000). "General Sir Archibald Percival Wavell". Dutch East Indies Campaign website. 
  12. Taylor (2003), pp. 310-311
  13. 13.0 13.1 13.2 Vickers (2005), p. 87
  14. Klemen, L. (1999–2000). "The Java Sea Battle". Dutch East Indies Campaign website. 
  15. Klemen, L. (1999–2000). "The conquest of Java Island, March 1942". Dutch East Indies Campaign website. 
  16. Taylor (2003), p 310
  17. Womack, Tom; The Dutch Naval Air Force against Japan: the defense of the Netherlands East Indies, 1941–1942, McFarland: 2006, ISBN 978-0-7864-2365-1, 207 pages: pp. 194–196 google books reference: [1]
  18. Pramoedya Ananta Toer, The Mute's Soliloquy, trans. Willem Samuels (New York: Penguin, 1998), pp. 74–106 (St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 1975). Cited in Vickers, p. 85.
  19. Cribb & Brown, p. 13.
  20. Taylor (2003), p. 310
  21. VIcker (2005), p. 87
  22. Taylor (2003), p. 311
  23. Library of Congress, 1992, "Indonesia: World War II and the Struggle For Independence, 1942–50; The Japanese Occupation, 1942–45" Access date: 9 February 2007.
  24. 24.0 24.1 24.2 Vickers, p. 85.
  25. Ricklefs 1993, p. 207.
  26. Cited in: Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986; Pantheon; ISBN 978-0-394-75172-6)
  27. Reid, Anthony (1973). The Indonesian National Revolution 1945–1950. Melbourne: Longman Pty. p. 12. ISBN 978-0-582-71046-7. 
  28. (German) Dahm, Bernhard: Sukarnos Kampf um Indonesiens Unabhängigkeit. Werdegang und Ideen eines asiatischen Nationalisten. (Publisher: Metzner, Frankfurt am Main, 1966. First published as Master thesis, University of Manheim, Kiel, 1964). p. 201–204
  29. Friend, p. 33.
  30. Cited in: Dower, John W. War Without Mercy: Race and Power in the Pacific War (1986; Pantheon; ISBN 0-394-75172-8)
  31. Tjandraningsih, Christine, (Kyodo News), "Japanese recounts role fighting to free Indonesia", Japan Times, 9 September 2009, p. 3.
  32. Tjandraningsih, Christine T., "Indonesians to get book on Japanese freedom fighter", Japan Times, 19 August 2011, p. 3.
  33. Ricklefs 1991, p. 216.
  34. "Japanese Prisoners of War" By Philip Towle, Margaret Kosuge, Yōichi Kibata. p. 146 (Google.Books)
  35. Piccigallo, Philip; The Japanese on Trial; Austin 1979; ISBN 978-0-292-78033-0 (Kap. "The Netherlands")


  • Vickers, Adrain (2005). A History Modern of Indonesia. Cambridge. ISBN 978-0-521-54262-3. 

Further reading

  • Anderson, Ben (1972). Java in a Time of Revolution: Occupation and Resistance, 1944–1946. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press. ISBN 978-0-8014-0687-4. 
  • Hillen, Ernest (1993). The Way of a Boy: A Memoir of Java. Toronto: Viking. ISBN 978-0-670-85049-5. 

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