Whatever Happens to the Pre-war Japanese Community in Singapore?

The shorter edited version of this article, under the caption “The Japanese Were Here Before the War”, was published by Singapore’s The Straits Times newspaper on 25th February 1998. Below is the original longer article.

In the multi-racial Singapore there was once a thriving pre-war Asian community which had almost completely disappeared from the local scene when World War II ended in 1945. They were the sons and daughters from the Land of the Rising Sun – Japan. Like the other Asian migrants, they gravitated to the then British Colony in search of a better life and to escape the grinding poverty in their homeland. Despite their minuscule numbers compared with the Chinese, Malays and Indians there, they had, nonetheless, made their presence keenly felt and had contributed significantly to the economic life of Singapore.

Today, in the prosperous sovereign state of Singapore, the only concrete reminder of this once dynamic local Japanese community is the sprawling Japanese Cemetery on Chuan Hoe Avenue, off Yio Chu Kang Road, where more than 1000 of them were buried alongside the ashes of the 10,000 Japanese Second World War dead. Founded in 1891, it was the exclusive Japanese burial ground until 1947. It became a memorial park in 1987, and has been maintained by the Singapore Japanese Association with donations from the growing post war Japanese business community there.

The sprawling cemetery along Chuan Hoe Avenue is the only concrete reminder of the pre-war Japanese community here (Photo credit: Singapore Press Holdings)

The sprawling cemetery along Chuan Hoe Avenue is the only concrete reminder of the pre-war Japanese community here (Photo credit: Singapore Press Holdings)

The Japanese Cemetery is located right in the middle of a quiet residential area and is surrounded by landed properties and a children’s playground. It has a Shinto shrine and an aesthetically landscaped garden-like complex with mature trees shading the cemetery grounds. Crisscrossing walkways provide easy access to the remarkably well-tended and well-marked graves. The names of the dead are set out on a large board, with tomb and row directions clearly indicated. Those buried there came from various walks of life, ranging from business tycoons, professionals and artisans to those with questionable occupations. Their identities and stations in life are discernible from the inscriptions on their tombstones.

The Japanese cemetery is well-kept and even has a Shinto shrine (Photo credit: Singapore Press Holdings)

The Japanese cemetery is well-kept and
even has a Shinto shrine (Photo credit: Singapore Press Holdings)

The most well-known grave belongs to Field-Marshal Terauchi, the then Supreme Commander of Japanese Forces in Southeast Asia, which is in a quiet corner and away from the other graves. He was too ill to represent Japan at the surrender ceremony to the victorious allied forces, but sent his sword which signifies his symbolic presence. He died in Singapore shortly afterwards. Near the imposing Shinto shrine are the three tombs containing the ashes of the Japanese war dead, as well as that of more than 200 war criminals who were executed for the heinous crimes they committed during the war.

The park is frequently visited by Japanese residents and tourists, some of whom regularly place flowers at the tombs of their departed loved ones, friends or wartime comrades. On the day my wife and I were at the cemetery, there was a bus load of well dressed Japanese tourists who were there with bunches of flowers to pay their respects to some of the war dead there. We were later told by the cemetery’s Singaporean caretaker that there are the family members of those interred there.

The story of the Japanese community in Singapore began shortly after the restoration of the Meiji Emperor of Japan in 1868. It was he and his Government who initiated the internationalisation of their country, after more than two centuries of self-imposed isolation from the outside world, when Japan began to open its doors to foreigners. The Japanese also adopted Western democracy and technology as the way forward for the nation. This farsighted policy reaped handsome dividends. By the beginning of the 20th century, it had become a power to be reckoned with, having decisively trounced the imperial Chinese and Russian naval forces successively in 1894 and 1905.

Be that as it may, Japan was still an economically backward country. Its less illustrious population were therefore encouraged to seek jobs opportunities, or even to migrate, abroad. They were lured by the prospects of attaining riches in the Nanyang, which included Singapore, Malaya, Philippines and Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia).

The first Japanese settlers came to Singapore from 1871 onwards. Unlike the other immigrants, the pioneer Japanese arrivals were mainly females who were brought here by unscrupulous seafarers to work as prostitutes in Japanese-owned brothels. They came from mainly the poorer districts of southern Kyushu, where they were more susceptible to foreign influences. Their femininity made them sought after as mistresses of affluent Asian and European businessmen and as entertainers.

The economic boom brought about by the rapidly expanding rubber trade, starting from 1909, was the beginning of the Japanese economic penetration into Singapore and Malaya. This led to more entrepreneurs, professionals and skilled artisans flocking to these lands. By 1921, their communities in these two territories had undergone a drastic transformation. For the first time, men far exceeded women in population.

Apart from the above reason, the Japanese government, in order to uphold its growing prestige overseas, deemed it prudent to repatriate the Japanese prostitutes and their procurers to Japan. Simultaneously, it succeeded in persuading the Colonial authorities there to disallow such undesirables to enter Singapore and Malaya.

These new breeds of Japanese businessmen soon proved their mettle in the various commercial pursuits they were engaged in Singapore They were especially successful in the fishing, rubber-planting and iron-mining industries. In addition, Their bankers posed formidable challenges to the longer-established European banks. They also made their mark in dentistry, photography, publishing, furniture-making and general retailing. These Japanese enterprises were largely concentrated in Middle Road and its vicinity. They offered value for money goods and services, which were in stark contrast to the more upscale European-operated outfits. Many of the knickknacks shops became immensely popular with the local people who called them the Ten-Cent Stores.

The hub of the Japanese intellectual and social life was the Japanese Association. It provided social cohesion to the Japanese community and served as their meeting place. The Japanese Consul-General looked after their collective interest and helped to promote unity among them. It also took up their grievances with the Colonial government. It ran a school for the benefit of the Japanese children.

Around mid-1930s, the Japanese population in Singapore had swelled to several thousand, with roughly the same number in Malaya. However, their economic well-being suffered a severe setback owing to the effective Chinese commercial boycott of their products and services in retaliation against the Japanese invasion of China in 1937. They never recovered from this crippling economic sanction. Consequently, numerous Japanese establishments went into liquidation or were, perforce, sold to non-Japanese at grossly deflated prices.

What was the profile of the Japanese community before World War II? A contemporary British intelligence report commented:

“… All Japanese, male or female, kept very much to themselves; they speak a language which hardly anyone in the Peninsula know even a little of…It is therefore extremely difficult to find any chink in the armour of reserve and exclusiveness which they wear.”

A contrary account was given by Mr Othman Wok, former Singapore Minister for Social Affairs, who observed, in “The Bamboo Fortress” by H. Sidhu, that:

“… There were also Japanese fishermen living in Siglap side by side with the Malays… When I was a boy of ten, I used to play in the village with the Japanese children. Their community was fluent in Malay and they were very friendly people…”

The patriotism of the Japanese and their cohesion gave rise to the common belief that many residents were engaged in espionage activities for their government. While a great deal of these stories were either untrue or exaggerated, some among them did undoubtedly furnish a variety of information to visiting Japanese officials which were useful to them when planning their offensive in Malay and Singapore. When war ensued, all Japanese residents were immediately rounded up and interned by the British. They were sent to India and were later exchanged with British war prisoners captured by the Japanese. Some returned here later as civilian staff of their government.

The numerous atrocities committed by the Japanese forces against the civilian and allied prisoners of war have been well-publicised and need no further elaboration. However, to mitigate these, there were many commendable acts of kindness by the Japanese personnel which helped ease suffering and anguish, duly acknowledged by their recipients, which bear mention here. One of them, Mamoru Shinozaki, a senior Japanese civilian official, had time and again gone out of his way to assist both Singaporean as well as British internees at considerable risk of harming his own official position. Among those he helped was Lady Thomas, wife of the then Governor of Singapore. After the war, she wrote a warm letter to thank him for his humane deeds which could well have saved her life when she was hospitalised for an acute bout of dysentery and malnutrition.

When the Japanese surrendered in 1945, their civilian and military personnel were confined to camp prior to being returned to their native land. Only a few of the Singaporean women married to Japanese men were allowed to join their husbands.

More than fifty years after World War II, a large Japanese business community has, once again, sprung up in Singapore, contributing to the sustained prosperity of the Republic. Not a few of them have grown so attached to the country that they have made it their permanent home, just as their forebears did a long time ago.

Lam Pin Foo

8 thoughts on “Whatever Happens to the Pre-war Japanese Community in Singapore?

  1. Greetings from Brisbane, Australia.
    Do you know of anyone/private investigator who can do a search on official documents listing of those pre war Japanese residents who run business on Middle Road. Preferably census record of families living with them too. I am willing to pay a reasonable fee. Thank you.
    Jamilah Butler

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