Travel Features > Book Review

Masa Jepun
Sarawak Under the Japanese 1941 - 1945

Book Review by Mike Reed

Professor Bob Reece has, over the last two decades, achieved recognition as the foremost modern historian of Sarawak. But if the reader is expecting dry academic tomes, he or she is sure to be disappointed. This is not a chronologically ordered sequence of events and a dispassionate analysis thereof. It is a remarkable social document describing this most turbulent period of Sarawak's history through the eyes of those who experienced it. Even at first glance there is little doubt that this book is a labour of love.

Masa Jepun (literally "the time of the Japanese") has been over twenty years in the making, and involved more than eighty interviews with eye witnesses in Sarawak, Britain, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. Their accounts, frequently transcribed word-for-word, are poignant and revealing.

The Japanese military administration (Boruneo Kita) seems to have been an ambiguously schizophrenic mixture of compassion, social concern and outright brutality. Some thrived under the Japanese, forming close friendships and seeing their careers blossom. Others suffered arbitrary detention and torture. Worst off were the Allied prisoners and former Sarawak government officers in the detention camp in Batu Lintang, but many local Chinese with genuine or suspected nationalist leanings were also rounded up.

Everyday life under the Japanese is beautifully documented in this book. Everything from mutual culture shock to the daily difficulties of managing in difficult economic circumstances are brought vividly to life. With the shortage of matches, for example, many locals reverted to making wooden piston firelighters like their ancestors had used.

For some, the Japanese occupation brought about major cultural changes, and even improvements. Traditional Iban culture had been severely undermined by labour migration to the cities, and the lack of employment during the war led to thousands of young men returning to their longhouses and re-learning their traditional lifestyle and legends. It is these same young men who became teachers and administrators after the war, and did much to document and preserve their culture. In fact, if it were not for the Japanese, today's vibrant Iban culture would probably no longer exist.

The greatest strength of Masa Jepun, however, is its even-handedness. Bob Reece does not have an axe to grind. He wishes simply to document fairly and honestly an important and poorly understood period in Sarawak's history. His meticulous research and lucid writing style make the book highly accessible to the lay reader as well as the professional historian.

I have a few minor gripes about the book (but not about Professor Reece's efforts). The large A4 format is fine for a coffee table book, but it is far too unwieldy for a book that needs to be carefully read to be understood and enjoyed. There are also a number of unfortunate typographic errors, including the unforgivable sin of leaving the author's instructions to the printers mixed up with the photo captions in a number of instances.

These criticisms apart, though, Masa Jepun is a splendid piece of social history, and should be essential reading for any student of Sarawak's history. In fact, this book is essential reading for anyone whose parents, grandparents or they themselves lived through this remarkable and difficult era.

Masa Jepun ­ Sarawak Under the Japanese 1941-1945. Bob Reece, Sarawak Literary Society, Kuching, 1998, 254 pp, ISBN 983-9115-06-3.

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