Travel Features > Book Review
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
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.