Shortly after Pearl Harbor, the Japanese Imperial Army invaded the Dutch East Indies, now known as Indonesia. A deceitful campaign promoting Asian brotherhood recruited and coerced young Indonesian men to support the Japanese occupation with the sinister outcome that several million of them were worked to death or summarily killed as expendable slave laborers, or romusha, as they were called.
While many romusha disappeared from the record, nine hundred were known victims of a brutal and immoral medical experiment perpetuated by an increasingly desperate Imperial Japan. In anticipation of a land assault, the Japanese needed a means to protect their troops from tetanus, and they used these nine hundred men as human guinea pigs to test an insufficiently vetted vaccine. Within days, all nine hundred suffered the protracted, agonizing death of acute tetanus.
With the Allied forces poised for victory, the Japanese needed a scapegoat for this well-documented incident if they were to avoid war-crimes prosecution. They brutally tortured Achmad Mochtar, a native Indonesian and renowned scientist, along with his colleagues at the Eijkman Institute in Batavia (now Jakarta), until Mochtar signed a confession to the murders in exchange for the liberty of his fellow scientists. The Japanese beheaded Mochtar weeks before the war ended. War Crimes in Japan-Occupied Indonesia unravels the deceit of the Japanese Army, the reasons for the mass murder of the romusha, and Mochtar’s heroic role in these tragic events. The end result finds justice for Mochtar and reveals the true extent of one of the least recognized war crimes of World War II.
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War Crimes in Japan-Occupied Indonesia
A Case of Murder by Medicine
By J. Kevin Baird, Sangkot Marzuki
UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESSCopyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
In the Life Span of a Maize Plant
The island of Java lies between Sumatra and Bali in the tropical seas of Southeast Asia. It is the social, political, and economic fulcrum of modern Indonesia's 245 million people, their hundreds of distinct languages, and dizzying array of cultures scattered across 13,500 islands astride the equator. The Republic of Indonesia has a land area approximating that of Western Europe stretching across 3,300 miles—a span as far as San Francisco to Bermuda, or from London to Kabul. Java alone has the same land area as Greece, with twelve times the population. The archipelago boasts enormous biological diversity, staggering mineral and agricultural wealth, and an astonishingly rich human history.
A thousand years ago, a constellation of sophisticated Hindu kingdoms dotted the island of Java. From 1135 to 1157, the well-loved King Joyoboyo reigned over a prosperous era in the kingdom of Kediri, in eastern Java. Joyoboyo reunited this divided kingdom, and the time of his rule was a golden age in Javanese literature. But his greatest mark on the history and culture of Java actually came in the years following his stepping down from the throne to pursue spiritual enlightenment. The profound and indelible Joyoboyo legacy lingers today, after almost a full millennium, and it resonated with eerie power in the years surrounding World War II.
Living as a mystic recluse after his abdication, Joyoboyo—thought by some to be an incarnation of the Hindu god Vishnu—wrote lengthy poetic epics filled with stirring prophecies. One of them, Pralembang Joyoboyo, foretold that the people of Java would be ruled for three centuries by white people, and then, for the life span of a maize plant, by yellow dwarfs from the northeast. Next would come the return of the Ratu Adil, the Just King. When iron wagons could drive without horses and when ships could sail through the sky, he predicted, the Ratu Adil would arrive. Then the Javanese would again rule their own lands. This prophecy played a hand in the unfolding of the history conveyed in this book.
In 1941 the people of Indonesia had endured more than three centuries of Dutch colonial rule. First came the avaricious Dutch East Indies Company, the VOC, and later the Dutch Crown government. Each indulged in massive exploitation of Indonesia's abundance of natural resources, including the sweat and labor of generations of Indonesians held in indentured servitude. Consistent with the Javanese belief in history as cyclic, people began to sense at the dawn of the 1940s that their deliverance was at hand. Three hundred and twenty-two years had passed since the 1619 establishment of a VOC post at Jaya Karta on the north coast of western Java. The Dutch would rename the city Batavia. It would be renamed Djakarta after the Dutch defeat in 1942, and finally it became Jakarta when Dutch phonetics were abandoned in 1950. In accordance with Joyoboyo, the Javanese of 1941 believed that this long period of foreign domination would soon end.
The Dutch in the Netherlands East Indies of 1941 had anxiously watched from afar as the Nazi jackboot heel crushed freedom in Europe, including the invasion and occupation of their homeland. The Nazi–Imperial Japanese axis, though, seemed a nearly irrelevant political abstraction. The Japanese invasion of China, which had begun a decade earlier, remained a distant ugliness not impacting their comfortable lives in the East Indies. The Dutch colonialists scarcely imagined the events in China as a prelude to their eviction by Imperial Japan. Japan's military was not perceived as a threat: feeling secure in their East Indies stronghold, the Dutch colonialists had held fund-raisers to support the war effort in Europe rather than for their own defense.
The colonized peoples of Netherlands East Indies watched these events from a wholly different perspective. Joyoboyo's "yellow dwarfs" from the northeast appeared poised to challenge the three-century reign of whites over Java and much of Asia. In January 1941, Mohammad Husni Thamrin, leader of a nascent nationalist movement, cited Joyoboyo's hope-stirring prophecies in this context in a public speech. Dutch authorities placed him under house arrest for doing so, under suspicion that the drawing of such a connection between prophecy and reality constituted sympathy with the Japanese. Already ill, Thamrin died a few days later. He is considered a great early hero of the Indonesian Republic, and a major thoroughfare in contemporary Jakarta bears his name.
The events of December 7 and 8, 1941, filled the deeply mystical Javanese with enormous hope and wonder. First, the Imperial Japanese struck their incredibly forceful and devastating blow at Pearl Harbor. Then, without pause, they pivoted their military might to seize all of Southeast Asia in an audacious single broad stroke. Suddenly Indonesia's long-held dream of independence seemed to be flowing from the pages of Pralembang Joyoboyo to the pages of history. If they could tolerate the occupation of the Japanese for what was essentially a few seconds in the larger sweep of history, soon their Just King would rise. Steel wagons without horses and ships sailing through the air, bearing the Rising Sun of Imperial Japan, had been unleashed upon the white colonialists of Asia. Indonesians welcomed this invader as a liberator and acted in anticipation of a hasty exit resulting in their freedom and independence.
The Japanese occupiers—who with relative ease took all of Indonesia by early April 1942—would come to understand that Joyoboyo's prophecy was widely credited in this newly subjugated territory. The occupation forces worried a great deal, though, about interpretation of the corn cycle in Joyoboyo's writings and the brevity expected of their rule. The Kenpeitai, Japan's notorious equivalent of Hitler's SS, closely interrogated Indonesian scholars on its meaning. One of them, Slamet Imam Santoso, played phonetic sleight of hand with the Javanese words, substituting praja agung (great kingdom) for jagung (corn), thereby placating the Japanese with the idea that Joyoboyo had predicted the yellow man would stay in power as long as the kingdom was great. And the Japanese privately believed, in the first flush of their conquest, they would be masters of Indonesia for eons to come.
For a decade prior to the invasion, militarists had controlled Japan's government and infused that nation with a spirit of conquest and domination bent upon elevating the Japanese as the ruling masters of all of Asia, much in the model of Hitler's "Thousand Year Third Reich" for all of Europe. The Imperial Japanese shared the racist and fascist worldview of the Nazis and allied to that cruel cause. The invading armies representing those masters also believed that such a destiny was theirs to grasp in the name of the emperor of Japan. Though they duplicitously spoke of a free Indonesia, they acted precisely as what they were, colonial imperialists. They planned for the colonial mastery of the East Indies with victory in the Pacific War they had engineered to those ends.
Like their Nazi friends, the Imperial Japanese were hugely mistaken. Pralembang Joyoboyo played out as expressed, although Joyoboyo did not foretell of the brutality to be endured in that short span of time. Japanese mastery of Indonesia eventually echoed the famous phrase that seventeenth-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes used to describe the lives of early humans: it was nasty, brutish, and short.
In that limited time, lasting only the forty months from March 1942 until August 1945, several million Indonesians—no one knows the total number—lost their lives at the hands of this new foreign occupier. None of these dead fought in pitched battle or carried a weapon of any kind. They all died in a Japanese custody cynically veiled in a deeply insincere fraternal regard for Indonesian nationalist aspirations.
The majority of these stunning losses occurred through the recruitment or, more often, impressment of young Indonesian men from Java into a highly organized corps of laborers. These romusha (a Japanese word for coolie or unskilled laborer adopted into Indonesian language as a term for a slave laborer) were collected from thousands of villages across Java. These collections were conducted with the cooperation of local authorities at the behest of nationalist leadership. Working in cause for the victory of Japan was promoted as working in cause for the freedom and independence of Indonesia.
These romusha traveled by train to railheads near ports on Java, where they were held in guarded camps prior to transport by ship to distant worksites. By almost all accounts, they were taken to mines, plantations, and sites of construction of military roads, rails, bridges, and airfields all through the Indonesian archipelago and beyond. They indeed worked in cause of Imperial Japanese military dominance of the region and, in so doing, the defeat of the western colonial imperialists. Superficially at least, the labor represented a win-win for the occupier and occupied.
In reality, however, the romusha were being systematically killed. Once effectively out of sight of the collaborating Indonesian political elites who mobilized them, they faced confinement and harsh physical treatment similar to that meted out to Allied prisoners of war—starvation, backbreaking labor, beatings, and summary executions. Of the estimated 4 to 10 million men taken into captivity in this way, several million were unaccounted for and presumed dead.
This is a stunning indictment for several reasons. Some are complex but rationally explainable, while others are plainly baffling. Most readers of this book will have had no inkling of the scale of murder of the romusha by the Japanese. The reasons for this are explained through the course of this book. What evades explanation here or elsewhere is the sheer brutality the Japanese directed toward people working in direct support of their war effort. At best, the Japanese lacked the resources to make their labor projects humane and survivable, and the romusha were simply worked to death. At worst, the Japanese labored to whittle down the manpower available to confront them when their imperial colonial designs later became obvious to occupied nations. The evidence from dozens of work sites across Southeast Asia all point to one inescapable truth—the Japanese willfully killed these men both obliquely by completely neglecting their most basic human needs and directly by beatings and summary executions. We cannot know what drove them to do so.
Reliable death rates for romusha at projects within Indonesia are exceptional. Documentation of their movements and repatriation rarely occurred. However, about 280,000 romusha were documented as exported from Java, and only 52,000 were subsequently documented as repatriated after the war. Survival rates ranging between 20 to 50 percent may be considered plausible and perhaps typical. Death rates for romusha involved in construction of the Burma-Thailand railway, for example, were compared to POWs by Lt. Col. William A. Henderson: "Approximately 27 percent of the Allied soldiers and almost 50 percent of the Southeast Asian impressed laborers died working on the railroad." Dr. Robert Hardie, interred near that rail project, described the hellish conditions: "We hear of the frightful casualties from cholera and other diseases among these people and of the brutality with which they are treated by the Japanese. People who have been near the camps speak with bated breath of the state of affairs—corpses rotting unburied in the jungle, almost complete lack of sanitation, frightful stench, overcrowding, swarms of flies. There is no medical attention in these camps, and the wretched natives are of course unable to organise any communal sanitation." Likewise, an Australian POW surgeon on the Thai-Burma road project recorded, "Endless streams of wretched Coolies from Malaya are plodding their slippery way to the jungle road. Those who speak English frequently have sad words to say about the recruiting methods the Nipponese used to secure their services. These poor wretches are dying up here in countless thousands." Among the many dead were those summarily executed for having faltered at the wrong moment, showed defiance, stolen some morsel of food, or tried to flee the hell of that captivity.
The murder of several million young Indonesian romusha is perhaps the least known of holocausts visited upon noncombatants in World War II. Its horrors were effectively buried by postwar political exigencies in the new Republic of Indonesia and the region. Those will be detailed later in this book. The plight of the romusha, and their veiled treatment in history, remains a politically charged issue in contemporary Indonesia.
The Japanese carefully concealed the lethal viciousness of the program with humane treatment of the romusha when within sight of Indonesian political leaders and their base of 50 million people on Java. The cooperation on romusha sustained good relations between the leaders of the occupier and occupied. The accidental murder of 900 romusha by a Japanese medical experiment at a transit camp on the outskirts of Jakarta in 1944 was the defining event of the Mochtar affair. It politically rippled widely and dangerously for the Japanese. They would conjure saboteurs to mitigate those consequences.
Conspirators, Spies, and Saboteurs
The suffering of the romusha "volunteers" enlisted in supporting Japan's war efforts emphasizes the extreme degree of brutality that the occupiers were capable of directing toward people whom they perceived as actually hostile and threatening to their empire.
Many thousands of these real or imagined enemies were summarily executed, or when suspicion rather than mere convenience motivated the Japanese, torture would come first.
Many others were subjected to martial legal proceedings, formally condemned, and finally executed.
Many of these victims fit a profile of persecution by the Japanese. They often possessed lands and wealth that Imperial Japan desired, or they were local or regional leaders under the Dutch, spoke a European language, or had been educated in Europe. Ethnic Chinese and Eurasians were favored targets, as were intellectuals of any race or creed.
A particularly egregious example of the capricious nature of these murders is the massacre of more than 21,000 people at Pontianak in West Borneo between April 1943 and June 1944. The victims included noblemen, doctors, academics, business leaders, and ordinary citizens apparently chosen at random. At the war tribunal hearings of the Japanese officers responsible for these massacres, it emerged that they had concocted the alleged China-inspired rebellion cited as justifying the murders. They had conspired to improve their opportunities for promotion by cruelly and efficiently quelling a nonexistent rebellion. The perceived scale of threat of the rebellion, they reasoned, would be proportionate to the number of people they executed. That number, in turn, correlated to the scale of their service to the empire and their subsequent likelihood of promotion.
The stories of individual murders and their rippling consequences to families and the nation are buried in the numbingly vast numbers of Indonesians subjected to inhumane labor, starvation, torture, and murder. Among these murders, the circumstances and consequences of one in particular are at least reasonably well documented.
As his titles imply, Professor Doctor Achmad Mochtar was a person of great learning, one of the brightest lights of medicine and science in the nascent Indonesian nation. He hailed from the intellectually proud Minangkabau people of western Sumatra and was a devoted husband and father of two sons. In casual photographs taken immediately before the war—when Mochtar was approaching fifty—his smile conveys pride and happiness, and his eyes shine with the confidence of an accomplished man who was well traveled, well read, and successfully engaged in deeply meaningful and intellectually challenging humanitarian work within a highly prestigious institute of medical research.
In an act of political desperation, the Imperial Japanese deceitfully cast Mochtar as a remotely plausible scapegoat for what we surmise was a criminal medical experiment of their own design that had gone terribly wrong. The Japanese experiment and its outcome not only threatened the illusion of their beneficence for Indonesians but also led to the fates of the actual perpetrators of that experiment—wearing the uniforms of the Imperial Japanese Army—who would, if they could not deflect the blame, face war tribunal justice. Their diabolical use of Mochtar protected their occupation and, at its end, their personal liberty.
In stark contrast to the cruelty and cowardice of his accusers, Mochtar's response to their duplicity shines as the finest noble potential of the human spirit. He willingly sacrificed himself to save his colleagues.
Excerpted from War Crimes in Japan-Occupied Indonesia by J. Kevin Baird, Sangkot Marzuki. Copyright © 2015 Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
2. Politics and Science
3. Beginning of the End
4. Netherlands East Indies
5. Coming of Age
7. New Reality
11. Modus Operandi