Sanitising the unforgettable

Feb 25, 2023
War flag of the Imperial Japanese Army (1868–1945)

I hope this article will turn out to be a short communication because my hand trembles with indignation as I write. I refer to the article “Why history does not disqualify Japan as an ally: a reply to Richard Cullen” by Robert Cribb Feb 21, 2023.

In his refutation of Richard Cullen’s contribution, he made the comment “Many of the worst stories of Japanese cruelty are fictional or exaggerated, the product of vicious wartime propaganda”. This is an unforgivable assertion to many who died painful deaths from torture at the hands of Japanese during World War Two. I have not read any account in my life of more than three quarters of a century that had done justice to what I heard from first hand accounts – family, relatives, friends and fellow Chinese Malaysians / Singaporeans. I have held back describing in public accounts of what I know of Japanese atrocities because I do not wish to embarrass the present generation of Japanese people who are innocent of what their father’s did. If the editors of P&I find this too graphic for publication, I apologise. I visited Japan just before Covid19 struck and found Japanese people to be welcoming, polite, organised, meticulously clean, and honest in their dealings with visitors. To them, I also wish to apologise. What has to be said must be said so that human’s inhumanity to other humans (and animals if I may add) never happens again.

When the Japanese Imperial army rolled into my little hometown of Raub in 1941, the first thing that they did was to arrest four Chinese Malayans, decapitate two of them and made the two others clean the heads up, to the extent of combing their hair, and place one at each end of the main street, Bibby Road. My father said that it was done to strike so much fear and horror in the minds of the locals that they have no will to resist. The head at our end of the street was only meters away from my family’s shop-cum-residence. Although I was born soon after the war, such accounts were ubiquitous among Chinese Malayans because they were still traumatising and fresh in the minds of innocent people who bore the brunt of Japanese brutality as most innocent civilians would in any war. On a personal level, I was acquainted with two of my father’s friends who were tortured. I once asked my father why a colleague of his always looked so sick and emaciated. I was told that a Japanese soldier used him as a dummy for Judo practice. My father said that from the house he could hear his friend screaming. The man died soon after my inquiry. I believe he was only in his late forties. What had the man who worked all his life as a clerk done to the great Japanese Imperial Army to deserve such treatment?

I also met another friend of my father’s who worked for the police under the British Colonial Government. He was Assistant Superintendent of Police at the time I heard his anecdote. The Japanese army put him in a wooden crate with hardly any room to move. He was not given any food or water. On the third day, he managed to free himself and make good his escape.

A Eurasian friend of mine from Singapore whom I met in Perth a decade ago told me that his father, who was English, was tortured for information but was only spared when the person interrogated before him confessed. He was asked to pick up his father from the detention centre. He said he was only a skinny kid of twelve and could hardly shoulder a big person the size of his dad. Moreover, the poor man had vomit all over his front. A rickshaw puller took pity on him and ferried his dad home. Another point that this anecdote indicates is that humanity springs from very unexpected sources That a beautiful soul can reside in the person in a “lowly” job.

From my belief in Existentialism i.e., “Existence before essence”, I can understand why some people in mainstream Australia think differently vis-a-vis WWII from Asian Australians. Japanese Imperial Army atrocities are not a part of their collective consciousness. They may see movies like “The Bridge over River Kwai” or read books like “The Jungle is Neutral” by S. Spencer Chapman and develop various degrees of empathy. However, it is a different emotion from being a vessel of egregious anecdotes of people who suffered the trauma of Japanese occupation. Such anecdotes were always punctuated with the length of time the Japanese Imperial Army occupied the country, three years and eight months. One interprets this as an emphasis on the period of trauma.

A curious reader may ask about the maltreatment, “Why the Chinese in Malaya?” I believe that it is because the Chinese people resisted the Japanese in China. There were a number of people in the Peninsula who sent money back to China to help their relatives. This was interpreted as an attempt to help them resist the Japanese Imperial Army. Perhaps it was just for being Chinese which the propaganda machine of the Japanese demonised. Sound familiar?

To those who dismiss the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army during WWII as an exaggeration, I say, “Take this for what it is worth to you”. Anecdotes like this are difficult to verify because most of the people who lived through the Japanese occupation and were eyewitnesses to their cruelty have passed away. And by the way, anyone with a basic understanding of statistics would know that survey statistics on war casualties are notoriously difficult to verify. Therefore, most honest writers would qualify their figures by indicating that they are “estimates”.

Unlike the Japanese, the Germans are very openly contrite about their actions in WWII, even though the present generation of Germans are as innocent as the present day Japanese. Moreover, instead of attempting to sanitise what they did, they teach the following generations that what happened should never be allowed to happen again.

I have more to say on the article by Professor Cribb but I want to spare myself my own emotions. About Richard Cullen, I want to say from reading his submissions that I believe and admire his convictions. 

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!