Brief overview – Japan and World War II

In 1910, Japan annexed Korea, formerly a Chinese tributary state and it invaded and occupied Manchuria in 1931. Over the next five years the Japanese gradually seized ever-larger sections of northern and eastern China, encircling Beijing. It resulted in 1937 in the Second Sino-Japanese War. They conquered the then capital of China Nanking (now Nanjing) were Japanese soldiers systematically raped thousands of Chinese women and girls of all ages – even infants. They murdered between 200,000 and 300,000 civilians and prisoners of war. Up to this day this massacre remains one of the most significant obstacles in improving Chinese Japanese relationships.

In order to sustain its war effort in China, Japan needed to annex territories which produced raw materials such as oil, iron ore, rubber and agriculture produce. NEI was a key producer. The Japanese Government had unsuccessfully negotiated significantly increased amounts of oil. The Dutch position hardened  even more after America had started to put sanctions on its export of oil to Japan. Interestingly the negotiations on the NEI side were conducted by Hubertus van Mook, at that time also Minister for Economic Affairs (and later the Acting Governor of the NEI in Australia). The Japanese were furious about the Dutch position and this soon led to the only solution Japan could see that of an invasion.

Once World War II in Europe erupted in 1939, and Japan allied itself with Germany, it felt it had the justification for seizing the colonies of the allied countries in SE Asia, which produced these raw materials. These countries were now seen as enemies of Japan.

In order to ensure that the United States would not interfere with Japan’s lightning-fast “Southern Expansion,” it decided to wipe out the US Pacific Fleet at Pearl Harbor (December 7th, 1941). At the same day they also bombed Singapore and Japanese troops landed on the Malay peninsula. Singapore was the British homeport of its Far East Fleet and in order to invade NEI these two fleets needed to be neutralised.

While it provided Japan with a rather easy invasion of NEI, in the longer term,  it turned out to be a total miscalculation as it led to the US entering World War II and cementing its global hegemony for the following decades. It remains by far the largest military power in the world.

An interesting anecdote here is that the Dutch had cracked the Japanese naval code and on December 4 intercepted messages regarding the preparation of the air raid on Pearl Harbor. This message was relaid to the Americans, but the information was dismissed.

In the meantime, however,¬† the Vichy Government in France had handed ‘the use of ‘ Vietnam over to the Japanese. They built here an enormous marine base in the Cam Ray Bay. From here They reasonably easily occupied the Philippines, Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Singapore, Malaya (Malaysia), Thailand, Brunei, Taiwan and then took the resource-rich Dutch East Indies.

Within a period of three months Japan had been able to conquer the whole of SE Asia and neutralised the colonial superpowers of the day.

The colonial forces were totally unprepared for the Japanese invasion. The Japanese had been portrayed in their propaganda as a 2nd rate race that would not have a chance to challenge the ‘mighty’ colonial forces. Furthermore all of the colonial governments had been concentrated suppressing any form of self-government or independence which they nearly always labelled as communist activities, which were violently crushed. They had paid very little notion to rising nazism, fascism and nationalism and the Japaneses invasions took them by total surprise. The colonial powers had largely alienated the inhabitants of their colonies and the Japanese forces received in general a generous welcome from the indigenous people.

The situation started to change with the first wins by the US and Australian navy in the Battle of the Coral Sea (May 1942) halting the Japanese advance in the Pacific. This was followed by the Battle of Midway a month later, this became the turnaround point in the war. It prevented the Japanese from reattempting to invade Port Moresby in New Guinea from the ocean and helped prompt their ill-fated land offensive over the Kokoda trail, which was bitterly defended mainly by Australian and Papuan soldiers.

Japan had severe problems replacing its massive losses in men and material, while America was able to further build up its war effort, gradually taking back all the territories occupied by the Japanese.

In the end it took two atom bombs to get Japan to surrender, a tragic event which still reverberates around the world.

There were several important consequences of the Japanese occupation of NEI to both the Dutch and the Australians.

  • Local leaders behind the simmering independence movements throughout SE Asia, saw an opportunity to achieve independence from their colonial masters through collaboration with the Japanese who supported this in order to get the local people behind their occupation. The situation in NEI was no different.
  • A largely unprepared Australia was now vulnerable at their northern border as Mother England had secretly decided to concentrate on its war against Hitler.
  • A chaotic evacuation from NEI brought 20,000 Dutch subjects to Australia. They were mainly military and civil servants (mostly Indos and people from the island of Ambon). These people needed to be housed and fed. Furthermore, the government and military needed to be housed as well as the material they brought with them (ships, planes, archives, etc).

We will go into more detail on these consequences in following chapters.

Australia enters WWII