Narratives of the Singapore Massacre in Postwar Japan

Negative Campaign against War Crimes Trials in the 1950s

Although the Singapore Massacre has not generated much interest among the Japanese people in the postwar period, there has been some discussion of what took place. In this section, I will discuss the evolving narratives of the Singapore Massacre in postwar Japan .

Singapore Garrison Commander Kawamura Saburo published his reminiscences in 1952, at a time when Japan was recovering its independence.[25] This book contains his diaries, personal letters, and other materials. In one letter to his family, he expressed his condolences to the victims of Singapore and prayed for the repose of their souls. The foreword to the book was written by Tsuji, who managed to escape punishment after the war, and Tsuji showed no regrets and offered no apology to the victims. Although I do not know who asked Tsuji to contribute the foreword, I believe his text accurately reflects the atmosphere in Japan at the time as described below.

 During the 1950s, the Japanese government, members of parliament, and private organisations waged a nationwide campaign for the release of war criminals held in custody at Sugamo Prison inTokyo .[26] Both conservatives and progressives took part in the campaign, arguing that minor war criminals were victims of the war, not true criminals. A Japanese government committee was in charge of recommending the parole and release of war criminals to the Allied Nations. The committee’s recommendations are still closed to public in Japan , but can be read in the national archives of the UK and USA .

As an example of this committee’s recommendations in 1952, the British government was asked to consider parole for Onishi Satoru, who took part in the Singapore Massacre as a Kempeitai officer and was sentenced to life imprisonment by a British war crimes trial.[27] The recommendation says that the figure of 5,000 victims of the Singapore Massacre was untrue and that his war crimes trial had been an act of reprisal. Although this recommendation was not approved by the British government, it reflects the Japanese government’s failure to admit that mass murder occurred in Singapore [28]. Among the Japanese people, the war crimes trials were, and still are, regarded as mock trials of little value.


Japanese Response to Accusations by Singaporeans in the 1960s

Beginning in 1962, numerous human remains dating from the Occupation were found in various locations around Singapore . Prolonged discussions between the Singapore and Japanese governments relating to these deaths led to a settlement in 1967, a matter that was reported in the Japanese newspapers, but only as minor news. For example, the Nihon Keizai Shimbun stated that a Japanese official involved in the negotiations as saying that no executions by shooting happened in Malaysia.[29] The Asahi Shimbun reported that it was hardly conceivable the Japanese military committed atrocities inIndonesia and Thailand .[30] Another Asahi report criticized the Chinese Chamber of Commerce in Singapore , saying it should not stoke hatred by propagating stories of barbarity by the Japanese military during the war.[31]

  In 2003, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs released documents relating to the negotiations between Singapore and Japan during this period.[32] The Japanese government had made use of a report prepared in 1946 by an army committee chaired by Sugita Ichiji, a staff officer with the 25th Army.  To counter the war crimes prosecutions, the report admitted that about 5,000 people had been executed, but excused the killings on several counts.[33]

This figure, according to a written opinion by an official at the Ministry of Justice who was in charge of detained war criminals, was an exaggeration, the correct figure might be about 800. The Asahi Shimbun reported this number with apparent approval.[34] Additional figures come from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which accepted that the Japanese military had committed mass murder in Singapore , but some Japanese foreign ministry documents state that the number of victims was 3,000, while others use 5,000. One ex-foreign ministry official sent a letter to the Foreign Minister saying that Japan should repent and apologize in all sincerity, but this attitude was exceptional among officials.

On the negotiations with Singapore , the Japanese government rejected demands for reparations but agreed to make a “gesture of atonement” by providing funds in other ways. What the Japanese government feared most was economic damage as a result of a boycott or sabotage by the local Chinese should Singapore ’s demands be rejected. The agreement with Singapore was signed on the same day as a similar agreement with Malaysia . Singapore was to receive 25 million Singapore dollars as a free gift and another 25 million Singapore dollars in credit, while Malaysia was to receive 25 million Malaysiadollars as a free gift.[35]

To the last, the Japanese government refused to admit legal responsibility for the massacre or to carry out a survey. The mass media in Japan did not examine what had happened in Singapore and Malaya during the war. It is no exaggeration to say that the Japanese media at that time showed no inclination whatsoever to confront Japan ’s war crimes or war responsibility.


Publications in the 1970s

There were, however, some honest responses in the years that followed. In 1967 Professor Ienaga Saburo, famous for his history textbook lawsuit against the Japanese government, published a book entitled The Pacific War that dealt with the Singapore Massacre.[36] In 1970, the monthly journal Chugoku [ China ] published a feature called, “Blood Debt: Chinese Massacre in Singapore ”, the first extended treatment in Japan of the Singapore Massacre.[37] The piece was mostly written by Professor Tanaka Hiroshi.

The 1970s also saw publication of reminiscences by some of those directly involved in the Massacre, and by people who witnessed or heard about it, including Nihon Kempei Seishi [The Official History of the Japanese Kempeitai] by the Zenkoku Kenyukai Rengokai [Joint Association of National Kempei Veterans],[38] Kempei by Otani Keijiro, and Hiroku Shonan Kakyo Shukusei Jiken [Secret Memoir of Singapore Overseas Chinese Purification] by Onishi Satoru. Onishi Satoru was a Kempeitai section commander who took part in the Massacre. In his book he admitted that the “purification” was a serious crime against humanity, but he claimed that number of victims was actually around 1,000.[39] Otani’s book severely criticizes the Japanese military, stating that the “purification” was an act of tyranny and claiming that the action should be criticized from a human perspective.[40]

Although veterans’ associations usually justify or deny that inhuman acts had taken place, the Joint Association of National Kempei Veterans has admitted that the massacre was an inhuman act.[41] A few writers who were stationed or visited Singapore during the war have also published memoirs in which they record what they had heard about the Singapore Massacre.[42] On the whole, nobody denied that the Japanese purge in Singapore was an atrocity against humanity and historians began to pay attention to the episode. However, it failed to catch the attention of the Japanese people.


Development of Research in the 1980s and 1990s

The situation changed in 1982, when the Ministry of Education ordered the deletion of passages relating to Japanese atrocities in Asia from school textbooks, and instructed textbook writers to replace the term “aggression” with less emotive terms, such as “advance”.[43] This decision was severely criticized both domestically and abroad, and the issue generated interest in Japan regarding the behavior of the Japanese military in other Asian countries during the war. A growing number of historians began to conduct research into Japanese atrocities, including the Nanjing Massacre.[44]

In 1984, while the textbook controversy continued, a bulky book called Malayan Chinese Resistance to Japan 1937-1945: Selected Source Materials was published in Singapore . Sections of this volume were translated into Japanese in 1986 under the title Nihongun Senryoka no Singapore [ Singapore under Japanese Occupation], allowing Japanese to read in their own language the testimony of Singaporeans concerning wartime events.[45] The main translator was Professor Tanaka Hiroshi, mentioned earlier as the author of a magazine feature about the Singapore Massacre.

Another significant publication was a 1987 booklet by Takashima Nobuyoshi, then a high school teacher and now a professor at Ryukyu University, entitled Tabi Shiyo Tonan-Ajia E [Let’s travel to Southeast Asia].[46] Based on information Takashima collected during repeated visits to Malaysia and Singapore beginning in the early 1980s, the booklet discussed atrocities and provided details of the “Memorial to the Civilian Victims of the Japanese Occupation” and of an exhibition of victims” mementos at the Sun Yat Sen Villa. The volume served as a guidebook for Japanese wishing to understand wartime events or visit sites of Japanese atrocities. In 1983 he began organising study tours to historical sites related to Japanese Occupation and to places where massacres occurred in Malaysia andSingapore .

In 1987, I located official military documents in the Library of the National Institute for Defense Studies, Defense Agency that included operational orders and official diaries related to the massacres of Chinese in Negri Sembilan and Malacca in 1942. Newspapers throughout Japan reported these findings, the first time public attention had been focused on the killings in Malaya .[47] The document showed that troops from Hiroshima had been involved in atrocities in Negri Sembilan and this information came as a major shock to the people of Hiroshima , who had thought themselves as victims of the atomic bomb and had never imagined that their fathers or husbands had been involved in the massacres in Malaya .[48]

In 1988, several citizen’s groups jointly invited Chinese survivors from Malaysia to visit Japan , and held rallies where Japanese citizens listened in to their testimony. A book that included these statements was published in 1989. [49] Also in 1988, the Negri Sembilan Chinese Assembly Hall published a book in Chinese called the Collected Materials of Suffering of Chinese in Negeri Sembilan during the Japanese Occupation, and the following year Professor Takashima and I published a Japanese translation of this volume.[50] Another source of information was the history textbook used inSingapore by students in lower secondary school, Social and Economic History of Modern Singapore 2, which was translated into Japanese in 1988. The material it contained concerning the occupation attracted the attention of Japanese readers, particularly teachers and researchers.[51]

As might be expected, there was a backlash to these initiatives. It was claimed that Japanese troops killed only guerrillas and their supporters, and that the number was much smaller than reported. Responding to these allegations, I published a book in 1992 entitled Kakyo Gyakusatu: Nihongun Shihaika no Mare Hanto [Chinese Massacres: The Malay Peninsula under Japanese Occupation][52] that substantiated in detail the activities of the Japanese military in Negri Sembilan during March 1942, when several thousand Chinese were massacred. Since then there has been no rebuttal by those who would not concede the massacres in Malaya apart from personal attacks and corrections of trifling details that have no effect on the central argument.[53]

In 1996, the Singapore Heritage Society’s book, SYONAN: Singapore under the Japanese, 1942-1945 was translated into Japanese.[54] This book introduced to Japanese readers the living conditions and suffering of Singaporeans under the Japanese occupation in a comprehensive way. Further information appeared in a book I published entitled, Sabakareta Senso Hanzai: Igirisu no Tainichi Senpan Saiban [Tried War Crimes; British War Crimes Trials of Japanese]. This volume contains an account of the Singapore Massacre based on British, Chinese and Japanese documents.[55]



[25] Kawamura Saburo, Jusan Kaidan wo Noboru [Walking up Thirteen Steps of the Stairs] (Tokyo: Ato Shobo, 1952).

[26] See Hayashi Hirofumi , BC -kyu Senpan Saiban [Class B & C War Crimes Trials] ( Tokyo : Iwanami Shoten, 2005), ch. 6.

[27] FO371/105435(National Archives, UK ).

[28]  Later, he was released in 1957.

[29] Nihon Keizai Shimbun, 3 Nov. 1966 .

[30] Asahi Shimbun, 20 Sept. 1967 .

[31] Asahi Shimbun, 18 Sept. 1963 .

[32] These documents are open to the public at the Diplomatic Record Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

[33]  See footnote no.14.

[34] Asahi Shimbun, 29 Sept. 1963 .

[35]  Hara Fujio, “Maleishia, Shingaporu no Baisho Mondai” [Reparation Problem with Singapore and Malaysia ], Senso Skinin Kenkyu [The Report on Japan ’s War Responsibility], No. 10, Dec. 1995.

[36] Ienaga Saburo, Taiheiyo Senso [The Pacific War] (Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1967).

[37] “Kessai: Singaporu no Chugokujin Gyakusatsu Jiken” [Blood Debt: Chinese Massacre in Singapore ], in Chugoku [ China ], vol. 76 (Mar. 1970).

[38] Tokyo : Private Press, 1976.

[39] Onishi, Hiroku Shonan Kakyo Shukusei Jiken, pp. 93-7.

[40] Otani Keijiro, Kempei, p. 189.

[41] Zenkoku Kenyukai Rengokai, Nihon Kempei Seishi, p. 979.

[42] For example, Terasaki Hiroshi, Senso no Yokogao [Profile of the War] (Tokyo: Taihei Shuppan, 1974), Nakajima Kenzo, Kaiso no Bungaku[Literature of Recollection], vol. 5 (Tokyo: Heibonsha, 1977), Omata Yukio, Zoku Shinryaku [Sequel: Aggression] (Tokyo: Tokuma Shoten, 1982), and so on.

[43] See Rekishigaku Kenkyukai [The Historical Science Society of Japan], Rekishika wa naze Shinryaku ni kodawaruka [Why Historian adhere to Aggression] (Tokyo: Aoki Shoten, 1982).

[44] Composed of historians and journalists, Nankin Jiken Chosa Kenkyu Kai [The Society for the Study of Nanjin Massacre] was established in 1984. It remains active, although the scope of research has been extended to Japanese atrocities in China and the rest of Southeast Asia .

[45] Tokyo : Aoki Shoten, 1986.

[46] Tokyo : Iwanami Shoten, 1987.

[47] This article was delivered by the Kyodo News Service and came forth on newspapers on 8 Dec. 1987 .

[48] As mentioned before, the 5th Division conducted Purge through Purification throughout Malay Peninsular except Johor. The headquarters of the Division in peace time was situated in Hiroshima and soldiers were conscripted in Hiroshima and neighboring prefectures.

[49] Senso Giseisha wo Kokoro ni Kizamukai [The Society of Keeping War Victims in our Heart], Nihongun no Maresia Jumin Gyakusatu [The Massacres of Malaysian Local Population by the Japanese Military] (Osaka: Toho Shuppan, 1989).

[50] Originally published in 1988. The Japanese translation was as follows: Takashima Nobuyoshi & Hayashi Hirofumi (eds.), Maraya no Nihongun [The Japanese Army in Malaya ] (Tokyo: Aoki Shoten, 1989).

[51] Ishiwata Nobuo and Masuo Keizo (eds.), Gaikoku no Kyokasho no nakano Nihon to Nihonjin [ Japan and Japanese in a Foreign Textbook] (Tokyo: Ikkosha, 1988).

[52] Tokyo : Suzusawa Shoten, 1992. As for arguments of right-wingers, see Chapter 8 of this book.

[53] See, for example, two articles by Hata Ikuhiko in the journal Seiron, August and Oct. 1992 and Professor Takashima’s and my responses in the same journal on two occasions in Sept. and Nov. 1992.

[54] Tokyo : Gaifusha, 1996.

[55] Tokyo : Iwanami Shoten, 1998.