Rashomon, a Japanese memoir of the war in Sumatra

Rashomon is a famous Japanese movie directed by Akira Kurosawa. The story narrates a murder incident, but each character recounting the incident provides his/her own version of the story. The Rashomon effect is a term used to describe contradictory or descriptions of an event.

A few years ago, I was invited to speak at a soil science conference in Bandung. There were also other guests, including an elderly Japanese soil scientist. We were in a room having lunch, and our host introduced foods originated from different places in Indonesia and proudly said that we are diverse in culture. The eminent Japanese professor said, yes … interesting Indonesia was made up of many islands with different ethnicity and languages… And the Dutch occupied your country, right?

The younger Japanese were never taught about what the Japanese did in WWII, they even not aware that Japan occupied Indonesia. As Kohhei Mugitani, wrote in Quora

However, WW2 or later is the last part of history course. And end of junior high school, students are busy for examination of high school. So modern history has little time and description in Japanese junior high school.

It is not surprising some Japanese people are not aware what happened Indonesia in WW2. Without historical knowledge, there is no problem for daily life.

There are many school subjects we don’t need in daily life. Nevertheless, the Japanese are proud that one of Sukarno’s wives is Japanese. (Probably that is more helpful in daily life). Current Japanese students’ lack of knowledge on what the Japanese did in WWII is not an excuse for our eminent professor who was already 70 years old.

In 1980s, Takao Fusayama (1913–2013), a Japanese dentist and academic, who served as a military officer in North Sumatra during the war, published his memoir. An English version of his book called A Japanese Memoir of Sumatra was published in 1993 by Cornell.

The memoir is an interesting read from a Japanese point of view, as opposed to the Dutch, English, and Indonesian version of what happened after the Japanese surrendered. While it provides a clearer description on the chaotic period in August 1945 to early 1946, I can’t help grinning or frustrated with the moral high ground of Fusayama’s stance. Fusayama was assigned as a liaison officer to deal with the allied forces.

On p. 20. of his memoir, Fusayama wrote about what is probably correct.

When the Japanese soldiers landed on Sumatra, the power of the resisting Dutch was an absurd as the battle play of children.

Japanese captured after the war in Medan. http://proxy.handle.net/10648/70868f51–3592–4c7e-dd0a-b05b2464af1f

Man just wants to forget the bad stuff, and believe in the made-up good stuff. It’s easier that way (Rashomon)

Fusayama described the event and conflict between the youth militants and Japanese soldiers in Tebing Tinggi on December 10, which led to the Japanese soldiers being massacred by the Indonesian youths. He reasoned:

Throughout the world, in reality, massacres have occurred not only in Indonesia, but in many other places too. When we fought in China, Japanese soldiers under siege were often killed and cut into pieces by the Chinese due to some religious belief.

Fusayama was first stationed in China in 1938. And he must have forgotten about the Nanking massacre or the Rape of Nanking by the Japanese, from December 1937 killing at least 200,000 people. Of course the Japanese nationalist denied it ever happened.

Fusayama further described:

Even Europe is no exception. In various religious wars and riots, Europeans and pagans from the Near East were also massacred. Russians, too, are reported to have massacred 500 Koreans by throwing them through holes in the ice of the frozen Amur River early this century. Any race of people can become crazy murderers when blinded by religion or ideology.

And now, the European are evil and the Russian did horrible things to the Korean. Fusayama had forgotten that in 1923, the Kanto massacre by the Japanese killed more than 6000 Korean.

Because men are weak, they lie to deceive themselves (Rashomon)

Fusayama further described how the Japanese provided food to the Indonesian (p. 130):

During the Dutch colonialism, there were many estates producing a great deal of rubber, tobacco, and palm oil. But rather than producing rice, they had imported it from Thailand or Burma, so workers could not survive independently from the white managers. The Japanese Army, when they occupied Sumatra, switched the greater part of the states to rice cultivation to establish an independent supply.

It is known that starvation was everywhere during the Japanese occupation period. Forced labour (Romusha) including building the Sumatra railway, a 220 km long railroad from Pakan Baroe to Moeara, West Sumatra. The railroad was to facilitate exploitation of the coal mines near Tapoei in the central mountain area. Dutch, Indonesian, as well as British, Australian and American POWs were forced to construct the railway. During construction of the railroad, approximately 698 POWs died from disease, exhaustion, and accidents.

There were also Romushas, over 100,000 Javanese Romushas were transported via Padang to work on the Pakan Baroe Railroad and some other locations in central Sumatra. Of this number, after the war, only 19,600 were documented as having survived. Probably around 2700 survivors remained on Sumatra after the war. Together with the victims of the sea disaster, around 70,000 Romushas died for the construction of this railroad (Dulm 2000: 65).

A bandit calling another a bandit. Now that’s selfish (Rashomon)

Fusayama described how the Dutch used to have concubines or Njai, p. 104

According to his novel, when a European came to work in an estate, he usually had a temporary wife called nyai. He could pick up any pretty woman he liked among the workers… The wife came to the master’s bedroom in the manager’s house only when called to bed by her master, and otherwise slept in the slave room on an earthen floor. No natives were considered human.

The forgetful emperor did mention that (p. 70):

The Javanese girls who used to be the service girls for Japanese soldiers during the war were captured by Pesindo youths. Their clothes were torn off and they were dragged around the streets exposed and crying.

The Indonesian youth badly treated the service girls for Japanese soldiers, and the Dutch keeping a Javanese concubine. Fusayama again forgot about the comfort women.

Indeed, Saya Shiraishi, an academic who wrote an introduction to Fusayama’s memoir mentioned, that many Japanese soldiers.

could not help boasting how “much” they had “contributed” to their brothers’ independence.

And Fusayama proudly credited the Japanese (p.151):

Many countries become independent as a result of the momentum built by the Pacific War.

To quote from Rashomon:

In the end, you can’t understand the things men do.

It’s Human To Lie, It’s human to lie.

It’s human to lie. Most of the time we can’t even be honest with ourselves.

Soil Scientist, interest in Colonial history.