The NEI was immensely rich in natural resources, including oil (more than 59 million barrels produced in 1940), tin, bauxite, and coal. It also produced rubber, copra, nickel, timber, quinine, and important foodstuffs such as rice, sugar, coffee, and tea. The NEI thus represented a major prize for Japan in World War II, especially as Japan had no oil of its own.
Dutch rule in the islands was paternalistic and exploitive; the Indonesians were treated as little more than children. Some 90 percent of the population was illiterate; only a minority attended school in 1940, and few jobs were available for educated Indonesians in a bureaucracy dominated by the Dutch. The authorities ruthlessly crushed any nationalist sentiment, and repressive measures in the 1930s created a wide psychological breach between rulers and ruled.
In May 1940 in Europe, German forces quickly overran the Netherlands, although the Dutch Royal Family and some government officials escaped abroad and established a government-in-exile in London. The advisory Volksraad (People's Council) at Batavia, the NEI legislative body on Java, declared its loyalty to the London government but was soon virtually autonomous. It did refuse Japanese trade demands and obeyed the decision by the Dutch government-in-exile in August 1941 to cut off the export of oil to Japan.
The Netherlands government-in-exile, acting in concert with the British and U.S. governments, declared war on Japan after Japan attacked the United States at Pearl Harbor. Japan desperately needed the resources of the NEI and sought to add the NEI to its Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere. Tokyo quickly dispatched a large number of troops to secure the islands as soon as possible. Beginning on 20 December 1941, units of Lieutenant General Imamura Hitoshi's Sixteenth Army landed on oil-rich Dutch Borneo as well as Celebes and the Moluccas. The poorly equipped Royal Netherlands East Indies Army resisted as best it could, supported by some British, Australian, and U.S. forces. With their few air assets soon destroyed, all the Allies could do was to delay briefly the Japanese advance. The Japanese navy crushed Allied naval forces in the Battle of the Java Sea, and on 8 March the Dutch surrendered on Java. Resistance continued in Dutch Borneo and Celebes until October 1942, and the Japanese never did conquer all the islands.
Following their victory, the Japanese sent the Indonesian soldiers home and arrested some 170,000 Europeans, including 93,000 Dutch soldiers. All were treated inhumanely on starvation diets, which caused the deaths of 40 percent of the adult males, 13 percent of the women, and 10 percent of the children. Under the Japanese administrative division of the NEI, Java and Madura came under the jurisdiction of the Sixteenth Army. Strategically important Sumatra was controlled by the Twenty-Fifth Army, and the Celebes, the Moluccas, and Dutch New Guinea were under Japanese navy administration. The Japanese army and navy remained at odds, and there was no unified policy for the islands, which in any case differed sharply in size, population, and economy.
Many Indonesians initially welcomed the Japanese as liberators. However, Japanese rule was far more ruthless and exploitive than that of the Dutch. The Japanese took advantage of nationalist sentiment and worked with those leaders whose approach was to seek at least public accommodation with them. The systematic Japanese plunder of resources began immediately after the invasion. Japan also mobilized as many as 2 million unskilled laborers. More than 270,000 of these were sent overseas, but only 50,000 to 70,000 of them returned.
Because of a shortage of labor and the arrest of Dutch administrators, production fell off sharply. By 1943, rubber production was at one-fifth and tea at one-third of pre-1941 levels. Rice output fell 25 percent. The occupation currency issued by the Japanese also rapidly declined in value. By 1945, it was only worth 2.5 percent of face value. Severe shortages and acute economic hardship resulted. The closing of the export market also hurt the economy. In any case, thanks to Allied submarines, shipment of NEI resources to the Japanese home islands, especially desperately needed oil, steadily declined during the course of the war.
Japanese authorities early prohibited all political activities in the islands. They also banned use of Dutch and English and insisted on Japanese language instruction in the schools. Western symbols—statues, for example—were torn down, and streets were renamed. The Japanese ruthlessly crushed all dissent but worked with Indonesian nationalist leaders to help administer the islands under their "guidance." Clearly, Japanese leaders hoped to annex the islands outright. In January 1943, as a means of securing support for the Japanese war effort, Japanese Prime Minister Tojo Hideki announced that Burma and the Philippines would be made independent within a year. However, there was no such mention of independence for the NEI until 7 September 1944 (by Prime Minister Koiso Kuniaki), and then only at some unspecified future date.
As the tide of war sharply turned, the Japanese sought to mobilize Indonesians against the Dutch. This included heavy use of propaganda; military training for the young; and creation of a 25,000-man auxiliary military force, the Heiho, which served with the Japanese, and another volunteer force, the 57,000-man Peta, as a guerrilla operation under Indonesian command.
Support among Indonesians for Japan ebbed as the economy declined and as the Japanese seized rice stocks and requisitioned labor. In some cases, also, the Japanese army treated the population brutally. The occupation had the effect of crystallizing Indonesian opposition to foreign rule, and at the end of the war the nationalists moved into the vacuum. On 17 August 1945 at Jakarta, they proclaimed the archipelago independent of the Netherlands and then promulgated a new constitution. The Dutch government in the Netherlands initially refused to accept these actions. Not until 1949 did it bow to the inevitable and agree to an independent Republic of Indonesia. Spencer C. Tucker
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Spencer C. Tucker