Indonesia under Japanese Occupation

A review of Outlasting Colonialism: Socio-political Change in the Javanese Principalities under the Japanese Occupation of Indonesia during World War II, by Frank Dhont.

In Outlasting Colonialism, Frank Dhont examines the socio-political transformation the four principalities in Central Java underwent during the Japanese occupation, between 1942 and 1945. From mere symbols of Javanese hegemony under the Dutch, the Yogyakarta Sultanate and the house of Paku Alam  gained significant influence in post-independence Indonesia, while the Kasunanan and the house of Mangku Negara receded into the background. By addressing the extent of authority “these traditional elites … retained … to manage their domains under the Japanese occupation” and the extent of their capability “to alleviate the negative impact of the occupation on the ordinary pribumi (indigenous Indonesian) population living in their lands,” (p. 1) Dhont traces the subtle but decisive processes that altered the balance of power among the principalities. Their disparate acumen in responding to the devolution of administrative and governance authority by the Japanese and the access—or lack thereof—to the Indonesian nationalist networks were proven crucial in gaining relevance during these tumultuous three years. With his dissertation, Dhont restores the principalities’ position in the Indonesian historiography of the Japanese occupation.

Outlasting Colonialism consists of five chapters, an introduction and a conclusion. In the introduction Dhont situates the four principalities in the socio-political context of the time. In the late-colonial Indies, the Dutch kept the principalities merely as a symbol of Javanese indigenous hegemony. The principalities’ kings—the Sultan, the Sunan, the Paku Alam and the Mangku Negara—used their wealth, network of marriages, and network of family members occupying colonial offices to sustain some form of informal clout. But the Dutch limited their public presence to performing rituals and ceremonies, severely distancing them from their subjects. In time, communist-leaning groups, secular nationalists, and Islamic-leaning associations gradually overshadowed their socio-political relevance. It was in this social setting that the Japanese found the principalities when they arrived in Central Java.

In chapter 1, Dhont shows how the Japanese reversed the Dutch policy and restored the principalities to their original socio-political standing. Deciding that retaining rather than abolishing the principalities worked best for their war strategies, the Japanese skillfully used ceremonies and rituals to elevate the principalities’ ruler in the eyes of their subjects and to portray them as important partners in the liberation from colonization. At the same time, the Japanese gradually devolved limited authorities to the principalities, by now referred to with the Japanese word , to enable them to govern and run day-to-day administration. The Japanese wanted to convince the local population of their intent to “liberate” their junior brothers.

Chapter 2 discusses the Japanese strategies to persuade the principalities and the local population to accept their war-time policies. Through “enticement” and “enforcement,” i.e. propaganda and the use of force, the Japanese aimed to gain support for their ambition: to win the war using all of the Indies’ resources that were now accessible to them. The Japanese effectively used the Kōs in their propaganda, particularly by publicizing ceremonies involving the Kōs and making visible the rituals of receiving Japanese dignitaries. However, by late 1943, as the local population became aware of the Japanese actual intent to exploit Javanese labor and resources, the Japanese had to resort to coercion.

In chapters 3 and 4, Dhont narrates the exploitation of Indonesian women and men by the Japanese military government: women were recruited and forced to provide sexual services to Japanese soldiers as “comfort women,” while men were deployed to provide hard labor within and outside Java. Dhont underlines how the principalities were almost powerless in avoiding the demand for “comfort women,” proven by a number of deliveries from the principalities. The deployment of Javanese men for hard labor, on the other hand, were mitigated for a couple of reasons. The most significant was the Kōs’ initiative to set up a number of large infrastructure developments in their own areas, which enabled them to claim that able-bodied men were needed at home.

Dhont uses chapter 5 to demonstrate how the political space opened up for the Kōs to skillfully use the limited administrative and governing authority they were granted. The unexpected death of the Surakarta and Mangku Negara Kōs and the crowning of the young, inexperienced heirs who lacked in political acumen cost the two houses the opportunity to gain a stronger political standing. The Sultan of Yogyakarta and the Paku Alam, on the other hand, seized their opportunity well. They created two major canal works, which sizes and demand of labor powers offered visual testimony of their administrative prowess to the people, who in turned granted them respect, acknowledgment, and political capital. The Mangku Negara and the Surakarta principalities fell short in doing the same, and consequently failed to gain as influential recognition as the Sultan and the Paku Alam. After the Japanese occupation, the two Yogyakarta rulers re-emerged as effective political leaders able to recapture some of the real hegemony lost during the Dutch rule. They did so by transforming themselves into modern leaders, skillfully using the large and small opportunities given to them. These provided them with political capital to use in the turbulent years of post-war Indonesia.

Unlike conventional approaches that look at the Japanese occupation in Indonesia from the top down, or micro-history approaches that focus on one small area as a case study, Dhont offers a re-examination of this important historical period from the point of view of the four principalities. Drawn from an extensive archival collection in five languages—Japanese, Javanese, Indonesian, Dutch, and English—Dhont’s meticulous research allows him to follow minute details, almost day-to-day accounts of the ongoing events to reveal the way the principalities’ rulers used symbols, network of family members, and pragmatic infrastructure projects to grab the opportunities that unfolded between 1942-1945. To capture these is no easy feat. Outlasting Colonialism contributes a fresh insight into Indonesian historiography of the Japanese occupation period, and restores the position of the principalities in the socio-political constellations of those tumultuous war years.

Upik Djalins
Sajogyo Institute, Bogor, Indonesia

Primary Sources

Surakarta Sunanate Archives
Mangkunegaran Archives, Mangku Negara VIII files
Yogyakarta Sultanate Archives
Pakualaman Archives, PA files
Bōeikenkyūjo, Tokyo, Japan
Waseda University, Nishijima Collection
Nationaal Archief [National Archives], Den Haag, Ministerie van Koloniën
National Archives Collection of World War II War Crimes Records (USA)
Various Dutch, Indonesian, Japanese periodicals

Dissertation Information

Yale University. 2012. 353 pp. Primary Advisors: Ben Kiernan and James Scott.

Image: 1943 World War II Japanese Aeronautical Map of Java. Wikipedia.

Leave a Reply