Japanese Occupation

Mar 6th, 2007, in History, by

A memoir of the Japanese occupation of Java.

The Way of a Boy is a gentle story of a young Dutch boy, Ernest Hillen, during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia, 1942-45.

The Way of a Boy
The Way of a Boy.

At the Battle of the Java Sea and the Battle of the Sunda Straits in February-March 1942 the Japanese navy pulverised a combined British, Dutch, Australian, and United States fleet. This paved the way for a Japanese land invasion of Java and the Dutch colonial army in Indonesia quickly surrendered to the Japanese in March 1942. Thereafter most Dutch citizens in the country were imprisoned in camps, and Ernest’s story is focused on his time in these places.

Internment Camps

Ernest, along with his mother and older brother were put in a camp for women and children – Bloemenkamp (Camp of Flowers) in Bandung, really a fenced-off section of the city, while his father was sent to a higher security mens’ camp. Later the family were moved to several other places, Tjihapit, also in Bandung, and finally Kampung Makasar, in or near Jakarta.

The prisoners make valiant attempts to keep some of their culture and customs alive – a big effort is put into secretly celebrating Christmas of 1942. In later years of imprisonment one gets the impression the inmates are too worn down and weak for such things.

Some effort is made to instruct Ernest in the religion of his people, although it is not stated whether it is Calvinism or Catholicism – likely the former. Ernest seems to be non-plussed about these efforts. Jesus loves all men Ernest is told, but he finds it hard to believe that He would love the Japanese.

When Ernest’s brother Jerry turns 13 he is sent to another camp, the one where his father is it turns out, because he has now become “a danger to the Japanese Empire”. Later the Japanese seem to become increasingly afraid of young boys, they keep lowering the age, from 13 to 12 to 11, when a boy becomes a danger to them and has to be separated from his wailing mother.

Ernest has a best friend, Hubie, but Hubie dies of disease a few weeks before the Japanese surrender. Hubie’s mother is an upper class, snobbish woman who will not talk to those of inferior status – including Ernest’s mother. But when Hubie dies she whispers to Ernest that she is terribly afraid of meeting her husband again someday, because he will be so sad that Hubie is gone.


The Japanese are portrayed by Ernest as invariably bestial creatures, wilfully cruel. He cannot understand why they always yell, hit, and become apoplectically angry so easily. Do they have mothers? Do their mothers yell too? Do they yell back? Maybe they are just annoyed at having the lowly job of guarding women and children, he guesses.


Indonesians figure only marginally in the story. At the tea plantation where Ernest’s father worked, pre-internment time, the groundskeeper Manang is described in some detail and affectionately. Manang believes there are spirits everywhere, in the air, mountains, and in people and animals. One animal, the family dog Leo, a fierce beast, petrifies Manang and whenever it breaks loose Manang goes missing. Ernest envies Manang for his tough, well-worn feet.

When the family are being transported by truck to Bloemenkamp Ernest catches sight of a young girl, 13 or 14, sitting beside the road, wearing a sarong and with long, wet hair. Their eyes meet, Ernest feels as if the girl is pulling him towards her with her eyes, she has an incredible warmth the feeling of which stays in Ernest’s mind for many months afterwards.

Inside the camps there are “Indo” boys, half-breeds, said to be wild and rough, they like fighting, and Ernest is no match for them.


When the news gets out in the camp that the Japanese have surrendered the prisoners are urged to celebrate very quietly – outside the camp the Indonesians are in rebellion, and the newly-freed Dutch don’t want to attract their attention. Later British soldiers arrive and distribute food, etc, but carefully avoid looking the ex-prisoners in the eye – they are in a pathetic, half-starved state.


Decades later, likely in the 1980’s, Ernest returns to Indonesia. First he revisits Kampung Makasar, now an army garrison, and meets Haji Mohammed Nur, who had been a village official in the 1940’s. The camp was known at the time as an evil place, said Nur, and some people even today are still superstitious about the entrance gate to it – many people have been killed in car/motorbike accidents there since 1945 even though there are no crossroads.

The tea plantation where he had grown up near Bandung is something of a disappointment to Ernest, he is suprised to see how his old house is in very poor repair, and does not even want to go inside.

24 Comments on “Japanese Occupation”

  1. Andrew says:

    The title reminds me of my SD and SMP history book. Lots of “curses” were directed towards the Dutch, but not much was said about the Japanese.

  2. Ihaknt says:

    When I was in Japan, I never met any race as helpful, friendly, polite and honest as the Japanese. Even if they don’t speak English they would still try to help you. You can leave your bike unattended for hours and it still would be there. Yes they were cruel. But they have come a looooooooong way in a span of 60 plus years in aligning themselves with present days yet at the same time preserving their culture.

  3. Andrew says:

    Ihaknt, I definitely agree with you, they are one of the most helpful, polite, honest, and civilized people in the world. I love them… I worked there for quite a while after graduation, and had a Japanese girlfriend :), I have nothing against them.

    I was just trying to point out the “anomaly” why Indonesians seem to blame the Dutch more. In fact if it weren’t for the Dutch, we probably wouldn’t be one nation from Sabang to Merauke, don’t you think?

  4. Ihaknt says:

    Blame blame blame. It’s easier to do I guess. But it was 60 plus years ago for god’s sake!!! Whether it’s Dutch, the Japs, the British! Move on laaahhh. You know what I mean?

  5. Dimp says:

    It is easier to blame others than to admit that the fault comes from within. The Dutch has left extensive railway network which after 60 years were never maintained or expanded, and now you can see the state our rail network in. The Dutch has planned ahead in case of flooding in Jakarta and again after 60 years they were left by itself. So who is to blame? The Dutch has left Indonesia for more than 60 years, Indonesia has since stand still and some actually moved backwards.

  6. Purba Negoro says:

    Prior to 1939, Japanese had been sent by their government to establish links with Indonesian nationalists, particularly with Muslim parties, while Indonesian nationalists were sponsored to visit Japan.

    Chinese pro-Dutch efforts:
    The most active pro-Allied activities were among the Chinese, Ambonese, and Manadonese. [
    Japanese aggression in Manchuria and China in the late 1930s caused anxiety amongst the Chinese in Indonesia who set up funds to support the anti-Japanese effort. Dutch intelligence services also monitored Japanese in Indonesia.

    Renowned Indonesian author Pramoedya Ananta Toer notes:
    “With the arrival of the Japanese just about everyone was full of hope, except for those who had worked in the service of the Dutch”.

    Dutch stole millions of dollars of resources, Royal treasures and heritage from Indonesia- and still it resides in their thieves dens of the Reikmuseum and Der Insitut Tropishcen.

    Over 80% of our cultural heritage was stolen by the Dutch. DUcth also had the gall to introduce Jews to Indonesia- where they desecrated Mosques.

    Dutch backed Fatahillah in his against his Hindu foe of Matarram- hence Dutch can be inextricably linked to the fall of the Great Javanese Kingdom of Majaphit and the extinction of Hinduism in Central Java- replaced by the more politically malleable Islam brought by the sword of Fatahillah.

    Dutch imported Chinese to subvert and destroy local authority- confiscated Royal lands and property to gift to their Chinese lick-spittles.
    Chinese and Dutch traded Javanese as slaves and used Javanese slave labour to build their plantations.
    Dutch expelled Royals daring to resist Dutch destruction of Javanese heritage and authority.

    Dutch also banned the native-sympathetic Jesuit Catholics from educating natives especially in Central Java.

    The Dutch excluded Javanese and other Indonesians participation in politics, administration, and the military- instead preferring either outlying pliant Christians such as Maluku or the hated Chinese imports. After Dutch surrender, European officials, businessmen, military personnel, were 170,000 interned- joyously in the eyes of the Indonesians- their just desserts.

    The Dutch caused Java War of 1825-30 because Dutch decision to build a road upon a sacred tomb. Thereupon ensued the Java War, a bitter guerrilla conflict in which as many as 200,000 Javanese died in fighting or from indirect causes (the population of Java at the end of the eighteenth century was only 3 million)

    Dutch enforced compulsory growing of export crops called “cultuurstelse” in their pig-langauge with labour requirements so great that farmers had little time or energy to devote to staple crops. Dutch then raised the land tax assessment as the prices paid by the government for export crops increased, creating cicular problem.
    By the 1840s, rice shortages appeared and famines and epidemics occurred, resulting in the starvation of thousands.
    The Dutch Cultivation System enriched only European officials and Chinese middlemen, but was a terrible burden for Javanese villagers.

    Japanese gave us our Freedom:
    In administration, business, and cultural life, the filithy bastardised-German language of Dutch was discarded in favor of Malay and Japanese. Committees were organized to standardize Bahasa Indonesia and make it a truly national language.
    Modern Indonesian literature was boosted.
    Traditional Indonesian arts were revived and hated symbols of Dutch imperial control were swept away.
    Japanese allowed a huge rally in Batavia (renamed Jakarta) to celebrate by tearing down a statue of Jan Pieterszoon Coen, the seventeenth century governor general.
    Japanese though propagating the message of Japanese leadership of Asia it did not coercively promote Japanese culture on a large scale- as oppposed to the hated Dutch.
    According to historian Anthony Reid, the occupiers believed that Indonesians, as fellow Asians, were essentially like themselves but had been corrupted by three centuries of Western colonialism. What was needed was a dose of Japanese-style seishin (spirit; semangat in Indonesian).
    Our Indonesian Royal and prominent families rekindled their glorious military past with Japanese Bushido values similar to those suppressed by the Dutch.
    Japanese gave Javanese and other Indonesians to participate in politics, administration, and the military. While Japanese military officers occupied the highest posts, the personnel vacuum on the lower levels was filled with Indonesians.

    All Dutch rail systems extant were purely to facilitate transport between plantation and port- the evidence corroborating this is still in existence.
    Useful material, whole railway lines, railway rolling stock, and industrial plants in Java were appropriated and shipped back to Japan and Manchuria. British intelligence reports during the occupation noted significant removals of any materials that could be used in the war effort.

    We Indonesians will never forget the Dutch slavery and rape of our nation and will hate the filthy Dutchmen until the end of time with an intensity only secondary to our hatred of their imported enthusiastic lick-spittle Chinese.

    Everything the Japanese did to the Dutch was not nearly enough for their 300 years of pilage and rape.

  7. Riyoz says:

    curious…that book reminds of a steven spielberg movie….”empire of the sun”….but the setting was set in shanghai, china…..

    “Dutch backed Fatahillah in his against his Hindu foe of Matarram- hence Dutch can be inextricably linked to the fall of the Great Javanese Kingdom of Majaphit and the extinction of Hinduism in Central Java- replaced by the more politically malleable Islam brought by the sword of Fatahillah.”

    Wow”¦I thought fatahilah attack batavia ? or was it somebody else”¦.?

  8. Jackie says:

    My grandmother is Dutch and lived in Indonesia at the time that the Japanese Invaided. She lived in Padong.
    I listen to her stories and can not imagine having to go through what she experienced.
    It scares me to think what war does. He father was killed by the Japanese in camp. And her sister died shortly after the Japenese surrendered. She has nothing from her childhood, but her memories.
    I am greatful to still have her around.
    I wish that I could bring her back to Indonesia one last time.
    I don’t know if we will every be able to afford it though.
    I LOVE her dearly and wish that none of this ever happened to her.

  9. Yvette says:

    Purba, your clearly not too well informed. It would seem that the Japanese were responsible for a fastly larger amount of killed Indonsesians then the dutch ever did. The amount of Rumushas or forced labor deaths for in Indonesia are still unknown precisely. How many Indonesian forced laborers were actually conscripted by the Japanese is unknown. Estimates run as high as 1,500,000 ; even more speculative is the death toll. This varies in the sources from 200,000 to 1,430,000 deaths, with perhaps the most likely figure being 600,000 (the figure “accepted” by the United Nations).

    Numerous massacres of Indonesians occured and were reported upon in Indonesia, and those for which estimates of the number of people killed are available total 75,000 dead. This surely must be far below the actual number killed, were all the massacres and atrocities known. Given the population of Indonesia, this estimate can be checked by calculating an overall toll based on the Japanese democide in China and the Philippines. Moreover, we have the one estimate that a total of 4,000,000 Indonesians died in the war from all causes.

    I would suggest to study your history, and not vent that racist crap

  10. Acidio Wiseman says:

    Actually not only Dutch n Japanese, the Spaniards, Portuguese and the British also came to parts of Indonesia. The bottom line is their coming to Indonesia bring good and bad to the people.

    Japanese were not good, but they open the eyes of the Indonesians to gain their independent, after centuries under the colonial power, the Dutch. The Indonesians were prohibited from being active in politics under the Dutch. But Japanese teach them about politics and how to self-govern by their own people instead of the Dutch.

    Yet, the Dutch also developed the country. The Dutch massacred many people, the same as Japanese, they killed many also. So now which one is more bad?
    hehe both are bad and both are good right.

    Now, we are already gain independent. Lets forget about the past, take all of the past as a very good lessons to all of us. People suffer under all the colonial powers and the Japanese, so what is important now, don’t ever let things like that happen again.. 🙂

  11. Acidio says:

    Just to add more info here..Ramushas are forced labors..most of them were send to Indo-China to build the railways there during Indonesia were under the Japanese Occupation..but don’t forget..most of the Ramushas that were sent there were either the Dutch or mixed Indo-Dutch,not pure Indonesian..only those Indonesians who didn’t support the Japanese were taken as Ramusha..

    so to remind u Yvette..yes,many casualties from all causes..but not on the Ramusha..to the Dutch n half Dutch,yes..but not to the Indonesians..

    yes,the Ramusha were recruited in Indonesia..but the people they were not really Indonesians..its like the Japanese wanted to get rid of the Dutch by sending them to Indo-China..and most of the casualties of the Ramushas were because of famine..

    as for the record..Dutch colonized Indonesia for more than 300 years,n Japanese just about 4 years..i guess you can think logically who killed more ppl then..

  12. Purba Negoro says:

    Yvette and Acidio,
    you should visit our National Archives- to disprove your filthy Dutch lies.

    My father was a guerilla Pemuda and his father killed in action against the Dutch.

    You will not dare take such an outrageous slanderous tone against those who have bled for this nation.

    If you were in my presence I would have you strung up and beaten sensible by my valets.

  13. Elizabeth says:

    Hello I am a very old Dutch lady, almost 82 years old.

    Purba Negoro, I lived 17½ years in your country, I grew up in your most beautiful country. It was and is a Paradise on earth.
    I have been back for 28 days in 1996 to Indonesia, in 2000 I have been 2 weeks in Japan.

    I lived the longest time of my youth in Malang and environment. During the war I was in a prison in Banyu Biru near Ambarawa. My father was killed by the Kempeitai from Malang.

    I have three Indonesian friends, and I have two Japanese friends.

    What I love to hear is,how did the Indonesian people and also the Chine people got through World War Two, what you call the Japanese occupation. In other words if you don’t mind then I would be very happy to hear what happened to your grandparents in those days? Did they have enough to eat? Was there enough work? Could they buy whatever they liked. Where they a little scared of the Japanese military? Did they know that Dutch, Aussies and British Pows were pushed into pig baskets and thrown in the Java Sea or Indian Ocean?
    Did your grandparents believe that the Japanese soldiers were giving them (at last!!) their independence? Japan lost the war, so you got really free also from the Dutch in the end because of the United Nations.

    I find it sad that my country made Indonesia their colony. Before WWII there were many colonies, that was not forbidden ( not an excuse!!) Korea ( North and South) was a Japanese colony.

    I would so much have loved to have lived in Indonesia forever, as a white Indonesian that is.

    When or if you have time, will you please read my website?

    http://www.dutch/east/indies.com Thank you!

    Greetings from the Netherlands and believe me, Indonesians and Indonesia will always have a big place in my heart!


  14. dragonwall says:

    Elizabeth van Kampen

    Interesting story. Should have had that made into a book and let the Indonesians read them.

    Hope to hear more of your view on those questions you’d asked.

  15. Jackie says:

    Elizabeth – I recently lost my grandmother is September of 2008. She was 84 and the most livley spirit that I have ever met. Her story is somewhat the same as yours. She grew up in Padong and said that it is one of the most beautiful places on the face of the earth. I always wanted to bring her back but unfourtunalty will never be able to do so. She was Dutch and her father was an engineer of the railroad. I have a small book that My grandmothers sister made while in the barraks. I tried to get to your website but was unable. I also have my grandmothers story recorded on a CD that I listen to all the time. I think that this is so interesting. Thank You soooo Much.

  16. Dear dragonwall and Jack,

    Thank you so much for your very kind words!! You made me happy.

    I am so sorry, that neither Indonesians nor Chinese-Indonesians will answer or write down how their grandparents have suffered during the Japanese occupation and the Bersiap period.
    So we can read the stories from the other side as well. That will complete the whole history. Because there are always two sides of a story.

    Scolding doesn’t help, sitting around the table does.

    So I am still hoping for a honest discussion with Indonesians and Chinese from Indonesia! Please?

  17. Wayan Sadia says:

    Dear Mrs van Kampen
    I agree with you. Me myself is a real Christmas pudding. Ik ook ben een echt Indisch. I’m of a mixed origin of Sino-Balinese, Huguenot and Javanese ancestry.
    Yes, Indonesia surely lost it’s Indo community after the sad chapter of history in 1949 and 1957.
    The last few days in Broombeek, I feel sorry for those Indo veterans. I know deep inside, they’d rather breathe their last breath in Indonesia. Unfortunately the opportunity won’t allow that.
    I believe the material available in Indonesia’s national archive are also obtained from the Dutch and even VOC records. I learn a lot from what happened during the darkest period after the fall of maritime Majapahit and major setback during the rule of despotic Mataram.
    I thank God that my life is crammed with association with these lovely academic people from Holland, China, Japan, SEA and of course my fellow well educated Indonesian.
    Yes, the world history had set it course on what we know as colonialism.
    But for me, the best interest for Indonesian out of this is to learn how the Dutch manage to built the largest shipyard in the world (Sourabaia), even Alfred Russel Wallace said that the British should develop their agro industri after Dutch pattern in Oost Indies. Even the modernization of Thailand was designated after Java’s late 19th century. At a time, tussen de tempo doeloe, this soil was a good sample for other nation. Even Japan sent their delegation during Meiji restoration to learn about machinery in Sourabaia.
    I agree with you ma’am. Holland is always be home for Indonesian in Europe and vice versa is Indonesia always be home for Hollander in Asia. Wij was vijand tussen 1945-1949, maar nu wij staan als wapenbroeder….
    Groet uit Djakarta

  18. Odinius says:

    Very interesting website, Elizabeth. Thanks for sharing it with us!

  19. Arie says:


    Yvette comes out of this discussion a lot better than you do.
    Listen and learn.

  20. Karl says:

    Numerous massacres of Indonesians occured and were reported upon in Indonesia, and those for which estimates of the number of people killed are available total 75,000 dead.

  21. JLH says:

    My mother in law’s family were Dutch working for Shell. She was born in Soerabaja before the war. Her family was split apart and put in several camps. Luckily, they survived, at least physically. She later married a half-Dutch, half-Indonesian man. She never could talk about her experiences except to say she found a way to go through the sewer to go feed her dog, until the Japanese found that route and sealed it. She got a job in the kitchens to be able to eat and sneak food out to her sisters and mother.
    My father in law’s experience was a little different: because he looked more Indonesian, he wasn’t imprisoned in the camps, although his brother and father were. His mother left them before the war, and his step-mother abandoned him to flee. He was arrested for stealing bread to survive, and spent a small amount of time in a jail (not a camp).

    We just lost my mother in law last month. We will always miss her wonderful Indonesian cooking.

  22. Jeanne Driel says:

    I lost my Mother this week. A Mother, born in Weltevreden, Batavia in 1923. Innocent child of parents who for their own reasons, moved to Indonesia years previous. It is one’s lot in life to be born in a particular place at a particular time. The innocent child has no say in the beginning of their life journey. My Mother lived in what we now know as Indonesia until 1949, when the possibility of death seemed to out balance the love of the land and its people. Now married and with a small child, my parents made the decision to leave the land of Mum’s birth for what they thought would be a ‘better’ life in Nederland. But it never was. Despite the three and a half years at the beck and call of the Japanese, an existence where freedom in its many forms and guises were a mere memory and where food was often just a four letter word, Mum would never have wanted to leave. Yet leave they did and though the experiences and memories of a childhood spent in many parts of the archipeligo, the experiences of the concentration camps never left my Mother and shadowed her life for the remaining 69 years. All over the globe where colonialism has reigned in past centuries, ‘the sins of the fathers’ are revisited on todays generations. We cannot live in the past. We, as part of Earths almost 7 billion people, must realise that all experiences going back to the beginnings of homo sapiens, have moulded human beings into who we are today. Life is hard for all. As the peoples living in the archipeligo when the Dutch first came had no say in their birth place or style of life, so the innocent children born of Dutch parents had no say in their place of birth or style of life.
    I am writing a eulogy for my Mothers funeral this week. All of her life’s experiences are included, even the ones in which she had no say like birthplace or internment because she was white, though Indonesian by birth. The tirade posted by Purba Negoro is disrespectful to all who read it. He too had no choice in the place of his birth. Nor did he select his parents. Think about your bitterness and hatred Purba Negoro. Through your parents you are Indonesian, but retracing your ancestory, are you still a patriotic and fiery fighter. From where have your ancestors come so that your birth ‘happened’ in Indonesia. Shame, shame, shame.

  23. willem says:

    We are wasting our energy. Mr Purba still lives with a lot of hate feelings. We have to go forward and continue to build Indonesia to a country the Indonesians can be proud of. They are making progress. Continue to wipe out corruption ,rebuild the infrastructure and provide every one with good healthcare and sanitary living conditions. No use looking into the past. Plan for the future.

    Indonesian are very nice people. Do not spread hate with mentioning how and who killed more people during the Dutch colonial years and during the Japanese occupation in WW11.
    We can not forget the past but we can forgive.

  24. Patrick says:

    There is a little known monument, located in Palisades, N.J., and dedicated to the 200,000 Comfort Women forced into prostitution by the Japanese occupiers of various Asian countries during WWII. The reason I mentioned this here is that, during this pasy year, 2 separate Japanese delegations have requested that the local government remove the small structure. It’s amazing that all these years later the Japanese still cannot come to terms with the crimes they committed against the so called “Comfort Women”. Shame on the Japanese!

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