The National Museum’s depiction of Japan’s assimilation of Singapore into its Empire
By Kirk Benjamin Tan and Wilson Lee
Indubitably, Japan has played a fundamental role in the development of Singapore’s modern history. Swiftly and decisively, it had inflicted upon the British Empire a major military disaster by capturing Singapore in WW2. Consequently, Singapore was militarily occupied for 3 years from 1942-1945 by the Japanese Empire, which legacy affects all Singaporeans to this very day. These events in WW2 changed the face of Singapore’s future at the time, and are profoundly ingeminated in the Singapore History Gallery of the National Museum of Singapore. It is through this museum that one would find depictions and visualisations of the period of Syonan-to, which is the Japanese name for Singapore from 1942-1945. This photo-blog post’s theme is set to highlight one’s observations of these visualisations and artifacts, focusing on Japan’s role in attempting to assimilate Singapore into its Empire. Furthermore, it also assesses the credibility of the museums’ exhibits and how it can be improved further.
Observations at Singapore History Gallery
Upon entry to the section of the Japanese Occupation, one would immediately sense the gallery’s ambience. This section about WW2 presents itself in a gloomy and caliginous manner; the corridors are dim-lighted in comparison to the other sections such as proceeding section Road to Independence. Japanese folk music is played in the background; a sample of an air raid siren is played in the background, simulating the effect of one being back in the past.
Uniquely, the gallery divides itself into two walkways: The Personal Path and the Events Path. The Personal Path attempts to, through its presentation of personal items and stories, allow the visitor to see Singapore through the eyes of one who has lived during that era. The Events path is a rather Third-Person perspective, with more focus on a wider perspective. Exhibits relied greatly on audio guides; many of the exhibits were not supported by a substantial amount of descriptive text, leading to the visitor having to rely on visual stimulation. The whole WW2 section, in fact the whole museum, is organised into a rather chronological order, starting from the battle of Singapore and ending in occupation, subsequently leading to the post-war period, despite the disorienting effect the Personal Path and the Events Path unintentionally create. It is worthy of note that the Fall of Singapore was heavily dramatized with photographs and paintings, such as a giant artistic reproduction of a map of Singapore on a artistic wall with plots named in Japanese projected upon by a man’s tearful face, along with a massive wall of bikes from WW2 used by the Imperial Japanese Army. Clearly, one would feel the presence of the defeatist mind-set of the British that is heavily emphasised in the “Battle of Singapore” section.
Looking at attempts on assimilation, under the Personal Path of the Occupation Section, there exists a couple of translation and school textbooks of the occupation period from 1942-1945 (Fig.1). These were typical of the time and were used by the Japanese to teach the local population Nippon-go, or the Japanese language. As shown in the figure, the books are clearly highlighted and its words spelt conspicuously. These books are placed within an array of artifacts of a similar theme, including song lyrics and handbooks, used by the Japanese to propagate their ideas and ethics to the natives. It is obvious that the Japanese were trying to bridge the language gap between the natives and the Japanese by teaching the natives Japanese, nevertheless definitely not turning them into Japanese. Clearly, the gallery has placed similar themed artifacts and exhibits together, showing a commendable deal of organisation.
Fig.1- (Japanese-Malay self-learn books for the locals to learn Japanese)
Placed near the books was a handbook given to children in occupied Singapore, showing comic strips and propagated Japanese work ethics. (Fig 2). Clearly, the clothing of the figures in the comic were strikingly similar to Malay dressing. This page was perhaps chosen so as to allow Singaporean visitors to identify with the comics in the book, further allowing a first-person point of view to take effect. Nearby, within a section that emphasizes on assimilation, a clearly Malay teacher is teaching katakana, one of the Japanese writing systems, to children in school (Fig. 3). This photo is placed on eye-level and might be intentionally obvious, perhaps to allow visitors to realize the extent of which Japan attempted to assimilate the culture. A Japanese soldier is seen teaching children something in a poster nearby as well (Fig. 4). This further allows one to infer that the Japanese took great efforts in educating and assimilating the local populace, perhaps indoctrinating them with their ideologies and replacing Westernized ethics with Japanese ones.
Fig.2 –(An example of the typical method of assimilation of Japanese work ethic introduced to the natives to adopt)
Fig.3 –(Malay teacher teaching Katakana to the local students.)
Fig.4-( A Japanese teacher stands in front of local school children in Singapore.)
As one exits the section with handbooks and language books, there exists a dark “tunnel-like” path that leads to the other sections including the section about the Sook-Ching Massacre. This “tunnel” bears a striking resemblance to something out of Fort Siloso or a 1940s bunker. Clearly, it exudes a strong effect of being in WW2 itself. Along the corridor, one would find an exhibit showcasing a collection of matchbox covers with imperialistic words and images (Fig. 5). The lighting is emphasized upon this exhibit, perhaps calling attention to the Imperialistic messages the Japanese were trying to propagate. It is noteworthy that one of the matchboxes included a Kuomintang logo, perhaps indicating a “false-flag” attempt to identify with the Kuomintang supporters amongst the local Chinese population of Singapore.
Fig.5 –(Matchbox pictures with imprinted imperialistic messages. Besides propagating Japanese Imperialism, it also created a familiar setting to local Chinese with the KMT logo (extreme right)
There also exists a photograph which displays a shop which signboard is in Japanese (Figure 6). This further represents the fact that the Japanese were trying to assimilate the local populace.
Fig.6-( Local shop’s sign board in Japanese.)
Despite all the interesting exhibits, the one that would strike one the most was one of the exhibits along the “Battle” section. (Fig. 7). This exhibit is placed alongside many similar posters with personal items laid upon them, including a British themed and Indian National Army themed exhibit. Fig. 7 is unique because it gives us a Japanese perspective of the battle and the occupation of Singapore, such a perspective is rare and is thus valuable to us. The exhibit displayed various items owned by Japanese soldiers, and allows us to have a wider perspective and thus less biased view of WW2 in Singapore. It also included an audio guide which allowed us to listen to the replicated words of a Japanese Soldier, Tsuchikane Tominosuke.
Fig.7-( shows various personal artifacts owned by a Japanese soldier laid upon a massive militaristic Japanese poster.)
Another exhibit worthy of mention is a radio broadcast chart of various exercises one can perform (Fig. 8). This chart is authentic and in very mint condition.
Fig. 8 –( a chart showing the basic calisthenics one could perform, reminiscent of a Japanese ethic)
In analysis of the exhibits and the way the museum has depicted the Japanese Occupation and assimilation, one could infer a substantial amount of information. Figure 1-5 allow viewers to infer the assimilation policies of the Japanese during the occupation. Despite the showcasing of all these pro-Japanese artifacts, one would clearly realise the failure of such policies by proceeding to the post-war sections. Furthermore, it is worthy of noting that through the exhibits, one can infer that the Japanese were trying to incorporate the locals into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, and that this was not turning them into Japanese, but bridging the gap between occupied and the occupiers, so as to pacify the locals and not allow them to be influenced by the western powers or nationalist ideals. Throughout all the exhibits about assimilation, Figure 7 shows us that there is a presence of a Japanese view. This adds to the credibility of the gallery due to the presence of a third party view. However, many of the exhibits display an over-defeatist and pessimistic mind-set while displaying the defeat of the British. Perhaps it sometimes becomes over-critical of the British for having lost the battle. Figure 8 further reiterates the fact that the Japanese attempt to indoctrinate the locals with their culture by teaching them basic calisthenics. This is widely known as a Japanese ethic and is perhaps sought to keep the locals fit so as to be more productive. The words in the radio chart are in Japanese as well as Bahasa Melayu, further enhancing the assimilation ideology of the Japanese occupiers. There is a great emphasis on a personal point of view in the gallery.
Upon entering the section on WW2, one encounters the “artistic” map of Singapore and wall of bicycles. This is rather artistic to a museum and many would not be able to comprehend the true message behind these exhibits, albeit visually appealing. Although such displays of exhibits are welcoming to the visitor to the section, they are of little historical value when they may not be comprehensible to the general public, especially children (who frequently visit the museum). Such displays would be more appropriate in an Art Gallery. Furthermore, the layout of the whole gallery is flawed with the divisions of Personal Path and Events Path. Such a layout is disorienting and may cause the visitor to go back and forth to review exhibits previously missed due to the confusing layout (Fig. 9)
Fig.9- (This is a representation of the original layout of the Japanese section of the gallery.)
As shown in Fig.9, the layout is disorienting and confusing due to the intersecting of the two paths at various points. Such a layout might sometimes be incoherent and is also difficult for children to comprehend. A more linear layout is proposed (Fig. 10)
Fig. 10-( This is a representation of the proposed more linear layout of the Japanese section of the gallery.)
As shown in Fig 10, a more linear approach is proposed. This will allow less confusion and allow the viewer to have a chronological historical approach to the information. This layout is also more visually stimulating with text all around in every exhibit so as to be less reliant on Audio-guides. Instead of having educational books from WW2, wax models of a few Malay students could be placed in a classroom setting which allows the viewer to be more engaged visually. A wax life-size realistically built figurine of a Japanese soldier could be placed and allow the visitors to relate to the gallery personally further. For example, there could be an occurrence where an elderly local who lived through the war be reminded of such incidents and reiterate the story to the younger generation upon sight of the Japanese soldier.
Lastly, we would also add in more Japanese perspectives on the matters of education and assimilation into the museum. This would allow the museum to be less biased and therefore allow a wider perspective