by Kelly Peng
The Japanese occupation of Singapore took place from 1942 to 1945 after the British surrendered in February 1942. One month later, in March 1942, the Japanese government adopted an educational policy as part of the “Principles for the Gunsei Disposition of the Occupied Area”. The objectives of the policy were to teach industrial technologies and the Japanese language as the lingua franca of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, to promote the spirit of labor, and to unite the cultures of the indigenous peoples of the southern region with Japanese culture under the spirit of Hakko Ichiu (universal brotherhood). Education was essentially a propaganda tool.
In order to make Japanese the lingua franca of the co-prosperity sphere, Japanese had to be taught in schools. The government’s desire to create a unified education system meant taking over the different language schools from the colonial regime. When the Japanese took control of English, Malay, and Chinese schools, they also set up a few Indian “national” schools (most of which were staffed by unqualified teachers and were used mainly to spread propaganda about the Indian independence movement). Colonel Watanabe Wataru (Chief of General Affairs Department) ordered primary schools to allow only Japanese or Malay as the language of instruction and to abolish the use of English, Dutch, and to ban Chinese for the time being. Teaching in Malay was permitted in Malay schools since it was the indigenous language and the Japanese encouraged the study of Japanese in other schools. Watanabe wrote about his reform ideas in a notice “Principles for Reforming School Education,” in which he said that Japanese language education at all levels must be emphasized to educate the people in their everyday life in discipline, obedience, and cooperation. Local teachers were required to learn Japanese as well. He regarded the retraining of local teachers as important, a “spiritual misogi (washing away of impurities)” that would eliminate the materialistic and individualistic western way of life that had stained the indigenous culture, and that would generate an oriental morality based upon seishin (the spirit of the imperial way).
Forcibly teaching Japanese was not easy to implement. Mamoru Shinozaki, a chief executive of the education department during the occupation, noticed that there was a shortage of teachers and textbooks. The first Japanese textbooks did not arrive until July 1942. Because of this inconvenience, upon opening the first school in April 1942, Mamoru had to allow the use of English.
Besides enforcing the Japanese language, the government also rejected the former British educational curriculum, which emphasized academic subjects, and instead, focused on character building, physical training, vocational instruction, and primary education. By March 1943, Singapore had six technical schools. In the same year, the medical college in Tan Tock Seng Hospital was reopened and two teacher training schools were opened. Even in technical institutions, the curriculum consisted of language training, indoctrination, and rudimentary crash courses designed to meet wartime needs. A six month course at the naval construction and engineering centre devoted half the time to learning Japanese. Similarly, in the teachers’ training colleges and the leading officials training institute, a significant amount of time was taken up in studying the language, “nippon (Japan) spirit”, military arts, and gardening. As part of this kodo seishin (spirit of imperial way) education policy, the gunsei kambu (Military Administrative Superintendency) observed Japan’s national holiday and enforced on people to participate in a ceremony in which they bowed in the direction of the imperial palace, shouted three cheers for the emperor, and sang the kimigayo (Japanese national anthem), and on December 8 listened to the declaration of war on the allied powers. This type of education was supposed to strengthen their bond of trust in imperial Japan and teach basic knowledge, skills, the spirit of labor, and self-sacrifice, while deemphasizing intellectual education.
Watanabe was interested in training manpower to unite young men around a common objective and to reconstruct a war-torn society. He established the Syonan Koa Kunrenjo (Asia Development Training Institute) in May 1942, in which trainees between the ages of 17 and 25 were trained for three months (later six months). The trainees underwent a rigorous physical and spiritual training along with language study. When Watanabe attended the Kunrenjo’s first commencement exercise, the cadets impressed him with their spiritual discipline and vigorous physical appearance. Even in a military-like training program youths were required to study the language and have spiritual training.
The intention of enforcing Japanese language lessons and technical training, idealizing labor, and unifying indigenous cultures with japanese culture was to promote imperial Japan’s vision for the larger Asian region, including the ideas of “Asia for Asiatics” and the “Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere”. These views supported the idea of the Japanese as the liberators of Asia from the enslavement of Western rule. To learn more about this, check out our publication.