12 March 2006

Japanese in Southeast Asia before WW2

Japanese goods were at the heart of the consumer boom in Malaya in the later 1930s. The closure of American markets in the Depression led Japanese manufacturers to focus their attention on the emerging markets to the south. In 1941, Japanese investments in British Malaya totalled 85 million yen. Japanese firms attempted to corner the market in goods from matchboxes to condensed milk; they imported over half of Malaya's everyday goods The people of Singapore marvelled at the new technology in a 'Japanese Commercial Museum'. Children in Malaya grew up with toys from the 'ten-cent' stalls on Middle Road in Singapore and elsewhere; the small army of Asian clerks depended on Japanese stores such as Echigoya for the cheap white shirts and ties they were required to wear in European offices. The Japanese were responsible for what was perhaps the most revolutionary innovation within the rural economy of Southeast Asia at this time: the bicycles with which country people could get their own goods to market. In the Blitzkrieg in Malaya in 1941, this technology would be used to devastating effect by General Yamashita's shock troops in a highly mobile form of warfare.

The Japanese had been a prominent feature of the urban landscape of Southeast Asia for many decades. Japanese ships routinely visited the ports; Japanese sailors drank in the bars and cafés, many of which catered especially to their needs. In the early period of Japanese southward enterprise, some of the earliest economic pioneers were the karayuki-san, the Japanese prostitutes. The rationale for this was, in the words of one pimp: 'Put a whorehouse anywhere in the wilds of the South Pacific and pretty soon you've got a general store to go there with it.' In the face of the 1915 boycott of Japanese businesses by the Chinese in Southeast Asia, it was largely the karayuki-san that kept Japanese commerce afloat.
SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain's Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), pp. 5-6

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