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World War II and Southeast Asia: Economy and Society under Japanese Occupation

Author(s):Huff, Gregg
Reviewer(s):Dick, Howard

Published by EH.Net (September 2021)

Gregg Huff, World War II and Southeast Asia: Economy and Society under Japanese Occupation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2020.  xxx + 523 pp. £90 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-107-09933-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Howard Dick, Faculty of Business and Economics, University of Melbourne.


Notwithstanding a library of books on the military conflict in Southeast Asia between December 1941 and August 1945, little has been written on the welfare of the civilian population during the three and a half years of Japanese Occupation, despite the massive economic and social dislocation. Most of what has been written deals with the situation in one country or colony. Although Japan perceived of Southeast Asia as a region, it seldom comes into focus.

This masterful work of scholarship by Gregg Huff (Oxford University) tackles the problem head-on by asking the big questions, forensically collating the data and, if not quite able to transcend the limitations of national records and localized impacts, putting forward a plausible synthesis. It immediately becomes an essential reference for any research on the twentieth-century history of Southeast Asia.

It is not a book to be read as narrative, at least not beyond the Introduction and the next two chapters with overviews of wartime strategy and civilian administration. The following seven chapters cover Finance; National Product and Trade; Transport, Utilities and Industrialization; Shortages, Substitutes and Rationing; Food and Famine (rural); Food and Living Standards (urban); and Labor. In each case the data are collated by nation, then aggregated to a sub-regional and regional level. There is also a very detailed chronology, a comprehensive bibliography, and a good index.

In essence, Japan invaded Southeast Asia to secure strategic commodities (oil, bauxite, tin, rubber, etc.) needed to sustain the war against China that had been ebbing and flowing since mid-1937. The conquest was swift and probably cost less than 10,000 Japanese lives. Ironically, the loss of shipping to Allied submarines meant that commodity flows from Southeast Asia soon slowed to a trickle and the economic benefits to Japan evaporated while the costs of military occupation rose from an initial 6 percent of Japan’s GDP to 16 percent by 1944.

Arguably Southeast Asia received no benefit beyond the destruction of colonial empires. Loss of shipping and the consequent shortage of fuel also meant that this globalized and trade-specialized region was suddenly reduced to autarky and with catastrophic effect, especially on food supply and distribution. No figure more starkly encapsulates the scale of the deprivation than Huff’s conservative estimate of around 4.5 million civilian deaths, 50 percent more than the 3 million military and civilian deaths suffered by Japan itself. The actual number of deaths in Southeast Asia could have been as high as 6 million. Records fail. Of that 4.5 million, 3.4 million were attributable to the 1944 drought famine in Java and Vietnam. At least another 0.4 million were casualties of forced labor (romusha), more than 0.5 million died in the Philippines through war, hard labor and famine, and a mid-point estimate of 23,000 is attributed to the terrible sook ching atrocity in Singapore. The value of Huff’s research lies not just in such summary tabulations but also in the three-dimensional matrix of effects by sub-region, industry and rural/urban areas.

Although Southeast Asia gradually reintegrated with the global economy, the long-run effects of the Occupation were pernicious. Agriculture reverted towards a subsistence mode with more reliance on inferior crops, notably maize and cassava. Vaunted industrialization efforts through ad hoc import substitution were very modest compared with the destruction of capital through war, removal, and cannibalization and established no sound basis for development. Except for railways and small sail and motorized craft, transport systems collapsed. Roads were not maintained and petrol-driven vehicles gave way to bicycles and pedicabs. To escape rural famine, people crowded into cities, where ramshackle housing and black markets proliferated. By the late 1950s Japan was rapidly reviving its industrial economy, not so most of Southeast Asia. Indonesia, Indo-China and Burma would stagnate for much longer.

The book’s longish Epilogue and Conclusion weighs the long-term consequences of the Occupation and explores the counterfactual of what might have happened had Japan not gone to war but peacefully extended its influence in Southeast Asia. Was the Japanese Occupation a turning point or, as Huff prefers, “a catalyst for accelerating change”? The political watershed is clear. From an economic perspective, Huff argues that the Occupation merely interrupted the natural order of integration with the world economy. Perhaps, but the post-war mode of integration differed markedly from pre-war colonial bilateralism and was much more oriented towards Japan and East Asia.

This synthesis raises a bigger question that Huff does not address and is really for others to ponder. If the Occupation were to be summarized in one word, it would be “trauma.” Apart from the obvious political dislocation, the terrible deprivation among civilian populations caused not only millions of deaths but also, as Huff documents, widespread malnutrition and misery. As we now better understand from genetics, malnutrition and trauma damage not only the living but also two generations as yet unborn. Entwining with the physical, genetic, mental and psychological effects are the revolutionary impacts of the destruction of political institutions (peace and order) and the erosion of social norms (including a new tolerance of black markets). Mass trauma makes subsequent trauma more likely. In Indonesia the Japanese Occupation was followed by four years of revolutionary war, then civil war and the anti-communist bloodbath. Vietnam remained a war zone until 1975. Burma still is a war zone. In Indonesia in the 1970s, the elderly looked back on the colonial era with mixed feelings as a “normal time” (zaman normal), a phrase that resonates in our current time of COVID with existential longing for a “new normal.”

Huff opens a pathway to a more imaginative perspective on twentieth-century Southeast Asia that should transcend the arbitrary boundary between politics and economics. People seek stability and freedoms (politics) together with material comforts and prosperity (economics). It is academics who struggle with complexity beyond their accustomed disciplinary constraints.


Howard Dick is the author of Surabaya, City of Work: A Twentieth Century Socioeconomic History (Ohio University Press, 2002), with P.J. Rimmer of The City in Southeast Asia Press (NUS Press, 2009) and Cities, Transport and Communications: The Integration of Southeast Asia since 1850 (Palgrave, 2003), and with V. Houben, J. Th. Lindblad and Thee Kian Wie of The Emergence of a National Economy: An Economic History of Indonesia, 1800-2000 (University of Hawaii Press, 2002).

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Subject(s):Military and War
Geographic Area(s):Asia
Time Period(s):20th Century: WWII and post-WWII