Crescent, Star, and Cherry Blossoms, 1943

The Japanese had promised less to the Malays than they had to the Burmese, but by early 1943 they seemed to be offering a little more. The Marquis Tokugawa’s scheme to reform and diminish the Malay sultanates was abandoned, and the Japanese became more solicitous towards the rulers themselves. The also began to dabble in Islamic affairs. On 5-7 April 1943, the ulama, Islamic religious leaders from across the peninsula and from Sumatra, were summoned to a conference in Singapore…. The mayor even went to the trouble of having a room set aside for the delegates’ evening prayers. The ulama was regaled with a show, a film presentation and speeches on the progress of the war. The Japanese impressed on the Malays that Nippon was the true defender of the faith….

The delegates were each sent home with a white commemorative medal, enamelled in scarlet, embossed with a crescent and a star, surrounded by twelve cherry blossoms. The Malay phrase Sehiduplah dengan Nippon – ‘Live with Nippon’ – was inscribed on the back in Arabic script. The ulama left giving formal expressions of satisfaction at Japan’s commitment to protect Islam and of support for the war.

The gestures were token on both sides. Before the Mufti of Pahang had left for the meeting he had met with his sultan and the Japanese governor of the state. The governor had posed the question: ‘Can the Malay States declare a holy war (jihad) against the British and her allies?’ The question was referred to the Mufti. He quickly answered: ‘Yes, provided that the Japanese emperor is a Muslim.’ And there the matter rested. There was confusion and anger when the Japanese followed through their initiative by thrusting prepared texts on kathis to be included in their Friday sermons and by encouraging prayers for the emperor and the success of the war. On occasion, Japanese officers themselves invaded mosques and interrupted prayers with speeches, even ordering the worshippers to turn their prayer mats 180 degrees away from Mecca and towards Tokyo. This propaganda became more subtle over time, but it generated anxieties. In some areas attendance at the mosque for Friday prayers fell. More generally, religious values were felt to be under threat; divorce rates, gambling and opium use were dramatically on the rise. These were profane times. Like all Japan’s efforts at political engineering, the most important effects of the Islamic conference were unforeseen by its initiators. It realized a long-held ambition of many clerics: the creation of a more unified voice for Islam, outside of the control of the rulers and their courts. This was to have far reaching implications for politics of religious reform in Malaya after the war. The real significance of pan-Asianism lay not in what it achieved for the Japanese Empire but in what it allowed others to achieve for themselves.

SOURCE: Forgotten Armies: Britain’s Asian Empire & the War with Japan, by Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper (Penguin, 2004), pp. 315-316

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