Daily Archives: 31 October 2009

Japanese Soldier Ethnographer in Indonesia, 1944-45

From: Peter T. Suzuki and Reiko Watanabe Reiger (2003), A Japanese Soldier’s Ethnography of Molu Island (Tanimbar): Ken Sasaki’s Account (1944-1945), Archipel 66: 161-199 (doi: 10.3406/arch.2003.3789).

Moru Shima Ki: An Account of Molu Island by Ken Sasaki

Following is a description of my time on Molu Island from June 19, 1944 to May 20, 1945. Seven Japanese soldiers, myself included, were stationed there with a cannon. I never thought it would become the subject of my research because we were constantly engaged in the battlefront. My notes and sketches were of necessity brief, taken during times when I had the opportunity. The only things I carried away from Molu were my notes, 200 sketches, and 30 pieces of folk craft from the island. Only now am I attempting to assemble these and my disjointed memories (although I can remember clearly the beauty of the sea, which had the color of emerald green coral reefs) into a coherent account….

Kapala [Mal. kepala] means head or boss, soa means a blood relative. There are class distinctions and associated titles, such as orankaya [Mal. orang kaya] (upper class); kapalasoa [Mal. kepala soa] (head of a kin group); jurutolis [Mal. juru tulis] (his associate); togama (?); kapalakanpon [Mal. kepala kampung] (village chief). Those holding the titles of kapalakanpon or jurutolis are public officers in a village, appointed by family lineage or natural ability. In contrast, orankaya and jurutolis hold feudalistic power among villagers in a family clan and have general authority….


Seven villages of the eight villages in this island are Protestant. It seems that only Kilon is shunned by others since it is the only Muslim village. Their association with other villages does not seem to be congenial. In the past they followed a primitive religion in which they worshiped the sun and the moon as gods (Ubila) like any other village. They said they made commitments to Ubila. But later new religions such as Islam and Christianity were introduced into the island. It seemed that the power of religions influenced and also renewed everything such as food, clothing, housing, ceremonial occasions, and language.

It is hard to imagine a new religion having this kind of widespread effect in Japan. I could not help realizing how strong religious powers can be….

It is clear Christianity came to this island 35 years ago.

Even though the power of Islam could not change the lifestyle of the villagers much, Christianity rapidly changed people’s lifestyles on Molu, which had not progressed much from a primitive way of living.

People started being very enthusiastic about learning to read and write, wearing shoes, having lamps, wearing pants instead of grass skirts and singing hymns. And they started hiding necklaces and swords. Jacob told me that the younger generation would not believe the ways the older generation used to live, saying, “it is quite different today.”…


The daily language of Molu is called Larat, the island just northeast of Tanimbar, but Larat is also the language of Tanimbar, Sera, and Fordata.

The languages of Tanimbar are divided into three groups : Sera, Yamdena, and Larat. Of course they speak to us in Malay, but since Malay is a second language which was taught at school, it is hard to understand much of high Malay.

High Malay is only used seriously by guru, who are priests and teachers in a village during the celebration of subayan.

They use the alphabet for writing, and since it became widespread, most adults under 50 years old have no trouble spelling….


Rice, corn, bread, potatoes, and sago are served as main dishes. Side dishes are bananas, fish, and coconuts. Vegetables and fruits are melons, eggplant, tomatoes, squash, sweet potatoes, papaya, and pineapples. A large quantity of mangos is also grown….

Sago grows wild, and belongs to the palm tree group; it grows in flocks in damp ground. Mature trees about 20 years old are cut and smashed at the trunk with axes (111. 6), then washed with water, and soaked till the starch is precipitated. This fruit is also prepared in various ways, such as gruel (babeda), like rice (nasi), deep fried goren [Mal. goreng], toasted rice cake, and renpen which is baked (or cooked) in a stone mold. Sago can be substituted for flour. Renpen looks like a Japanese snack ; foxtail millet toasted until crispy. When it is still hot, it is plump and tasty. They steam the stored renpen, until it becomes soft and like konyaku, a Japanese food made of yam which is gelatenous.

Little food is stored in the village. Because they have different crops, harvest time spans the whole year. As long as they gather the food, they do not have to face starvation. Since they do not have to transfer food (sago) from one place to another, they do not trade and they do not store food. But since sago has a short life, its starch must be gathered right away and the juice (toman) from sago is eaten soon, otherwise it is prepared as renpen for a portable meal.

Fresh fish must be eaten the same day it is caught. They do not catch more than they need each day. And yet sometimes small fish are put between chopped branches and smoked on a fire. This is called ian-bata-batan, and used for soup stock. People eat cooked fish, but not raw fish. They do not have knowledge of preserving fish with salt. Making dried fish is not common, but they make dried octopus, which is prepared by cutting and then spreading it open….


Matches are known by the Moluans, but they are rare and considered valuable. Tobacco is lit by flint, rock, and metal much in the same way as in ancient Japan.

For starting general-purpose fires the Moluans use a method which involves rubbing bamboo :

Split dry bamboo into two and put on the ground or straw surface side up. Make a small crack on the center of the bamboo then shave some surface off from around the crack.

Rub with a bamboo spatula at right angles with the bamboo for about 15 minutes till the bamboo starts to smoke and starts on fire.

It seems this is an excellent way to start a fire since this island has plenty of bamboo. But this method requires two persons and great strength. People usually have a raised floor, which allows them to keep a pilot light burning constantly….


Probably the only wild animal on Molu is the wild pig (babi). The garden plots on Molu are surrounded by a four foot-high fence made of logs and is designed to prevent wild pig incursions. Since most villagers are Christian, they hunt and are fond of eating the meat of the wild pig.

Usually a javelin is used for hunting wild pig. It has an iron tip, which is connected to the handle with a strong rope….

Luxury items

Among the islanders one of the most popular goods is tobacco (roko) [Mal. rokok], then chewing sirih comes next. Sirih is a tree leaf, which is similar to a pepper tree. Next in popularity is alcohol (sobi).

All men over the age of 10 years smoke tobacco. But it is common to see old women chewing tobacco also. Tobacco is produced in a mountain field. It is planted in places in the burnt field among the weeds. A weedkiller is used only on the roots of the plant. Of course no fertilizers are used….

Chewing betel nut: kimna is called sirih, sweet corn (betel—J.); only bigger lime is coral reef that is burnt and crushed; sirih-daun [Mal. daun sirih (leaf betel—J.)] is a creeper which is similar to yam (yamaimo in Japanese) leaf. As soon as it is put in one’s mouth and chewed for a while, it will bring a keen cooling sensation to the inside of the head, and will give you a sharp taste on the lips, and when one spits, it appears bloody red. Lips and teeth also take on the red color, and with prolonged use, turn a creepy-looking black. On Molu, it is very popular among both men and women, but only women over 15 years old are seen practicing this habit….

There is a tree, which is called karupatebu, which is similar to a hemp palm tree and a palm tree. This sugar palm tree is grown mainly for gathering sugar, but a wine can be brewed from it, too … By the way, comparing coconut milk to sugar palm tree milk, the latter has a rich white color and thickness like milk, and a greater sweet-sour taste. Nothing can beat its taste, not even the best versions of kalpis, and it has a pleasant intoxicating effect. However, the great taste of this version of kalpis enticed me to drink ten glasses of the tempting drink, and helped me to end up sleeping the night in the jungle.

During the ridiculous war, I secretly kept this wine in a water bottle for the contingency of a suicide attack, and I often gave myself encouragement by sipping it.

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