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Review: Southeast Asia Under Japan

A review of Southeast Asia Under Japan, a repository for diverse primary and secondary sources related to studying the occupation of Southeast Asia in World War II, led by Sandeep Ray, Han Xing Yi, and Velusamy Sathiakumar Ragul Balaji

Published onMar 21, 2022
Review: Southeast Asia Under Japan

Southeast Asia Under Japan

Project Leads
Sandeep Ray, Singapore University of Technology and Design
Han Xing Yi, Singapore University of Technology and Design
Velusamy Sathiakumar Ragul Balaji, Singapore University of Technology and Design

Project URL

Project Reviewer
Kate McDonald, University of California, Santa Barbara

Project Overview

Sandeep Ray

Southeast Asia Under Japan was launched in 2021. The site is designed to be an on-going repository for diverse primary and secondary sources related to studying the occupation of Southeast Asia by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II. While the complex, troubling events of a period (1941-45) that saw much hardship and conflict continue to be discussed both in academia and in popular media, there are few university courses that provide a wide, regional perspective. For the past four years, an undergraduate elective on this topic has been taught at the Singapore University of Technology and Design by Sandeep Ray, a historian of Southeast Asia. This has led to approximately 200 research papers and projects. 

Engineering and design students taking the course as an elective saw the opportunity to collaborate and archive past projects. The result is a site that makes resources available via an easily accessible interface, as well as a database. It would be of particular interest to students and scholars studying the early 20th century in Southeast Asia as well as topics including Japan and the Pacific War, the Chinese diaspora, political realignments in the late-colonial period, the emergence of Communism, and the creation of Asian nation-states post-WWII. 

The database currently shares student-produced bibliographic data from research papers and projects between 2017-2020. Additionally, the site hosts guest lectures and interviews conducted by students with survivors and eyewitnesses. While these interview-based primary sources are limited, the aim is to archive them as more become available. The repository is designed to be open-ended and updated yearly via student participation.

At the time of writing, the database hosts 1027 links to journal articles, books, newspapers, and videos—sources of approximately a dozen different bibliographic types. Every source is hyperlinked to their permanent or most stable online reference—JSTOR, Google books, institutional websites, libraries, and museums—making them easy to locate. These references can be called up with a range of keywords (e.g., “Comfort Women,” “food,” or, by nation). A proximity search algorithm, called “Ranked Set Intersection (RSI),” was specially built for the purpose of recommending closely related resources from the database to the user. RSI works by first fuzzy matching terms in the search phrase to the approximately 4,000 index terms in its database. Then, it forms sets of results for each term in the query. Finally, it intersects these sets of results to narrow down on a few specific results. This final set is shown to the user, ranked by the citation frequency by past students. View screenshots of some output from RSI in Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Ranked Set Intersection (RSI) in action, the terms “Indonesia” and “women” produce 149 and 93 results respectively, while “Indonesia women” produces only 8 relevant results.

The project was developed under the guidance of Sandeep Ray. Past interviewees were contacted to clear permission. Leong Yu Siang started the process of collating the data in Microsoft Excel. The project eventually moved online, where the website design and interface was implemented and integrated with the database. Han Xing Yi and Velusamy Sathiakumar Ragul Balaji are the principal architects of the site and dataset. The website was built using the Bulma CSS framework. The search algorithm was built with Python to generate a lookup table that allows for faster responses to user queries. Users can also choose to view the whole database, which exposes them to many useful resources pertaining to various aspects of the occupation. Other resources under “Local Archives” are listed as well, providing user-friendly paths to locate local collections that archive and exhibit documents related to the occupation.

Project Review

Kate McDonald

Southeast Asia Under Japanese Occupation offers an intriguing glimpse into the lives and afterlives of the Japanese Occupation in Southeast Asia. According to the site’s introductory material, Southeast Asia Under Japanese Occupation was designed as an “ongoing student generated resource for the course ‘Southeast Asia Under Japan: Motives, Memoirs and Media.’” The design team was led by Sandeep Ray and included major contributions from Han Xing Yi, Velusamy Sathiakumar Ragul Balaji, and Leong Yu Siang. The site offers students and scholars the chance to explore interviews with survivors of the Japanese occupation of Singapore, a significant database of secondary sources on the history of the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia, and videos of several guest lectures in the course. In addition, the site serves as a general access point for other Singapore-based digital archives, such as the huge Singapore Memory Project and fully searchable historical Singaporean newspapers. 

The site’s visual interface is very easy to use. The student-generated resources will be a useful starting point for any high school or undergraduate student embarking on a study of the Japanese Occupation in Southeast Asia. The links to other Singapore historical archives were truly eye-opening, and I am very grateful for the work of the site’s developers to include them all in one place. In addition, the site features a “proximity search algorithm,” specifically designed to return relevant resources from within the site’s expansive bibliographic database. The search function looks very promising. However, it would be helpful to make its constraints and assumptions more transparent. From the user’s perspective, it appears that queries return results based on the letters in the term rather than the word itself. So, a search for “rickshaw” returned hits for “Ricklefs,” and a search for “rick” returned hits for “rice.” A “how-to” type statement on the search page would clarify why it produces these results. In the future, it would also be wonderful to include student essays, interview transcripts, and guest lecture transcripts in the searchable database, especially as the site grows to include more student-generated resources and filmed lectures. 

The course description argues that, “The brief occupation of Southeast Asia (1941-45) during WWII was a complex phenomenon involving the complicity of many Asian nationalist leaders. While it did contribute to the unravelling of European colonial rule, it was at a tragic human cost, the ethics and gore of which are still debated both in academia and in popular media.” The site certainly underscores the complexity of the phenomenon. Of particular interest are student essays, which contain transcripts and analysis of their interviews with Occupation survivors. With some remarkable nuance, the essays plumb the difficulty of defining the consequences of the Occupation in a singular way. The interviews and essay by Daphne Goh and Karthic Harish, for example, illuminate the unevenness of Japanese violence under the Occupation, as "black markets, serendipitous geographic locations, independence movements or knowledge of Japanese" tempered the violence that individuals experienced under Occupation. Through these conversations and the analytical essays, the site fosters transgenerational conversations and a space for contemporary students to make historical meaning out of the experiences of those who walked before them. 

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