The Third War: Revisiting the Japanese Occupation in the Philippines

Jomer Malonosan
7 min readAug 19, 2022

The Bombing of Pearl Harbor precipitated a collision course between two world powers: the United States of America and Japan. Due to its gravity and abruptness, the 8th of December 1941 is forever etched on the historical memory of the world. However, this event does not only mark a monumental chapter in world history, but it also has profound consequences on the unfolding of events in the Philippines. As a colony of the US, the Philippines immediately suffered the burdens of war between two imperial states. This conflict has led to the Japanese Occupation of the country that resulted to extreme “human and material devastation”[1]. Figures in historical accounts estimate about one million Filipinos who were wounded or killed during the Occupation and about 498,600 Japanese troops who never returned to their homeland [2].

Revisiting this critical stage in Philippine history is important. The Japanese Occupation allows us to remember the different forms of resistance that blossomed during the war. Moreover, it provides us with narratives that inform us of the humanity and experiences of survivors during these dark times. Hence, this paper will elaborate on three salient themes to further enrich our understanding of the Japanese Occupation: (1) preparations before the war, (2) the Filipino experience of the Occupation, and (3) issues on elite collaboration.

Preparations Before the War

Even before the war broke out, the US already perceived the rapid expansion of Japanese power as a threat to their interests especially in the Asia Pacific region[3]. These apprehensions of the “Japanese menace’ were not without justification. At this point in time, Japan already occupied Manchuria in 1932 and proceeded to invade French Indo-China in 19404. These expansionist actions of Japan compelled the Philippines to undertake military action in anticipation of an imminent war. A notable preparatory move of the newly inaugurated Commonwealth government was the approval of Commonwealth Act №1 (National Defense Act) that provided the country with a citizen’s army[5]. As the Japanese threat became increasingly close, the US Army started to integrate the Philippine reserve and regular forces to form the United States Army Forces in the Far East (USAFFE) [6] . Nonetheless, these efforts were proven to be insufficient as Japanese forces were able to land on different points of the country with little opposition. Furthermore, Japanese troops were able to eventually seize Manila on January 2, 19427.

Aside from these politico-military aspects of the Japanese Occupation, it is equally important to recognize the narratives of people on the ground before the war[8]. Scholars of history have pointed out that the realities from urban centers may be vastly different from the experiences of people in the peripheries. For example, accounts from war survivors in Aklan remember the advent of the war as a mundane experience[9]. Some of them were completely oblivious of the impending war due to constraints in communication technology so they proceeded with their normal activities[10]. It was not only until the actual outbreak of the war in the provinces that they felt its immediate impact. One survivor recalled that it was during the Feast of Immaculate Conception in Batan, Aklan when people became aware of the Japanese, and they started to evacuate the grounds of the church immediately[11]. These kinds of narratives from ordinary people allow us to view history from a bottom-up perspective that can supplement state-centric approaches to national history.

The Filipino Experience During the Occupation

The Japanese Occupation radically transformed the lives of Filipinos. Under the new administration and rule of the Japanese, the Philippines was reoriented to accommodate the interests of imperial Japan. Key aspects of the economy, society, and culture underwent reforms [12] . Generally, the economic conditions of the country were dismal. Economic activities were severely constrained to trade due to the lack of production especially in agriculture where the farming of rice was replaced by cotton to supply Japanese war lords[13]. Hence, an atmosphere of lawlessness permeated due to intense economic deprivation that forced some Filipinos to resort to banditry and looting[14]. Moreover, the prices of goods skyrocketed due to inflation that required Filipinos to have a bag of “Mickey Mouse” money just to purchase a box of matches[15].

Meanwhile, the social conditions of Philippine society were characterized by extreme violence and crime. Filipinos feared the Kempetai of the Japanese forces who were notorious for their wanton disregard of human lives[16]. Many Filipinos were tortured, raped, and killed by these military police who abused their power. In addition, diseases also became prevalent due to economic dislocation and food insecurity[17]. Numerous Filipinos died of malnutrition, malaria, tuberculosis, and other diseases due to the war. Finally, the cultural aspect of the Occupation is kind of unique. Although freedom of expression was suppressed, reforms in the production of literature allowed the Tagalog language to develop[18]. The Japanese government strictly forbid the use of Western language and encouraged Nihongo and Tagalog as the main media of communication. This policy inadvertently allowed Tagalog writers to produce short stories and poems in Tagalog, although the subject matter was limited[19].

However, solely focusing on the violent aspects of war during the Japanese Occupation tends to neglect the pockets of humanity that persisted amongst the Filipinos. Amidst the war, it is equally important to remember narratives of love, resilience, camaraderie, charity, and other aspects of humanity as different forms of resistance[20]. Moreover, this allows us to understand how ordinary people coped with the horrors of the war by attempting to create a sense of normalcy in their communities[21]. An account of a survivor from Aklan basked in nostalgia by recalling the times when he dared to cross enemy lines just to court his “nubya” or girlfriend [22]. Even amongst guerilla veterans, their stories expressed brief recollections of friendship. A veteran from Aklan reminisces the time when they cooked the leg of a dead Japanese soldier as a prank to their comrades[23]. These invaluable narratives illustrate the miniscule but intimate details of war that get overshadowed by the grand narratives of history. It allows us to feel the human core of stories that we retrieve from the past.

Issues on Elite Collaboration/ Resistance Paradigm

The elites of the country played a pivotal role in legitimizing the Japanese rule. Common academic paradigms usually dichotomize actors between collaboration and resistance[24]. Elites who collaborated with the Japanese are juxtaposed to the resistance movement of guerilla groups. Nevertheless, recent developments in history present a more complex framework that transcends the collaboration/resistance binary. According to McCoy, the collaboration/resistance framework oversimplifies the complexities of Japanese resistance in the country[25]. In his study amongst the elite of Iloilo province, McCoy discovered the dual nature of elite leadership in the government where the provincial administration supported the Japanese while the citizens engaged in guerrilla activities[26] . However, the collaboration of the elites where not entirely undertaken for personal gain but also to provide space for ordinary citizens to organize the resistance movement. This is most evident with the “passive cooperation” of national elites like Laurel where he cooperated with the Japanese but maintained close links to resistance groups[27]. Hence, the issue of collaboration cannot be simply compartmentalized into two opposing groups.

Conclusions

The Japanese Occupation in the Philippines is a rich tapestry of interwoven narratives about grief, resilience, survival, and humanity. Due to Japan’s increasing territorial aggression, the US and Philippines undertook different preparatory actions to intercept the advent of war. This involves the creation of a citizen’s army and close collaboration with US military forces. However, veering away from the perspective of the state, it is equally worth to acknowledge the war preparations of ordinary people that involved creativity and ingenuity. Next, revisiting the Japanese Occupation enables us to reexamine the roles of elites in supporting or dismantling Japanese rule that goes beyond the simple collaboration/resistance frame. These refinements provide more nuanced interpretations of class relations during that period.

Lastly, the gruesome aspects of the war must be contextualized within the human experiences of the survivors. This allows us to humanize these narratives that might seem distant from our contemporary world. It reminds us that our predecessors were also capable of experiencing joy, humor, loss, curiosity, and other essential human qualities amidst the war. Hence, may we be reminded of the sacrifices of those who perished and survived that we owe our freedom to.

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1 Ikehata, Setsuho. The Philippines under Japan: Occupation Policy and Reaction. Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1999.

2 Ibid.
3 Agoncillo, Teodoro A. History of the Filipino People. Quezon City: C & E Pub., 2012.

4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Redison, Anthea. Mga Suguilanon sa Tiempo it Giyera: People’s Experience during the

Japanese Occupation in Panay. 2022. 9 Ibid.

10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 Agoncillo, Teodoro A. History of the Filipino People. Quezon City: C & E Pub., 2012. 13 Ibid.

14 . Boldorf, Marcel, and Tetsuji Okazaki. Economies under Occupation: The Hegemony of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II. London: Routledge, 2017.

15 Yu-Jose, Lydia N. “World War II and the Japanese in the Prewar Philippines.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 27, no. 1 (1996): 64–81. doi:10.1017/S0022463400010687.

16 José, Ricardo T. “War and Violence, History and Memory: The Philippine Experience of the Second World War”, Asian Journal of Social Science 29, 3 (2001): 457–470, doi: https://doi.org/10.1163/156853101X00190

17 Ibid.
18 Gosiengfiao, Victor. “The Japanese Occupation: ‘The Cultural Campaign.’” Philippine

Studies 14, no. 2 (1966): 228–42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42720096.

19 Ibid.
20 Redison, Anthea. Mga Suguilanon sa Tiempo it Giyera: People’s Experience during the Japanese Occupation in Panay. 2022.
21 Ibid.
22 Ibid.
23 Ibid.
24 Ikehata, Setsuho. The Philippines under Japan: Occupation Policy and Reaction. Ateneo

de Manila University Press, 1999. 25 Ibid.

26 Ibid.
27 Satoshi, Nakano. Appeasement and Coercion. In Ikehata, Setsuho. The Philippines under

Japan: Occupation Policy and Reaction. Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1999.

References

Agoncillo, Teodoro A. History of the Filipino People. Quezon City: C & E Pub., 2012. Boldorf, Marcel, and Tetsuji Okazaki. Economies under Occupation: The Hegemony of Nazi

Germany and Imperial Japan in World War II. London: Routledge, 2017. Gosiengfiao, Victor. “The Japanese Occupation: ‘The Cultural Campaign.’” Philippine

Studies 14, no. 2 (1966): 228–42. http://www.jstor.org/stable/42720096.
Ikehata, Setsuho. The Philippines under Japan: Occupation Policy and Reaction. Ateneo de

Manila University Press, 1999.

Redison, Anthea. Mga Suguilanon sa Tiempo it Giyera: People’s Experience during the Japanese Occupation in Panay. 2022

Satoshi, Nakano. Appeasement and Coercion. In Ikehata, Setsuho. The Philippines under Japan: Occupation Policy and Reaction. Ateneo de Manila University Press, 1999.

Yu-Jose, Lydia N. “World War II and the Japanese in the Prewar Philippines.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 27, no. 1 (1996): 64–81. doi:10.1017/S0022463400010687.

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