In March 1942, the Japanese Imperial Army took possession of the Dutch East Indies. The occupation lasted until Japan’s surrender in mid-August 1945, although the disarmament and repatriation of Japanese troops took several months more to accomplish.

For some, these 31/2 years were much too long; for others, much too short. Few people involved were indifferent about this episode, because it was extraordinarily rich in events. It changed history. An established European colonial power was pushed aside by the only Asian colonial power under the pretext of reconquering Asia for the Asians. In the end, a new nation emerged — Indonesia.

These are the bare facts. But how did it happen, what was it like for those involved? Memories, both private and public, are records of events whose subjective nature is well known. Autobiographies, official records, textbooks and monuments embody but only single perspectives of the past.

An exhibition set up by the Netherlands Institute for War Documentation at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam deals with those memories of the occupation. Under the title “Dutchmen, Japanese, Indonesians: The Japanese Occupation of the Dutch East Indies Remembered,” it brings together the testimonies of Dutch, Japanese and Indonesians who were there.

The occupation pushed the archipelago that was no longer the Dutch East Indies, and not yet Indonesia, to the brink of an economic and humanitarian catastrophe, but for many Indonesians it was also a harbinger of advancement and hope. The Japanese, on the other hand, started out with victory and glory on their predestined way to supreme leadership in Asia, only to see it turn to defeat and unspeakable misery. For the Dutch the occupation meant oppression, internment and the end of hegemony over their largest and richest colony.

The memories of the occupation are as varied as the outcome of the situation was for the three nations involved. Bringing them together under the roof of one exhibition is an attempt to come to grips with the complexity of history by presenting the events from three perspectives: reality as experienced, documented and remembered.

Going back and forth between the three rooms (one for each of the three nations), the visitors can study a number of objects to piece together their own revealing picture of this fascinating period of time. Chances are that they will walk away with a less biased view of what it was like than the Dutch, Japanese or Indonesian testimonies transmit in isolation.

Some of the objects on display are from the time of the occupation. Others were produced later, to hold on to memories and give them a representational form. There are drawings and letters, photographs and diaries. There is a variety of objects for daily use: handmade toys; a knife a father gave his 10-year-old son “to protect mother”; an alien registration card for a Chinese woman issued by the Japanese authorities; Indonesian currency bills issued by the Bank of Japan.

Some of the documents shed different lights on the same event. For example, a punitive action by Japanese camp guards was described as a severe beating and whipping by one diarist, but as a mock beating intended only to scare the inmates, by another. Such discrepancies vividly demonstrate that the same situation was experienced quite differently by those involved and that the memories even of those on the same side do not necessarily concur.

The Dutch collective memory is dominated by the fate of those 140,000 people who were interned in camps. Deprived of their freedom and their families broken up, many died of malnutrition or as a result of hard labor. It is hardly surprising that this experience overshadows both the predicaments of the Indonesians and the fact that more than half of the Dutch population of the East Indies was not interned. There was no room for these aspects of the occupation in the official picture the Netherlands painted of it. The exhibition in Amsterdam helps to amend this selective vision.

The Dutch, it shows, weren’t much different from the Japanese when it came to treating the local population. The Japanese Akebono Club, a well-known brothel in Jakarta, for example, used to be called Trianon and was frequented by the Dutch before the Japanese occupation. Save the name, everything remained the same, from the interior to the services provided by the native people.

The Japanese had no difficulties following in the footsteps of the Dutch. Those who asked themselves why they were in Indonesia had a simple answer at hand: They were doing their duty. Those inclined to continue thinking had a mission: the liberation of Asia from the colonial yoke.

The fact that, in the process, they became oppressors themselves was easy to overlook, since there were so many Indonesians who welcomed their arrival. Among them was Sukarno, later the first president of independent Indonesia. Traitor, friend, national hero — thus he is remembered in the eyes of the three different beholders.

The Dutch, so far, have preferred to remember the pain and injustice they suffered, and many continue to harbor resentments toward Japan. Officially, Japan has cultivated friendly relations with Sukarno and his successors, but has done little to remember the atrocities committed against both Dutch and Indonesians. To the Indonesians, violence during the occupation was but one of many bloody obstacles on the way to national independence.

This extraordinary exhibition tries to present a more balanced view of this brief moment of a common Dutch, Japanese and Indonesian past, from the common person’s view, and is accompanied by a well-researched and richly illustrated book edited by Remco Raben. The book, like the exhibition itself, speaks of the insight required to correct diverging remembrance.

Preparations are being made to bring the exhibition to Japan next year when 400 years of Dutch-Japanese relations will be celebrated.

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