Penang Wikia

During World War 2, the Japanese Occupation of Penang was a period of Japanese military rule over the State of Penang between 17 December 1941 and 3 September 1945, following the fall of the then-British crown colony to the Imperial Japanese Army.

Although the period of Japanese rule was relatively short-lived, it left a lasting impact on Penang's political scene and social fabric. The citizens of Penang suffered tremendous upheavals during the 3 years and 8 months of Japanese Occupation, such as food shortages, hyperinflation due to Japanese overproduction of the banana dollar and repression. Furthermore, Penang's women were not spared; a significant number were taken away as comfort women.

In particular, Penang's Chinese community suffered the most during the Japanese Occupation, as thousands of men were executed in Sook Ching massacres. Japanese divide and rule policies favouring ethnic Malays also led to inter-racial tensions which persisted after the war.

In addition, this brutal period of Japanese military rule would lead to the rise of the communists in Malaya, as well as tarnishing the British image of invincibility. These would continue to affect Penang's political scene all the way until the 1960s.

The State of Penang was returned to British rule following Operation Jurist on 2 September 1945, in which the British Royal Marines retook Penang Island after the surrender of the Empire of Japan.

Japanese Invasion of Penang

Thousands of Imperial Japanese Army soldiers advanced down the Malay Peninsula using bicycles.

The Imperial Japanese Army and Navy commenced their invasion of British Malaya on 8 December 1941, just before the aerial raid on the United States Navy base at Pearl Harbor (due to the different time zones, it was 7 December 1941 in Hawaii).

On 9 December, Japanese warplanes began the first air raids on Penang Island. Over the next two days, the Royal Air Force and the Royal Australian Air Force were wiped out from the skies above Penang, giving the Japanese total aerial supremacy.

European women sharing tea while being evacuated from Penang Island to Singapore by train in December 1941.

While the subsequent Japanese aerial bombing of George Town led to massive civilian casualties and widespread anarchy, the British Army under Lieutenant-General Arthur Percival began retreating from Penang Island, abandoning a complex fortification built at the southeastern tip of the island. Concurrently, the British also evacuated Penang's European populace, leaving Penang's ethnic Asian communities under the mercy of the impending Japanese invasion.

Batu Maung Fort at the southeastern tip of Penang Island was initially built to defend against a Japanese invasion. It was abandoned by the British Army without a fight. The site now serves as the Penang War Museum.

Imperial Japanese Army units began landing on Penang Island between 17 and 19 December, fanning out across the island without a single casualty. This marked the start of Japanese military occupation of Penang, which was to last for more than 3 years and 8 months.


Flag of the Empire of Japan

Governors of Penang

During the Japanese Occupation, Penang was governed by four successive governors who were appointed from the Imperial Japanese Army.

Period Japanese Governor of Penang
1942 - 1943 Lieutenant-General Shotaro Katayama
1943 - 1944 Major-General Masakichi Itami
1944 S. Ikagawa (Deputy Governor)
1944 - 1945 Lieutenant-General Shinohara Seiichiro


A map of Marai (Japanese Malaya) and Syonan-to (Japanese Singapore) published during World War 2.

Penang was governed as part of the Japanese military administration of Malaya (excluding Singapore, renamed Syonan-to), which renamed Malaya as Marai.

The Imperial Japanese 25th. Army, headquartered in Singapore soon after the British surrender of Singapore on 15 February 1942, provided troops for garrison duty within Marai, including in Penang. In 1944, the Imperial Japanese 29th. Army's 94th. Infantry Division under the command of Lieutenant-General Teizo Ishiguro, took over the garrison duties.

However, Penang was relatively lightly garrisoned by these Imperial Japanese Army units, which were based at the Gelugor Barracks. In fact, it was the Imperial Japanese Navy that had a larger presence in Penang, as Penang Island was made a major naval base.

In addition, detachments of the 2nd. and later the 3rd. Field Kempeitai Units were deployed to Penang to restore order. The Kempeitai was the military police arm of the Imperial Japanese Army, and was analogous to Nazi Germany's Schutzstaffel (SS). The 2nd. Field Kempeitai Unit was led by Lieutenant Colonel Oishi Masayuki, while the 3rd. Field Kempeitai Unit was commanded by Major-General Masanori Kojima. Throughout the Japanese Occupation, the Kempeitai units gained notoriety for their brutal and murderous clampdowns on ethnic Chinese and other subversive groups.


Prior to the Japanese invasion of Penang, the Imperial Japanese Army's General Staff produced a document which stressed on understanding and gaining the cooperation of Chinese businesses by 'inducing and inviting Chinese capital to investment in principal industries, utilising Chinese facilities for the collection and distribution of retail goods and guiding Chinese banks in such a way as to co-operate with Japanese policies'.

Furthermore, during the early years of World War 2, the Empire of Japan was promoting the concept of a Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Intended to gain the cooperation and subservience of the newly-occupied Asian populations, the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere espoused cultural and economic unity of the entire East Asia and Oceania regions under the Emperor of Japan.

On the other hand, it was clear from the onset of the Japanese Occupation that the Imperial Japanese Army had no intention of winning the support of the local populace. Due to the ongoing war between the Japanese Empire and the Republic of China, ethnic Chinese, in particular, were targeted for eradication. The Kempeitai would launch a number of Sook Ching campaigns all over Syonan-to and Marai to instill fear amongst ethnic Chinese by massacring thousands of Chinese men. 

Sook Ching massacre in Singapore during World War 2

Meanwhile, the Imperial Japanese Army recruited ethnic Malays into local militia units and attempted to woo ethnic Indians into supporting its cause of the eventual liberation of India from British rule. Nonetheless, Penang's population, regardless of ethnicity, suffered greatly from high inflation levels, food shortages and repression under the Japanese military regime. 

Workers toiling on the Siam-Burma Death Railway. Most of them were either POWs or civilians taken from Japanese-occupied territories.

Furthermore, captured prisoners of war (POWs) and a significant number of civilians were sent to toil on war projects in distant lands, such as the Siam-Burma Death Railway. Women were also not spared; a great number of Chinese and Malay women were taken away to serve as comfort women, essentially as prostitutes of Imperial Japanese Army soldiers.

According to historian, Paul Kratoska,

"After an initial period of savage repression which had adverse consequences for the remainder of the occupation, (Japanese administration) was carried out through communal organisations and prewar administrative structures. The Japanese themselves, although they are remembered as forbidding figures, emerge from the historical record as somewhat inept, able to impose their will in specific instances but understanding too little of the country and commanding too little respect to be able to use their powers effectively."

Submarine Base

A Kriegsmarine (Nazi Germany's Navy) U-boat in George Town during the Japanese Occupation.

Throughout the Japanese Occupation, the well-developed harbour facilities of George Town and its strategic location controlling the Malacca Straits allowed the Imperial Japanese Navy to use Penang Island as a major base. During the period, the Port of Penang served as a base for the Imperial Japanese Navy's 8th. Submarine Flotilla, which sank Allied merchant vessels across the Indian Ocean and as far away as Madagascar.

An Imperial Japanese Navy submarine of the 8th. Submarine Flotilla in George Town.

Between 1943 and 1944, Penang Island also became an important stopover for Kriegsmarine (Nazi German Navy) and Regia Marina (Royal Italian Navy) submarines. The Germans, in particular, stationed their Monsoon Flotilla consisting of dozens of U-boats in George Town, mainly to ship supplies and technical equipment between Nazi Germany and the Japanese Empire, as well as to attack Allied merchant shipping in the Indian Ocean.

By the end of 1944, Penang Island ceased to be an active Kriegsmarine U-boat base, as the British Royal Navy launched more anti-submarine patrols towards the Malacca Straits and began mining the waters off Penang Island. Concurrently, Penang Island fell within range of Allied bomber planes stationed in British india, forcing the Imperial Japanese Navy to pull out its submarines as well.


After the Imperial Japanese Army landed on Penang Island in December 1941, they began to close or commandeer important European firms and businesses, including all Western banks such as Standard Chartered Bank and Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation. Only a handful of Japanese and Asian banks, including Oversea-Chinese Banking Corporation and Ban Hin Lee Bank, remained in business.

As the Occupation continued, commercial and shipping sectors, once the lifeblood of Penang's economy, deteriorated. Export markets dried up, while the Allies began to strangle Japanese supply lines by sinking Japanese merchant vessels.

Food shortage was a major issue during the war, so the Japanese administrators attempted to encourage the local population to grow their own farms.

The Japanese banana dollar was in official use in Malaya during the Japanese Occupation in World War 2. It was so-named due to the motifs of banana trees on this $10 note.

Banana Dollar

Also, the Japanese authorities in Marai and Syonan-to issued its own currency, known as the banana dollar due to the motifs of banana trees on the notes. However, the Japanese would simply print more banana dollars every time a shortage occurred, leading to hyperinflation and a severe depreciation in the value of the Japanese-made banana dollars.

As conditions steadily deteriorated, black markets grew more popular. Straits dollars, the official currency in Penang before World War 2, were preferred over the banana money in these black markets, which were supplied by traders who bribed Japanese officials to allow them to smuggle food and supplies from Thailand and Burma.

Communal Policies

The Japanese military regime undertook a divide and rule policy, in spite of their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere concept which espoused unity between all Asian ethnicities. Due to the ongoing war between the Japanese Empire and the Republic of China, and the resultant Chinese hostility towards the Japanese, ethnic Chinese bore the brunt of Japanese war atrocities.


Thanks to their long-standing resentment to British colonial rule, ethnic Malays made a natural ally for the Japanese. The Imperial Japanese Army recruited young Malay men into local militia units, while supporting independence-leaning Malay political groups. 

However, due to their belief of racial superiority, the Japanese inherently looked down on the Malays and struggled to understand the Malays' unyielding affinity with Islam. Furthermore, ethnic Malays were alarmed over the annexation, with Japanese blessing, of the neighbouring Sultanate of Kedah, along with the other northern sultanates of Perlis, Kelantan and Terengganu, into the Kingdom of Thailand.


Ethnic Chinese all over Malaya were singled out for one of the most murderous aspects of the Japanese occupation - the Sook Ching massacres. This was, in part, driven by the Chinese hostility towards the Japanese, driven by the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945, subsumed into World War 2 in 1941).

The deliberate ethnic cleansing by the Kempeitai caused many Chinese men to subsequently join the communist-led Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA). On the other hand, despite Penang's mostly Chinese population and its vocal societies, Penang never became a centre of resistance against the Japanese. This was because of the Malayan Communist Party's decision to concentrate on the jungles of the Malay Peninsula.


The Japanese were eager to court the support of ethnic Indians in order to pursue its own agenda of liberating India from British imperial rule. Prominent public figures, as well as Indian POWs, enthusiastically responded to initial Japanese moves towards Indian independence and calls for the formation of the Indian National Army (INA).

Towards the war's end, ethnic Indians were becoming increasingly concerned over the rounding up of Tamil workers for the construction of the Siam-Burma Death Railway. Due to their inherent belief in their racial superiority, the Japanese also treated most Indians as little more than coolie workers.


Penang's Eurasian community was suspected of being loyal to the British, and consequently, about 200 first-generation Eurasians, whose fathers were British, American or Australian, were imprisoned in the neighbouring Sultanate of Perak until the war's end. Eurasians who were suspected of assisting the British were also murdered.

However, it should be noted that the Imperial Japanese Army also offered some Eurasian members of the Penang and Province Wellesley Volunteer Corps police duties on Penang Island.


Most of Penang's European population had been evacuated in the days preceding the Japanese landing on Penang Island. Only a few Christian priests remained for the duration of the war, while British stragglers were tortured and executed.

During the Japanese Occupation, the only other Europeans on Penang Island were the German and Italian navy personnel. During World War 2, Nazi Germany and the Kingdom of Italy (until 1943) were the allies of the Japanese Empire, thus these Germans and Italians were accorded friendship and courtesy by the Japanese in the early years of World War 2.

With the surrender of the Kingdom of Italy in 1943, Italian submarines docked at port were confiscated by their German counterparts and continued to operate with a mixed German-Italian crew. A number of Italian naval servicemen were also captured and tortured by the Japanese. Similarly, after the eventual defeat of Nazi Germany in May 1945, the Japanese captured all remaining Kriegsmarine vessels within Marai and Syonan-to, as well as imprisoning the German crews.


As the Empire of Japan was an ally of Nazi Germany, the small Jewish community on Penang Island had every reason to fear the Japanese Occupation. Nonetheless, the Jews of Penang survived the war with only a few restrictions.

Sook Ching

Chinese men in Singapore being rounded up for the Sook Ching massacres. This practice soon spread to Penang Island, where thousands of Chinese men were similarly massacred.

Soon after the Imperial Japanese Army captured Singapore in February 1942, Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita ordered the screening of Singapore's Chinese population. Imperial Japanese Army officers were instructed to screen for 'anti-Japanese elements', segregate them and dispose of them secretly, in order to instill fear amongst ethnic Chinese.

This marked the beginning of Sook Ching, meaning 'purge through cleansing'. Chinese men were indiscriminately singled out to be executed for their alleged, or even made up, links to anti-Japanese organisations. According to Lee Kuan Yew, the first Prime Minister of Singapore, "somewhere between 50,000 to 100,000 young men" were massacred.

From Singapore, the practice of Sook Ching spread throughout Malaya. In 1942, the Japanese administrators imposed a $50 million (Straits dollar) fine on the Chinese community in both Syonan-to and Marai. Kempeitai units subsequently began to round up Chinese men all over Penang, including students, educators and the intellectual elite. These men were executed and buried in various parts of Penang Island, such as Air Itam, Gelugor, Penang Hill and Batu Ferringhi.

After the war, the Penang China Relief Fund listed more than 1,600 victims of Sook Ching in Penang, although precise numbers are still unknown to this day.

Comfort Women

Malay and Chinese women from Penang being taken by the Imperial Japanese Army.

Another heinous aspect of the Japanese Occupation was the exploitation of women in Penang as comfort women, an euphemism for prostitutes for Imperial Japanese Army soldiers. Young women of various ethnicities were taken from Penang Island to serve as comfort women in other parts of the Japanese Empire.

In addition, a number of small hotels within George Town were converted into comfort houses, official military-run brothels. Poverty was another factor which led to many girls and women at the time to turn to prostitution in George Town.

Daily Life

By 1942, the Japanese had managed to restore a semblance of order in George Town. Most of the urban population, which had fled into the rural areas of Air Itam and Penang Hill during the Japanese invasion of Penang, began to return to their empty properties and shop-lots. Water supply was back in order and intermittent electricity supply was made available.

A a show of obedience to the Emperor of Japan, it was a must to bow in front of a Japanese soldier; failure to do so could result in a beating.

Even the most minute of crimes would lead to a public beheading. Looters and thieves, for instance, were beheaded in public and their heads would be displayed on poles, in an effort to enforce discipline.

When Kempeitai units began to round up ethnic Chinese for their Sook Ching massacres, those singled out would be sent to Penang Prison, which began to serve as an interrogation centre in 1942. Most of the executions also took place within the prison.


Posters like this were commonly used to exhort Penang's population to learn Japanese.

In the early months of the Japanese Occupation, schools throughout Penang Island were closed. It was only after agitation from Penang's multi-ethnic communities that the Japanese administrators reopened the schools. However, instead of continuing the previous curriculum, a new Japanese-language curriculum was enforced, making it compulsory for all students to learn Japanese. Books and reading materials were strictly monitored; on one occasion, over 20,000 'subversive' books were burnt.

While Malay and Tamil schools were allowed to reopen, the Japanese administrators objected the reopening of Chinese schools. This was understandably due to the historical Chinese hostility towards the Japanese.


During the period, the Japanese administrators of Penang sanctioned the publication of the Penang Shimbun, a pro-Japanese daily which constantly reported on Japanese military successes elsewhere against the Allies. In addition, Malay, Tamil and finally Chinese vernacular newspapers, aligned politically with the Japanese, were gradually permitted.

There were also daily vernacular broadcasts which were strictly monitored to ensure that all news reports put the Japanese in a favourable light. In contrast, all Western radio broadcasts were banned, and civilians caught listening to a Western radio station, such as the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), would be subject to the death penalty by the Kempeitai.

Japanese Surrender

A Royal Air Force B-24 bomber over Southeast Asia in 1944.

In 1944, Penang Island, along with the rest of Malaya, came under the range of Royal Air Force and United States Army Air Force bombers deployed in British India. The Allied air forces subsequently started bombing campaigns of the major cities in Malaya, including George Town, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore. Within Penang, various key military installations were targeted, such as the Butterworth airfield and Imperial Japanese Navy facilities around Swettenham Pier.

Concurrently, the British Royal Navy began sinking Imperial Japanese Navy warships and submarines off Penang Island, as well as Japanese merchant shipping. This further increased the isolation of the Japanese garrison on Penang Island.

Japanese officials signing the Surrender of Penang document on board HMS Nelson off Penang Island on 2 September 1945.

As the tide of war continued to turn against the Japanese in 1945, a United States Army Air Force B-29 bomber dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima on 6 August. Before the dropping of a second atomic bomb on Nagasaki on 9 August, the Soviet Army also launched a massive invasion of Japanese-held Manchuria. Both the atomic bombings of Japan and the fast-approaching Soviet threat forced the Emperor of Japan to issue a proclamation of surrender on 15 August.

Royal Marine commandos in the streets of George Town under Operation Jurist in September 1945.

The Japanese authorities on Penang Island surrendered on 2 September, paving the way for the retaking of Penang Island by the British Royal Marines the following day under Operation Jurist. This marked the end of the Japanese Occupation of Penang.


The Japanese policy of divide and rule inevitably pitted two of the major ethnicities on Penang Island against each other, the Chinese against the Malays, who were perceived to be the biggest beneficiaries of Japanese rule. After the war, inter-racial tensions remained high, as ethnic Chinese and Eurasians, who suffered the most under the Japanese, hated the Malays for collaborating with Japanese officials.

However, it should be noted that a number of Chinese also collaborated with Japanese officials against their own ilk, especially by their callous targeting as informants of the Kempeitai during the Sook Ching massacres. Perhaps motivated by revenge, ethnic Chinese collaborators were murdered in the days after the Japanese surrender of Penang.

The severe hardship suffered by most of Penang's populace did not go unnoticed by the British troops deployed on Penang Island for Operation Jurist. Hunger riots quickly broke out, started by a starving population who had to endure food rationing and hyperinflation for over three years.

However, the greatest impact of the Japanese Occupation of Penang was political. The ignominious defeat of the British by the Japanese, coupled by the white-only withdrawal prior to the landing of the Imperial Japanese Army on Penang Island in December 1941, led to a deep distrust of the returning British authorities after the war. 

While the British sense of invincibility was forever shattered, the different ethnicities on Penang Island differed on the outlook of Penang's future. The Malays of Penang Island, as with the rest of the Malay Peninsula, continued to pursue their nationalistic agenda of achieving Malayan independence, sometimes to the detriment of other races. On the other hand, the Chinese, who were victimised during the Japanese Occupation, still harboured a sense of distrust of Malay and British intentions. Furthermore, increasing numbers of Chinese were inducted into a growing Malayan socialist movement backed by the Malayan Communist Party. These factors set the stage for Penang's turbulent 1950s and 1960s.


  1. Barber, A., 2010. Penang At War : A History of Penang During and Between the First and Second World Wars 1914-1945. AB&A.
  2. Kratoska P. H., 1998. The Japanese Occupation of Malaya : A Social and Economic History. C. Hurst & Co. Publishers.