Operation Sook Ching
Operation Sook Ching was a Japanese military operation aimed at purging or eliminating anti-Japanese elements from the Chinese community in Singapore. From 21 February to 4 March 1942, Chinese males between the ages of 18 and 50 were summoned to various mass screening centres and those suspected of being anti-Japanese were executed.
Reasons for the operation
Sook Ching is a Chinese term meaning "purge through cleansing". The Japanese term for the operation was Dai Kensho, meaning “great inspection”.1
There were several possible reasons why the Japanese military carried out the operation.
First, the Japanese military were suspicious of the Chinese in Singapore because of the long-standing tensions between Japan and China, and their own experiences fighting the Chinese in China since 1937.2
Second, many of the Japanese commanders and soldiers were veterans of campaigns in other parts of Asia where violence and executions were regularly used as tools to keep the civilian population under control.3
Third, the Japanese wanted to prevent anti-Japanese elements from interfering with their occupation of Singapore after experiencing resistance by Chinese volunteers and guerrillas during the Malayan Campaign (1941–1942).4
Shortly after the Japanese occupied Singapore, Lieutenant General Tomoyuki Yamashita issued a directive ordering the Chinese population to report to designated areas for screening.
The directive targeted five main categories of Chinese:5
(1) members of the volunteer force;
(4) those possessing arms; and
(5) those whose names appeared in lists of anti-Japanese suspects maintained by Japanese intelligence.
In line with the directive, instructions were issued to Japanese officers on how the operation was to be carried out. Japanese officers were instructed to screen all “anti-Japanese elements”, segregate them and dispose of them secretly.6
How the operation was carried out
After the directive was issued, notices and posters were put up informing Chinese males between the ages of 18 and 50 to report to designated screening centres. Men also went round with loudspeakers to spread the news.7 These screening centres were located all over the island, especially in areas such as Chinatown where large numbers of Chinese resided.
The screening was mainly carried out by the Kempeitai (the Japanese military police) in the urban areas and by the Imperial Guards Division in the other districts.8 Initially, the plan was for the operation to be carried out from 21 to 23 February 1942. It was subsequently extended to 4 March.
The screening process was unsystematic and disorganised. Decisions as to who were anti-Japanese were based on the whims of the persons doing the screening. Oral history accounts from eyewitnesses describe different screening methods being used at the various centres. In some centres, victims were selected based on their occupations, their answers to questions, or whether they had tattoos. In other centres, hooded informers would point to men who were allegedly criminals or anti-Japanese elements.9
The men who were fortunate enough to pass the screening process were allowed to leave the centres. They were provided with proof of their cleared status in the form of a piece of paper with a stamp that said "examined", or through similar stamps marked on their face, arm, shoulder or clothing.10
Some people were spared from the screenings through the intervention of Japanese official Mamoru Shinozaki. Appointed as advisor to defence headquarters after the fall of Singapore, Shinozaki used his position to issue personal protection cards to thousands of Chinese.11 In some instances, Shinozaki even personally went to the screening centres to ask for the release of men who had been detained.12
Thousands of other men were not so fortunate. Suspected of being anti-Japanese elements, these men were loaded into lorries and transported to remote areas such as Changi, Punggol and Bedok for execution. At these sites, the suspects were machine-gunned to death and often their bodies were thrown into the sea.13 In some instances, British prisoners of war (POWs) were tasked to bury the bodies.14
Known massacre sites include beaches at Punggol, Changi, Katong, Tanah Merah and Blakang Mati (now Sentosa island). Massacres were said to have also occurred at Hougang, Thomson Road, Changi Road, Siglap, Bedok and East Coast.15
Due to a lack of written records, the exact number of people killed in the operation is unknown. The official figure given by the Japanese is 5,000 although the actual number is believed to be much higher. Lieutenant Colonel Hishakari Takafumi, a newspaper correspondent at the time, claimed that the plan was to kill 50,000 Chinese and that half that number had been reached when the order was received to stop the operation.16
Operation Sook Ching succeeded in instilling fear among the Chinese population. After the war, this fear turned into anger.
In 1947, seven Japanese officers were charged during a war crimes trial in Singapore for their participation in Operation Sook Ching. All seven officers were found guilty. Two officers, Lieutenant General Saburo Kawamura and Lieutenant Colonel Masayuki Oishi, were sentenced to death while the remaining five were given life sentences.17
Many in the Chinese community were unhappy with the verdict. The Overseas Chinese Appeal Committee that represented the families of victims protested that the sentences were too lenient. They called for the execution of all seven Japanese soldiers and the arrest of all those who had participated in the operation.18
The other matter that deeply concerned the Chinese community was the proper burial of those killed in the massacre. A joint memorial committee for Chinese massacre victims was set up to collect the remains of victims from various sites and rebury them in a dedicated memorial site.19
The issue of reburying the remains of victims of the massacre resurfaced following the discovery of mass graves in the Siglap area in 1962. Five separate war graves were found in an area dubbed “Valley of Tears” by the press.20 Subsequently, more than 30 mass graves were exhumed and the remains found were placed in funeral urns for reburial.
Following the discovery of the mass graves in Siglap, the Singapore Chinese Chamber of Commerce lobbied for the Singapore government to press their Japanese counterparts for compensation for the massacre.21 On 25 August 1963, more than 100,000 people gathered at City Hall to demand that Japan pay compensation for the wartime atrocities inflicted on the people of Singapore.22
Finally on 25 October 1966, the Japanese government agreed to pay S$50 million in compensation in the form of a S$25 million grant and a S$25 million loan.23 However, it was not until 1993 that then Japanese prime minister Morihiro Hosokawa apologised for Japanese atrocities committed during the war.
Part of the compensation money was used to fund the building of the Civilian War Memorial on Beach Road. Officially unveiled by then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew on 15 February 1967, the memorial consists of four pillars representing the four main ethnic groups (Chinese, Malays, Indians and Eurasians) in Singapore.24 Although the initial idea was for a memorial dedicated to the victims of the massacre, the government decided in the end that the monument should be dedicated to victims from all communities who had died during the Japanese Occupation. More than 600 urns containing the remains of Sook Ching massacre victims are buried at the foot of the memorial.25
Known massacre sites26
Changi Beach/Changi Spit Beach.
Changi Road 8-mile section (ms): Massacre site found at a plantation area (formerly Samba Ikat village).
Katong 7 ms: 20 trenches for burying the bodies of victims were dug here.
Beach opposite 27 Amber Road: The site later became a carpark.
Tanah Merah Beach/Tanah Merah Besar Beach: The site later became part of the Changi airport runway.
Sime Road, off Thomson Road: Massacre sites found near a golf course and villages in the vicinity.
Katong, East Coast Road.
Siglap: Massacre site near Bedok South Avenue/Bedok South Road (previously known as Jalan Puay Poon).
Blakang Mati Beach (known as Sentosa today), off the Sentosa Golf Course.
1. Tan Tik Loong Stanley and Tay Huiwen Michelle, Syonan Years, 1942–1945: Living Beneath the Rising Sun (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore, 2009), 15. (Call no. RSING 940.530745957 TAN-[WAR])
2. Tan and Tay, Syonan Years, 1942–1945, 14; Yoji Akashi, “Japanese Policy Towards the Malayan Chinese, 1941–1945,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, 1, no. 2 (September 1970): 63. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
3. Kevin Blackburn, “The Collective Memory of the Sook Ching Massacre and the Creation of the Civilian War Memorial of Singapore,” Journal of the Malaysian Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society, 73, no. 2 (279) (2000): 73. (From JSTOR via NLB’s eResources website)
4. Akashi, “Japanese Policy Towards the Malayan Chinese, 1941–1945,” 63.
5. Tan and Tay, Syonan Years, 1942–1945, 15.
6. Tan and Tay, Syonan Years, 1942–1945, 15.
7. Lee Geok Boi, The Syonan Years: Singapore Under Japanese rule 1942–1945 (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore and Epigram Pte Ltd, 2005), 105. (Call no. RSING q940.53957 LEE-[WAR])
8. Hifofumi Hayashi, “Massacre of Chinese in Singapore and Its Coverage in Postwar Japan,” in New Perspectives on the Japanese Occupation in Malaya and Singapore, eds. Akashi Yoji and Yoshimura Mako (Singapore: NUS Press, 2008), 235. (Call no. RSING 940.5337 NEW-[WAR])
9. Lee, The Syonan Years, 108.
10. Lee, The Syonan Years, 109.
11. Lee, The Syonan Years, 110.
12. Mamoru Shinozaki, Syonan, My Story (Singapore: Marshall Cavendish Editions, 2011), 46–48. (Call no. RSING 959.57023 SHI-[HIS])
13. Lee, The Syonan Years, 113–15.
14. Lee, The Syonan Years, 113–15.
15. Tan Beng Luan and Irene Quah, The Japanese Occupation 1942 –1945: A Pictorial Record of Singapore During the War (Singapore: Times Editions, 1996), 68. (Call no. RSING q940.5425 TAN-[WAR])
16. Blackburn, “Collective Memory of the Sook Ching Massacre,” 73.
17. “Singapore Massacre Japs Guilty,” Straits Times, 3 April 1947, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
18. “Chinese Want Death for Seven Japs,” Straits Times, 5 April 1947, 3. (From NewspaperSG)
19. “Plan to Rebury Jap Victims,” (1955, February 4). Straits Times, 4 February 1955, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
20. “Mass War Graves Found in Siglap’s ‘Valley of Death’,” Straits Times, 24 February 1962, 4. (From NewspaperSG)
21. “War Massacre of Civilians: Compensation – Demand,” Straits Times, 1 March 1962, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
22. R. Chandran, et al. “The 'Blood Debt' Rally,” Straits Times, 26 August 1963, 5. (From NewspaperSG); Blackburn, “Collective Memory of the Sook Ching Massacre,” 73.
23. “$25m Grant, $25m Loans Settle Singapore’s Blood Debt,” Straits Times, 26 October 1966, 20. (From NewspaperSG)
24. Blackburn, “Collective Memory of the Sook Ching Massacre,” 73.
25. Lim Beng Tee, “Remains of Massacre Victims Laid to Rest,” Straits Times, 2 November 1966, 11. Retrieved from NewspaperSG.
26. Tan and Quah, The Japanese Occupation 1942–1945, 68.
Daniel Chew and Irene Lim, eds., Sook Ching (Singapore: Oral History Department, 1992). (Call no. RSING 959.57023 SOO -[HIS])
Ian Ward, The Killer They Called a God (Singapore: MediaMasters, 1992). (Call no. RSING 959.57023 WAR -[HIS])
Lee Geok Boi, The Syonan Years: Singapore Under Japanese rule 1942–1945 (Singapore: National Archives of Singapore and Epigram Pte Ltd, 2005). (Call no. RSING q940.53957 LEE-[WAR])
V. Perumbulavil and Wong Heng, comps. and eds., From Singapore to Syonan-to 1941–1945: A Select Nibliography (Singapore: Reference Services Division, National Library, 1992). (Call no. RSING 016.95957023 PER-[LIB])
The information in this article is valid as 17 June 2013 and correct as far as we can ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the library for further reading materials on the topic.