Japanese Occupation

American military forces on Guåhan were severely ill-prepared to defend the island at the onset of World War II in the Pacific. The island fell very quickly to Japan’s 5,500-strong South Seas Detachment. [1]Dirk Ballendorf, 1984. “Secrets without substance: U.S. intelligence in the Japanese Mandates,” Journal of Pacifc History 19(2): 83-99. Print. Interestingly, Japan initially took far more interest in Guåhan’s potential to be a rear supply base for Japanese forces rather than as a site to conduct further military operations against American positions in the West Pacific.[2]Wakao Higuchi, The Japanese Administration of Guam, 1941-1944 (McFarland & Company, Inc., 2013), 83. Consequently, the civilian authority of Guåhan under Japanese occupation, known as the minseibu, sought to use Guåhan’s farmland as intensely as possible to help meet the unprecedented material demands of World War II.

From the collection of the Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center
From the collection of the Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center

The minseibu outlined an ambitious plan to mass-produce rice and other foodstuffs on Guåhan through a five-year plan in 1940. [3]Ibid., 91. A 25-man panel from Japan estimated that land on Guåhan used for agriculture could be increased from the pre-war 3,773 acres to 29,400 acres; Tokyo further believed that land dedicated to growing rice paddies could be expanded from 147 acres to 1,960 acres. [4]Ibid., 96-97. Optimistic projections further existed for the potential of fishing and raising livestock on the island. [5]Ibid., 107-108.

Army units dedicated to fulfilling food quotas for Japanese soldiers, known as the kaikontai, stopped at nothing to bolster agricultural production. Widespread seizures took place against private landowners on the island.[6]Ibid., 92. Initially, some accounts note that Japan did not seem to be markedly harsher than the United States naval administration. [7]Pedro, Sanchez, Guahan Guam: The History of Our Island (Agana, Guam: Sanchez Publishing House, 1990), 279 However, the Japanese-CHamoru relationship considerably deteriorated as the tides of war turned against Tokyo. [8]Tony Palomo, An Island in Agony: The War in Guam (privately published, 1984), 140. The kaikontai forced all CHamorus into heavy labor on construction and agriculture, including women, children, and the elderly; schools closed in 1944 to expand hours for forced laborers. [9]Robert Rogers, Destiny’s Landfall A History of Guam (Honolulu: University of Hawai’I Press, 2011), 164. At its height, more than half of the CHamoru population worked under pressure in Japanese farms. [10]Higuchi, The Japanese Administration of Guam, 111. CHamoru laborers who could not meet the oft-impossible demands of the kaikontai would receive a binta––a severe beating. [11]Tony Palamo, An Island in Agony: A Haunting Story of the Only American Territory Occupied By the Enemy During World War II, Including Search for Six American Sailors 142.

From the collection of the Guam Public Library System
National Park Service

As the previous imperial powers of the island, the minseibu saw mixed results at best for their efforts. Japan did not provide nearly enough of the resources required for its aggressive agricultural policies. [12]Higuchi, The Japanese Administration of Guam, 116.  Coupled with a leafhopper insect invasion and a typhoon in 1940, the vast majority of the newly tilled rice fields saw failure. [13]Ibid., 100, 107. Hastily, the minseibu tried to pivot toward a staple of corn, as well as sweet potatoes and bananas, as a less costly alternative to rice. [14]Ibid., 100-101. Still, widespread hunger plagued the island by the time America reoccupied Guåhan in July 1944. [15]M. Marutani, J. Brown, F. Cruz and G. Wall, “Agricultural Crop Production on Guam during the 20th Century”, College of Agriculture and Life Science, University of Guam, 397-398.

From the collection of the Guam Public Library System

Ironically, subsistence agriculture dramatically grew during the Japanese occupation of Guåhan. To avoid warfare and the brutal oversight of the kaikontai, many CHamoru retreated from villages like Sumay and Hagatna to the safety of family ranches.[16]Michael Lujan Bevacqua, “Låncho: Ranch,” Web.  Guampedia.com. Published on October 14, 2019, https://www.guampedia.com/lancho-ranch/ CHamoru ranchers prioritized self-sufficiency during a time of uncertainty and widespread hunger, which entailed CHamoru farmers returning to their traditional ways.[17]Sanchez, Guahan Guam, 201. Carabao carts returned to prominence as the main form of transportation, federico nuts saw a resurgence in popularity as a primary food staple, and the small-scale barter became so prevalent the Japanese coined the term kokan tamago to describe the use of eggs as exchange material for other goods.[18]Rogers, Destiny’s Landfall, 158.

From the collection of the Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center
From the collection of the Richard F. Taitano Micronesian Area Research Center

The ranch became a popular refuge for active resistance against Japanese occupation. CHamoru farmers generously provided foodstuffs and materials to Americans in hiding, including George Tweed.[19]Palomo, An Island in Agony, 101-102. Several CHamoru farmers were hit with fists, clubbed, or otherwise maimed as frustrated Japanese soldiers suspected them of assisting the Americans.[20] Sanchez, Guahan Guam, 277. Farmer Ron Laguaña, the grandson of a CHamoru farmer during the Japanese occupation, recalls his grandfather “had two farms during the Japanese occupation for the soldiers would come and raid their farms regularly so he had a hidden farm plot as backup away from his ranch and home.”[21]Ron Laguaña, Interview, November 18, 2020. Despite multiple Japanese intrusions, major pro-American supply sites like the Balajada family ranch avoided detection for the duration of the war.[22]Palomo, An Island in Agony, 101-102.

Agriculture on Guåhan under the Japanese follow a familiar trend: despite the pressures of a harsh, authoritarian colonial power to create commercialized, large-scale farming, CHamoru farmers ultimately took control of agricultural development into their own hands. CHamoru farms became bastions of resistance against imperialism––against the kaikontai, in a literal sense––but also as symbols of self-determination and active embracement of ancient CHamoru methods. CHamoru resilience prevailed over the traumas of war.

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