44. Japanese Occupation Money and the Battle of Balikpapan

Nicholas Lua Swee Yang, a student volunteer, has been helping me with the East Asian paper money collection this spring, most recently on the Japanese Occupation Money (also known as Japanese Invasion Money). One note [CIB,EA.208] particularly caught his attention, and inspired him to research it further and write this post. 

The note is part of the large collection that was donated to the British Museum in 2009 by the ifa School of Finance. The collection had been on loan from the Chartered Institute of Bankers (as it was previously known) from 1987 to 2009, hence the CIB. The registration number of this note [CIB,EA.208] identifies it as no. 208 in the East Asian section of the Chartered Institute of Bankers loan.

cba204298 obv185

cba204298 rev186

5-gulden note, obverse and reverse, CIB,EA.208

Japanese Occupation Money refers to the currency issued by the Japanese Imperial Government during WWII in the territories it invaded. In my reading, I found it useful to look at sources focusing on this currency, supplemented by background reading:

  •  Slabaugh, Arlie R. Japanese Invasion Money. 4th ed. Chicago, IL: Hewitt Bros., 1971.
  • Wong, Hon Sum. The Japanese Occupation of Malaya (Singapore) and Its Currency. Translated by Roger S. C. Ng. Singapore: Wong’s Collections, 1996.
  •  Sneddon, James N. The Indonesian Language: Its History and Role in Modern Society. Sydney, NSW: UNSW Press, 2003.
  • Vickers, Adrian. A History of Modern Indonesia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

A search on the British Museum database produces over 270 pieces of Japanese occupation money. One of the notes [CIB,EA.208], a lithographed 5 gulden piece, is one of the many notes that Japan circulated in its territories in the Dutch East Indies. The coconut trees on the obverse reflect the tropical fruit and flora theme seen on Japanese occupation money. Trees and fruits native to Southeast Asia feature in the designs of notes in other occupied territories: for example, the bananas on the $10 note of Malaya.

cba204225 obv055

10-dollar note, obverse, CIB,EA.142

According to Arlie Slabaugh, a well-known numismatist and former editor of The Numismatic Scrapbook Magazine, Japanese notes issued in the Dutch East Indies can be identified by the code letter “S” followed by letters or numbers (Slabaugh, p.19). The “S” stands for Sumatra, and on early notes the “S” was followed by a serial number. Our note has the letters “SG” and no serial number, which tells us that this note was a later issue. After invading Malaya in December 1941, the Japanese had expected to take adjoining Sumatra immediately, and that it would be the first Dutch territory to use invasion currency. However, parts of Sulawesi and Kalimantan fell first (in January 1942), with the Japanese landing in Sumatra in February 1942 (Vickers, p.87).

The language not on CIB,EA.208 is as telling as the Dutch that is. Slabaugh (p.22) writes that Dutch gulders like CIB,EA.208 continued to be issued throughout the Dutch East Indies until the end of WWII. However, the name of the currency was changed to roepiah on notes issued in Java and Sumatra. Detecting anti-Dutch hatred and nationalist feelings in these regions, the Japanese created a puppet government, staffed with local nationalists like Sukarno, in 1943. It was this puppet government that, under Japanese auspices, issued roepiah, using the Malay language to stoke national sentiment (Sneddon, pp.111-113).

It is intriguing that the Malay on the notes is written according to Dutch convention. This complicates the narrative that the Japanese insisted the locals abandon Dutch wholesale.  Does the use of Dutch spelling conventions for Malay reflect a transitional period?

It was the handwritten inscription on CIB,EA.208 that grabbed my attention. Written in blue ink on both sides, it adds another layer to this note. After WWII, the Japanese occupation currency became worthless, and the notes became wartime souvenirs, and handwritten or printed inscriptions were added. Wong Hon Sum, author of The Japanese Occupation of Malaya (Singapore) and Its Currency (p.101) notes that in postwar Malaya, when the British regained control, they turned some $5 Japanese occupation notes into souvenirs by printing “VJ” in a large red font on them. For illustrations of these and other notes, see Asia Money.

The handwritten inscription on the front of CIB,EA.208 reads Pte. P. Shah, Broken Hill, N.S.W., Australia … Balik Papan 1st July 45 …

On 1st July 1945, Australia’s 7th Division landed at Balikpapan, a port town in South Borneo (modern-day Kalimantan), to secure oil processing and port facilities from the Japanese. The last major Australian ground operation of WWII, the Battle of Balikpapan took place as part of the Allies’ 1945 Borneo Campaign. The battle raged till 21st July 1945, resulting in the death of 229 Australians and around 1800 Japanese.

The handwritten inscriptions on the note give a personal name and address: Private P. Shah, of 408 Crystal St., Broken Hill, N.S.W., Australia. A little online research suggests he might have been Pazzle Shah (1922-1989) of Australia’s 2/1st Pioneer Battalion. The son of an Afghan camel driver, Shah was born in Broken Hill, a mining town in New South Wales (The Sun [Sydney, NSW : 1910 – 1954] , Sat 30 Dec 1933, p. 7)

It seems that on the back of the note the word Private has been crossed out, and replaced with Mr. This would tie in with the account on the Australia War Memorial website: “Japan surrendered on 15 August. With the war over the ranks of the 2/1st gradually thinned, as men were discharged or transferred. What was left of the battalion returned to Australia in December and on 18 February 1946 the 2/1st was disbanded.”


    1. Hi Vicki, I’m sorry, I only just saw your note. If you are offering the piece as a donation to the British Museum collection, please could you email me on hwang@britishmuseum.org (ideally with an image of the front and back). If my reply is too late, or you have changed your mind, thank you for getting in touch.

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