Malaya Japanese occupation single-frame overprint - Lin Yangchen
  • Malaya Japanese occupation single-frame overprint

©Lin Yangchen

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Embodiment of the 'unique gunsei philosophy for use in administering occupied people' (Akashi 2008)
developed by Col. Watanabe Wataru, deputy chief of the Japanese military administration in Malaya.

One of the philatelic icons of the Japanese occupation of Malaya is the Gunsei-bu single-frame overprint (sometimes called 'Chop II') inscribed 'Malaya Military Government Division Postal Services Bureau Seal'. It was the first overprint used throughout most of the peninsula.

To meet demand, nine slightly different forms of the steel chops were engraved by hand, although not all of them were used on the coconut definitives (Proud & Rowell 1992). The Heiti (sans-serif) script would have been relatively easy and quick to engrave. Nine aren't that many—there were 21 types of Pakistan's handstamped Lahore SERVICE overprints (Mike Roberts comm.).

The earliest single-frame overprints were produced in Kuala Lumpur from early April 1942 in several shades of violet ink, followed by red, brown and black ink in that order (Coulter 1966). The choice of violet ink was thought to have stemmed from its customary use in the accounts office at the time (Coulter 1966). The brown ink was due to sedimentation (Proud & Rowell 1992), and many intermediate shades of the four main colours exist (Coulter 1966, Proud & Rowell 1992). See Coulter (1966) for a detailed historical account, and Proud & Rowell (1992) for an identification key to the seal types. Overprinting works were subsequently established in Singapore; there remains considerable confusion as to the timings and locations of seals and colours (Coulter 1966); see Gallatly (1962b) and McEwen (2013) for details.

The authorities in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur initially allowed individuals to bring in stamps purchased before the occupation to be overprinted at a charge equivalent to the face values of the stamps. Philatelists exploited this opportunity to proliferate a bewildering variety of colours and values (Dewey 1959b, Proud & Rowell 1992 p. 270).

Furthermore, entire sheets were overprinted, some inverted, for presentation to Field Marshal Hisaichi Terauchi, commander of the Southern Expeditionary Force that had been tasked with the conquest of southeast Asia (Coulter 1966). Ironically, intense acrimony simmered between Terauchi and the man who conquered Malaya, Lieutenant-General Tomoyuki Yamashita (Swinson 1969). Yamashita wrote in his diary as he closed in on Singapore in January 1942: "I can't rely on communications with Terauchi and Southern Army, or on air support from them. It is bad that Japan has no one in high places that can be relied upon…That bloody Terauchi! He's living in luxury in Saigon with a comfortable bed, good food and playing Japanese chess."

There were genuine overprint errors too. Douglass [sic] Ross, a postal clerk in Singapore, overprinted half a sheet of the 10c upside down, being clueless about the Kanji script. Fearing reprisal from his Japanese superiors, he despatched the sheet as far away as possible. The stamps found themselves in northeastern Sumatra (Ricardo 1963), among the batches of Japanese-overprinted Malayan stamps issued in parts of the Netherlands East Indies.

Type 1 of the seal (Proud & Rowell 1992). Left, date slug of pre-war datestamp altered to Japanese year; right, Japanese-made datestamp with Singapore's new name Syonan(-to), "Light of the South".

Two greens and two reds: the rare combination of the single-frame overprint (Proud Type 2) on the alluring $5 was for fiscal use only. Before the war, the $1, $2 and $5 (the largest denomination) had chiefly been for air mail. Stamps bearing early Japanese overprints have a captivating improvisatory disposition, owing to the stopgap measure of painstakingly applying handmade overprints to individual stamps by hand when the postal system was still reeling from the Japanese invasion.

Proud Type 3 (Gallatly Type H). The overprinted 2 cents green (right) is one of the rarest varieties of the single-frame overprint, since most 2c stamps in stock were the orange version by the time the Japanese arrived.

'Black Magic'
(named by the author)
provenance: Milo D. Rowell, June 1999
A rare variety, the Proud Type 4 (Gallatly Type A) single-frame overprint in black ink on the 1c. The Type 4 is characterized by a heavy, sturdy frame, and the characters are often heavy in typographic weight as well. Like the red-on-red shown above, black-on-black is decidedly hard to read and rarely encountered in the postage stamps of the world. There was little concern as to colour contrast between stamp and overprint, since the priority was to deface the king's portrait (Coulter 1965). Aesthetically, it radiates an aura of purity and severity not attained by coloured mixes, juxtaposing the dissonant splendours of European and Far Eastern hand engravings like a modernist drawing. It is all the more special because it is the only instance of a black overprint on a black coconut definitive; no other overprint appears in black on the 1 cent coconut.

Other instances of black on black in the Japanese occupation of Malaya. On the left are quadrilateral and elliptical geometries juxtaposed like the above, while on the right we see a preponderance of neatly spaced orthogonal (right-angled) elements and a face-off between two MALAYAs (Japanese versus British).


Japanese occupation overprints are notorious for forgeries. The proliferation of these forgeries was aided by the enormous variability and inconsistency of the real overprints themselves providing the necessary camouflage under which fakes readily infiltrated. Even genuine examples of a single type of the single-frame overprint are highly variable because of the inconsistency of ink consistency (pun intended). Indeed, forgeries appeared almost as soon as the occupation was over (Cheah 2007). The author has even heard rumours that some of the overprint handstamps still exist, but has not been presented with any evidence.

By 1966, already more than 50 different forgeries of the single-frame overprint were known (Coulter 1966), several of them equal in skill and deceptiveness to those of Gee. The B.P.A. Expert Committee (1959) describes several forgeries not shown in the present article, some of which were thought to have been made in England. Lin (2016) presents arguments for the collection and study of forgeries. Coulter (1966) mentions the existence of a full set of genuine impressions of the 'nine universally accepted single-frame types' in the 'possession of a well-known Japanese philatelist' that serves as an unparalleled 'reference piece for classifying and authenticating die types'. This 'proof sheet' is reproduced in colour in Proud & Rowell (1992).

A forgery of Proud Type 2 and possibly the rare sedimented brown ink, paired with a forgery of one of the most widely forged postmarks—Syonan.

'Medium Rare'
(named by the author)
Nicknamed for its supposed scarcity and delicately chargrilled appearance, this stamp carries a supposed Proud Type 4 (Gallatly Type A) in violet ink, a rare overprint colour on the coconut definitive. Most violet examples are more intense than this unusually ghostly impression. The author has come across two other examples of this forgery offered by two other dealers in two other countries.

'Ring of Fire'
(named by the author)
Coulter (1966) gives an overview of forgeries of the single-frame overprint, although detailed analyses of individual forgeries are not provided. One of the famous forgeries was made in the 1960s by Sydney stamp dealer George Gee (Wells 2005, 2006) using counterfeit blocks most closely resembling Proud Type 5 (Gallatly Type E, Kuala Lumpur). Most of the differences are very subtle and reveal themselves only on scrupulous observation. Once familiar, however, one can tell at a glance that there is something fishy, given especially the crisp jet-black impression.

Another forgery of Proud Type 5, possibly faking the even rarer sedimented brown ink. Reference to the identification key (Proud & Rowell 1992) will reveal subtle but incriminating differences in the frame shape and character weight, not to mention the character shapes themselves.

The famous 'Ceylon Forgery', said to be an early forgery originating from India (Coulter 1966). The ink is more intense than usual. Some, however, purport that this was in fact a legitimate 'tenth' type of the seal, much like a philatelic incarnation of Beethoven's hypothesized Tenth Symphony. It has been claimed that stamps bearing this seal were prepared for use but unissued and eventually sold philatelically at the Nassim Road Post Office in Singapore (Coulter 1966). The seal is distinguished by a mysterious phantom curved stroke between the character at bottom left and the character above it.

Unlike Gee's professional releases, this is one of the 'consumer-grade' products in which many of the Kanji character shapes deviate from any of the nine known types of the seal. A genuine overprint (right) tied with a forged postmark act as decoys. One sees on closer inspection that the frame and characters are sharply and continuously bordered throughout with a very fine but distinct outline. This feature is uncharacteristic and may have been the result of the precision of modern methods used to fabricate the fake seal. In this respect George Gee was more faithful to the original character of the seals. Nevertheless, the present forgery beats those made with crude rubber stamps that produce indistinct characters. The material here appears to be harder, possibly even one of those popular homemade photopolymer stamps cheaply and easily hardened by ultraviolet curing in any desired pattern. The process of ultraviolet hardening of the pattern and subsequent rinsing away of excess unhardened polymer could have produced the incisive outlines seen here.

Close-up of the above showing the uncharacteristically brittle texture of both overprint and postmark.

A crude forgery using a hard die, on which the frame has obviously been carved with the help of a straight edge. The characters demonstrate little calligraphic finesse.

Contrary to popular sentiment, the author argues that handcarved Malaya Japanese occupation overprints are actually forge-resistant. The act of hand-engraving and handstamping the real seals gave them a uniqueness much like signatures or handwriting, making them difficult to replicate exactly. Just like a signature, it does not have to be a complicated design to be effective. And it gives each stamp a unique artisanal disposition. Unfortunately, it can also backfire. A fellow philatelist has related to the author a story about Milo Rowell, the universally recognized connoisseur of Malaya Japanese occupation overprints; Rowell once dismissed a stamp as having a fake overprint when it had in fact come directly from the post office.


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