During the Japanese Occupation of Penang, the mere mention of one name was enough to strike fear among the local populace.
Most people are familiar with the terror unleashed especially during the early phase of the Japanese Occupation, but few may have heard of the much-feared chief police officer of Butterworth, Tadashi Suzuki. Of average height, handsome even, he had unusually long hair, reaching his shoulders.
“He was the first real hippy I’d seen,” says an eye-witness, still alive and in his late 80s now. Except that this was no peace-loving flower-power dude. Far from it.
The eye-witness, a teacher in his late teens back then, recalls being stopped one morning while cycling in town and herded towards an open space opposite the present-day Telekom building along Jalan Bagan Luar (see slideshow above). Others had wisely fled the scene. There a small crowd of about a dozen reluctant onlookers had gathered, a short distance away from the gruesome scene that was about to unfold.
Before them, a 17- or 18-year-old youth lay awaiting a public execution. He had been held in a prison at the police garrison in Butterworth. The youth was on the ground crouched, his head in the direction of a pit in the earth, presumably freshly dug by the hapless victim himself.
Suzuki stretched out his hand, swirled his sword down and beheaded the youth. The body slumped and lurched forward into the pit.
The small crowd gasped with shock and horror. They had never seen anything like it.
Later, the severed head was carried solemnly by a Punjabi officer from the police garrison and paraded along Jalan Bagan Luar Road. Another witness, a teenaged girl living along the road, recalls being filled with terror and hiding in her home along that road. At the intersection in Bagan, the severed head was mounted on a four-feet-high stool with a circular hole in the seat so that the neck could be inserted in and the head propped up on the seat for all to see.
This execution was carried out on 31 December as part of a ritual, ahead of the important Japanese celebration of New Year, some time in the middle of the Japanese Occupation (1941-1945).
During the Occupation, beheadings were also carried out in the open space near the present ferry terminal, between the site of the old Barkath Store and the present Butterworth Convent Secondary School, where the clock tower later stood. One schoolboy, now in his 80s, was passing by as Suzuki was about to execute a middle-aged Chinese man at this site. “We were terrified,” he recalls. “The name Suzuki was enough to create much fear among the local people back then.”
He remembers seeing a couple of severed heads, almost blackened, placed on the pontoon bridge (now no longer there) in present day Mak Mandin/Permatang Pauh. Another execution site was on the Prai side of the Prai River, near the chain ferry that used to cross the river to Chain Ferry Road in Butterworth (now replaced by a bridge).
On the island, public executions were carried out at the site of the police headquarters along Penang Road. One local in Penang witnessed 12 heads on spikes at Magazine Road. An historian told me that the Recsam site in Gelugor was another execution site. An officer named Suzuki is also mentioned in the Penang War Museum as an executioner at the fort of the occupied British garrison located on the hillock in Batu Maung.
In the book, The Sara Story, the then editor of the now defunct Straits Echo, Manicasothy Saravanamuttu, noted that Suzuki was known in Tamil circles as Thalaivetty (literally, head-cutter). He had a Ceylonese Muslim interpreter by the name of Mohd Raphay, whose father was a jeweller in Kobe, Japan before the war.
Raphay told Sara that Suzuki believed that anyone who was beheaded by him would go straight to heaven as the sword he had was supposedly given to him by the then Japanese Emperor.
Sara described Suzuki, who was known as a terror in Penang, as having shoulder-length hair and a bristling moustache. In one anecdote, he wrote about how Suzuki, when he became the Penang Fire Brigade chief, forced a Municipal Engineer to eat cement dust for failing to carry out his work satisfactorily.
In another tale, he recounted how Suzuki chased the Japanese State Secretary round and round a table with a drawn sword during New Year celebrations. Presumably, some of the guests may have had too much to drink. Suzuki was believed to have enjoyed some immunity for his actions as his uncle, Count Suzuki, was the Grand Chamberlain of the imperial household in Tokyo, wrote Sara.
Suzuki died on board the ship Awa Maru, which was sailing back to Japan in early 1945 with top officers to prepare for the defence of Japan, when it was sunk by an American submarine.
Have you heard of Suzuki, the executioner? If you have, share with us what you know.