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This article analyses demographic change in Southeast Asia’s main cities during and soon after the Second World War Japanese occupation. We argue that two main patterns of population movements are evident. In food-deficit areas, a search for food security typically led to large net inflows to main urban centres. By contrast, an urban exodus dominated in food surplus regions because the chief risk was to personal safety, especially from Japanese and Allied bombing. Black markets were ubiquitous, and essential to sustaining livelihoods in cities with food-deficit hinterlands. In Rangoon and Manila, wartime population fluctuations were enormous. Famines in Java and northern Indochina severely impacted Jakarta and Hanoi through inflows of people from rural areas. In most countries, the war’s aftermath of refugees, revolution, and political disruption generated major rural-urban population relocations. Turmoil in the 1940s had the permanent consequences of augmenting the primacy of Southeast Asia’s main cities and promoting squatter settlement.