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Australian forces, occupational hazards

by Jeff Kingston

The presence of Australian servicemen in the U.S.-dominated occupation of Japan (1945-52) is little known, an oversight that is overcome in this vivid and entertaining book. Some 20,000 Aussies served for over six years in Hiroshima and environs, doing their part in the demilitarization, democratization and rebuilding of Japan. The British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF), as the Australian contingent was formally known, made its presence felt, and not always for the good.

TRAVELS IN ATOMIC SUNSHINE: Australia and the Occupation of Japan, by Robin Gerster. Scribe, 2008, 327 pp., $49.95 (hardcover)

Robin Gerster is a superb writer and in his hands the numerous anecdotes, incidents and details of the occupation gleaned from extensive combing of archives, newspapers, diaries and novels come to life. In lesser hands, the wealth of individual observations might weigh down the narrative, but one of the strengths of “Atomic Sunshine” is its concentration on personal encounters and perceptions. This helps us understand the racial tensions of the time and how the occupation affected the occupier. With the occupying forces arriving in Japan bent on revenge against the defeated, the chances of things going wrong were high.

To his credit, Gerster does not try to airbrush out the racist attitudes and inclinations that led to numerous crimes by members of the BCOF against Japanese. It is all the more striking then to discover that many Australians developed respect for and intimacy with the former enemy, overcoming their prejudices in a way that left them out of sync with popular attitudes when they returned home.

Even though soldiers diagnosed with venereal disease risked having their beer ration suspended for 15 days, we learn that many still took their chances with the local “moose,” the Aussie rendering of musume (daughter). Not to mention the widows, wives and girls they encountered in bars, on the streets, in dance halls and as servants. Most of these liaisons were temporary, but there were also many marriages between couples looking for something more than casual sex, despite the best efforts of racist officials to prevent such ties.

Local women were discouraged from taking up with the soldiers by authorities who “warned that if they consorted with the Australians, they would give birth to kangaroos.” Many apparently took their chances due to destitute circumstances and the shortage of Japanese men.

Predatory male sexual behavior? Yes, lots of that, often involving rape, assault and sometimes murder. Combing historical records and firsthand accounts, the author paints a sordid picture, explaining why local Japanese referred to the Australians as yabanjin (barbarian). Gerster writes: “Quite apart from the assaults and rapes was the ruinous cultural violence of men misbehaving because they could.” More often than not, their antics were fueled by excessive drinking, which helps explain why so many Japanese pedestrians were victims of hti-and-run accidents.

The BCOF shined in ceremonial parades and in their guard duties. Their flamboyant changing-of-the-guard displays at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo attracted sightseers and not a little mockery. Many Japanese apparently assumed they were Americans. The author reports that to the extent that the Japanese were aware of the Australians, they saw them as little more than “hyenas feasting on the American kill” and were deemed “uncouth by comparison, ill-educated and ill-disciplined, dressed in shabby uniforms.” The Australians reciprocated the disdain and the first BCOF commander did all he could to avoid even having to shake hands with a Japanese.

The Pacific War left a bitter legacy in Australia as many soldiers had suffered horribly as POWs. Even today, the author asserts, “anti-Japanese sentiment is endemic in the general community.” Among the BCOF, in contrast, many became involved in goodwill projects benefiting Japanese. Alas, many of these veterans also suffer from health problems associated with radiation, but are unconscionably denied the pension and health care benefits normally accorded to servicemen.