Books / Reviews

Larrikin notions of civilization

by Gregory Clark

TRAVELS IN ATOMIC SUNSHINE: Australia and the Occupation of Japan, by Robin Gerster. Scribe Publications, 2008, 336 pp., $49.95 (cloth)

Robin Gerster is a respected university- based researcher into recent Australian history. This, his latest book, is a very well-written and very detailed account of Australia’s brief attempt (1946-1952) to occupy and “civilize” its large northern neighbor, Japan. The result, needless to say, was less than successful, though interesting.

Even before the Pacific War, Australian soldiers had a reputation for bravery, initiative, indiscipline and larrikinism (an Australian term that means at times you can indulge in willful havoc). War over, the United States agreed that they could join in the occupation of Japan as members of a British Commonwealth force (BCOF), which they would command. The Australian component, which would eventually reach some 17,000, was made to base itself in the unprepossessing, bombed-out port and industrial city of Kure, near Hiroshima.

From the start, there were problems. The senior Australians did not get on well with their British opposite numbers, who decided to withdraw the British component after only two years, complaining that the force served little useful purpose anyway. Meanwhile, the Australian soldiers quickly ignored the order not to fraternize with the natives. Soon the prediction by Donald Richie — “the greatest head-on cultural collision of modern times” — was to be unleashed.

Gerster’s litany of misdeeds — theft, rape, reckless driving, rampant black-marketeering, even murder — is larrikinism rampant. Sex and wild drinking seemed to be the other main diversions. Even a visiting Australian army minister had to confess to “a notable absence of spiritual and moral outlook on the part of the troops.” True, those Australians had little reason to love Japan. But for the grit and heroism of the Kokoda Trail battles in New Guinea, Australia could well have been attacked and occupied.

Japanese treatment of Australian war prisoners had been especially brutal. According to one American observer, Herbert Passin, and quoted by Gerster, Australians “carried a heavy animus against the Japanese, and had fewer inhibitions than American combat veterans about displaying it.” Japanese with Occupation memories still rate the Australians as much worse behaved than the Americans. Gerster says they were called yabanjin (savages). But he then goes on to say that “for every Jap-hating soldier who confined his interaction with the local people . . . there was the inquisitive young traveler keen to take a look at a country so different from his own.”

The fact that some could bring their families with them had a civilizing effect. Sympathy for the poverty and devastation the occupiers saw on every side also helped. One ex-prisoner of war, Kenneth Harrison, saw Hiroshima immediately after the bombing. His quoted words should be engraved in the Hiroshima peace monument: “Our brother Man went by crippled and burned and we knew only shame and guilt.” And this was from a man who had been a slave laborer both on the Thai railway and in the Japanese coal mines.

But despite the close Occupation encounter, Japan remained distant and inscrutable for most Australians. Australia failed to produce anything like a Donald Richie, a Herb Passim, or a Donald Keene or any of the other notable students of Japan to emerge from the U.S. Occupation era.

The best Australia could do was the writer Hal Porter who had spent some time with the Occupation force and was later funded generously by Canberra to return and write a book that would hopefully add to the emerging economic relationship. The final product, entitled “The Actors,” was an ugly attempt to portray Japan as an artificial, robotic society where people refused to show true feelings. Australians who stayed on after the Occupation were an unhappy, disoriented lot, he said, reduced to bar-club crawling and Sunday morning drink sessions in Shinbashi.

Pre-war Australia had had little interest in Japan. It did not even have a Tokyo embassy; it relied on the British for representation and Japan analysis. Even in the war years it did much less than the U.S. to train Japanese speakers for interrogation and deciphering duties. Gerster makes the relevant point that having its soldiers fight against and be captured by the Japanese was in effect Australia’s first serious contact with Asia. Negativity was to be expected.

Racism too was a factor. Postwar Canberra refused until 1952 to allow entry for the several hundred Japanese women married to Australian occupation soldiers. Gerster quotes a leading Australian politician, Arthur Calwell, at the time: “It would be the grossest act of public indecency to permit a Japanese of either sex to pollute Australian or Australian-controlled shores.” A common Occupation theme was the need to “civilize” the Japanese.

First “civilizing” priority, it seems, was to punish those seen as responsible for POW atrocities. Gerster gives detailed numbers for those tried in the field, and promptly executed. Injustices were inevitable given the language barrier. The Australians had a word for these quick and arbitrary affairs — “kangaroo court.”

But perhaps the greatest kangaroo court of them is still not realized in Australia, even by Gerster. In the chaotic final stages of the war, starving Japanese soldiers on Bougainville Island near New Guinea had taken to the jungle rather than obey orders for futile suicide attacks on the advancing Australians.

Rounded up at war’s end into camps, the language-deficient Australians entrusted camp discipline to the very same Japanese officers as those who had ordered the suicide attacks. These fanatics then set about organizing their own secret courts to punish the alleged deserters. Worse, they then were able to persuade the Australians that these men had to be punished for breaking camp discipline and other offenses.

Sent back to Japan in shackles, they continued to be imprisoned for desertion. Many died. The survivors were forced to live out their lives in disgrace and were refused the pensions given to all other ex-soldiers. In the early 1970s, one finally picked up the courage to protest, and I got to write something about it for an Australian newspaper.

But Canberra was not interested. To this day the Australia that was so keen to punish the Japanese who had killed its soldiers also accepts in effect that it was right to punish those who refused to kill its own soldiers. One way or another, it is symbolic of the confused way Australia set about trying to deal with the Japan it helped defeat, and of the way it has been trying to do business with Japan ever since.

Gregory Clark is a longtime resident of Japan. His writings on Japan-Australia relations can be found on