Australia-Japan Relations: No Hostage to War Memory

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Australia-Japan Relations: No Hostage to War Memory

In the long term, reconciliation efforts and growing commercial relations with Japan helped dim bitter Pacific War memories in Australia.

Australia-Japan Relations: No Hostage to War Memory

The post-war interrogation of Military Police (Kenpeitai) Sergeant Hosotani Naoji near Sandakan, northeast Borneo, in October 1945.

Credit: Public Domain

One of the most emblematic photographs related to Japanese World War II atrocities against Australians shows the post-war interrogation of Military Police (Kenpeitai) Sergeant Hosotani Naoji near Sandakan, northeast Borneo, in October 1945. Sandakan was the site of a Japanese labor camp established in 1942 for Australian and British prisoners of war (POWs). By January 1945, with an allied invasion of north Borneo seemingly imminent, the camp commanders were ordered to send its prisoners through 260 kilometers of jungle and mountainous terrain to Borneo’s Ranau district.

Over five months, successive groups of malnourished prisoners were marched through the jungle. Prisoners who fell out were shot, bayoneted, or bludgeoned to death. Those too ill to join the marches were left to die or were killed. The emaciated men who reached Ranau died off under a regime of forced labor, starvation rations, and brutality; in August 1945, the last survivors were shot. 1,787 Australian and 641 British prisoners are estimated to have died during the Sandakan Death Marches. Six Australian escapees survived.

Hosotani confessed to shooting five ethnic Chinese civilians suspected of aiding local guerrillas and two Australian POWs on the way to Ranau. He was convicted of war crimes and executed by firing squad in March 1946, one of 137 Japanese and colonial Korean servicemen sentenced to death and executed by Australian military court orders.

In July 2014, in a speech to the Australian Parliament, Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo mentioned Sandakan and the Kokoda campaign of 1942, a protracted battle in which Australia’s armed forces repelled a Japanese advance into New Guinea. While speaking of “staying humble against the evils and horrors of history” and expressing the Japanese people’s “most sincere condolences towards the many souls of those who lost their lives” Abe did not explicitly apologize for Japan’s past war crimes against Australians.

Australia’s then-Prime Minister Tony Abbott, foreign policy scholars, and leading media outlets responded positively to Abe’s speech, with its vows never again to repeat “the horrors of the past,” and its vision for closer economic and security ties between Australia and Japan based on “shared values.” Abe and Abbott later signed an agreement on the “transfer of defense equipment and technology” signaling a closer strategic partnership between Japan and Australia. It fell to the Australian Defense Force veterans’ organization, the Returned and Services League of Australia (RSL) — a long-time custodian of Australian war remembrance — to express disappointment at the lack of mention of Japan’s war crimes.

In his speech, Abe invoked Sandakan and Kokoda, knowing their place in Australia’s war memory pantheon. But he also calculated rightly that contemporary pragmatism in Australia-Japan relations was prevailing over any residual anti-Japanese war memory, amid stirrings of anxiety over China’s assertiveness in Asia. Of course, as Abe also knew, such pragmatism was a long time in the making in post-war Australia-Japan relations. In light of the war and colonial memory controversies in Japan’s relations with its neighbors, it is useful to understand how Australians have worked out their own war memory in relations with Japan and to ask what lessons can be drawn from that understanding.

The first thing to note is that World War I looms large in Australia’s government-sponsored and popular war remembrance. Memorialization of Australia’s war with Japan has grown in its shadow. Almost from the time Australian and New Zealand soldiers or “ANZACs” commenced their First World War participation in April 1915 during the Gallipoli Campaign in Turkey, their fighting prowess and national characters were being mythologized by war correspondents, artists, and filmmakers.

By the war’s end an “ANZAC legend” commemorating sacrifice — and military triumph — was becoming a civil religion in both nations. In Australia particularly, the baptism of fire at Gallipoli came to be seen as the “birth of the nation,” under the British Empire’s protective mantle. Remembrance of those who served in subsequent wars was assimilated into government- and RSL-sponsored monuments, ritual commemorations, and popular iconography established during and after World War I.

In 1992, Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating tried to distance Australian war commemoration from its entanglements with the “mostly imperial” European conflicts of the world wars. During a well-publicized visit to New Guinea, he nominated the Kokoda campaign as a new focus for Australian war remembrance. Keating differentiated Kokoda from the European conflicts by asserting — on dubious historical grounds  — that at Kokoda Australians had fought to “prevent an invasion of Australia.” For Keating, this new focus was more appropriate for a now multicultural, Asia-oriented Australia.

The new focus on Kokoda, and on Australia’s Pacific War experience, ultimately contributed to a diversification rather than reorientation within Australian war remembrance. Thanks to 1980s films like Peter Weir’sGallipoli” and government promotion, ANZAC mythology had already been updated in a new “war memory boom,” accommodating more egalitarian, progressive, and anti-British imperialist outlooks. The Kokoda track in New Guinea joined, rather than supplanted, ANZAC Cove in Turkey as a site of war pilgrimage for young Australian tourists. With the late 20th-century war memory emphasis on suffering and trauma, Australian soldiers could be memorialized as victims of bungling British generals in World War I, and of vicious Japanese prison camp guards in World War II. But in today’s more diversified war memory-scape, there is little taste for particularized resentment against the Japanese.

Also noteworthy, then, is the decline of popular anti-Japanese war memory. Anti-Japanese sentiment had in fact encroached into the ANZAC legend at its inception. Historians have shown that White Australia Policy laws formulated in 1901 to exclude non-White immigrants were partly inspired by fears of Japanese invasion and racial takeover. Australia’s World War I Prime Minister Billy Hughes alluded to Japan — then a wartime ally — in declaring the conflict in Europe to be a struggle for White Australia. At the Paris Peace Conference in 1919, he trumpeted Australia’s wartime sacrifice and opposed a racial equality treaty amendment proposed by the Japanese delegation. Hughes’ White Australia advocacy had the full backing of the RSL’s predecessor, the Returned Soldiers and Sailors League. In 1941, national leaders also framed the Pacific War as a defense of White Australia.

After 1945, public hostility to renewing relations with Japan reflected anger over war atrocities, fears of Japanese resurgence, and “White Australia” racism. Anxieties persisted in the RSL about Japanese economic infiltration and migration close to Australia even as peace and trade treaties were concluded with Japan in the 1950s. Personified by abrasive spokesmen like Bruce Ruxton, the RSL remained a prominent critic of Asian immigration and Japanese investment for decades after the final dismantlement of the White Australia Policy in 1973. 

In the long term, reconciliation efforts and growing commercial relations with Japan helped dim bitter Pacific War memories. From the 1970s, anti-Asian racism gradually abated as successive Australian governments accepted more Asian immigrants and promoted multiculturalism, including in official war remembrance. Changing RSL attitudes were signaled by an official Japan tour for its leadership in 2000, with a visit to Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine. Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s 2002 visit to the shrine provoked criticisms from war veterans and some RSL leaders, but others expressed cautious understanding of Koizumi’s motives. In 2001 Tom Uren, a prominent left-wing politician and former POW, and Jan Ruff-O’Herne, a former Dutch civilian captive in wartime Java abducted to and sexually abused in a Japanese “comfort station,” spoke for some Pacific War survivors in expressing forgiveness

Diversified war memory, the attrition of anti-Japanese resentment, and economic and strategic interests in East Asia all underwrite the current bipartisan pragmatism in Australia’s relations with Japan. Abe recalled in his 2014 speech that this pragmatism was manifested early in Australian Prime Minister Robert Menzies’ reconciliatory gestures toward his grandfather, Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, whom Menzies invited to Australia in 1957 to sign a commerce treaty. Australia-Japan trade increased rapidly thereafter, foreshadowing the 21st century strengthening of strategic ties.

Can states whose relations with Japan are burdened by fraught colonial and war memory politics – such as South Korea –  learn from the foreign policy pragmatism of peer Asia-Pacific nations like Australia? Perhaps not. South Korea’s Japanese foreign policy largely remains hostage to culture wars between right- and left-wing Korean constituencies over the colonial and post-colonial past, waged with far greater intensity than Australia’s own “history wars.” South Korean governments still lack the political capital to prioritize foreign policy pragmatism over a powerful anti-Japanese nationalism, though changing East Asian geopolitics may incentivize a resolution to that impasse.

Meanwhile, lessons from Australia’s Pacific War memorialization are applicable elsewhere. Australian leaders can express disapproval when Japanese right-wing factions alienate regional neighbors by denying past war crimes and colonial abuses, in their attempts to revive nationalism and justify increased military strength. Present-day instability in East Asia provides better reasons for Japan, Australia, and like-minded regional states to collaboratively enhance their military capabilities. But memory of the horrors inflicted by Japanese militarism can also inform Australian efforts to maintain peace in the Asia-Pacific, and help counter China’s rise as a revanchist, militarizing power.