Bringing Japanese Australian history to life
On February 10-21st this year, Japanese-Australian photographer and writer Mayu Kanamori tells her story of exploring Australia’s past through the lost photographs of Yasukichi Murakami. Murakami was a Japanese photographer, entrepreneur and inventor in pre-war Darwin and Broome. Many of his stunning photographs were lost when he was interned during the war. Showing at Sydney’s Griffin Theatre after sold out performances in Darwin, Broome and Adelaide, ‘Yasukichi Murakami –Through a Distant Lens’ merges Murakami’s and Mayu’s photos with music, performance and video, bringing to life the interplay of their stories.
Mayu has kindly agreed to be interviewed to share her perspective on Australia’s Japanese history and how it connects with the present day. To start with, I asked who was Yasukichi Murakami, and why is it important to tell his story?
Mayu: Most people don’t know much about the Japanese history in Australia before WWII. It is as if the violence of war wiped out all memory of Japanese who were here before and contributed during time of peace. The story of the Japanese in Australia did not begin with war – yet that is as far as people seem to remember.
Sophie: Yes, like many people have heard of Chinatown in Broome, but few have heard of Japtown.
Mayu: Chinatown is Broome’s town centre, where most Asians operated their businesses during Broome’s pearling hey day – including emporiums, food outlets, gambling and boarding houses for the pearl divers and crew. It is now where all the tourists go. Before WWII, it was called Japtown, but this is now forgotten.
It is also forgotten that people like Yasukichi Murakami, an inventive and productive entrepreneur lived here and contributed as a pioneer. He and his business partner Captain A.C. Gregory attempted Australia’s first cultured pearl farm and Murakami invented and patented a diving suit design, which became the basis of the modern day scuba gear. His photographs give a rare insight into a part of a little known Australian history. This year marks the seventieth anniversary of the end of WWII. It is time such contributions of pre war Japanese in Australia be recognised.
Sophie: Why was the heart of Broome called Japtown?
Mayu: By 1920’s there were about 2000 Japanese in Broome, about 1/3 of the total workforce, with their own doctor and school. At the time there were only about 900 European Australians and the rest were Indigenous Australians and other Asian peoples.
Sophie: So Japanese people made up by far the largest proportion of Broome’s population.
Mayu: They were an integral part of the community and highly sought after as good workers in the pearling industry. Often as head divers, the Japanese knew the pearling grounds, and as they became older, they became tenders and trained the younger divers. This meant that the Japanese workers through knowledge passed on amongst each other, became very important in the pearling industry.
Many of those working in the pearling industry were indentured labourers. Many were longer-term residents, which included shopkeepers, business owners and builders.
Some were born in Australia to mixed parentage, including Jimmy Chi (Senior), a British subject born in Broome who had a Chinese father and a Japanese mother. Indigenous Australian Margaret Shiosaki and her Japanese husband Shizuo Shiosaki who owned a laundry business in Broome were also interned with their seven children in Tatura Internment Camp in Victoria during the war.
Sophie: Quite a mixed community then! What do you think are the stereotypes associated with people of Japanese ancestry in Australia, then and now?
Mayu: I think that it goes something like…
Now: Japanese people are stereotyped at being hard working, polite, somewhat boring, reserved, and every now and then, there are very wacky ones. Some stereotypes are often self-perpetuated by the first generation of migrant Japanese, but appear to become less apparent in the second generation both in terms of self-perpetuated stereotypes and also how others perceive them.
Then: The Broome society was stratified as with the rest of Australia with racial stereotypes that would be unacceptable in modern terms. However there are cases like Murakami and Captain A.C. Gregory, who were life-long friends and business partners. Murakami and Gregory acted as leaders of the community by mediating during the racial riots in Broome.
Sophie: I believe Gregory tried to get Murakami released from internment in the early days of the war. Was he successful?
Mayu: No. Yasukichi Murakami, his wife and nine children were interned at Tatura, with other families (single men were at Loveday and Hay camps). Murakami died there in 1944.
Sophie: I find that so sad that he was never released, never got to see the end of the war or his children grow up. Though life after the war wasn’t always easy for Australian Japanese. How do you think Japanese-Australian relations stand today? Do Japanese and Australian people understand each other better?
Mayu: Whether it be in political diplomacy between nations or interpersonal relationships in our daily lives, I think the key to understanding each other is to see ourselves as part of the whole instead of seeing each other as the “other”. In this way we understand that if we are independently centred, correct and gentle with each other, all differences in people can be overcome, appreciated and shared to create together.
There is always room for improvement and always there is change.
Sophie: Thank you very much Mayu for sharing your thoughts and best of luck with the performance in February.
Annette Shun Wah, executive producer of the performance, says that “it is rare on our stages and screens to see Japanese Australians depicted as anything other than enemy soldiers, ruthless businessmen or clueless tourists”. It is indeed refreshing to see a positive story about a Japanese Australian who achieved such a great deal in this country.