Leaving behind the sounds of marching bands and cheering crowds of the ticker-tape parade on the main street on ‘Victory over Japan’ (VJ) Day, I turned into a side street and opened a heavy wooden door to take refuge inside a small pub.
A woman behind the bar welcomed me inside with broken Japanese. From her features, she may have been from somewhere in Southeast Asia. Remembering what the Japanese may have done to her people, I wanted to flee in embarrassment, but she wasn’t looking at me with accusing eyes. Instead, she was smiling, offering me a safe refuge from the celebrations outside that excluded me.
This was one of the many uncomfortable dreams I had when I was a researcher at the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age newspaper’s Tokyo Bureau. After living in Australia for eleven years, I moved back to Japan to work for Australian newspapers, and this gave me the opportunity to learn about the people, politics, and culture of the country of my birth from a diasporic viewpoint. The contract was for three years (between 1992 and 1995), and it was a time when many newspapers were publishing 50th anniversary stories pertaining to the events of World War II.
For a long time after I returned to Australia in 1996, I felt like I was nursing war wounds. The kind of wound associated with guilt. Guilt from the colonialist history of my heritage, and from working with the Australian media and its sensationalist headlines of the time. I often felt I was fanning the flames of past fears and hatreds rather than working towards reconciliation.
My first photographic exhibition was called Unseen Faces of Japan. These were photographs I’d taken during these three difficult years with Fairfax media. Billed as breaking stereotypes of Japanese people, it was a mish-mash of photographs of people from various subcultures in Japan. This exhibition was my attempt to unravel, perhaps even undo, some of the work I had done as part of the mainstream media. The work in mainstream media was not reconciliatory, promoting peace, or showing Japanese people in the best light. The exhibition included a portrait of a Buddhist monk praying outside Japan’s Self Defense Force Headquarters, and that of an elderly Korean woman who had been kidnapped by the Japanese army and abandoned in Khavarosk. I wanted to demonstrate that, unlike what’s generally presented, there were Japanese people who recognised wartime history and wanted peace.
The Heart of the Journey, a multimedia sound and slide show I created with my friend Lucy Dann (an Indigenous woman from Broome) gave me another chance to examine a different aspect of what it meant to be of Japanese heritage in Australia. Lucy found out in her adult life that her biological father was one of the many Japanese men who worked in the pearling industry in the Australia’s far north. We documented our journey to Japan to find her father and the rest of her Japanese family.
The national touring of this work helped me meet like-minded people who worked in areas focused on the Japanese diaspora in Australia, and it also brought me into contact with other Asian Australians who were later pivotal in shaping the course of my work. While presenting The Heart of the Journey in Brisbane, I met historian Yuriko Nagata, who later encouraged me to join the Asian Australian Study and Research Network (AASRN). Anthropologist Keiko Tamura invited me to present this work in Canberra, where I met Jacquie (Jacqueline) Lo for the first time. Jacquie later founded AASRN with her colleagues Tseen Khoo and Dean Chan.
When I first attended AASRN’s 2nd Asian Australian Identities Conference (AAI 2) in 2007, I became aware of the sensitive space that Japanese Australians occupied in Asian Australia’s postcolonial discourse. Encouraged by the generous and warm support of AASRN’s founding members, I understood the importance of having a Japanese Australian voice as part of this Asian Australian community, and began to consciously create work informed and influenced by this voice.
Conversations with Jacquie and her writings on In Repose, my collaborative site-specific multi arts project with dancer Wakako Asano, koto virtuoso Satsuki Odamura and sound artist Vic McEwan on-site Japanese Cemeteries in Townsville, Broome and Thursday Island allowed me to contextualise my work, then find the beginnings of my most recent theatre work Yasukichi Murakami: Through A Distant Lens, a play about a modern day Japanese Australian photographer’s search for photographs of Yasukichi Murakami, a historical Japanese Australian photographer. Yasukichi’s photographs went missing because he was interned during WWII. Yasukichi Murakami: Through A Distant Lens was produced by Annette Shun Wah, Executive Producer of Performance 4a, a professional arts company specialising in contemporary Asian Australian performance works. I met Annette during 2011 AAI conference in Melbourne and introduced formally by Jacquie in Sydney around the same time.
In 2013, Yuriko Nagata, Keiko Tamura, Lorna Kaino, and I founded Nikkei Australia, a group of interested members promoting research, study, arts and cultural practices and community information exchange about the Japanese diaspora, specifically in Australia. We erected an interpretive board with information about Japanese civilian internment during WWII in Australia at the Cowra Japanese War Cemetery where civilians who died during internment are buried, and held an international symposium on the subject of civilian internment in Australia including those of Italians, Germans and Indonesian political prisoners. A corresponding arts program invited artists from other Asian Australian backgrounds to create work on the subject.
While I had earlier felt like I was trying to tackle the memory of a war that I never lived through in person, and the trauma of working with Australian media on my own, actively engaging with other members of AASRN by attending their conferences gave me a philosophical framework to understand my work as part of wider Asian Australia. Jacquie’s writing about other Asian Australian artists and about my own work, allowed me not only to unravel and undo, but to further examine, explore, and reimagine that which wounded me in the first place. I then felt I could create art works for healing. Being part of Tseen Khoo’s social media community also allowed me to feel part of a larger activist group.
It is now 2016, and being part of networks like AASRN and Nikkei Australia has changed everything.
I am no longer feeling so small, isolated and up against a large wall, looking up at an unbreakable ceiling on my own. Instead, I’m part of a dynamic collective of great scholars and creative artists working together as part of a whole.
Thank you, AASRN, and happy 10th birthday!