Mayu Kanamori shines a light on a forgotten story in Australian history



Arisa Yura, Actor, photo by Miho Watanabe
Arisa Yura, Actor, photo by Miho Watanabe

Yasukichi Murakami moved to Australia from Japan in 1897. He lived in Broome as a photographer, entrepreneur and inventor before moving to Darwin with his wife and nine children in 1934. In Darwin he opened his own photographic studio, engaged with the Darwin elite and photographed everything in the town. After the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor he was suspected of being a spy, arrested and imprisoned. He died in detention in Victoria, and his photographs were impounded and lost.  

Mayu Kanamori has been researching the story of Murakami for three years but came about it in a much more unlikely way many years earlier. Kanamori was in Broome in 1998 photographing Indigenous-Japanese people as a part of another project of hers called ‘The Heart of the Journey’. “While I was photographing her portrait, one women told me that her great grandfather was a Japanese photographer as well and that his name was Yasukichi Murakami, that was how I first heard about him and what initially sparked my interest,” Kanomori told Peril Magazine.

Asked why the story of Murakami’s life drew her in, her answer was straight forward, “He is a Japanese photographer that made Australia his home. I too am a photographer, as well as a performance maker, I am from Japan as well and have made Australia my home. It was the similarities that first got my interest.”

Mayu Kanamori, photo by  Miho Watanabe
Mayu Kanamori, photo by Miho Watanabe

However it wouldn’t be until 2011 that Kanamori began her search into Murakami’s life. “I began working on it three years ago to date, I remember exactly because it was the day after the Great Tohoku Earthquake and tsunami, I was in Perth and I met a historian Dr Lorna Kaino, she had done some work on Murakami and we decided to work together,” she said.

Kanamori’s new performance work is entitled Murakami and uses a multi-disciplinary format of projection of images and live actors on stage to bring the story to life. She says the work is a natural progression from the last three works of hers. “Basically I come from a documentary background,” she said, “But I’ve found how I wanted to tell my story and I knew I needed more than photographic exhibitions.”She comes from a theatre family originally and talks of the project as somewhat a natural return to her roots.

“Malcolm Braylock, who is the director, comes from a theatre background professionally, so it has been both our thoughts and our vision together to integrate still photography with performance,” she said. “In the past I’ve used narrated work with images as well as projected interviews. As a furthering of our exploration, this time we’re using characters on stage playing the ghosts of Yasukichi Murakami and other people.”

Finding the photos

When asked how she managed to find the Murakami’s photos for the performance, Kanamori is coy, “The search and how the photographs come to be is all part of the story, so I don’t want to give too much away”. She says the photographs are hugely symbolic in what they represent. “Because of the violence of the Second World War most of the memory of those Japanese who lived in Australia prior to the war has been wiped out.

“There are these iconic photographs of the Australian, like Max Dupain’s Bondi Beach which is meant to symbolise the national collective memory or a collective idea of national identity. The lost photos of Murakami, if you like, represent the collective amnesia that Japanese people have a history before the war. That was clear to me and that was important, that these photos coming up could recover part of the heritage lost, especially for the post-war Japanese diaspora.” But she says the photos are important not just important to Japanese people in Australia but to everyone.

“When I announced I was looking for the photographs and started going around giving talks, so many unexpected people came out of the wood-works, not just the Japanese diaspora, but also Indigenous people from the Dampier peninsular of Broome that through their oral histories remember Yasukichi Murakami.”

She also received unexpected help in her search from government officials in the Northern Territory, local media outlets doing call-outs, as well as numerous librarians, historians and even a contemporary photographer who has a studio in the heritage listed stone houses that Murakami and his family once lived in. “It dawned on me that this is not just about the Japanese diaspora but this is about everyone’s lost history as well. So that was a very good process for me to realise this is a story of importance to the rest of Australia as well”.

Collective amnesia

The performance carries a very powerful message of love and family throughout and it is central to the story, but there is also a political side to the story as well. “The story of Japanese in Australia didn’t begin with the war; that is definitely a very strong message that I wanted to get across. That simple fact has ramifications for the rest of Australia and addresses the collective amnesia.”

Yasukichi Murakami, Courtesy, Murakami family archives
Yasukichi Murakami, Courtesy, Murakami family archives

“Everywhere in Australia there is this collective amnesia, not just around Japanese history but all Asian history that needs to be addressed. Particularly up in the Australian north where it is so ingrained in their history , and the southern and eastern people here are just completely unaware of how mixed that history is, I mean the Asian people in Australia have a long history, much longer in fact than white fellas history on this continent.”

Kanamori and the production team Performance 4A are hoping to raise funds to properly pay the actors for rehearsals in the lead up to the show’s premier at the upcoming Darwin Festival in August. They are also in talks with OzAsia festival in Adelaide and also hope to put on the show in Japan.

Asked if Australian audiences have been responsive to Asian voices telling Asian stories she says that she has always received a positive response. “Most of my work has turned out to be very timely to what’s going on in Australia. The Heart of the Journey was about an Aboriginal woman from Broome who found out in her adult life that her father was actually Japanese and goes out looking for her father.  When that came out it was very timely in that people were starting to understand it wasn’t multicultural issues and then separately indigenous issues, that there was multiculturalism in the Indigenous people as well.”

“I’ve been lucky enough to have had a lot of support from the Asian Australian Study Research Network (AASRN), who almost in direct action against Pauline Hanson and other similar people have formed a strong academic circle and have worked with artists as well to promote learning of the Asian Australian history.

“I think it is becoming understood by the rest of Australia that Asian culture is a very important part of Australia, so the reception of my work has been in line with this sort of historical movement and of course I have been lucky enough to be strongly supported by the rest of Asian Australia as well.

“I’ve always said that the work of AASRN is in a way part of post-colonialism in Australia. I think that for the Japanese diaspora, colonialism and post-colonialism is never such a straight forward issue.”

———————————————————————————————————————– You can find more info on the Murakami project or donate here

Jarni Blakkarly

Author: Jarni Blakkarly

Jarni Blakkarly was Peril's Politics and Arts Editor. He grew up and lives in Melbourne. He started working in journalism interning at Malaysian online news organisation Malaysiakini. Since coming back to Melbourne he has pursued free-lance writing while studying journalism at RMIT. He has been a correspondent on Australian politics for Tokyo-based online publication The Diplomat and has had work published across various publications, including Al Jazeera English, Crikey, ABC Religion and Ethics, Overland and The Conversation. You can follow him on Twitter @JarniBlakkarly.

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