From Albury to Hiroshima, Port Kembla to Tokyo

In my last post I focused on the nitty gritty of adapting to life in a new country. This week, I want to reflect on some of the broader questions that are driving my current research and writing. In the academic world, the myth of objectivity remains potent, despite decades of criticism showing how impossible (and indeed undesirable) it is for us to fully step outside of our own experience. Given the context in which they were written, it is inevitable that my PhD thesis and the book that I based reproduced this culture. Yet at the heart of that project was an interrogation of my political experiences in Australia and Japan. In the process of writing my PhD, I tried to explore some of these connections in a prologue that never made the final cut. Lately I have been re-reading these notes as I try to think about what to do with this great gift of two years in Japan to read and write and think. When I wrote the notes for that never-published prologue, I was trying to grapple with the deep roots of my engagement with Japan. In order to do so I had to dig through my earliest memories of things ‘Japanese’. When I did so I found that these memories were of Hiroshima.

Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes NBNR

It was Eleanor Coerr’s historical novel Sadako and the Thousand Paper Cranes that gave me my first insight into the bombing and its radioactive legacy. Sadako’s story is widely known among Australian schoolchildren of my generation. We heard the story, folded cranes and sent them to Hiroshima as part of a global movement for peace education that was inspired by the tragedy of nuclear war. The plot of the story can be summarised as follows. The main character Sadako Sasaki is two years old when the atomic bomb is dropped on Hiroshima. Ten years later, she develops a mysterious illness which turns out to be leukaemia caused by exposure to radiation from the bomb. As she lies dying in hospital, she finds hope in an ancient myth that anyone who folds one thousand paper cranes will be granted one wish; Sadako’s wish is to live. Desperately conserving every scrap of paper that finds its way to her hospital bed, she even folds cranes out of the silver wrapping paper used for medicines in the hospital. Tragically and inevitably, however, Sadako dies without completing her task. When I was a child, I had this story on cassette tape and thanks to the wonders of what was then the latest cutting-edge (and probably made-in-Japan technology), I could listen to the story through my headphones over and over again.

The second memory of Hiroshima from my early childhood is of my parents’ visit to Japan in 1989, when they made on their way to a medical conference in South Korea. They visited the Peace Memorial Park at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, where a statue of Sadako stands festooned with wreaths of paper cranes sent by children from all over the world. They brought back a souvenir booklet from the memorial which contained numerous photographs of artefacts preserved in the museum. Two of these, a picture of a piece of parchment-like burnt skin and another of a human shadow that was etched into a set of concrete steps by the power of the blast, were burned into my consciousness forever.

Perhaps these early memories and experiences help to explain why, after taking Japanese classes at Albury High School and later in Wollongong at Smith’s Hill, just like tens of thousands of Australian students of my generation, I have continued to study the language for more than twenty five years. I speak near-native Japanese now. When I speak with people in Japan in their native language I am often asked how and why I learned it. I never fail to be shocked by the assumption contained in the question – that it is somehow strange or unusual for someone not born in Japan to learn the language of one of the most populous nations on earth. It is a question that speaks reams about the politics of language in Japan and the dominance of English as a global language. My inquirers are usually shocked when I explain that there was in fact nothing remarkable about studying Japanese in Australia in the early 1990s as it was then national policy to promote Asian language education in schools. In 1997 at the age of 15 I decided to further my language studies by spending a year as an exchange student at a high school in Japan and during that year my mother visited from Australia and we went to Hiroshima; where I could see that burnt skin and etched concrete with my own eyes. Thus for me, the journey to Tokyo begins in a high school classroom in Albury and continues by way of Hiroshima to Wollongong and Tokyo.

Hiroshima Day, Wollongong, 2016
Hiroshima Day, Wollongong, 2016

I feel impelled to grapple in my writing with the ways in which my own life has been entangled in the cultural space between Australia and Japan. For many years I have been thinking about exploring the ways in which nuclear things traverse people, places and things to create links between Australia and Japan. My research so far suggests that little has been written on this topic and I have therefore started to turn my attention to this topic more and more over the past year. In a paper which is currently under review with an academic journal, I explore the ways in which anti-nuclear activism between Australia and Japan has developed since the Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011. Following on from this, I have started looking at earlier activist links between the two countries as well as trying to uncover the role of Japanese capital in the development of uranium mining in Australia. My research so far suggests that Japan’s quest for uranium had a significant impact on the industry’s early development in Australia, although I am still trying to gauge the size of that impact. Certainly it is true that up until the 2011 disaster, Japan sourced some 30 per cent of its yellowcake imports from Australia.

Banner against nuclear power created in Japan and sent to anti-uranium activists in Australia
Banner against nuclear power created in Japan and sent to anti-uranium activists. Photo taken in Australia during Peace Boat tour, 2013.

But the nuclear relationship between Australia and Japan extends beyond uranium mining and nuclear power. Hiroshima and Nagasaki have become a powerful international symbol of the terror of war in general and of nuclear weapons in particular. In Australia, successive waves of peace movement activism from the 1950s onward have looked to Hiroshima and Nagasaki as reference points and pilgrimages to ground zero in Hiroshima, like the one I made in 1997, remain an established part of peace culture in Australia. In a recent arts project involving Indigenous survivors of British nuclear testing in South Australia, for example, artists from the Yalata community created the Tree of Life: Gift of Peace sculpture representing their experience of nuclear harms for the peace park in Nagasaki.

Struggles for peace in Australia and Japan are also shaped by both countries’ relationship with their alliance ‘partner’: the hegemonic global power that is the United States of America and to our respective positions under its so-called ‘nuclear umbrella’. The US empire of bases, which extends across the Pacific, imbricates both Australia and Japan in that fading global superpower’s century-long reign of war and terror, from Korea to Vietnam and from Central Asia to Iraq.

Australia and Japan, like all nations, are essentially fictions created and policed by institutions and ideologies. By focusing on the transnationality of nuclear things, I hope to slip across the hard borders of Australia and Japan and see what role the nuclear plays in their construction as nations and in the bilateral relationships between them. One of my key reference points is the idea of ‘citizen diplomacy’. This is the promise that non-national entities can and do shape international relationships along different pathways and mould alternatives to the diplomacy of the racist militarists who dominate national governments, with their focus on enriching the already rich by fomenting hate and mistrust. We can see an example of this citizen diplomacy in the Indigenous arts project mentioned above, where South Australian victims of nuclear harms worked with local governments in Australia and Japan to create a transnational community of memory for peace and against nuclear weapons.

I will conclude today’s post by reflecting on the Dalfram dispute, one of the most important labour disputes in Wollongong’s history (for an overview see Mike Donaldson & Nick Southall, Against Fascism and War: Pig Iron Bob and the Dalfram Dispute, Port Kembla, 1938). This dispute centred on the issue of pig iron exports to Japan at a time when the Japanese empire was prosecuting a war of aggression on the Chinese mainland. In protest at Japanese atrocities in Nanjing and out of concern that war materiel exported to Japan might return to Australia as bombs and bullets, waterside workers in Port Kembla refused to load pig iron onto a ship that was bound for Kobe. The wharfies’ actions provoked a major industrial dispute that spread to the nearby steelworks. After a bitter struggle, during which the then Attorney General Robert Menzies earned the moniker ‘Pig Iron Bob’ for his determination to supply fascist Japan with BHP scrap, the government finally imposed a ban on the further export of scrap metal to Japan. A few years later the wharfies’ prescience was confirmed when Japan attacked Darwin, an attack from which my great-grandfather Hugh Maegraith was lucky to escape with his life.

In recent years there have been a series of memorial events for the Dalfram dispute to celebrate the Port Kembla waterside workers’ solidarity with the Chinese victims of Japanese aggression. Yet I have always wondered about Japan’s position in all of this. In the late 1930s, Japan was becoming ever more deeply engaged in its war in Asia. We are regularly told that there was little domestic resistance to the war-drive in Japan, yet the fact so many Communists and other dissenters were imprisoned and repressed for their opposition to militarism is testament to the fact that there was some resistance on the road to war. Perhaps one of my goals in exploring the nuclear relationship between Australia and Japan is to investigate the possibility of actions like those that the Port Kembla workers took might also help to rethink and reinvent the relationship between Australia and Japan.

Dalfram Dispute Memorial, Port Kembla
Dalfram Dispute Memorial, Port Kembla

Recent reports in the news media suggest that Japan is becoming the favoured tourist destination for Australians, even surpassing Bali. I would like to think that alongside this explosion in Japan-bound tourism we might also be able to foster a deeper engagement with one another; one that goes beyond touristic voyeurism towards real partnerships in the quest for peace, justice and environmental conservation. Perhaps by looking at the transnational resistance to radioactive harms we might find hints as to how communities that span two national spaces might work together to bring an end to the scourge of nuclear weapons and to the nuclear power plants and uranium mining that have affected us since the dawn of the nuclear age.

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