The roots and consequences of Australia’s fear of Japan
I wrote this essay in 1998 in my Honours year in History
at Macquarie University
Japan has been a greater factor in twentieth century Australian politics than any other country except Britain.1 Fear of Japan led our rulers to shape and reshape Australian politics, economic policy, military strategy, diplomacy and population policy from the mid 1890s into the 1960s. At the same time, Japan’s rapid economic growth right through this century has also held out the prospect of profits for Australian industries, a prospect that was taken up with some energy during times of depression — the 1890s and the 1930s — before being spurned both times.2 It was not until after the slaughter of the Second World War that the potential of the Japanese market was embraced unambiguously, becoming — along with American capital and immigrant labour — one of the keys to Australia’s post-war industrial development. But making profits from the Japanese market put little pressure on our governments to reverse the decades of racism, fear and hate towards Japanese people. Indeed it took them until 1966 to formally end the “White Australia” policy and another decade to legislate against racial discrimination. Even today, more than half a century after the Second World War, anti-Japanese racism remains a potent factor in Australian politics, and many of Australia’s political leaders, including the current Prime Minister, seem willing to accept the risks involved in tolerating it.
This essay will look at the roots and consequences of Australia’s fear of Japan. In particular, it will argue that Japan’s victory over Russia in 1905 proved a seminal event in Australian history, dramatically affecting nation-building strategies, Australia’s involvement in the First World War, and Australia’s orientation to its Great Power friends. I will also look at the role of the Second World War, the mythology which emerged from that war to sustain anti-Japanese racism into the 1990s, and the reasons our leaders have chosen to accept, rather than challenge, anti-Japanese sentiment with all its economic and political dangers.
It was not hard for Australians to be taught to hate Japan, even though Japan had virtually no impact on Australian politics before 1895. Several decades of racist agitation against the Chinese had created a profound fear of the “Asian hordes”. When Japan went to war with China in 1894 and gained complete control of the Korean peninsula, it showed itself to be a rising military power and this had an immediate effect on Australian politics. The Sydney Morning Herald warned of “the presence in the Pacific of a warlike and resourceful Power, whose existence is as important to us as though an ambitious European nation had established herself as our near neighbour.”3 In 1895, colonial military exercises involved repelling an imaginary Japanese naval attack on Sydney Harbour and the legislation which prevented Chinese immigration into most Australian colonies was immediately broadened to include all Asians.4 When Federal Parliament came to debate its first legislation, the Immigration Restriction Act to establish a “White Australia”, Attorney-General Alfred Deakin declared that the Act was “primarily aimed against the Japanese.”5
However Japan’s victory over Russia in the war of 1904-5 unleashed a new dynamic in Australian politics — a fundamentally militarist dynamic. An Asian country had defeated one of the great powers of Europe. For the first time, the “Yellow Peril” had acquired a visible, military dimension for many Australians, despite the fact that Britain had an alliance with Japan, and despite Japan having shown neither hostility nor ambition towards Australia. Three weeks after the decisive naval battle at Tsushima, Alfred Deakin made his first serious statement on defence since Federation. With the growth of the navies of the US, Germany and Japan, Australia was now within striking distance of sixteen foreign naval stations, the strongest being Yokohama. “Japan at her head-quarters is, so to speak, next door while the Mother Country is many streets away.”6 To add to this new danger, British concern about German aggression led them to withdraw their five battleships in the Pacific to the North Sea to meet the growing German naval challenge.7
Two political campaign groups were set up in the wake of Japan’s victory: the National Defence League, led by Labor’s militarist, William Morris Hughes, and the Immigration League, led by Richard Arthur. Alfred Deakin was involved in both. The National Defence League took up Hughes’ call for compulsory military training for all adults; and agitated for the founding of an Australian navy, a navy that would be committed to Australian defence and not subject to priorities determined from London. Hughes had twice introduced private members’ bills for compulsory training — in 1901 and 1903 — but had received little support even from his own party. By 1907, most of Parliament had swung around to support Hughes and Hughes had shifted his argument. Whereas in 1901 and 1903 he had talked of threats in general from Europe and Asia, he now focused primarily on Japan and the “White Australia” policy, arguing: “Nothing but the fact that America possesses a population of 80 millions…does, I believe, cause Japan to hesitate to declare war.”8 He was supported by the Minister for Defence, Tom Ewing, who had previously denounced Hughes’ proposals as extravagant. In the Senate, Labor’s George Pearce, who had opposed Australian involvement in the Boer war, documented his own conversion.
There was a time when I deprecated any attempt by Australia to take any part in militarism. It is only the developments in Asia…that have converted me… I have never feared, nor do I now fear, the invasion of Australia by any European nation… But I do recognise that in the East there are peoples alien to us in race, religion and ideas, industrial and social… The only doctrine that these races respect is the doctrine of force. Our White Australian legislation is so much waste paper unless we have rifles to back it up.9
Until 1905, the Australian colonies, and subsequently the new federal government, had subsidised a modest Royal Navy presence in Australian waters. There had long been individual voices advocating an Australian navy, but they had gained little headway due to the immense cost involved,10 the threat it would pose to relations with the United Kingdom, and the lack of a visible threat to justify it. Japan’s victory in 1905 saw both the Protectionists and Labor swing behind the idea of founding an Australian navy. It took four years of debate to resolve an acceptable format, with the first ships commissioned in 1911.
The Immigration League set out to promote British immigration, specifically to counter the supposed threat to Australia caused by the rise of Japan. Labor’s politicians gave up their traditional hostility to assisted immigration. As early as the 1905 federal conference, party leader Chris Watson linked concern about Japan to northern development.
It was a great menace to have so much unpeopled territory when there were nations now slowly unfolding themselves as great powers and who would exercise in the Pacific an almost dominating influence on the destinies of Australia. They urgently required population.11
John Merritt notes that Pearce began worrying about Australia’s small population and large spaces after the Russo-Japanese war,12 while William Morris Hughes wrote that “the national safety of Australia” — and by that Hughes always meant the threat from Japan — “hangs on the complete and speedy absorption of large numbers of suitable immigrants.”13 Labor wanted immigrants to go on the land, and not compete with workers in the urban labour market, so they linked immigration to their longstanding proposals for a land tax, which they believed would open up significant areas to small farming by breaking up some of the big estates.14 The States resumed assisting British immigrants, such that the years 1911-13 saw net immigration of 229,000,15 an historically high level. To underscore the link between immigration and defence, money raised in 1909 to help Britain build another battleship (to rival Germany’s Dreadnought) was ultimately handed over to the British Immigration League to bring British children as immigrants to NSW.16 Australia’s massive immigration program after the Second World War was also initially driven by fear of a future Asian military challenge.17
There is also evidence that the threat from Japan and the need for a greater population contributed to the collapse of free trade politics in Australia between 1907 and 1909. William Morris Hughes was a leader of the free trade wing of the Labor Party, and his biographer, LF Fitzhardinge, noted the shift in their thinking: “So far as the ‘White Australia’ policy was economic, they came to see that tariff protection…was its necessary complement.”18
Fear of Japan began to saturate the media. The most important labour movement newspaper, The Worker, would always run highlights from Hughes’ speeches and the most common theme was the Japanese.19 In The Age, an advertisement for a doctor visiting Melbourne and drumming up custom from the worried was headed “War between Japan and America/Grave danger to Australia”. The idea was that every country needs strong, healthy men, so the unwell should consult Dr Kugelmann personally.20 Invasion literature became widespread, promoted especially by the Lone Hand, a new literary magazine established in 1907 by The Bulletin.21 When US President Roosevelt sent the Atlantic fleet into the Pacific to intimidate Japan, an estimated 300,000 people lined the foreshore of Sydney Harbour to welcome it, the largest demonstration of feeling in Australian history to that point. The renegotiation of the Anglo-Japanese alliance in 1911 provoked another bout of hysteria in Australia.
It is important to keep in mind through all this that Japan had done absolutely nothing hostile or predatory towards Australia (or Britain) to earn this hysteria and fear — indeed it was an ally of Britain’s. Yet based on its imperialist push into China and its victory over a declining Russia, it had been the catalyst for the founding of an Australian Navy, the introduction of compulsory military service, a new drive for mass immigration, and perhaps also the establishment of protectionism as the country’s settled fiscal policy.
The logic of Australia’s new militarism and its fear of Japan was played out during the First World War, when Japan was an ally. There was agitation in the Australian government when Japan seized Germany’s island possessions north of the equator, to the point where troops were kept from going overseas for three months from February to May 1915, for fear they might be needed for action against Japan.22 Prime Minister William Morris Hughes visited London in 1916, and returned with all “his suspicions of Japan’s real intentions confirmed...fear of Japan had become an urgent apprehension amounting almost to an obsession”.23 Hughes began campaigning for conscription to maintain the flow of soldiers to the front, and called a secret session of both houses of parliament. Major EL Piesse, Director of Intelligence in the Prime Minister’s Department, later wrote:
The proceedings were not published, but it was...widely believed that an authoritative statement had been made to the meeting that Japan would challenge the White Australia policy after the war, that Australia would need the help of the rest of the Empire, and that if she wished to be sure of getting it she must now throw her full strength into the war in Europe.24
When compulsory military training had been finally introduced, in 1911, it had aroused unexpected opposition, especially within the labour movement, opposition which became strong enough to be reported in the newspapers and cause ripples of discontent in Parliament.25 Now in 1916, in the face of Hughes’ war demands, this blossomed into a full blooded campaign against conscription which was fuelled by a broader, working class discontent with Labor over declining wages, rising rents, unsympathetic arbitration, insipid trade union leadership, as well as the madness of slaughter in the name of the empire. Faced with Hughes’ intransigence, the urban unionists of the Labor Party expelled the Prime Minister and split the party.26 Sixty thousand Australians, mostly workers, were to die in the war out of a population of just five million — a huge price to pay for the government’s fear of Japan.
Australian governments became obsessed with the need to control the islands to Australia’s north. During the First World War itself, the Australian government tried unsuccessfully to get Britain to agree that Australia, not Japan, should control the former German territories north of the equator. At the Versailles peace conference in 1919, Australia fought for untrammelled control of the former German territories south of the equator that it had seized at the start of the war — the northern half of New Guinea, Bougainville, Rabaul and the German New Hebrides. Prime Minister Hughes spelled out his concern:
Strategically the Pacific Islands encompassed Australia like a fortress. New Guinea was…only 82 miles from the mainland. South East of it was a string of islands suitable for coaling and submarine bases from which Australia could be attacked… Any strong power controlling New Guinea controlled Australia.27
This was no new fear; Victoria had been on the brink of war over the French seizure of part of the New Hebrides in the 1870s. The Versailles conference was proposing a new system of mandates, allowing colonial powers to administer territories formally controlled by the League of Nations. However this was not good enough for Hughes, because Australia would have been forced to allow an “open door” in these territories. Hughes believed New Guinea would become “a Japanese or Japanese and German country” within ten years.28 Hughes’ campaign saw the establishment of the C-class mandate, which permitted the mandatory state to impose its own laws. The first legislative act of the Commonwealth in respect of its new mandated territories was to apply the Immigration Restriction Act. Australia’s interest in PNG as a whole was never primarily economic, but military and the territories were kept in a state of profound underdevelopment.
The experience of the Second World War revived Australian demands for control over the south-west Pacific. Once the tide had turned in the Pacific war, Foreign Minister, HV Evatt, suggested to America that:
the two nations should divide control of the Pacific between them along a “natural line of defense” stretching from Timor, through Dutch and Australian New Guinea, New Britain, New Ireland, the Solomons, the New Hebrides, New Caledonia and New Zealand.29
In January 1944, Nelson Johnson, US Minister in Canberra, wrote to Washington that,
We are told by another [Australian] Cabinet member that Evatt has definitely in mind Australian sovereignty over all Solomons, Hebrides, and Fiji groups…30
America rebuffed Evatt’s bid; one official describing it as an attempted “co-prosperity sphere” in the South Pacific.
Fear of Japan gave Australia’s orientation towards imperialism a second dimension: the attempt to ensure colonial and later US control over the region. In 1918, in a speech aimed directly and accusingly at Japan, Hughes warned “Hands off the Pacific! is the doctrine to which by inexorable circumstances we are committed. We rejoice that France has interests in the Pacific, and that Holland…is our neighbour in Java and New Guinea.” There was also a deepening of links with Britain after the war, what Greg Melleuish has called a:
narrowing of cultural contacts which Australia had developed with other nations [such as Germany, the United States and Scotland], with the result that England became the dominating influence on high culture in a way that it had not been before 1914.31
Large scale assisted immigration was revived from Britain, and the states looked again to Britain for loans to finance infrastructure development. Another writer argues that, “Hughes’s [sic] splitting of the Labor Party in 1917 inaugurated a fifty-year period of Anglo-Australian feeling” during which “there was deference to things English”.32
Yet during the 1930s, the strategy of relying on Britain for defence began to be questioned. By 1935, the Australian government was drawing the conclusion that the Royal Navy could not be relied on to defend either Australia or Britain’s own colonies from an attack by Japan.33 And this unsustainable military strategy had an economic price: Australia gave substantial tariff preference for British imports. Meanwhile Japan’s manufacturing sector had, through the 1920s, become a substantial buyer of Australian exports to the point where it was the second largest market for Australian wool, even surpassing Britain as the largest in 1935.34 Japan’s dynamic growth helped pull Australia out of the Depression. At the same time, Japan’s cotton goods exports were penetrating the Australian market at the expense of British products which had a 25% tariff advantage. Lancashire manufacturers started campaigning for Japanese exports to be restricted. The Australian government decided to protect the British manufacturers, using the dispute as an opportunity to force Britain to guarantee its market for beef in Britain which was threatened by Argentinian exports. Australia launched a trade war with Japan (and also with the US), imposing punitive tariffs on Japanese cotton and rayon goods. The Japanese responded by boycotting wool sales. The bitter dispute was finally resolved, but Japanese trade with Australia never fully recovered. Meanwhile consumers paid excessive prices for cotton and other goods, simply to sustain declining British industries. While the responsible Australian cabinet minister, Sir Henry Gullett, hoped this Trade Diversion would make a “significant indirect contribution to defense [sic]”,35 a more ominous logic was spelled out by JP Abbott, president of the Graziers’ Association of NSW:
If you say to Japan, with a population increase of 1,000,000 a year, that she must not emigrate her nationals, nor shall we take her goods, there is only one alternative, and that is war, and bloody war, in the Pacific.36
Wool and cotton were not the only trade disputes Australia had with Japan. A proposal to build a massive Japanese iron mine at Yampi sound was approved, and then suddenly stopped in 1938.37 Attempts to export pig iron from Port Kembla in 1938 were met with resistance by trade unionists, protesting against the Japanese invasion of China.38 American academic Jack Shepherd drew a depressing conclusion the year before Pearl Harbour.
Australia…helped confirm Japan in her conviction that her dependence upon foreign sources of essential supplies constituted a weakness in her economy and in her national armour which must at all cost be remedied. To this extent the Australian government, in effect though quite unintentionally, strengthened the hand of those groups in Japan which argued that she must seek sources of supply nearer home and under her own direct or indirect control.39
Australia’s trade policies towards Japan did not cause the Second World War, but they contributed to it. All the great powers responded to the chaos of the Great Depression with import restrictions directed against the dynamic exporting economies such as Japan — France in 1932, the British empire in 1932 through the Ottawa Agreement which hit Japan particularly hard, the Chinese import tariff of 1933, the Netherlands Indies Crisis Import Ordinance of 1933, and the US campaign to get Latin America to exclude Japanese imports.40 Japan’s exclusion from established markets strengthened those in the Japanese government arguing for a strategy of conquest in China, a strategy that led eventually to war.41
The hollowness of Australian dependence on the colonial powers to stop any Japanese thrust south was shown up in early 1942, when the French in Indo-China, the British in Malaya and the Dutch in the East Indies surrendered with hardly a shot fired. Indeed, the nascent independence movements in Asia welcomed the Japanese advance as a harbinger of liberation. In Burma there were “open demonstrations of excitement when it became clear that the Japanese were winning.” Jose Laurel and Jorge Vargas in the Philippines lauded the Japanese victories as “vindicating the prestige of all Asiatic nations” in the face of “Anglo-Saxon imperialism”. Chou Fo-hai and Miao Pin in China, Ba Maw and Aung Sang in Burma, Soekarno in Indonesia and above all Bose from India —welcomed and collaborated with the forces that had smashed the old colonialism. Many, including Soekarno, independent Indonesia’s first President, retained their loyalty to Japan’s war even when the Allies gained the upper hand.42 The empires Australia had looked to for defence were not only brutal, exploitative, racist and corrupt, but they helped create the conditions for Japan’s rapid successes. Yet Australia’s war aims included reinstalling those regimes.43 As a result, not one Asian country won democratic rights or independence from colonial rule as a result of the Allied victory in the Pacific.44
One of the first post war products of Australia’s fear of a revived Japan was the ANZUS Treaty. During the war, Foreign Minister HV Evatt had tried, but failed, to lock the American government into a three-sided defence pact, with New Zealand, directed against Japan. The eruption of the cold war with the USSR, Mao’s victory in China and the outbreak of the Korean War changed American thinking about Japan. By the late 1940s, the US saw it as the front line against “communism”, and “the workshop of East Asia”.45 US proposals in 1951 for a peace treaty with Japan that allowed a modest level of rearmament created hysteria in Australia. To accommodate Australian concerns, the US revived Evatt’s proposed defence pact. According to Foreign Minister Casey, ANZUS “arose as a child of the Japanese Peace Treaty”, while Prime Minister Menzies wrote, “the acceptance of a ‘soft’ treaty of peace with Japan gave impetus to the negotiating of ANZUS.”46 While direct fear of Japan began to diminish, fear of the “Yellow Peril” (to some extent transferred now to Mao’s China), the logic of forward defence, of involving a white imperialist power in the region, led Australia into new wars — Korea, the Malayan “emergency” and the great catastrophe of Vietnam.
After 1945, fear and hatred of Japan was driven by the experience of the Second World War — the sense of Japan rushing down to the south to attack Australia, the bombing of Darwin and Broome, and most importantly, the barbaric treatment of Australian prisoners of war. There has, of course, been a massive change in Australian attitudes towards Japan, but what is most extraordinary is the degree to which bitterness about the war remains. The scale of this bitterness is even more remarkable when you consider the pivotal role Japan has played in Australia’s overseas trade, underpinning the prosperity of Australian capitalism for nearly half a century. As recently as 1988-90, a series of broadly-based campaigns against Japanese investment erupted in Australia, and all of them raised the spectre of the war. One of those involved was the famous peace campaigner Helen Caldicott, who told The Bulletin:
It is not racist for me to ask why we fought World War II against the Japanese, 45 years later, we seem ready to allow annexation of our land by that very nation for which our fathers died trying to prevent from commandeering our natural resources.47
There were mass meetings on the Gold Coast in 1988 protesting at the purchase of land and property by Japanese people. One meeting “combined open racial hatred with fear, insecurity with jingoism.” The movement’s initiator, Bruce Whiteside, told the meeting, “We are again facing a threat of invasion.”48 When it was announced that Japanese businesses planned to build a high technology Multi-Function Polis in Australia the war was an issue: “the businessmen who support this…have no respect for the sacrifices and the ill treatment that our servicemen took from the Japanese in World War 2,” was one comment to the Melbourne Herald.49 A survey done for the Embassy of Japan in 1988 showed the two sides of Australian attitudes.
There has been a significant increase in the positive perceptions of Japan [since the previous survey in 1985] ie “Main trading partner” (up from 52% to 61%), “the country most important to the Australian economy” (up from 39% to 51%)…
On the other hand, there was also an astonishing increase in those who “can’t forget the war”, up from 30% to 39% in just three years — an extraordinarily high figure — while the number who thought the war was “of no importance today” was 30%, down 12%. The entire survey revealed the same contradictory pattern: 54% thought Australia’s attitude to Japan should be “friendly” (down 10%) whilst 49% wanted Japanese immigration either reduced or frozen.50 A breathtaking 48% believed Japan had nuclear weapons, a symbol of the depth of irrational paranoia in Australia.51 Humphrey McQueen commented that the volatility of Australian attitudes “suggests how easy it would be for popular fears to be inflamed during a crisis.”52
Any explanation of this enduring bitterness and suspicion must necessarily be tentative. It simply cannot be attributed to the war, since many other countries fought and suffered at the hands of others, yet by and large put bitterness behind them. I will argue that there are three reasons for Australia’s enduring hostility towards Japan: the specifically racist and one-sided view Australia had about Japan and the war; the importance of the war against Japan for Australian nationalism; and hence the unwillingness of Australian politicians to challenge popular racism, despite the importance of Japan to their profits.
Humphrey McQueen has examined this issue in his interesting, but quirky book, Japan to the Rescue. He identifies “three of the tenderest lobes of the Australian psyche” regarding the war: that Japan intended to invade Australia, that this was prevented by the US Navy in the Battle of the Coral Sea, and that Japanese treatment of Australian POWs shows them to be innately cruel.53 Expectation of invasion, he argues, was far-fetched even in 1942; but he surveys the evidence that decisively proves it to have been false. He claims that wartime Prime Minister John Curtin found it useful to stress the danger of invasion because the population lacked martial fervour, and it was useful in keeping the workforce busy.54 Continued promotion of the idea that Australia faced invasion was used after the war to exaggerate the role of the US in “saving” Australia and provide “an ideological foundation for the ANZUS alliance and for our hosting the US military communications and spy bases.”55
In two sensitively written chapters, McQueen then examines the POW experience,56 and the propaganda which has surrounded it. He does not demur from the established conclusion, “that the Japanese military treated most of its POWs appalling,” but seeks to understand the true nature of the POW experience, and the reasons for ill treatment.57 He points out that the fundamental reason for hunger and disease amongst POWs was the declining ability of the Japanese military to find enough food or medicine for its soldiers and home population; that there were times when food was plentiful at Changi, and that POWs “were sometimes better fed than the Japanese on the battlelines.”58 The greatest death rates, however, were a product of overwork combined with lack of food. McQueen does not attempt to explain the horrors of the Sandakan camp on the Burma railway; I would argue that while they reflect a willingness on the part of the Japanese military to waste human life with little regret — something hardly unique to Japan — the primary reason for the overwork was their desperate attempts to build up the infrastructure of war in a situation of extreme material shortage. In that sense they can be seen as parallel to the slave labour camps of Stalinist Russia. But the Burma railway was not the experience of most POWs. Stan Arneil noted that just 78 Australians died at Changi in the first fifteen months of captivity.59 George Sprod records that the entire contents of the colonial library in Singapore were commandeered for the prisoners at Changi, while other accounts talk of all kinds of recreation — concerts, football, gambling — and a high level of self-organisation, even including prison bulletins.60 Life at Changi deteriorated as the position of the Japanese armed forces declined.
McQueen locates the considerable brutality POWs suffered within the camps as a product of the brutality with which the Japanese officer-class treated its own rank and file; and the fact that many of the camp guards were Koreans, despised and ill-treated by Japanese in general. Keith Wilson’s memoir of life as a POW had a perspective missing from most Australian discussion.
Many of the Japanese and Korean guards were victims of a system they were caught up in, and could do nothing about. Many of them clearly did not approve of it. Some even expressed mild disaffection. To do anything else was to court a violent and painful demise.61
Reflecting the strict sense of class privilege involved in this, Australian officers were much better treated than the rank and file, and represented less than 2% of POWs who died in captivity.62 McQueen’s argument is that the treatment of POWs was not, as Australians were taught to believe, a product of an immutable, incomprehensible culture.63 To illustrate this, he refers to some of the many instances of barbarity from Australian soldiers. John Dower’s seminal book, War Without Mercy, paints a picture of the US military engaged in systematic brutality and war crimes, including torture, mutilation of the enemy dead, the taking of body parts as souvenirs, and a generalised refusal to take prisoners — a demonstrated factor in Japanese soldiers fighting to the death.64 This behaviour was driven by extreme racism, official and popular. A number of senior American officials favoured genocide of the Japanese, an attitude shared by half of all GIs surveyed in 1943.65 “The reputation of not taking prisoners also became associated with Australian troops in general,” Dower wrote,66 an observation confirmed by many anecdotal reports. Indeed, it seems that Australian troops who had not been involved in actual combat were most keen to “kill a Jap” after the war was over and Japanese soldiers were being rounded up for repatriation.67 Australian soldiers would have had every expectation of official support for any brutality. The Second World War was the race war against the Japanese that Australians had expected. As McQueen commented in an earlier book, “The attack on Pearl Harbour came as no surprise to Australia, but was the fulfilment of the anxieties of a century.”68 In early 1942, the government unleashed a racist propaganda campaign whose slogan was, “We’ve always despised them, now we must smash them.”69 It is significant that in 1987, when the Australian Parliament passed War Crimes legislation applying to Australians, it specifically excluded the Pacific war.
There is perhaps one extra dimension that needs to be explored: the degree to which Australia was itself responsible for Japan’s decision to go to war. I have already alluded to the economic argument; Japan, as a rising capitalist power, found its goods discriminated against in the major world markets, an exclusion Australia supported and participated in.70 Alongside this, Japan had long faced profound racial and political hostility from the “white” powers of the world. Indeed, Japan’s own “revolution from above”, the Meiji restoration, was motivated by a determination to avoid the fate of China, invaded, subjugated and ravaged by Britain and the other white empires.71 Japan’s rulers drove their nation to industrialise and build a powerful military, irrespective of the human cost. From Australia, a country they simply didn’t think about,72 the Japanese received little but racist insults. Japanese public opinion was inflamed by the debate on the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, the defence and other debates after 1905, and the debates about the renewal of the Anglo-Japanese Alliance in 1911.
In 1919, at Versailles, Australia’s Prime Minister, William Morris Hughes, waged a one-nation campaign to prevent the League of Nations adopting a statement opposing racism. Germany’s defeat had unleashed a profound debate within the Japanese ruling class over the consequences and dangers of militarism. Hughes’ campaign aroused great resentment within Japan, and gave Japanese militarists a popular issue to agitate around. Australia’s premier scholar of things Japanese, James Murdoch, was in Japan at the time and reported that “all Japan is boiling with this cry for racial equality”, adding that the “racial discrimination agitation extends all over Japan; & it has been engineered by the military party” and “may very well become dangerous if not met properly.” Australia’s former Director of Intelligence, EL Piesse, condemned Hughes’ actions, lamenting, “We have been perhaps the chief factor in consolidating the whole Japanese nation behind the imperialists — and it needs little imagination to see how serious that may be with Japan’s now assured opportunities for expanding her power through China’s resources.”73
So the profound and abiding hostility many Australians feel towards Japan rests on a series of dangerous myths. The myth blames Japan entirely for the outbreak of war, where all serious scholarly opinion traces its causes back to the clash between brutal American imperialism, brutal British imperialism and brutal Japanese imperialism — a clash in which Australia contributed to Japan’s sense that there was for it no peaceful road to prosperity. Compare this with the widely accepted view about the European war, which attributes Germany’s rearmament in part to the onerous Versailles Treaty and the misery caused by the Depression. The myth sees the brutal treatment of POWs and a fanaticism for war as part of the Japanese character, instead of seeing many different Japanese approaches. The myth silences any talk of Australian war crimes such as the routine killing of prisoners. When it came to Germany, Allied propaganda always distinguished between “good” Germans and Nazis. In both Australia and the USA, immigrants from Germany were judged individually whilst all Japanese were rounded up and put in concentration camps,74 reflecting the profoundly racist view of Japanese people in both countries. The myth says that this was the one time in Australia’s history where it faced invasion, whereas the truth, long known, is that the Japanese had neither the intention nor the means to invade, and that Darwin and Broome were bombed because Australia had declared war on Japan and Japan needed to remove military bases that could be used against it.75 While Japan’s illegal military action is emphasised, Australia’s invasion of the neutral Portuguese colony of East Timor is rarely mentioned.76 Where the myth says Australian troops were captured defending Australia, the truth is they were captured in the British colonies of Singapore and Malaya defending an empire the locals were so keen to be rid of they even welcomed Japanese rule. In other words, everything that would enable people to rationally view Japanese actions has been suppressed in favour of racist demonology.
McQueen argues that we have been made prisoners of this propaganda to justify the close alliance between Australia and the US in the Cold War that followed. While that was undoubtedly an element, I believe there is a more fundamental issue — the need to sustain a weak Australian nationalism. Many writers have pointed to the lack of enthusiasm for federation, widely seen at the time as a “business merger.”77 Both Australian governments and Australians individually saw themselves largely as transplanted Britons. Generating an Australian nationalism that was distinct from British empire loyalism always involved the risk of arousing republican sentiments, especially during the years of class bitterness after the First World War. One measure of this weak nationalism was the fact that three times before 1949, conservative governments were forced to turn to ex-Labor politicians for Prime Minister.78 The one distinctive element to the Australian experience was its proximity to Asia, hence the agitation for White Australia and the role of anti-Asian racism in defining Australian nationalism.79 The importance of the Second World War is that it finally established Australia as a state fully independent of Britain, looking as much to the USA for capital and military defence. The political institutions of Australian capitalism had an immense stake in the result and mythology of the war, including both major political parties and the Returned Services League (RSL), which worked so hard through the 1950s and 1960s to promote military intervention in Asia.
The centrality of anti-Asian racism to Australian nationalism can be seen in the history of the left in Australia. Verity Burgmann has shown that Australia’s socialists were only able to resist the prevailing racism when they adopted a revolutionary socialist framework.80 Equally, the mainstream press tried to use racism to discredit socialists. So in 1908, the Daily Telegraph in Sydney warned that the increasingly successful Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) would invite Chinese and Japanese workers to Australia in order that they might be enrolled in the IWW.81 The Communist Party began life as a thoroughgoing opponent of the White Australia policy, and the period of its most spectacular growth, the early 1930s, also saw it stridently opposing “White Australia”. But in 1936, Stalin directed his followers to build “united fronts” with the patriotic, anti-fascist bourgoisie in each country. Nationalism was now compatible with communism. From this point, the Communist Party began to take up an anti-Japanese agitation. The first significant step on this road was its whole-hearted support for the Port Kembla Pig Iron dispute in 1938, a deeply contradictory struggle that involved, amongst many worthwhile elements (such as support for the resistance in China), cooperation with extreme anti-Japanese racists. The party’s wholehearted support for the war effort opened the racist floodgates. Tribune welcomed the bombing of Hiroshima with a racist caricature and the caption, “Jappy Ending”.82 But perhaps the most vile piece of propaganda produced during the war was Japan’s Heart of Wood, a pamphlet written by the Communist Party’s Rupert Lockwood.83 Japan’s industrial cities were “still built mostly of wood and oiled paper,” so Lockwood called on the Allies to launch a program of “sustained bombing of Japanese industrial cities” — suggesting incendiary bombs on residential areas.
In total war, the building that houses an armament worker has almost the same significance as the foliage-camouflaged dugout that hides a sniper in New Guinea… A grim fate awaits the civil populations of the Axis nations.
We now know that this strategy was used by the US to such devastating effect that even sections of the US military command were sickened.84 Lockwood’s massage for the men, women and children whose bodies would spontaneously ignite and whose skin would melt — and who had no control over the policy of the Japanese government? “Very soon, the people who dwell in wooden houses may be learning just how little it pays to throw bombs.” It takes a special kind of racism to write something like this. It is significant that people with links to the Communist Party led some of the anti-Japanese agitation of the late 1980s, including Abe David, co-author of an anti-Japanese best-seller, The Third Wave.85
So for fifty years since the end of the war, the Australian ruling class has walked a tightrope; building its profits and prosperity out of trade with Japan, Japanese investment in Australia, and lately a closer integration with the Asian “tigers”. At the same time, its government and trusted bodies like the RSL have sustained racist myths about the Second World War to maintain a sense of national cohesion in the face of opposition over many issues by a well organised and often militant working class. The emergence of newly independent nations in South East Asia forced both the government and the media to scrap the White Australia policy and finally to campaign a little against racism, but the extraordinary thing is how long it took them. Popular opposition to the Vietnam War was far more important in confronting racism than anything done by government. Even today, Asian leaders, the people our rulers want to partner, believe that the White Australia policy lives on, yet neither business nor government seems keen to purge racism from society. A survey of over 200 Japanese business and government leaders in 1983 saw a staggering 56.2% say the White Australia policy was an obstacle to the Australia-Japan relationship on the Australian side, while only 22.1% disagreed.86 A concurrent survey of ruling class attitudes in Australia, concluded that:
Although the Australian leaders very strongly endorsed the idea that Australia and Japan shared common interests that provided the basis for a “special relationship”, when they were asked to spell out what form or forms this “special relationship” might take, they had few suggestions to offer beyond developing the existing economic ones.87
The one thing they rejected was encouraging Japanese immigration to Australia, or Australian immigration to Japan, arguing that “the Japanese were not interested in seeking permanent residence in Australia and would not, themselves, welcome migrants from Australia.” When asked themselves, the Japanese leaders took an entirely different approach, the majority saying that Japanese immigration to Australia would strengthen mutual ties.88