People often ask me how I came across the idea of writing my current manuscript, Yellow Pearl, which explores what might have happened if someone in Australian military intelligence had tried to use Japanese Australians in World War II. I’ve reblogged the answer below from my blog on the history behind Yellow Pearl: www.yellowpearl.com.au
Browsing in the awesome Kimberley Bookshop in Broome, I came across Noreen Jone’s book Number 2 Home, which explores the history of the Japanese in Western Australia. I was intrigued: I’d heard a lot about the role of Chinese and Afghan/Pakistani people in Australia’s history, as well as English, Scots, Irish, Greeks and Vietnamese, but very little about Japanese people. I bought it and discovered an intriguing and heart-breaking history of a thriving community that was essentially wiped out with the Second World War.
Virtually every Japanese person in Australia was arrested, relocated and interned in a camp for the duration of the war. Old men in their seventies that had come out to Australia in the 1880s and lived here ever since. Housewives and small children. Second and third generation Australian-born residents. Some had had their applications for citizenship approved, only to have them revoked in the wake of the Immigration Restriction Act, or White Australia Policy. And after the war, actually several years after when shipping became available, they were released from the internment camps and almost all of them forcibly ‘repatriated’ to Japan, where they were strangers in a devastated land.
But surely, I thought, not everyone would have been interned? We were at war with Japan and hopelessly understrength: we had a pressing need to ‘Know Thy Enemy”, and who better than those amongst our own Japanese community to interpret both Japanese language and culture? Perhaps they weren’t needed. Maybe the military had foreseen this situation and had it covered.
I started to do some exploring. I found Dr. Pam Oliver’s summation of the situation: “[Australian] Authorities also searched for persons who could speak Japanese and who could be trusted for work as interpreters. Surveillance increased further during 1941 as war with Japan became even more likely.” Professor Allison Gilmore relayed that ‘the shortage of linguists was so acute that the Royal Australian Navy was able to obtain only one qualified civil servant’. So Japanese language skills were rare in the general Australian population in the 1930s. Then surely, with the speed of the Japanese advance in the Pacific and South East Asia, with the bombing of northern Australia and the midget submarine attacks in Sydney Harbour, Australia would have been forced to put aside our mistrust and find a way to use our Japanese residents?
I thought I had finally found the answer: ATIS staff on Bougainville 1944 (AWM) I found out about Nisei, second generation Japanese working at ATIS (Allied Translator and Interpreter Service) in Brisbane, but quickly realised these were American Nisei, put through months of language training in the U.S. before being shipped out in their hundreds to Australia and the Pacific theatre. ATIS and other organisations also used Japanese prisoners of war – captured Japanese soldiers – to help with intelligence work such as creating propaganda leaflets.
It seemed no one used our own people. Were they given the chance? Did they not feel comfortable being involved or was the rest of Australia just too prejudiced? What would have happened if someone had tried to?
The idea behind Yellow Pearl was born.
– General Headquarters, Far East Command, Military Intelligence Section, General Staff. 1948. Operations of the Allied Translator and Interpreter Section, GHQ, SWPA, Vol. 5, Intelligence Series, 3
– Gilmore, A. 2004. “The Allied Translator and Interpreter Section: The critical role of allied linguists in the process of propaganda creation, 1943-1944” (PDF). In Dennis, Peter and Grey, Jeffrey. The Foundations of Victory: The Pacific War 1943-1944. Proceedings of the 2003 Chief of Army’s Military History Conference Military History Conference. Canberra: Army History Unit. p. 2.
– Jones, N. 2002. Number 2 Home: A Story of Japanese Pioneers in Australia, North Fremantle: Fremantle Arts Centre Press.
– Oliver, P. 2004. Allies, Enemies and Trading Partners : records on Australia and the Japanese. Canberra: National Archives of Australia.