Claiming the dead

THE CEREMONY TOOK place on a glorious morning in March at Cowra cemetery, the sky above a flawless blue, the horizon visible in the green distance across miles and miles of rolling pasture. The Japanese dignitaries had arrived before us in their big black cars, driving up from Canberra for a day in the country. The town officials stood around in their tight suits and smiled benignly at the mourners, as if it was within their power to bestow solace for past wrongs. As soon as I saw them I knew what we were in for: a couple of hours of bad theatre in which the story of why we were all here would be bent out of shape to fit the official narrative, its meaning subtly subsumed into the national mythology.

The reason I had come to Cowra was both simple and complex. My friend Yuriko Nagata, a historian of the Japanese diaspora, had invited me to take part in a symposium to be held in Cowra to coincide with the unveiling of an interpretive board at the entrance to the town’s Japanese war cemetery. Two years in the planning, the symposium was to be both a meeting of scholars and an opportunity for the families of Japanese civilians buried at Cowra to visit the graves of their forbears and honour their story.

Yuriko’s work had provided the inspiration behind my novel, My Beautiful Enemy (Text, 2013). She had given me advice and support throughout the writing of the book, and her work on the internment of civilian Japanese during World War II had provided an invaluable resource in the years it took to shape the novel into its final form. I accepted her invitation immediately. The symposium would give me the chance to argue the case for fiction as a way of telling the truth; but more tantalising than that, it would mean I could finally meet face to face with some of the people Yuriko had researched and written about in her scholarly papers. There would be people attending the symposium who’d been young children in the enemy alien camps. I wanted to see what they looked like in the flesh. Having imagined a story that depended on the real story of wartime internment for its veracity, I wanted to be in the same room as people who’d actually lived that experience.

Among them was Evelyn Suzuki. Interned in 1941, Evelyn had spent five years in Tatura, the very camp where My Beautiful Enemy was set. I imagined that laying eyes on her would be like seeing my fictional world transformed into the reality from which it had sprung. It would be life following art following life, a circle gratifyingly squared. I wanted to be there, too, when Evelyn unveiled the interpretive board, on which the story of the internment is illustrated and explained to arriving visitors. Evelyn is in her eighties now and growing frail, but I imagined her becoming for a moment, in the minds of all who were watching, the child again – the helpless innocent whose fate depends so arbitrarily on strangers and events way beyond anyone’s comprehension or control.

The interpretive board was long overdue. It would finally make sense of the fact that so many of the headstones in the Japanese war cemetery mark the graves of children and old people. Cowra is most renowned as the site of the Cowra Breakout, a mass escape attempt in August 1944 by a thousand or more Japanese POWs being held in the nearby camp. Two hundred and thirty-one prisoners died during the breakout and four Australian guards were killed trying to prevent the escape. The POWs are buried in the Japanese war cemetery, and the Australian guards are buried in an adjacent Australian war cemetery. Understandably, it is the graves of soldiers that most visitors to Cowra war cemetery expect to see as they wander up and down the neat rows of headstones, each of them bearing the name, date of death and age of the deceased. It is confusing, therefore, to come across those of four-year-olds and men in their seventies. They point to a less well-known aspect of Cowra’s famous cemetery.

A couple of years before the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, the Japanese Embassy began talks with the Cowra Shire Council to gather all of the Japanese war dead in one place and for the Japanese government to contribute financially to the upkeep of their graves. As a result, it was also agreed that the remains of Japanese civilians who had died in Australian internment should be dis-interred and moved to Cowra from the various scattered campsites in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia. I imagine the intention was to bring the civilian dead into the official embrace, to acknowledge on both sides that the war had taken the lives of combatants and non-combatants alike, and that in death each deserved to be honoured.

Naturally, the dead themselves were not consulted. Had they been, many might well have requested burial in places that meant more to them – Darwin or Broome for instance, where so many of them had spent their lives as pearlers before being arrested and transported to the south to be imprisoned for the duration of the war. Or New Caledonia, where many of them were born, or Mackay where they’d cut cane, or Sydney where they’d run laundries, taught Japanese to university students, married local women, raised their children. The internment, as I discovered when I was researching the topic for my novel, was a panicky, kneejerk expression of naked fear. Based on race alone, and in some cases on mere appearance, anyone of Japanese descent was rounded up and incarcerated. Very few got out until three or four years had passed, and some of them never got out at all.

IT HAS BEEN half a century since the Tokyo Olympics. I don’t imagine the Cowra cemetery has changed much in that time. Certainly, the war graves appear to be exempt from the normal signs of age and neglect that give the cemetery for the ordinary citizens of Cowra its special melancholy. The ordinary cemetery is a reminder of the democratic nature of peacetime death. Babies who died a hundred years ago are buried in little, crumbling fenced allotments next to octogenarians who died last year. Some of the dead lie beneath unadorned slabs of concrete; others beneath elaborate and expensive granite monuments, daubed with gold lettering; still others beneath marble angels frozen in mid-flight. There is nothing fair or uniform about ordinary graves. In this they are a reflection of the unfairness and boundless variety that exists among the living.

Not so with military graves. Fenced off in their own paddock, the graves of the war dead at Cowra illustrate an order – something fixed and immutable. The races are separated. The victors are quarantined from the vanquished. The dead are buried in straight rows with identical headstones to mark the graves. The lawns surrounding the headstones are lush and neatly trimmed. Banished are the wild grasses and weeds that flourish in the surrounding countryside. But for the telltale gum trees, we might be somewhere in Europe, on one of the countless battlefields where millions of soldiers are buried in similar fashion and where the global style of military memorials was presumably forged. That civilians are also buried in among the soldiers at Cowra makes their deaths seem inevitable – part of the military order. It would seem that even in death these pearl divers and laundrymen, cane cutters and shopkeepers remain interned, cut off from the general population, denied ordinariness even in the afterlife.

THE CEREMONY TO unveil the interpretive board took a while to get going. First we had to wait until everyone was gathered together: all the family members and scholars who’d attended the symposium, all the town dignitaries and the Japanese government representatives. Yuriko and her fellow organisers were kept busy setting things up, looking out for Evelyn and paying due deference to the Japanese ambassador. I could tell she was nervous, and anxious for the families to feel that their presence was properly appreciated, that their stories weren’t to be lost in the mess of competing narratives as portended by the printed program for the morning. I noted with a sinking heart that the opening event was to be an Anzac Day-style flag raising in the Australian war cemetery, conducted by a band of local war veterans; I saw them on the road rehearsing their routine. They each bore a flag anchored in a leather holster at the waist. On each barrel chest was pinned a yard of medals. I was doubtful that an Anzac Day parade was what anyone from the symposium had expected or wanted, but it’s what the town had come up with. It was apparently their default position when it came to war cemetery events.

I’ve never liked Anzac Day. I’m particularly uneasy with the way the ‘Anzac spirit’ has been puffed-up in recent times to play a quasi-religious role in expressing a national identity – this in an age when the deadliness of quasi-religious nationalism is present on the nightly news for all to see. Reluctant to fall in line with the quiet ranks of onlookers at the flag raising, I stood watching from outside the fence that marks off the Australian war cemetery. Flags were raised, wreathes were laid, the Last Post rang out across the landscape with a peculiar tinny falseness. This was not the story we’d come to hear. This was a pre-emptive strike by the old soldiers. They were pulling rank on us, reminding us that on a scale of honourable deaths, those of uniformed Australian servicemen killed in the line of duty are at the very top.

Somewhat disheartened, I followed the crowd next door to the Japanese war cemetery where we were to witness a series of performances, speeches, prayers and musical items, some of them run concurrently and all aimed – rather desperately I sensed – to demilitarise the tone of the proceedings, to lift the official pall that had been cast over the day by the presence of war veterans and men in suits. It wasn’t easy. The difficulties became glaringly apparent as soon as the artists arrived tossing sheets of parchment up in the air, chanting the names of the deceased internees one by one as the parchment sheets danced briefly in the breeze before crash-landing on the lawn. There were visible signs of upset among the mourners, especially when it was understood that each piece of parchment bore the name of someone’s relative. Clearly, the performance had not been intended to cause offence, but it had anyway. It was something to do with the abandon with which the names were launched into space and then with the sight of them falling so heavily to earth. Wordlessly, almost as a reflex action, a few onlookers ventured out onto the lawn to gather up the pieces of paper, to rescue them from this very public exposure.

There followed a performance in which two young women ran up and down between the rows of headstones wearing loose flowing robes, while a young man made dance-like gestures in the background. When the girls had finished running they lay down on the lawn and rolled across the graves like children on a picnic. It was relatively inoffensive compared to the parchment throwing, but it did distract us from the prayers of the Shingon Buddhist monk who had driven all the way from Sydney to be in attendance. The monk was Japanese, round-faced, his head bare, his robes brilliant orange and purple. Alongside him were four junior monks – Australians, also in robes – taller than their leader but lacking his charisma. As soon as they started to chant I sensed a new attentiveness in the crowd, a desire to inject a note of real reverence into proceedings before the whole show collapsed into farce. Not everyone was listening however. A couple of the old soldiers stood a few metres back from the Buddhists and conducted a lively conversation over the top of the chanting, as if it was mere background noise and nothing to do with them. It was beyond rudeness; it was the purest illustration so far that morning of the distance between the official story of the Japanese war cemetery and the human story of those who are buried there.

Word spread through the family groups that the Buddhists were available to chant prayers beside individual graves if relatives wished them to do so. For an hour or more, while the musicians played and the officials discussed their plans for the weekend, the monks moved from one spot to another and went into a huddle with a granddaughter or great-grandson of the person named on the headstone at their feet. The soft chants sounded like surf on a beach, rising and falling, speaking out of the depths of an ancient tradition and making the kind of sense that had been lacking up until now. Tears were shed, privately, away from the throng. Finally, real emotions were on display. I watched a big and normally jovial man from New Caledonia reach down and place his hand on one of the headstones, then steady his trembling chin with his free hand.

Breaking from his private prayers, the Japanese monk made an unrehearsed speech into the microphone to end the morning’s program. Looking uncomfortably hot in his heavy robes, he reminded his audience of why they were all here. The heaviest cost of war is not paid by soldiers, he said, but by civilians. Buried in the soil of Cowra were not just soldiers but civilians – men, women and children whose lives had been tragically altered by events over which they had no control. It is these people we are here to remember today, he said, and all of the millions like them. By the time he had finished speaking I felt the day had been rescued from irrelevance and from irreverence. I noticed that even the old soldiers had finally stopped their chatter to listen to what he had to say.

IN THE END I didn’t see Evelyn unveil the interpretive board. I was too far back in the crowd and she was too small. But I clapped anyway and went up later to read what was written there. It was all so familiar to me: the facts of the internment and, behind the facts, the sad cost to the people who were criminalised and stripped of everything they owned with no hope of ever recovering materially or psychologically. The photograph that accompanied the text was also familiar: a formally arranged portrait of a group of internees standing outside a tin hut in their winter coats. I had stared long and hard at that photograph while I was writing My Beautiful Enemy. It helped me to focus on war as it is experienced by ordinary people. Hopefully, it will do the same for everyone else who pauses long enough to really look.


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