Curtin’s hand of friendship

I was engaged in conversation with the Governor-General and his wife after the dinner when an elderly lady, apparently a friend of the Governor-General's wife, sidled up to me and kindly said, "Mr Curtin, who you just met, is not a man who has received the regular especially high degree of education, but he is indeed a man of splendid character. Be sure to be friends with him."

– Tatsuo Kawai

IT BECAME THE most unlikely friendship between two complete opposites from utterly diverse cultural backgrounds: one the Australian socialist, the other a fervent pioneer exponent of Japan's Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.

From the very moment they met in the dining hall of Government House at Yarralumla in Canberra on the night of March 14, 1941, Tatsuo Kawai was intrigued and then inspired by John Curtin. While the Governor-General, Lord Gowrie, scrupulously avoided mentioning the war, chatting instead about the "beauty of Japan" and "the glorious climate of Australia", Curtin was friendly, simple, unpretentious and undiplomatic to the point of bluntness about Japan's intentions and of how war must be prevented at all costs. He had no time for small talk and no qualms about revealing his fears and hopes to the new envoy. Like most others in Parliament, perhaps with the exception of the irascible former Prime Minister Billy Hughes, Curtin, at this time, was happy to appease Japan. Kawai was quite taken aback with Curtin on the night: "And in this world, in a strange country," he later wrote enthusiastically of the first meeting, "this politician of such distinctive character appears."

Kawai earlier that day had presented his credentials from Emperor Hirohito to Lord Gowrie as Japan's first minister or ambassador to Australia and had met Curtin while attending a state dinner in his honour. The women were in their finery and the men resplendent in their swallow-tailed coats. Curtin was then leader of the Opposition. The Japanese had dispatched Kawai to Australia after the Chief Justice of the High Court, Sir John Latham, an austere former conservative politician friendly with Japan, had taken leave to become Australia's first envoy to Japan. Menzies was on a prolonged visit to London. Curtin and Acting Prime Minister Arthur Fadden, leader of the Country Party, had recently jointly issued public warnings about the threat to Australia moving to a new stage involving the "utmost gravity". Fadden was hopelessly out of his depth on international affairs, as Kawai knew when the former Queensland canecutter and colleagues late that evening descended on the ambassador's hotel room, some the worst for drink.

Curtin knew of Kawai's influence. Before coming to Australia, Kawai had been the Foreign Office spokesman in Tokyo and then a roving ambassador in America and Europe, including Nazi Germany. Kawai had earlier praised Hitler and condemned Roosevelt and the ambassador was known to be linked with ultra-rightists at home, including extremist Toshio Shiratori. An early diplomatic China hand, Kawai was an apologist for Japan's subjugation of China and saw Japan as the powerhouse and natural leader of East Asia.

Kawai's closest colleague and friend in Australia, Melbourne consul Tsuneo Hattori, noted that during their first meeting, "Mr Curtin also appeared to take note of Tatsuo's solid character and before he left he made a promise to meet with Kawai soon." The social meeting at Government House quickly led to a series of further meetings where the two spoke of Japan and Australia and war and peace with utmost frankness, exchanging their strongly held fears and opinions, "baring their hearts to one another", as Hattori put it. Menzies, from London, ridiculed the urgent warnings of Curtin and Fadden about the new threat to Australia. Curtin, though, was feeling increasingly desperate about Japan. His fear of Japanese invasion went back years.

In July 1941, Curtin invited Kawai to his cottage at Cottesloe in Perth and took him walking on Cottesloe Beach, no doubt telling the envoy that it was from this very beach that Curtin would look out, envisaging a Japanese invasion fleet approaching. While Kawai was at Cottesloe dining quietly with John and Elsie Curtin, news broke of the Japan's "invitation" from the Vichy French to allow Japanese forces into southern Indochina after they had already taken the north. Australian newspapers were running headlines about Japan's "southward drive" and the new threat to Thailand.

Curtin, in the meantime, took Kawai around Perth, introducing him to friends and dignitaries and putting on a civic dinner. When confronted by newspaper reporters, Kawai scoffed that the only southward drive he knew of was his golf swing. Curtin, later, was roundly condemned for hosting the representative of Japan. But it would not be Kawai's last trek to the little cottage in Jarrad Street, Cottesloe.


THE PERSONAL AND often very private observations of Tatsuo Kawai can now be revealed after a five-year research project. I was given sole access to a wealth of often intimate papers and documents discovered and translated in Japan. They include material written in Australia before and after the outbreak of war with Japan. There is also poetry written by Kawai:

The official banquet has finished

and I chat with the Governor-General's wife

– flower, indeed


Wherever I go

people are slightly suspicious of war


Or Kawai back home in Japan in later years:

Red stalks of soba,

how I wish they were combs

with which I could comb my thread of life,

which is beginning to fray


NOT ONLY ARE the private thoughts of Kawai revealed in his writings, but also the many observations of Kawai's closest colleagues and friends, both in Japan and Australia. There are numerous references to John Curtin. Indeed, during the course of Kawai's life, it is clear that he developed a fascination and deep bond not only with Curtin but also with Australia. Added to this is the discovery, in a small and beautiful traditional Japanese house overlooking the sea, a veritable treasure chest of historical photographs documenting Kawai's life, including his Australia years, complete with mementos from the Curtin family in Western Australia.

Kawai's personal views and those of his colleagues should allow something of a reassessment of Australia and Japan during 1941-42 and of Kawai, this most enigmatic character. The question might be asked, "Was Kawai entirely motivated by Japan's desire for dominance or did he introduce into the relationship with Australia an element of altruism?" The reader might cock an eye and ask, is this pathetic revisionism? Can it be termed revisionist when it is not in the main a re-examination of material previously available, but rather a consideration of primarily new information? Japan expert, Professor Alan Rix, who has since read the material, observed: "It opens up new areas with regard both to Curtin and to the Japanese side of the relationship."


THE ROLE OF TATSUO Kawai in Australia, the unsuccessful efforts by Australia to reach a satisfactory peace with Japan during 1941 and Australia's intervention in the Washington peace talks have received precious little historical attention. These subjects have been given scant attention or have been dismissed entirely as irrelevant, given what we now know. For the most part, in Australian wartime histories, Kawai, too, is simply ignored or lightly worked over and dismissed as just another mouthpiece of the Tokyo militants. But his role and character were far more complex than ever previously disclosed. David Day, in his landmark biography John Curtin, a life (HarperCollins, 1999), refers to Curtin and Kawai "hoping that they might develop a basis for a settlement in the Pacific" that would avoid war. Day goes on to state that the details of these talks "no longer seem extant". While certainly correct at the time, this is no longer true and it is difficult to fathom why it has taken almost 60 years since Curtin's death and the Japanese surrender for these details and for Kawai's true role in Australia to be revealed.

Probably before Kawai's visit to Western Australia, he and Curtin began discussing the details of a possible peace arrangement to "mitigate the tension" between the two countries, as Kawai puts it. Japanese documentation now reveals, according to Kawai's own translated words, that Curtin informed Kawai that he was on the verge of taking control in the House of Representatives and the leadership of Australia and that his words "should not be taken as the candid words of someone in no position of responsibility".

"Our conversation," Kawai continues, "then went on to discussion of specific measures." If implemented, those specific measures, as spelt out by Kawai, would have fundamentally changed Australia's relationship with Japan in 1941 and brought the two countries closer together at a crucial time. The arrangement as Kawai describes it involved a highly contentious, for the times, trade deal which could have been interpreted as Australia significantly aiding the Japanese war effort. It would have had dire longer-term consequences for Australia and would have completely undermined Australia's position in London and Washington if it had been implemented.

It seems inconceivable now, yet in mid-1941 John Curtin was so utterly determined to keep the European war from spreading to the Pacific, he was willing to contemplate, according to Kawai's version of events, a move that even could have jeopardised Australian sovereignty. Curtin clearly, within a few months, had second thoughts about the proposed trading arrangement designed to guarantee Australia's safety from Japanese attack and the proposal was allowed to drop.

But can Kawai's word on his talks be believed? For the 25 years that followed, during their meetings before his death in 1966, Kawai relentlessly dedicated his life to Japan-Australia trade and friendship, always placing Curtin on a pedestal. "He was underrated in Japan," Kawai wrote of Curtin in 1962. "Not any more!" To ram home the point, he illustrated his report with a photograph of John and Elsie Curtin. One might ask, "Why would Kawai lie at that stage of his life?"

KAWAI, A CHUBBY-FACED diplomat who was a sophisticates raconteur and charming host, came to Australia in March 1941, a critical period, with a mission to increase trade with Australia at a time when trade restrictions were being tightened, and to encourage Australians away from traditional links with Britain. Kawai and his extremist Foreign Minister Yosuke Matsuoka had fundamentally misread the extent of Australia's emerging independent foreign policy, especially within the Australian Labor Party. Kawai genuinely thought an Australian split with the mother country was possible when, indeed, what Australian leaders – both Menzies and Curtin – sought was a greater say in international affairs affecting Australia's region. Kawai was dismissive of the consequences for Australia in Japan's pact with Germany and Italy and behaved as though it never existed.

As the months dragged on, the threat from the north became increasingly clear. The meetings between Curtin and Kawai at times became acrimonious. Kawai raved about "the encirclement of Japan" by the ABCD Powers (America, Britain – including Australia – China and the Dutch.) A glimpse of their discussions can be seen in the minutes of the Advisory War Council, of which Curtin was a member. In mid-July at the Council, Curtin "outlined his interview with the Japanese minister and the intimidatory attitude of the latter regarding the necessity for Japan to break the ABCD Powers".

Kawai and Curtin fell out in August 1941 when Kawai described Australian troops, who had been rushed to Malaya, as part of the belligerent "encirclement" of Japan. Curtin knew Japan's threats should be taken seriously. After his long discussions with Kawai, he warned Menzies that it would be unwise to make any threat to Japan without the power to carry it out.

While Kawai insists in his writings that Curtin and he discussed the details of a peace arrangement between Japan and Australia, and how to achieve it, Curtin's enthusiasm for such an arrangement clearly evaporated during August 1941. The bellicose militants in Tokyo had begun strident condemnation of a Western threat to Thailand after Japanese forces had consumed all of Indochina.

Curtin, who had spent the previous decade appeasing Japan, quickly began to turn his attention towards military measures to halt Japan's southward drive. He now suddenly found himself ahead of the Government and his own party, who rested their hopes on peace talks and diplomacy. Curtin became appalled that senior members of his party secretly wanted to continue the appeasement of Japan even though Japan had made her intentions abundantly clear. Menzies wanted to rush off to London again, which, in part, was his downfall. Only one year before Curtin's re-awakening to Japan, he had been saying that it would be "the height of folly" for responsible public men, apprehensive about the safety of Australia, "to make remarks which, by implication, would inevitably point to some other country as a potential aggressor". While Curtin was guarded in public, in private he was beating the War Council table about Japan. Remarkably, Curtin was now leading Government action. But he insisted on keeping the door open to discussions in Washington and with Kawai in Australia.


WHILE STILL OPPOSITION leader, Curtin introduced Kawai to former High Court judge Herbert "Doc" Evatt, Labor's future foreign minister, who immediately formed a friendship with Kawai that was undiminished by the outbreak of war. One of the emerging factors from my research is that Evatt before the outbreak of the war was sympathetic towards Japan and understood Japan's need for territorial expansion. He recognised Japan's booming economy and population difficulties and privately pointed to British, American and Dutch concessions and colonies, among others, dominating Asia. As time went on in 1941 and the West, including Australia, introduced severe embargoes and sanctions on Japan's ability to trade, Evatt could see that there was no legal international process through which Japan could salve the perceived injustices past and present meted out by the West. In 1941, with Labor still in Opposition, Evatt saw himself as Labor's future leader and tried to negotiate behind the scenes with Menzies to serve on a joint national government, a proposed body that Curtin opposed. On August 12, Evatt deeply insulted his own leader by calling the recent warnings of war with Japan as "a gross exaggeration that probably damaged our relations with powers that count". While Evatt aimed his ire at the Government, Curtin led the Government on raising public awareness to the Japanese threat.

Kawai, by this time, was personally out of favour with the Menzies Government, who extended him few courtesies and rejected his efforts to renew sagging trade between the two countries. Minister for External Affairs Sir Frederick Stewart wanted to "get together" with Kawai, but lacked the ability to effectively do what Curtin had undertaken. Publicly, Menzies would say nothing to offend Japan. Kawai, having been criticised for his strident remarks about Australian troops in Malaya, now worked quietly behind the scenes in a well-funded public-relations campaign to sway Australians of influence to Japan's views. He hosted sumptuous dinners at his Melbourne mansion. Guests included BHP's Harold Darling, newspaper executive Keith Murdoch, United States Consul General Earle R. Dickover, scientist and businessman Russell Grimwade, High Court judge Owen Dixon and probably Evatt and Curtin, although no records were kept involving the Labor figures. Menzies, too, accepted, but the war intervened.


WHEN JOHN CURTIN'S ministry was sworn in by Lord Gowrie on October 7, 1941, the outbreak of war with Japan was just two months off. Alarmed at Australia's failure to be adequately heard in London and Washington, he commissioned his new minister for external affairs, Evatt, to provide an assessment of the situation with Japan. "It appears that the rigid American attitude is driving Japan rapidly to a war of desperation," Evatt concluded. Yet he maintained an extraordinary confidence that he and Kawai could prevent Japan and Australia from going to war.

Australia's attempt to intervene in the Washington peace talks between the US and Japan has been documented, often fleetingly. Australian envoy in the American capital Richard Casey, urged on by a telephone call from Evatt, who saw Australia as a possible moderator in a wider Pacific settlement, called on the Japanese Embassy in Washington when talks with the US were thought to have broken down. Casey saw special envoy Saburo Kurusu and Ambassador Kichisaburo Nomura. Although they were friendly towards the Australian, they had little for Casey to take back to US Secretary of State Cordell Hull. Historians have been dismissive of the Australian actions, unaware, as they were at the time, that the US had the capability to intercept and read Japanese diplomatic traffic.

What has not been previously disclosed in Australian histories is that the Australian peace effort was two-pronged. While Casey was talking with the Japanese negotiators in Washington, Evatt took part in urgent clandestine meetings with Kawai in the Japanese Legation offices in Canberra. The two Australian diplomatic thrusts were linked. Kawai took Evatt's actions most seriously and constantly passed on the gist of his talks to Tokyo, where the Foreign Office welcomed the Australian efforts. Whether the Australian efforts were naive and misguided is a matter of opinion. Certainly they were overtaken by events.

Although Japan's foreign posts were never informed of the decision to go to war, the Foreign Office had given overseas diplomats sufficient dire warnings for them to guess that the worst eventuality was about to occur. Of all Japan's ambassadors, only one – Tatsuo Kawai – actually tipped off the future enemy of the likelihood of Japan's hostile intentions, such was his respect for Curtin. On November 29, 1941, Kawai strode up the stairs into King's Hall in Parliament House, Canberra, and was ushered into the Prime Minister's office. "Is it to be war?" Curtin asked with characteristic bluntness. Kawai replied with a most undiplomatic gift. He said events had gone too far; the momentum was too great. Curtin's worst fears were confirmed and he had been given a flying start.


KAWAI WAS INTERNED in his Melbourne mansion with 20 of his staff. He later spoke of being appalled at the outbreak of war with Australia and felt a failure and shattered. Kawai had advocated Japanese expansionism in Asia, but he only ever spoke of friendly, mutual co-operation and trade with countries like Australia. Here, though, another side emerges. Kawai, who idolised Curtin and loved Australia, using the resources of all his interned staff, began gathering wartime intelligence about Australia while incarcerated in Melbourne.

In 2002, in a beautiful Japanese house in Japan, Kawai's representative in Canberra, commercial secretary Taijiro Ichikawa, lucid at 94 but now deceased, startled me with the announcement that while in Melbourne under house arrest, Kawai employed a collaborator to get this intelligence back to Japan. The revelation was all the more disturbing, as documents found in Australia reveal that Evatt, as foreign minister and attorney-general, in charge of security, effectively protected Kawai and his officials while they were under house arrest. While Evatt saw no harm in preventing the strictest security conditions being imposed on Japanese diplomats, there is no suggestion that Evatt wilfully sought to aid the enemy. Documented evidence shows that Evatt actively prevented Australian Military Intelligence from introducing tighter security controls, despite blunt warnings from senior officers about the potential threat to Allied security. Security at Kawai's home was lax; the Japanese were allowed to keep their cameras and there were reports of them scaling the fences and walking the surrounding streets. Evatt was motivated only by his respect for Kawai. At one stage, after war had broken out, he wrote to Kawai and assured him that he had always been "above suspicion". Evatt's trust was naive and misplaced.


KAWAI'S WRITINGS, AND those of his colleagus and family, speak with disarming frankness about the diplomat's personal life. Kawai's wife and family had remained at home in Tokyo while he was in Australia. He was ably assisted by his private secretary and hostess, a Japanese-American lass Tamaye Tsutsumida whom Kawai had recruited from California at the age of 19 to study in Japan at a nationalistic cram school he had established in Tokyo in 1937. The young woman followed Kawai to Australia in 1941. She would assume a position of trust in Australia and accompany Kawai on his visit to Cottesloe. Documents and interviews with family and friends in Japan and the US disclose that the attractive and highly intelligent young woman, who was encouraged to speak her mind by Kawai, in 1942 had to choose between returning to her family in the US or returning with Kawai to Japan. She chose Japan and died in 1952. Inevitably, the two became tragic lovers. The grief and love expressed in Kawai's poetry is moving.

Alone I stand by the bedside now;

Your big, round eyes open

and stare into me

When Kawai sailed from Australia on the City of Canterbury in August 1942 on an exchange program with British and Australian officials and went back to wartime Japan, he lunched with Emperor Hirohito, returned to the Foreign Office and resigned that day. He said he had made one speech on his return to Japan and that was to tell the Japanese not to hate Australians, because one day they would be Japan's friends and trading partners. Towards the end of the war, Kawai associated, in the utmost secrecy, with liberals who sought an end to the war. Kawai's credentials were good enough to have his selection approved by the American occupying forces as the new vice-minister for foreign affairs in late 1945. But he was quickly sacked from the position, partly because of his acrimony towards the Americans and partly for his outspokenness in calling for early Japanese independence. He then turned his life towards working for the Japan-Australia relationship on a full-time basis. His friends document how on his deathbed in 1966, Kawai urged them to do everything in their power to support his established research projects to examine Japanese investment in Australia and future trading opportunities between the two countries.

Kawai's family and friends often call the patriarch and sensei (teacher) "a man of two faces". The enigma emerges in bewildering and sinister horror when Kawai's association with war criminals is revealed. Attempts to understand Kawai's motivation and the Japanese psyche dominated this research project from the outset. At first, it seemed that Kawai's association with ultra-extremists occurred only in his pre-war years. But as the research continued it became clear that Tatsuo Kawai maintained his friendship with war criminals, or those accused of such, long after the war. Imagine my bewilderment to discover that Kawai, in fact, harboured from the Allies, one of the most monstrous Japanese war criminals, Colonel Masanobu Tsuji, the operations officer for the assault on Malaya and Singapore. Tsuji has been blamed for tens of thousands of murders, including planning the massacres of thousands of Chinese civilians after the fall of Singapore. Among his accusers is Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew. But the fanatical Tsuji was never charged. He resurfaced after being hidden in Japan by Kawai, only after General Douglas MacArthur had freed those still awaiting war crimes trials and putting a stop to further prosecutions. There is evidence to suggest that the Americans saw Tsuji's military planning nous and fierce anti-Communism as a potential plus in Asia.


KAWAI PLANTED THOUSANDS of flowering gums around Japan in memory of John Curtin. He called them Canberra oaks. At times the ambiguity in Kawai's life is reflected in his poetry:

The exotic Canberra Oak,

will soon be our child of the mountain

under our rising sun

The friendship between John Curtin and Tatsuo Kawai is amply revealed through Kawai's writings and photographs discovered over five years in Japan and Australia and the observations of those who served with him in Australia. None of these latter friends and colleagues is now alive. A measure of the friendship is that the relationship between the Kawai family in Japan and the Curtin family in Western Australia not only endured the war but survived the generations in both countries. The friendship is confirmed in the writings of Curtin's widow, Elsie, and daughter, also Elsie, by Curtin's surviving relatives in Western Australia and by Kawai's surviving friends and family in Japan. "I recall that the relationship between Mr Kawai and my father was very friendly," wrote John Curtin, son of the prime minister who died 60 years ago on July 5, 1945.

There is significant evidence to conclude that the character of Tatsuo Kawai was moulded and changed, from fascist to pacifist, by the force of personality of a fairly ordinary Australian who found greatness. 

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