Mentioning the war

I BLAME Yasunari Kawabata for my obsession with Japan. When I was sixteen I read his short stories 'The House of the Sleeping Beauties' and 'One Arm', and I was hooked. The first, about a lonely old man who finds a place where he can watch beautiful, naked girls sleep beside him in a comatose state, later inspired Gabriel García Márquez's Memories of My Melancholy Whores. More recently, the film Sleeping Beauty, written and directed by the Australian novelist Julia Leigh, also bears an uncanny resemblance to the story's plot.

But at sixteen I thought that Kawabata was all mine. No one I knew in Australia had read any of his works and I coveted my copy of his stories, with its traditional Japanese brown paper cover, which I had bought for twenty cents at a second-hand bookshop in Carlton. I wondered who had originally bought it and why it had been abandoned after making the journey all the way to Melbourne. The second story in the collection is a magic-realist tale about a man who meets a girl and asks if he can take her arm home with him. She detaches it for him and off he goes with the limb – under his coat, to keep it warm! It was so wonderfully odd that I started looking at my arms and wondering how they would look under men's coats.

But Japan isn't my little secret anymore. In the past two decades Australia has become more and more influenced by Japanese culture. And while I love Japan finally getting the recognition it deserves, I've never been very good at sharing. I used to be the only girl with Little Twin Stars and Hello Kitty underwear; now they are sold at Target. Sailor Moon's Serena, a Japanese schoolgirl with long blond hair and magical powers, introduced to Australian audiences in 1995, was once my quirky idol; now she has a huge following. There are Australian anime clubs and conventions, and the Japanese bookshop Kinokuniya, in Sydney. Japanese DVDs are so popular that JB Hi-Fi has an entire section dedicated to them. And documentaries on Japanese teen hikikomori and Japanese women who dress as geishas for photo shoots on their wedding day are more prevalent on Australian television than ever before.

More significantly, Japan isn't mine anymore because images of the 2011 earthquake and tsunami captivated the world. Stoic children were shown in voyeuristic glossy images as they were carried through the debris. They didn't cry. Reports of the rising radiation at Fukushima dominated the evening news. Japanese men gave up their lives to stop the nuclear flood: they were the Fukushima Fifty, the nameless samurai. My Japanese publisher wrote on his blog: 'Keep your power usage low and donate what you can to those who need it.' On his Facebook page he posted: 'It is often said, "Life is short". The Japanese people have one of the longest life expectancy rates in the world. So far over 5,000 are dead, over 8,000 are missing... [Watching the] scenes on Japanese NHK TV of the destruction, the cold snow, and thousands of people in shelters, I feel life...became even shorter.'

There was an initial mass exodus from Tokyo, so I got on the Narita Express to make another trip back there. I was returning to my second home; I needed to show my support. When I told people I was going back to Japan, my friends were enthusiastic. They asked me to bring them back Hello Kitty chopsticks and Studio Ghibli merchandise. As an afterthought, they asked if everything was okay in Tokyo.

My family asked about the radiation. They waved newspaper articles about the Fukushima plant at me, and my grandmother started crying. They told me that my hair would fall out. They told me I would get cancer. They told me I was being selfish and stupid to go. They said, 'Why do you want to go to Japan? Do you know what they did in the war?' It always comes back to the war.

I AM NO stranger to this cross-generational divide in Australia. As a Japanophile, a shinnichi, I have struggled with many often racist remarks about 'the Japs': 'they all look alike'; 'they are a savage race'; 'I don't trust them.' When I discuss this with my peers they tell me I need to be mindful that the Silent Generation's views are shaped by their having lived through the war. It always comes back to the war.

My mother told me to be patient with my grandparents. 'I'll talk to them,' she said, but added: 'although I don't know why you keep going back to Japan either.' She told me that I had to put myself in their shoes. For a moment I felt like she was Atticus Finch and I was Scout. 'They saw what the Japanese did,' she said. 'What's that?' I asked – but she couldn't answer. 'You must know,' was all she could muster. But she doesn't know; she doesn't even really understand what happened.

World War II ended thirty years before I was born, and at high school the war was initially presented as Germany's invasion of Poland. In history classes the emphasis was on Hitler and the Nazis. Discussion of Japan was confined to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and America's entry into the war. Prior to this, without independent reading, I wouldn't even have known that Japan was in the war, nor that the war, in many ways, began with Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931.

But the secondary school curriculum is already packed and teachers can't be expected to teach everything. And while I can't say I learned very much about World War II at school, what I did learn was a set of relatively unbiased facts. This is worth noting, as I was part of the generation that had to complete two compulsory units of Australian Studies, in order to pass the Victorian Certificate of Education. Not that there is anything wrong with knowing the history of your own country. I find America's patriotism and knowledge of its history heartening. But Australian history and culture should permeate the curriculum, not be scheduled once or twice a week in a compulsory class.

Australians are expected to talk constantly about Australia, promote Australia, even pay people to come to Australia to endorse our 'wide brown land'. Lara Bingle made a motza out of it: 'So, where the bloody hell are you?' But I started talking about Japan when I turned sixteen. I told my parents that I understood how you could be homesick for a place you had never been. My mother told me that was ridiculous. I was home. Home for me would always be Australia. Home was where my family lived. My father told me he loved Australia's climate, he loved Australian people, he loved Australia. Why didn't I? Sometimes I feel like a traitor for wanting to travel to Japan.

My grandparents always tell me that when I travel, I should tell everyone I meet that I live in the greatest country in the world. This is part of Australians' insecurity about their nation. Perhaps it stems from lacking the settled and shared history of other countries. Perhaps Australians are ultimately still searching for a firm identity. But rather than celebrating this uniqueness, Australia seems still to need validation from England or America, in particular. The British sports commentator Francesca Cumani identified the problem when she argued that Australians need a 'mindset change'. She challenged the habit of paying American celebrities millions of dollars to attend the Melbourne Cup: 'It continues to surprise me that locals need their great race authenticated or approved by foreigners... I think it shows an insecurity in a race, an event, a carnival which is like no other.' The observation can be extended to Australians as a whole.

Part of this mindset manifests in the expectation that Australian writers will write about Australia. I won't say that I'm not conflicted. I want to write about Japan. I want to set my novel in Shibuya, start it on the scramble crossing in the middle of afternoon. My protagonist would get off the Yamanote train and wait for her lover at the Hachikō statue. It would be a clever metaphor for fidelity: Hachikō, an Akita, waited for his master in that very spot for nine years. My characters would walk up Dogenzaka hill, hand in hand, past the television screens and the ichi-maru-kyu building.

But I am an Australian writer and therefore I am, apparently, compelled to write about Australia. I picture myself as Sybylla Melvyn in My Brilliant Career and My Career Goes Bung. Miles Franklin taught me that the pen is mightier than any Harry Beecham. As a precocious teenager I was taken with reciting: 'I am given to something which a man never pardons in a woman. You will draw away as though I were a snake when you hear.' It wasn't the best pick-up line, but it made me feel like I could have a brilliant career ahead of me. I pictured myself with Judy Davis's red hair, a riding whip and a manuscript.

I was brought up on Barbara Baynton and We of the Never Never. My mother called me her little gumnut baby and read May Gibbs to me every night until I got sleepy. It took me a long time to realise that the women in my family were instilling in me a sense of what it was to be an Australian woman and an Australian writer. It's just that I want to use my Australianness to write about other places. I want to be an Australian who writes about Japan.

AUSTRALIA IS MORE like Japan than most people would imagine. Both countries are fiercely loyal in preserving tradition; however, their sense of tradition is vastly different. Australia has an Anzac tradition, but it is sometimes difficult to see how it imposes itself on everyday life. By contrast, the Samurai tradition and related concepts of honour and duty are still woven into every facet of Japanese culture. The Samurai were disciplined and formidable opponents in war and unequivocally loyal to the lords, Shoguns and the Emperor, they served. The bushido moral code, or 'the way of the warrior', encompasses bravery, truth and respect; to behave dishonourably in Japan is a serious offence. I feel safe in Japan.

When I arrived in Shinjuku after the radiation scare, the sight of people rushing from one platform to the next comforted me. Shinjuku station is the busiest station, busier even than Tokyo station. The first time I arrived there it took me half an hour to find my way out. This time I headed for the East Exit and the Kabukicho sign. When finally I emerged from the station, the sight was overwhelming. Noise, television screens and skyscrapers – some beautifully lit, others garish and flashing – as far as the eye could see. Someone was singing a punk rock tune off-key. Sunglasses, manga porn and smoked fish were being sold on every corner. I could see Studio Alta opposite the station: its television screen is the largest and most vibrant. A boy band sang in harmony – from the gestures they made, in unison, I could tell it was about lost love. As I passed by, the television switched to the weather in Tokyo: it was going to rain.

I had to check in at the Shinjuku Prince Hotel and head out to Komaba– Tōdaimae on the Chūō line: I had a meeting with a visiting professor at the University of Tokyo's Komaba campus. But not before I returned a call from my grandfather, who had already left two messages for me at the desk. He picked up the phone on the first ring and asked where I'd been. It's the same conversation every time I go to Japan. I tell him that it takes this long to get from the airport to the hotel. He tells me that my grandmother was worried that something might have happened to me – 'It is Japan,' she says, as she grabs the phone from him. I reiterate that it is one of the safest places in the world. And then I ask, 'Why don't you ever worry about me when I am in America?'

I met the academic on campus, at the Italian Tomato Cafe Jr. She is visiting professor from Australia and I was keen to hear her insights into Japanese education and culture. I ordered her a hot kohi and myself an iced kohi. I forgot that in Japan an iced coffee is simply percolated coffee with ice cubes in it. I smiled at my mistake. The professor took a sip of her coffee and told me that the Japanese students she teaches are largely unaware of any tensions that may exist between Japan and America – or, in her experience, Japan and Australia. This is partly because of the way Japanese history is taught in schools. Textbook screening, or 'authorisation', by the Ministry of Education has ensured that criticisms of Imperial Japan, especially its actions in World War II, are whitewashed. The younger generation is often unaware of Japan's war crimes.

The professor told me that her Japanese students wouldn't expect to find any tension if they travelled to the US or Australia, as many do, to improve their conversational English. The younger generation, in particular, is greatly influenced by Europe and America, and interested in Australia. She was overwhelmed by the number of students who signed up for her class after hearing she was visiting from Australia. She was impressed by how keen they are to read and understand the Australian poetry that she sets them.

Equally, most young Australians are fascinated by Japan. In fact, many are more at risk of exoticising it than criticising it. The advanced electronics coming out of Japan, the unique fashion, the shrines, the anime and much of the food beckons Australians who want to see it, hear it and taste it, first-hand. Tensions that exist in my grandparents' generation concerning World War II are slowly dying out, though many would argue that Japanese whaling continues to damage Australian-Japanese relations. Articles in Australian newspapers exposing the siphoning of money from the tsunami-relief efforts into whaling funds reignited anti-Japanese feeling. This culminated last year in three Australian activists climbing aboard an armed Japanese whaling vessel in protest. The ideological difference about Japan's whaling program will continue to cause a rift between the two countries. But it is unlikely to prevent young Australians from travelling to Japan or enjoying Japanese culture.

The internet has encouraged students to cyber-travel. Travellers upload their photos to sites like TripAdvisor, and images of Shibuya, Shinjuku and Ginza are constantly googled by people all over the world looking for the latest trends. Gwen Stefani's Harajuku Girls ensured that Takeshita Street in Harajuku would become one of the fashion meccas, Lady Gaga's 'We Pray For Japan' bracelets for tsunami relief brought the world's attention to Japan's struggles in March 2011, and apps such as Fruits publish photos of avant-garde Japanese fashion for a wide readership.

My colleagues and students tell me they are envious of my trips to Japan. They quiz me about Tokyo: 'What is the food like?' 'Does the sushi taste different from the hand-rolls we get here?' 'What is the fashion like?' 'Have you been to Harajuku?' 'Have you seen a geisha?' 'Can you read Japanese?' 'Can you speak it?' 'Have you been to the Tokyo Park Hyatt?' 'What do you love most about Japan?'

I thought about this last question as I composed an out-of-office message for my university account: 'Thanks for your email. I am currently undertaking research in Tokyo, Japan. I will be answering my emails but may be slower to respond than I normally am! I will be back on 22 December.' What do I love about Japan? My computer dinged: incoming mail. The first email was from a lecturer in anthropology asking me about the progress of a student we co-supervise. The second email was also from her; she had received my out-of-office message and replied: 'Tokyo? You lucky gal. Wish I could join you there.' The third was from a student asking me if I would write him a reference; the fourth was the same student: 'I hope you are having a great time in Tokyo. I really want to go to Japan the year after I graduate... I want to go to Tokyo and Hiroshima.'

I'D BEEN TO Tokyo about a dozen times but never to Hiroshima. From secondary school all I knew was that the Americans entered the war after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. It never occurred to me that the Japanese were any different from anyone else engaged in warfare. In fact, as the events of Pearl Harbor were always linked with America and the atomic bomb, I felt sympathy for Japan.

I took the Hikari bullet train from Shinjuku, changed trains at Shin-ÅŒsaka and re-read Marguerite Duras's screenplay for Hiroshima mon amour. It's a four-and-a-half-hour journey, so I had time to think. From the photos and documents I'd seen, Hiroshima was reduced to radioactive dust and rubble: the original Ground Zero, a wasteland. I wondered how my grandparents reconcile these images in their minds. In the photos there was nothing but rubble and a few random buildings, still standing in defiance.

I went straight to the A-bomb Dome, one of the few buildings left standing. At 8.15 on the morning of 6 August 1945 the first atomic bomb exploded, six hundred metres above the building. It is a living tomb. A mechanical skeleton. The ground I stood on was once nothing but stones and debris, a demolition site. The screams of people as they ran into the Motoyasugawa River, burning and melting, were in the air. The A-bomb building, once the Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, is hollowed and fissured. The dome is a construction of metal lacework, capping the central cylindrical structure. I felt like a voyeur peering into its rooms and spaces. The Japanese thought about levelling it, as it was a reminder of their vulnerability in war, but decided it was more important that the building stood as a reminder of the horrors of atomic warfare. It now belongs to the National Trust.

I wended my way over to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. It houses a confronting series of exhibitions. While the ground floor is dedicated to anti-nuclear warfare, the history of Japan's role in World War II is presented in remarkably unbiased fashion. The atomic bomb is the villain, not the US. Big black and white photos indicate that its victims were the innocent citizens of Hiroshima. Mannequins have been constructed to demonstrate the effects of radiation: their hands are melting. A sign tells me that some victims sucked the pus from their fingertips, trying to quench their thirst. On the top floor, keloids and deformed fingernails tell a gruesome story of suffering. I saw coils of victims' hair, photographs of their charred bodies and deformities. But it was the scorched school uniforms and the lone lunchbox, found six hundred metres from the hypocentre, that moved me the most. So many children suffered. The thunderous noise of the atomic bomb is piped through parts of the museum. It sounds like wind echoing in the wilderness.

I checked into the Hiroshima Grand Prince hotel. There was a message for me waiting at the front desk. I called home. My grandfather told me how much trouble they had leaving a message. He complained that the girl on the desk didn't understand what he was saying, that she didn't seem to speak English at all. I asked: 'If a Japanese person rang a hotel in Australia, do you think the Australian would speak Japanese?' He didn't respond. News that I had been to the A-bomb dome and museum was also met with silence. My grandparents were unhappy, perhaps even annoyed. They stopped me when I started to describe the remnants of nuclear war. 'You're not telling us anything we don't already know,' they said. 'We lived through it, you know. We didn't look at the images then; we aren't about to hear about them now, from you.' I told my grandmother that it was hard to understand how President Truman could have made the decision to drop the Nagasaki bomb after seeing the devastation of Hiroshima. Her response: 'Well, they had to end the war somehow.' And: 'You know, if it wasn't for America, you would be Japanese.'

I think that it wouldn't be so bad to be Japanese. In fact, I think I would love the low crime rates, great transport system and food. And if Australia were under Japanese rule, I would love the emphasis on school and academics. I have spent my life on the wrong side of the brawn-versus-brains battle in Australia.

We promote Australia as a sporting nation, which is, in turn, discussed as anathema to an intellectual society. We are sporty rather than smart, or perhaps we are sporty at the expense of being smart. These terms, in Australia, are thought of as mutually exclusive. Australian intellectuals can be seen as social pariahs: the embodiment of brains in a society bent on valuing brawn. We teach this in schools to our children. The boys chosen for the football team will be excused from mathematics and English classes to train for 'the big game'. The girls' 'A grade' soccer team at the school in which I worked got a week off school to train for the tournament. In my experience, at most high schools the students who win chess competitions or read-a-thons do not receive the same accolades as those on sporting teams. And brainy students who ace every test are rarely as envied or popular. This has manifested itself in Australians hero-worshipping football players and celebrating the WAG life as a legitimate career path for women.

I wonder what it would mean if Australia had been under Japanese rule since 1945. I look to Japanese occupation of Korea and Manchukuo, and think about Australia as a Japanese puppet state. This vision requires me to separate the myths surrounding the place of women in Japanese society from the reality of the modern Japanese woman, and to somehow combine it with an Australian woman's heritage. It requires me to switch my understanding of the glass ceiling to that of the bamboo ceiling. It requires me to consider Australian apartheid and how Australians would react in the face of defeat.

But Japan surrendered. I think about the war and the atomic bomb. I think about Hiroshima and Nagasaki. My grandparents are still on the other end of the phone. My grandmother is nattering about Home and Awayand Packed to the Rafters.

I interrupt her. I tell her, 'You know, in the face of floods and fires, earthquakes and bombs, the Japanese, just like Australians, have a great sense of community.' She is silent. 'There is a strong sense of family in Japan.' For the first time, I know she is listening.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review