Nightmare reading to result in reports with a modern purpose
Melbourne Law School research fellow Dr Narrelle Morris researches trials of the Japanese war at the National Archives. Photo: Richard Briggs
Narrelle Morris displays a sweet nature that belies her job - reading and analysing the transcripts of 300 Japanese war crime trials prosecuted after World War II.
She's been doing it day after day for the past three years, trying to make sense of the horror and writing legal reports that may be used as precedents for modern-day war crimes trials.
Some of the transcripts run to several thousand pages and few make for easy reading.
''There are nasty things. Plenty of murder, plenty of torture, mutilation, the odd cannibalism case,'' she said.
The research fellow at the Asia Pacific Centre for Military Law at the Melbourne Law School says her work is sometimes trying.
''I've had some interesting nightmares. I tend not to do my work late at night for that reason,'' she said.
Dr Morris is based in Perth but able to do much of her work remotely thanks to digitised documents held by the National Archives.
But for five weeks she has the luxury of being in Canberra working at the archives where she can look at the original files of the trials from 1945 to 1951 and other documents including the thousands of petitions from Japan asking for Japanese war criminals to be repatriated.
''It's lovely looking at the originals,'' she said.
Dr Morris recalled being in the archives' Melbourne office looking at a file about the Japanese commander General Hitoshi Imamura who was convicted of war crimes and then attempted suicide while in custody of the Australian Army.
''I turned the page [of his file] and there's a rusty razor blade in a bit of plastic and that was the razor blade he attempted suicide with,'' she said.
Dr Morris is able to be in Canberra after she last year won the archives' $15,000 Ian Maclean Award for archivists and other research professionals. The research grant is helping her to produce for the archives a publicly-available guide to key government records on the war crimes investigations and prosecutions. The documents are huge in number but not in any way catalogued.
''It's somewhat akin to having the SCG or the MCG filled with files most of which are just labelled with 'war crimes','' she said.
That project is an extension of her work reporting on the 300 Japanese war crimes trials, for which she also has the support of the Australian War Memorial and Defence Legal.
''There were no written judgements at the trials so there's no easy, accessible point to understand what actually happened. It's a matter of going through each trial one by one and creating a legal and factual narrative,'' she said.
The law reports on the trials will start to be published from next year.
■ The archives are calling for applications for $40,000 in 2012 research grants before May 4. More details are at naa.gov.au.