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Tony Abbott's praise of Japanese submariners delivers a blow to nation's psyche

Date

Julie Szego

The Prime Minister's comments about Japan's submariners virtually prostituted our history for his own geo-political ends.

The Abbott government is undoubtedly skilled at jolting the body politic out of its stupor. Time and again it has been willing to go one step further, hammer what’s already nailed, take a turn that some might call kamikaze brave.

This political tic was well-pronounced as the government sought to define its policy on China. Arguably, the effort was already veering on overkill with Julie Bishop’s criticism last year of China’s air defence zone in the East China Sea, the announcement of deeper defence ties with Japan, the Foreign Minister’s observation that China “doesn’t respect weakness” and the Prime Minister’s description of Japan as Australia’s “best” friend in Asia, the “best” having the ring of schoolyard provocation.

Predictably, the remarks caused commotion in China. But peculiarly baffling is Abbott’s failure to anticipate the shock his words would cause at home. 

Then in praising the Japanese submariners who attacked Sydney Harbour in 1942 for their “skill and honour” the Prime Minister turned the dial higher still. Predictably, the remarks caused commotion in China, a gift for the rabid editorial writers of the state-controlled press. But peculiarly baffling is Abbott’s failure to anticipate the shock his words would cause at home. Blithely, the Prime Minister picked a scab on the nation’s psyche.

In his welcome to Japanese leader Shinzo Abe, Abbott related how even at the height of World War II, Australia gave the Japanese submariners, killed in the attack on Sydney, full military honours. “We admired the skill and the sense of honour that they brought to their task,” Abbott said, “although we disagreed with what they did.” Quite apart from the sentiments expressed, the language itself jars. In the context of imperialist aggression, “disagreed” is oddly diluted. I never expected to hear such words from a protege of John Howard, a leader whose political inspiration drew heavily from the Australian story, post-white settlement.

As Abbott cut the narrative midstream, a potted history lesson is necessary. At the time of the military funeral on 9 June 1942, Australia faced its darkest hour. Singapore had fallen about three months earlier, none of the major powers had our back and 22,000 Australian troops had vanished into the hands of the Japanese.

As the Australian War Memorial’s senior historian Karl James points out, Rear Admiral Gerard Muirhead-Gould, with the backing of the Australian government, decided to cremate the four submariners with full naval honours - notwithstanding the attack had killed 21 allied sailors - out of his own sense of honour, and also in the hope the enemy would note the gesture and treat Australian POWs with the same spirit of decency. The first bit went according to plan: the funeral was noted all right. “It was essentially a huge propaganda boon for the Japanese,” James explains, with the authorities even producing a feature film celebrating the raid, replete with a simulated torpedo attack on an Australian warship. “The dead submariners became venerated as war gods.”

As for the second rationale, the treatment of POWs, we know the worst of that chapter. By the time the Commander-in-Chief of the Australian Military Forces, General Sir Thomas Blamey accepted the formal surrender of all Japanese in the eastern half of the Netherlands East Indies in September 1945 the tone had shifted. “In receiving your surrender,” he said, “I do not recognise you as an honourable and gallant foe.” The Thai-Burma Railway, Changi, the Sandakan death marches - the names, the unspeakable horrors, are seared into our collective consciousness.

During last week’s visit, Abe said of Sandakan and Kokoda: “May I most humbly speak for Japan and on behalf of the Japanese people here in sending my most sincere condolences towards the many souls who lost their lives.” There is sincerity in these remarks. Condolences are reliably comforting. But while Japan has paid reparations to Australian POWs, made restitution for wartime wrongs, missing from Abe’s statements on Australian soil was an explicit recognition of responsibility or an unequivocal apology. These “many souls” did not lose their lives from an Act of God.

The biggest problem with Abbott’s remarks is not that they bend history; they pay no heed to present realities. Grace and magnanimity are desirable virtues. Yet in the absence of reciprocity they do more harm than good. It is entirely valid to laud postwar Japan as a constructive and enlightened force on the international stage. No argument there. But at a time when Japan wants to begin throwing off its pacifist shackles, it is disturbing to witness Abe’s bid to whitewash his nation’s wartime past. Put simply he has form: banding with other nationalists to claim the 1937 Nanjing massacre by Japanese troops never happened, initiating moves to re-examine an apology to the Korean “comfort women”, visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours, among others, Japan’s most notorious war criminals even though US officials warned him not to. A New York Times editorial in March accused him of “dangerous revisionism”.

In the coming year, with the centenary of Anzac, we can expect to see our political leaders extolling the importance of history, wrapping themselves in the flag. In his Anzac Day address in April, Abbott described Gallipoli and the Western Front as “our foundation stories”. “We should be a nation of memory, not just of memorials,” he said. I agree. Without memory, nations, much like people, risk cracking. Surely, though, to really honour history we must tell the truth, however inconvenient. Otherwise the exercise is no more than empty sentiment, skin deep.

In his comments on the submariners Abbott verged on prostituting history for his own geo-political ends. Despite the passage of time, many Australian families still experience the flow-on effects of the savagery and loss inflicted by the Japanese Imperial Army. For them and for others Abbott’s remarks were a bridge too far.

Julie Szego is an author and freelance journalist. She will be a regular fortnightly columnist from today.

85 comments so far

  • None of the major powers had our back? What garbage.

    None except for the greatest of them all, the United Stated of America, which would later single-handedly roll back the Japanese Pacific advance. And not to mention the Chinese who bore the brunt of the Japanese war machine throughout the war. The British Empire and its vast colonial forces throughout Asia seem to have disappeared from view also. And all of this at a time when the Japanese high command had already ruled out any fleeting notions of invading the Australian mainland.

    The attempt to blur Abbott's praise of the Japanese submariners into anything beyond just that is feeble. But on the point of the skill and honour of those submariners, he is absolutely correct. These young men were given a difficult and perilous mission and they pursued it with great courage and against dire odds. Had those boys been ours, they would be heroes and celebrated to this day – just as we celebrate our heroes who invaded foreign shores in 1915.

    The author's insinuations regarding Japan's lack of apology are simply incorrect. A simple Google search would have confirmed this prior to publication. At what point Japanese leaders would be free to cease repeating the apologies (for fear of inviting such erroneous claims) is unclear.

    The pepped-up hysterics of this article seem to have more to do with Ms Szego's apparent preoccupation with perceived Japanese wrongdoing than any picking of an alleged "scab" on the nation's psyche. Just a year ago, some redundancies at the Toyota plant inspired this petty and obnoxious tirade:

    http://www.smh.com.au/federal-politics/society-and-culture/war-of-words-in-the-toyota-way-leaves-clarity-mortally-wounded-20120420-1xchx.html

    The CEOs of Ford and GM appear to have escaped any such invective in announcing their shut downs earlier this year.

    Commenter
    Trafford Leigh-Mallory
    Date and time
    July 17, 2014, 1:15AM
    • At the time of the Sydney Harbour attacks, the USA was not in the region to help us. They arrived towards the end of 1942.

      In terms of allies, they had been allied with our interests since 1941, but actual military help didn't arrive until a year later. Technically, the writer is correct. At the time of the attack in June of 1942, we were alone in the region.

      Commenter
      JuneBug
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 1:52PM
    • That's an curious contention given that the primary targets of the submarine attack in Sydney Harbour were the HMS Warspite (of the Royal Navy) and the USS Chicago (of the US Navy).

      Commenter
      Trafford Leigh-Mallory
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 3:13PM
    • "what garbage" ???? as the later poster pointed out the USA weren't in our region at the time of the event, I've not checked the rest of your post for inaccuracy but suspect it's just as erroneous

      Commenter
      baz
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 7:32PM
    • Mr Leigh-Mallory - your comments are just as insensitive and ill-researched as those Prime Minister Abbott and his honorable WWII Japanese soldiers. I had an uncle die a shocking death on Burma railway and my children's grandmother has described how she fled for a week, running by night and hiding by day, into the interior of China to escape the Japanese rape and massacres. Where is the honor in the WWII Japanese soldier or the current Japanese and Australian regimes which tries to write these events out of history ? The RSL will have plenty to say about Mr Abbott's outrageous kow-tow ......

      Commenter
      Outraged
      Location
      Darwin
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 8:56PM
  • Abbott couldn't give a buggar about the Australian psyche.. He is an unprincipled opportunist who says what he thinks will get him what he wants. We deserve better.

    Commenter
    JennSM
    Date and time
    July 17, 2014, 1:19AM
    • Yeah,like another six years of Labor.

      Commenter
      mags
      Location
      Queensland
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 1:04PM
    • Would rather 6 years of Labor than 6 months of Abbott

      Commenter
      Keith
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 1:28PM
    • I'd rather 6 years of Liberal that 6 days of ALP.

      Commenter
      Lost Memory
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 3:19PM
    • Actually another 6 years of Labor would be most welcome at this stage. Maybe we'd actually get the NBN and NDIS that we were promised.

      Commenter
      Red Pony
      Date and time
      July 17, 2014, 3:19PM

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