Travels in Atomic Sunshine

Robin Gerster, Travels in atomic sunshine: Australia and the occupation of Japan (Scribe 2008)

Thousands of Australian soldiers and their families were part of the Occupation of Japan from February 1946 until early 1952. They formed the bulk of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force, generally overlooked in the shadow of the much larger and better equipped US occupation forces. While the US occupiers, with headquarters and amenities in Tokyo, set about imposing democracy by decree and using military might to change a militaristic culture to a peaceful one, insisting on freedom of the press except for stories that might make trouble for the occupiers, the Australians – whose generals led the BCOF – were stationed near the devastation of Hiroshima and seem to have managed without any sense of themselves as Liberators. They are scarcely mentioned by any of our otherwise zealous military historians, and barely appear in the Canberra War Memorial. Sneered at by the British, discounted by the US,  at home they are ‘the forgotten Force’.

At the time, thanks to reports of atrocities in the Burma–Siam Railway  and Changi Prison as well as the bizarre White Australia Policy, anti-Japanese sentiment was fierce in Australia, and the occupationnaires were in a bind. If they enacted the home sentiment, as many did, they were likely to be brutal, even criminal, in their dealings with the already shattered population, and there are plenty of stories of rape, sexual exploitation, black marketeering (‘wogging’) and careless disregard for human life. If they were open to Japanese culture and the humanity of the people, as again many were, they were likely to be shunned as ‘Jap-lovers’: there were plenty of headlines at home to that effect, and when people returned it was to even less acknowledgement than the troops who served in Vietnam. Governments still deny that their high incidence of cancer might be connected to the time they spent at nuclear ‘Ground Zero’.

If someone wanted to make a serious war movie, they could do a lot worse than mining this book. The movie would run very little chance of feeding adrenaline addiction the way so many well-intentioned anti-war movies do. It would have trouble being read as a tale of Good vs Evil. It would leave a number of received True Stories looking decidedly tatty. After so many movies about the horrors of the Japanese prisoner of war camps, how refreshing to show those liberated Aussies as occupiers of post-War Japan – some acting out their racism-boosted vengefulness on the civilian survivors of Hiroshima, others coming to appreciate the culture  and even falling in love. The book seethes with potential story lines. Here’s the tale of  the young Australian signalman, John Henderson:

IN early 1948, immigration minister Arthur Calwell had reasserted the government’s position that no Japanese woman would be permitted to enter Australia, irrespective of whether she was he wife or fiancée of an Australian serviceman … Henderson had married a young university graduate, Mary Kasahi Abe, by Shinto rites. With his wife pregnant, and worried about the legality of the Shinto ceremony, he sought to be married by the battalion chaplain, the well-known BCOF identity Padre Laing. Laing’s duty was to inform military command, and Henderson was peremptorily repatriated. The officer given the task of putting the order into effect related, 40 years later, that someone at BCOF HQ had decided to make an example of him. This was easily achieved, as he was a low-ranking, demoralised youngster of no consequence. A ‘thin, frail-looking lad’, Henderson was reduced to tears upon hearing the news. Accompanied by the padre and two MPs, he was put on the Kanimbla and locked in the brig to be returned to Australia, the father of a baby daughter whom he never got to see.

… During the debacle, and while his family was receiving abusive anonymous mail for supporting their son, the papers were full of photographs of radiantly smiling British migrant families arriving in Sydney … [Immigration minister] Arthur Calwell played to the crowd, stating that, while there were living relatives of the men who suffered at the hands of the Japanese, ‘it would be the grossest act of public indecency to permit a Japanese of either sex to pollute Australia or Australian-controlled shores’. What an irony: John Henderson had himself suffered, directly and not vicariously, from Japanese wartime brutality. He had laboured on the Burma–Thailand Railway, no less, and later in the coal mines in Japan. There, he had been befriended by a guard who handed him food, including small gifts from his sister, treats such as sweets, and rice cakes. The very reason Henderson decided to volunteer to BCOF after the war was that he wanted to meet his benefactress. He did, they became strongly attached, and they married – and now his own government had decided that her presence would ‘pollute’ Australia.

… Despite his promises, Henderson never returned to his Japanese family. He had asked a couple of his army mates remaining in Japan to keep a friendly eye on his wife in his absence; in the meantime, his parcels and letters stopped after some months. Years later, in late 1953 or early 1954, one of them returned to Kure after completing his service in Korea, and met the woman, by chance, downtown near the railway. She was with her pimp, having been reduced to prostitution, with a mixed-race child, in order to survive.

Travels in Atomic Sunshine won the 2009 NSW Premier’s History Award. It should also have a chance in the Literary Awards.

8 responses to “Travels in Atomic Sunshine

  1. I’ve been googling for an hour, but I can’t find what I wanted to refer you to! A New Zealand wroter, Halina Ogonowska Coates, published a novel in the late 90s, which I thought was called ‘Climbing Mt Fuji’, but I can find no trace of it, or any mention of the novel I’m thinking of in her oeuvre. In it she tried to capture the experiences of the young men who’d gone to Japan in the ‘J-force’ from NZ. She did win an award in 1992 for an oral history on this subject, the stories from which I know haunted her for years, but I was sure I remembered the launch of a novel. Maybe I dreamed it…


  2. M-H: SO I just spent a while googling too, with equal lack of success! Not even the NZ NAtional Library lists anything that might be relevant, unless you’re thinking of Polish equivalents … Your comment makes me realise, though, that I don’t remember a single mention of a New Zealand presence in the occupation, which means that either they weren’t there or it’s another case of Australians writing New Zealanders out of history. Oh boy!


  3. John Henderson and his Japanese daughter…do you have a name for her? I happen to know that he and his daughter corresponded for many years, he showed it all to his 1st cousin, my aunt, and she showed me but I forgot the names as that was 30 years ago. His daughter is my age, born 1947, and we would be 2nd cousins so I would love to correspond with her.


    • I’m sorry, Carole, I don’t know any more than I’ve quoted here. Perhaps you could see if Robin Gerster knows more. Scribe Publushing in Melbourne will have his contact details


  4. Pingback: The Book Group, Paul Ham and Hiroshima Nagasaki | Me fail? I fly!

  5. The Wikipaedia entry for BCOF makes clear the various components of the British Commonwealth Occupation Forces based in Japan – covering the Chugoku Region (Yamaguchi-ken, Shimane-ken, Tottori-ken, Okayama-ken and Hiroshima-ken (the HQ and the centre for the Australian Contingent) and Shikoku (Ehime-ken, Kagawa-ken, Tokushima-ken and Kochi-ken).

    I mentioned in response to Paul HAM’s book Hiroshima Nagasaki that I lived in Yamaguchi-ken. This was the sector in the care of New Zealand Forces until around 1948 when they pulled out. The patriarch of my home-stay family – a member of the prefectural assembly – was an important go-between official I understand. Nearby Hofu (aka Bofu) was an airfield used by QANTAS. The island of Miyajima (immediately to the south of Hiroshima-city) was used as a kind of hospital/rest-and-recuperation centre for Australian and NZ troops. It had a grand resort style hotel commandeered as a hospital – a kinsman was there in mid-latter 1946 recuperating from malaria contracted in the final months of the New Guinea war sector – before accepting an occupation posting to the Education Section – staying on Eta-jima – the old Imperial Naval Academy (based on UK Dartmouth/US Annapolis)! Now 90 years old he has many stories of his interaction with Japanese people during those days (despite the nonsensical “no-fraternisation” policy) among them one whom I was able to track down. I live across the street from an elderly chap (85+) and his Japanese wife. He tells me that he was twice on guard duty in front of the Imperial Palace in Tokyo.

    Robin GERSTER tells some uplifting stories but others which shine an unwelcome light on some of the darkness of those occupation days. About 10 years ago I met an elderly woman who told me that her Dad served a number of tours of BCOF duty in Kure (Hiroshima-ken) – though he insisted his wife and four or five children remain in Australia. (Other families were together in Kure – another friend speaks of his early teenage years there and canoe trips on the waters of the beautiful Seto Inland Sea where they lived.) Many years later my informant was to discover with some credible shock that her father had had another family in Kure – with his Japanese “wife” – and a number of half-siblings whom this woman never met but had fretted over – not knowing where to begin in tracking them down. I was prepared to do my best to help – but she passed away.

    Re-reading Hal PORTER and Tom HUNGERFORD is instructive – about the superciliousness of PORTER towards the Japanese/Asians in general, and the larrikinism tending towards an unthinking hooliganism from HUNGERFORD’s observations/re-tellings – serving as a kind of background to the GERSTER book!


    • Thanks, Jim. I haven’t read either Porter or Hungerford for 30+ years, and I didn’t know what I was reading back then. Porter’s condescension (to everyone, pretty much) is my main memory of his writing – in my 20s I found ‘Mr Butterfry’ incomprehensible but I knew it was fairly odious. I remember the larrikin tone of Hungerford’s stories, but wouldn’t have been able to say they had anything to do with Japan.


  6. The cover of the GERSTER book shows the great Torii or Shrine Gate standing in the waters off from Miyajima (Shrine Island) – which I referred to above. When the tide is out people can walk up to it – and there they press coins into whichever cracks or crevices they can find. Looking back towards land from that Torii – one looks directly at Itsukushima Jinja (the Shrine) which dates back to the late 12th century.


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