I’ve just come back from visiting Tokkōtai, an exhibition of work by contemporary Australian and Japanese artists to mark the 75th anniversary of the so-called Battle of Sydney Harbour. If you’re in Sydney, I recommend you try to get to see it before it closes on 12 June. It’s in the T5 Camouflage Fuel Tank in Georges Heights, Mosman.

On the night of 31 May 1942, three Japanese midget submarines made a surprise attack on Sydney Harbour. Twenty-one Australian naval personnel and six Japanese submariners were killed. Though the exhibition program says the episode ‘left an indelible mark on Australian identity and the course of our history’, really it has been swallowed up by the Great Australian Amnesia except for an occasional newspaper mention, its meaning unarticulated and its impact unresolved. In this exhibition there’s a sense of that night being dragged back into awareness, and not so much as a key event in Australian history as a point of departure for cross-cultural understanding.

Ken Done’s series of paintings, Attack – Japanese Midget Submarines in Sydney Harbour, is the big surprise. It’s as far from the Sydney Harbour prints that he’s famous for as you could imagine. In fifteen paintings he tells the story of the Japanese men on the subs, from their inculcation into the ethos of self-sacrifice to their burial with full military honours in Sydney in 1942.

There are two pieces of video art. Jennie Feyen’s Sakura and Steel features dancer Kei Ikeda. Miku Sato’s Not the Yellow Submarines is accompanied by a tiny model of a submarine floating in the air, bathed in yellowish light that creates an underwater feel.

For me, Michelle Belgiorno’s A Thousand Stitches of Hope and Sue Pedley’s Orange-Net-Work are the real guts of the show. Each of these involved the participation of hundreds of people, and gained a huge emotional impact from that.

Belgiorno’s work consists of 75 senninbari belts – belts that were traditionally good luck tokens given to soldiers before they went to war. The beautiful belts in the exhibition were made in a series of sewing workshops where Japanese and Australian women ‘of all ages’ sewed together ‘while discussing reconciliation and Australian–Japanese history.

The centrepiece of Pedley’s work is a huge orange net that was made for another artwork some years ago by volunteers in a small fishing village in the Japanese Inland Sea. Repurposed here, and hung around the four great pillars of the Fuel Tank, enclosing chunks of rock, it creates a shrine-like space that has one thinking of traditional Japanese life, zen gardens, and the underwater net that was lethal to two of the six submariners. A wall of ghostlike rubbings from clothing from the fishing village and a military museum completes this very powerful work.

Unfortunately, the remaining work, Gary Warner’s Orange-Net-Work-Soundings, a soundscape that accompanied Sue Pedley’s work, was inaudible when I was there, drowned out by the soundtrack of the videos.

It’s a terrific exhibition. Photos don’t do any part of it justice, but here’s what I could come up with.

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5 responses to “

  1. A fascinating little snippet of Australia’s WW2 history. I used to teach my Y5&6 students about it, and every time they would come back to school the next day saying their parents knew nothing about it.
    I loathe the concept of submarines. They are designed to be sneaky and the way they were used to destroy food convoys in WW2 seems so cowardly to me.


  2. Jonathan – excellent review. A couple of years after my return from many years in Japan I attended Ken Done’s exhibition at the Mosman Art Centre. Like any people associated with that Midget submarine attack – whether by having been in Sydney on May 31 in 1942 – or by having some connection with figures of that time – I was feeling in some senses proprietorial. Let me explain. In 1995 in Japan (I was teaching) I came across a book by Australian Marist priest Paul Glynn – and it grew into an occasional back-and-forth penfriendship – and several face-to-face meetings. His brother Tony – also a Marist priest – spent 40 years in the Nara region – till his death in the 1990s – while Paul himself spent lengthy periods in Japan and also developed fluency in Japanese – writing several books on exemplary Japanese figures – one of which I came across in 1995 – A Song for Nagaski (foreword by ENDOH Shūsaku – author of The Silence, etc)! Both brothers were dedicated to reconciliation between the people of their two countries – including an amazing project returning swords souvenired from slain Japanese soldiers near/at the close of the Pacific theatre of WWII. I believe something like 100 were returned from the Australian families holding those souvenirs to the families grieving the loss of loved ones in war. During my time in western Japan I visited places associated with Australians as PoWs in Japan and places associated with both the varieties of mini-subs developed to attack shipping – of the order entering Sydney Harbour – and of the human-torpedo single-man submariner steering the weapon to its target. And places associated with the Tokkōtai – the Special Attack Forces – of the pilots we usually term “kamikaze”. In the five years before my return to Australia I became a close friend to a Shintō priest in the city where I lived. In fact he eventually made me an honorary parishioner – he told me that he doubted another foreigner in Japan had been so honoured. In late 2006 the third submarine of the Sydney attack was discovered by divers off the northern beaches of Sydney. In 2007 some family members of those two men still lying in their sub. grave – were invited to Australia for a memorial acknowledgement. In a later part of that same year I found myself being asked to assist in some way the visit of a group of Shintō priests from that region wishing to attend the site to hold a memorial ceremony for the repose if those souls. I immediately thought to contact Paul Glynn – putting him in contact with them. And in March of 2008 they arrived in Sydney – 20 people. And with many thanks to the capacities of Paul – a joint ecumenical ceremony took place in Mona Vale headland – and with a Navy Chaplain – a vessel was arranged to take them to the approximate places within Sydney Harbour where the other two submarines had been stopped on that wild night back in 1942 – and to the Naval Museum with the relics held there of those submarines – on Garden Island. Each time I return to Japan – I see members of that group. At the time of their visit to Sydney a story and photos appeared in the local Manly newspaper – thanks to a Sydney-based friend – April Lewis – and her Manly journalist friend. Stories of war are never simply black-and-white and as the years move on – become more-and-more nuanced – and with the opportunities for reconciliation – epitomised so much by Paul Glynn SM – something heartwarming begins to emerge. Four or five years ago some Japanese friends ENDOH “Tony” and wife Masako – came to Sydney on a large Japanese cruise ship. They had themselves lived many years in Sydney – wool-buying, journalism – then as the head of Sony. They were on board the ship to deliver lectures – Masako a noted writer on the shared histories of our two countries. Aboard the ship too – was the pilot ITOH Susumu – who made a reconnaissance of Sydney Harbour just prior to the midget submarine attack – his collapsible ‘plane catapulted from the deck of the giant submarine mother ship in order to do so. He ditched the craft into the sea at the end of his successful mission. The Garden Island Navy Museum has an interview with him on screen which visitors can see – made when he was in his 80s. I didn’t get to meet him – as had been planned – he and his wife were off visiting other friends in Sydney. I later saw a newspaper report – a photograph taken near Mrs Macquarie’s Chair if I recall correctly. David Jenkins interviewed him for his book on the Submarine War between Japan and Australia.


  3. Pingback: Japanese Mini Sub • Japan Technology News

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