On this day in 1941, Australian authorities arrived at the homes, business and schools of Japanese residents bearing arrest warrants. Even third generation Japanese Australians had to be registered as aliens under the Acts of the time, so the names and addresses of every person were known in advance, and the arrest warrants had been issued months previously, awaiting the outbreak of war for their date and signature.
Most people were arrested and taken to their local gaol within 24 hours. Most were allowed to pack a suitcase, though no one knew how long they would be away for – some policemen suggested it would only be a couple of days, leading to those arrested taking nothing with them but a pair of pyjamas and a toothbrush. Homes and businesses had to be abandoned and some school children were arrested by soldiers with fixed bayonets in front of their schoolmates. On Thursday Island there were over five hundred people to arrest, so instead a barbed wire fence was built around the Japanese quarter with machine guns installed at each corner, making a temporary prison of their homes.
To find out more about the stories of those arrested, see the Loveday Project blog site, which shares some of Christine Piper’s doctoral research about that time, including personal stories from former internees.
The policy for internment for Germans and Italians had exclusions for women, for those over seventy years of age, or had resided in Australia for twenty years or more, unless they were deemed a specific risk. However these exclusions didn’t apply to Japanese Australians. If it had, it would have excluded most of them. Dr Yuriko Nagata found that more than seventy percent of the resident population were elderly, with over half being well over sixty five, and that the average period of residence was over forty years. However on this day, 72 years ago, being ‘Japanese’ was the only reason needed. Many of the people arrested, and even some of the people charged with arresting them weren’t yet aware that war had been declared. Prime Minister Curtin addressed the nation on a radio broadcast that evening:
“Men and women of Australia, we are at war with Japan. (…) Japan ignored the convention of a formal declaration of war and struck like an assassin in the night. (…) The Pacific Ocean was reddened with the blood of Japanese victims. These wanton killings will be followed by attacks on the Netherlands’ East Indies, on the Commonwealth of Australia, on the Dominion of New Zealand, if Japan can get its brutal way. Australia, therefore, being a nation that believes in a way of life which has freedom and liberty as its cornerstones, goes to the battle stations in defence of the free way of living. (…)
Men and women of Australia, the call is to you for your courage, your physical and mental ability, your inflexible determination that we as a free people shall survive. (…) There is a place and a part for all of us. Each must take his or her place in the service of the nation, for the nation itself is in peril. This is our darkest hour.”
I wonder what it was like, as a Japanese Australian, to hear those words?
Curtin J. Speech, 8th December 1941
Photo credit: 126272 Australian War Memorial collection, Formosan internees.