Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens

Kevin Bathman in conversation with Mayu Kanamori
“It is rare on our stages and screens to see Japanese Australians depicted as anything other than enemy soldiers, ruthless businessmen or clueless tourists” 
 Annette Shun Wah, “Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens” Producer
Right Now’s Kevin Bathman interviews Japanese-Australian photographer and writer Mayu Kanamori on the making of Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens. Using photographic projections, video, original music and soundscape, Yasukichi Murakami is based on the true story of Murakami who was interned in Victoria immediately after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbour. Heartfelt and brave, the play is a moving tribute to a respected Japanese-Australian photographer, inventor and businessman as it stirs our collective amnesia about the history of the Japanese in Australia.

Photo: Miho Watanabe

Right Now: How did you come across Yasukichi Murakami?

Mayu Kanamori: In 1998, I was photographing portraits of people with Japanese-Indigenous mixed ancestry in Broome WA. One of the people I photographed told me that her great grandfather was a Japanese photographer named Yasukichi Murakami. It took me some years after that to begin my research on him. Once I started, I was hooked!

As a Japanese-Australian and photographer, the parallels between Murakami and yourself is undeniable. Was your research on Murakami also your way of delving into your ancestry?

For some time now, I have been interested in stories of people who are of Japanese ancestry in Australia. It’s about my own ancestry, but it’s more specific than that. It is about my own diasporic condition.

It is not about Japanese people in Japan, nor is it about Japanese-Australian relations, but specifically about people of Japanese ancestry in Australia.

Theresa Shigeno & Kathleen Masuko Murakami in Broome, Western Australia circa 1920. Photo: Yasukichi Murakami. Courtesy of Julie Murakami.

“It is the voice of ordinary people caught up in war that we must tell as loudly as possible to stop all wars.”

I came away from the play thinking about the social injustice inflicted on Murakami. Why do you believe his story had never been told in Australia?

It is as if the violence of World War II has wiped out the memory of the Japanese pioneers in Australia who contributed to our nation building. It is as if Murakami’s photographs, lost, because he was interned during the war and died in internment, represents a national collective amnesia about the memory of prewar Japanese in Australia. I want to address this, so that children of Japanese heritage in Australia don’t grow up thinking that the story between Japanese and Australians began with war. We lived together in peace long before World War II.

I think it is important that people know that during World War II, all people of Japanese ancestry who were living in Australia were interned. This story is something that has never been talked about until recently, because after the war they were mostly deported, and those who were allowed to stay sometimes hid their ancestry or were silenced by shame.

Stories of wars make heroes out of soldiers, no matter which side you are on. In the case of Murakami’s story, it is about civilians being caught in decisions made by our governments. It is important to keep telling stories because the military, whether you win or lose, always have a larger budget – and consequently a louder voice. It is the voice of ordinary people caught up in war that we must tell as loudly as possible to stop all wars.

It is also important to tell stories of civilian internment, because we still today intern civilians.

Yasukichi Murakami, self portrait, by Yasukichi Murakami, 1905, Broome. Courtesy, Murakami Family Archives.

Yasukichi Murakami is very important in the theatre world, as it gives Asian Australian stories more visibility. It is rare to see an Asian-Australian, let alone a Japanese-Australian play, so how would you like your play to be remembered and what are your future plans?

I don’t know if Yasukichi Murakami – Through a Distant Lens would be remembered by many in the years to come, however I would like it to be part of an emerging future for other Asian-Australian writers so that their voice can be heard in the wider / whiter world of Australian theatre and giving more opportunities for Asian Australian actors and artists.

I am alarmed by the current rise of nationalism in Japan and concerned about the relationship between Japanese people and peoples of other Asian nations. I want to let people know that in Australia, through organisations like Performance 4a and AASRN, Asian-Australians work together to heal past wounds.

Photo: Mayu Kanamori

Yasukichi Murakami is a Performance 4a production, co-presented by Performance 4a and Griffin Theatre Company. It is on from 10–21 February 2015 in Sydney. Book your tickets here.