'Sacrificed generation': Mystery unsolved for Japanese interned in Australia during WWII

The hunt is on for missing documents explaining why hundreds of Japanese migrant workers, who were interned in Australia during World War II, were not allowed to return to their families in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia.

The 75-year-old mystery saw Australia used as a French offshore detention centre for the mostly long-term migrant workers, who were deported to Japan when the war ended.

France refused to take them back in New Caledonia; most never saw their families again and their descendants are still looking for answers.

“I had just finished breakfast, I was picking up my bag to go to school,” Anais Melissa (formerly Eto) said, when talking about the day her Japanese father disappeared.

“The French militia came and rounded up the Japanese, and then I don’t know," she said throwing up her hands.

It was the last time she saw him.

“I feel my father and mother were the 'sacrificed generation'.”
In her 90s, she is with other French children of the Japanese while watching archive footage from the Australian War Memorial for the first time, hoping to catch a glimpse of their fathers.

Filmed after the end of the Second World War, the footage showed former internees in Sydney boarding ships bound for Japan.

But no luck. Anais’ father was not among them - or the film was too grainy to ever know.

“It's a shameful episode. After the war we could have done differently,” said historian Ismet Kurtovitch, the former New Caledonia government archivist.

Historians and researchers have scoured through archives for answers in New Caledonia, Australia and France.

“So this is a telegram from the (New Caledonia) governor to the mayors to arrest all the Japanese and bring them in to concentration camps in two cities, Bourail and Noumea, and the telegram is dated the 8th of December 1941,” Mr Kurtovitch said.

“They were suspect to be spies, enemy citizens. They have not committed any crime at all.”

Historian Ismet Kurtovitch in the New Caledonia archives
Historian Ismet Kurtovitch in the New Caledonia archives Source: SBS

Some had become naturalised, but were stripped of their French citizenship. Families were ripped apart and those remaining were left destitute.

Most descendants do not want an apology or reparations - they just want to know why.

“My two grandfathers were arrested after the attack on Pearl Harbour, in Hawaii, in 1941, December, and then sent to Australia to a detention camp,” Marie-Jose Michel, Japan’s Honorary Consul in Noumea, said.

“It was emotional on the date, after it was a shame to be children of Japanese,” she recalled from her parent’s stories.

“I feel my father and mother were the 'sacrificed generation'.”

Marie-Jose Michel holds photos of her Japanese grandfathers.
Marie-Jose Michel holds photos of her Japanese grandfathers. Source: SBS

Thousands of New Caledonians have Japanese heritage mixed with French, indigenous Kanak and other settlers in the territory.

A memorial in the capital Noumea marks the arrival of the first Japanese migrant labourers in New Caledonia 125 years ago.

They worked in the vast nickel mines, as farmers, ran small businesses and some became wealthy enough to buy nickel mining licences.

In 1942, more than 1000 mostly men were sent to offshore detention in Australia and only 10 somehow made it back to see their families.

The Archives of New Caledonia contains many files.

“This file you will see the grandfather of Marie-Jose, he was embarked on the 29th of May, 1942 to Australia,” Mr Kurtovitch said while holding a neat folder with a photo and an official stamp.

There are also lists of Japanese wealth from household goods and licences for nickel mines.

“All their assets were seized by the government and were sold at auction. All what was done, was legal,” Mr Kurtovitch said.

After the war, Australia did not send the men back to New Caledonia, rather they were sent to Japan and no official reason has ever been found why

Lists of Japanese detained in New Caledonia and sent to Australia for internment
Lists of Japanese detained in New Caledonia and sent to Australia for internment Source: SBS

“We only find a document from Australian authorities saying (the) French say 'don't send them back here',” said Mr Kurtovitch.

“The Australian authorities were very fair and once the French said ‘no’ - they can’t do (anything) more.

“Somewhere there is a piece of paper, maybe here, in the French overseas archives, maybe in Canberra, I don’t know, we will find it, everything was written down somewhere.”

4 min read
Published 6 May 2017 at 1:35pm
By Stefan Armbruster
Source: SBS