The history of early Asian immigration to Australia is one not often talked about in the country.
From 1901 up until the 1960s the so called ‘White Australia Act’ restricted people from Asia from immigrating to the country, however there were already many people settled before then.
A theatre show in Sydney explores the life of one individual. A 19th century Japanese photographer named Yasukichi Murakami.
Asia Calling’s Jarni Blakkarly went along to a rehearsal in Sydney.
“You know the planning masters were all white and most of them didn’t trust us. Not just the Japanese, Chinese, Malaya, Aborigines, Filipinos,” says an actor rehearsing on stage, “but Gregory was different.”
At a rehearsal studio in Sydney, actors are bringing to life a long forgotten story in Australia’s history.
The play is about the life of a 19th century Japanese photographer named Yasukichi Murakami and his lost photographs.
The show is centred on an imagined conversation between Murakami and the play’s creator Mayu Kanamori, who is also a Japanese-Australian photographer.
“Yasukichi Murakami was a photographer who came from Japan in 1887 and he lived in the Australian North, and he worked not only as a photographer but as an inventor and an entrepreneur,” explains Mayu.
Between the northern Australian cities of Broome and Darwin, Murakami worked in various odd jobs – running a shop, a hotel, a taxi business and an informal bank.
He even invented a pearl diving suit.
Murakami became one of the community leaders for the several thousand Japanese living in Australia at the time. But many people knew him because of his photographs.
“He had a very successful photography studio in Darwin, in Northern Australia just before World War 2 began. And when the Japanese dropped the bombs on Pearl Harbor the following day, every Japanese person that lived in Australia was rounded up and they were interned as enemy aliens and YM was one of them,” she says, “And because of that internment and he died whilst he was actually interned. And his lifetime of photographs went missing and this play is about the uncovering of those lost photographs.”
Mayu says that during her research about Murakami’s life and finding his photographs, she felt the story become symbolic of something much larger.
Her search took her through libraries and archives all around Australia. She even travelled to Murakami’s hometown back in Japan where she discovered photos he had sent back to his mother.
Armed with this photographic collection, Mayu also managed to attribute dozens of unattributed photographs in the Australian archives as Murakami’s work.
“It was as if, the memory of all Japanese prior to World War II had been wiped out with the violence of the war. And his lost photographs are like a metaphor for what I consider a collective national amnesia about the Japanese history in this country,” she says, before continuing.
“I think in Australia we forget that generally the Asian population have been here for a very long time and in a sense Indigenous Australia and peoples of Asia have been trading and have been living together much longer than European settlement, so that part of history first of all needs to be remembered.”
While Australia today is a multicultural country, the British colony was established with strong racial divisions.
During much of the 19th century Asian migrants were greeted with hostility and in 1901 they were banned from entering all together.
“More recently Australia has embraced multiculturalism, there are many different people of diverse backgrounds including many Asian people, you know it is the fastest growing group of people in Australia,” says Mayu, “But it is important that these histories of people that were here before us, not just new migration, be known today in contemporary Australia.”
“Look at all these people buried here, not only them forgotten,” says one of the actors rehearsing on stage, “Forgotten people far away from their home, their families. They came here, lived once and contributed to the history of this country, our history, you owe it to them Mayu, to take the time to listen.”