Aussie vet's healing visit to Japan

Last week's news of a bridge-building move rubs against WW II memories and anti-Asian sentiment.

Peter Phillips hated the Japanese with passion.

His father died fighting them in New Guinea, when Mr. Phillips was just 8. And when Japan's wartime atrocities against Australian prisoners of war emerged after World War II, his feelings only crystallized.

But in the past decade, Phillips's antipathy has dissipated. And last week he became a symbol of reconciliation when it emerged he had become the first head of Australia's most influential veterans group to visit Japan.

After years of trying to hold back Australia's warming relations with Japan, the Returned Services League (RSL), which Phillips has headed since 1997, is slowly changing its tune. That may not be unusual in an age of global reconciliation and apologies. But for an Australia that until the early 1970s barred Asian migrants, a conciliatory voice coming from one of its most conservative corners is yet another sign of its changing relationship with the Asia it once held in suspicion.

"We've reached a stage where we're two generations on, and it's important for us to foster better relations with Japan," Phillips says. "It just seems that this is a stumbling block that we have to put aside, this business of the war."

Phillips, a retired major general and veteran of both the Korean and Vietnam Wars, visited Japan late last year at the invitation of the Japanese government, which introduced a program six years ago to promote reconciliation between Japan and its former enemies.

Australia and Japan now have a warm relationship - Japan is Australia's leading customer, buying some A$16.6 billion (US$8.96 billion) in beef, coal, iron ore, and other goods each year. But the relationship is underlined by an uneasy history: During World War II, Japan became the only aggressor ever to have come knocking at modern Australia's door, and thousands of Australian prisoners died.

The RSL has for half a century led the charge both against the development of too cozy a relationship and for compensation of Japan's victims.

Because of its sensitive nature, Phillips's visit, which was approved by the RSL's executive board, was kept quiet. He met with Japanese school children, visited war museums, and gave speeches. When news of the trip emerged last week, Phillips was greeted with anger by some. "I think they're wasting their time trying to talk to them [the Japanese]," Owen Campbell told the [Tasmania] Mercury. "They won't apologize or do anything for us. I've got no time for the Japs and never will have." Mr. Campbell is the sole remaining survivor of the famed Sandakan death march in Borneo, in which more than 2,000 Australians were killed.

Australian veterans are just one of the many groups that have sought compensation from Japan for wartime wrongs. In December, a mock trial in Japan organized on behalf of women used as sex slaves by the Japanese military found the late Emperor Hirohito guilty of crimes against humanity. And in the US there has been a push in recent years for greater recognition of Japanese atrocities many feel were covered up by the US after the war in an effort not to embarrass the vanquished Japanese.

Still, the Australian example remains unique: As a Western outpost in the Asia-Pacific region, Australia has long struggled to discover its place among neighbors with whom it has long thought it had little in common.

Since the lifting of the White Australia policy in the early 1970s, the land Down Under has evolved into a vibrant multicultural society imbued with Asian influences. But until then it barred the entry of Asian migrants, and significant sectors of white Australian society still view Asia with suspicion. The far-right One Nation Party, which is a gainst Asian immigration, grabbed about 10 percent of the vote at the last national election in 1998. It may play a key role in state elections in Western Australia and Queensland in the coming weeks.

According to Tomoko Akami, a Japanese historian who has lived and worked in Australia for more than a decade, Australia's experience fighting off Japan's World War II advance through the Pacific contributed to a suspicious attitude toward not only Japan but the rest of Asia too.

"This war experience really has shaped a great deal of the psyche of the mainstream of Australia," she says. Part of the reason is the fact that the RSL worked so hard to keep war memories alive, Akami argues. Its influence was evident in the first Australia-Japan trade agreement signed in the early 1950s, and the veterans group has remained a prominent voice whenever the question of Japan came up since.

"They are not the majority view, but they are central in terms of keeping the war memories alive," she says. "And they are also very powerful politically."

Phillips admits the RSL - whose clubs act as everything from bingo hall and cut-rate Chinese restaurant to gym and casino - was for years driven by an anti-Asian attitude, much like Australia itself. "Racism was entrenched here," he says. "We saw ourselves very much as an Anglo-Celtic society. But that's broken down almost entirely over the last generation. I don't think my children - and I've got five of them - are racist at all."

Phillips argues his visit is only the first step in a bid to engender a change in attitudes in the RSL's 250,000 members. His visit, he says, doesn't mean the end of bids for compensation, or for Japanese children to be taught about the brutal treatment Australian POWs were subjected to along the infamous Burma Railroad and in prison camps across Southeast Asia.

But the RSL also needs to accept that Australia's relationship with Japan has changed, he says. "My visit was driven in part by a desire to make sure that our members aren't left behind or are seen to be holding back the rest of our society."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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