Journal of the Australian War Memorial - Issue 36

Interpreting "Japanese activities" in Australia, 1888-1945

Author:  Dr Pam Oliver

{1} Communities of Japanese residents in Australia were always small before the Second World War compared with other nationalities, but they were watched closely by the Army, Navy, Security Services and Police forces who became suspicious of Japanese activities. The influence of Japanese residents far outweighed their numbers from the time they immigrated to Australia in the late nineteenth century. It was often the case that activities such as photography, purchasing of books about or maps of Australia, surveying coastlines or taking soundings of waterways were interpreted as espionage by witnesses and reported as "spying" to authorities. Those responsible for investigating and interpreting these often-circumstantial reports had difficulty reaching agreement on the significance of the evidence, and especially in taking the next step of determining the intentions of the Japanese. Some intelligence reports were worthy of the language of a spy novel. Other, more reasoned reports gave pause to Army and Navy commands and influenced some Australian policy decisions.

{2} Equally divergent have been historians' readings of the record of Japanese activities in Australia, especially in search of an answer to the question of whether Japan intended to invade. Historians' positions mirror many earlier interpretations representing both the alarmist and dismissive viewpoints. For example, both Frei1 and Sissons2 examined Japanese government archives and found no evidence of a strategic plan or intention to invade or hold any part of Australia before Japan's spectacular military successes of 1941-42. Walton,3 examining part of the Australian archival record to 1931, cited evidence of spying which Meaney4 and Frei dismiss as alarmist. Evidence of spying has normally been connected to claims of proof or otherwise of Japan's intention to invade Australia.

{3} It is my contention that although Japan was gathering information and intelligence on Australia from the 1890s, and these activities became much more sophisticated during the 1930s, this probably had very little, if anything, to do with planning invasion. Whether Japan intended to invade or not, however, Australian authorities expected that the information gathered by its agents would be used for this possible purpose―just as some historians have done since. Thus Japan's intentions and Australia's perceptions of her intentions differed. Moreover, Australia knew Japan was spying throughout East Asia precisely because Australia and other countries had informants in Japan and in Japanese societies in Australia. They did not need to rely on uncorroborated statements from panicky witnesses who had seen Japanese sailors photographing Sydney and Newcastle. The difficulty was that no one could satisfactorily explain why Japan was collecting such large volumes of information on Australia. For many, the only possible conclusion was that she intended to invade.

{4} This paper examines the evidence gathered by the defence forces, the Department of External Affairs, and the Prime Minister's Department (through the Pacific Branch created in it in May 1919). Information on Japan's knowledge of Australia and her intentions in South East Asia and the Pacific, including Australia, will be used to assess that evidence. In addition, the Australian archival record since 1931 and newly available records for the earlier period, only opened for public access after 1998, will be examined to shed light on old questions regarding Japanese activities in Australia before the Second World War.

{5} Peak concerns about Japanese activities coincide with periods when Australia felt most vulnerable. The first was after the Russo-Japanese war, which ended in 1905, particularly from 1908 to 1912 when Australia was forming her defence forces and assessing defence needs. The second was after the First World War, during the peace conferences which settled questions regarding mandates over territories taken from German control during the war, particularly between 1920 and 1922. The third period of great concern was from the mid-1930s until the defeat of Japan in 1945.

The early period 1908-1912

{6} One essential role of the defence forces was to assess the defence risks and requirements of the new nation. The fear of invasion by Japan and the associated spy motif began very early in the history of the Commonwealth. Concerns after the Russo-Japanese war about Japan's sea power tempered the public enthusiasm with which visits of her naval ships were greeted in Australia.5

{7} Among the earliest reports of Japanese activities are those from the north coast related to systematic surveying and sounding of waterways.6 A large pearling fleet, predominately employing Japanese indentured labourers, had worked along Australia's north from Thursday Island to Broome since the 1880s. In 1908, residents of Cairns observed Japanese with detailed maps. Lieutenant J. G. Fearnley of the RAN investigated, and concluded that some pearl divers and members of lugger crews were more than uneducated workers after he observed one reading Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus in the original English. Further, some of the men wore clothing normally issued to officers and had extraordinary skill in handling boats in storms.7 Fearnley called for the establishment of an effective secret service, especially in view of military preparations occurring in Japan and China.8 Naval minute papers and reports for July to September 1911 admitted that Australia had not surveyed, or even partly surveyed, most of the northern coral reefs, and argued that because Japanese naval officers had frequented the channels in small craft, and become expert pilots, it was probably too late to remedy any harm done. However, an officer was sent to watch the Japanese and discover their aims.

{8} An Australian Intelligence Corps had been created in December 1907 and a school of instruction established in 1909, by which time the Corps numbered about 80 officers.9 One of the first trainees was Captain E. L. Piesse. Reports on the Corps' activities in 1908-10 show that it mostly mapped Australia. It relied on the War Office in London for information on foreign countries, but decided to watch foreign consuls and list people who travelled the Pacific as likely sources of information. This did little to satisfy Fearnley and others.

{9} The visit by a Major Asada to Western Australia in June 1912 aroused further concern about Australian Intelligence requirements and the activity of the Intelligence Branch of the Japanese General Staff in Australia. As Major E. J. H. Nicholson, of the local WA section of the Intelligence Corps, stated on 18 June 1912:

That [Asada's] visit was not only premeditated but official and pre-advised was evident by the somewhat elaborate arrangements made to receive him at places where Japanese residents are numerous.

The regrettably absolute ignorance of Japanese by any trustworthy whites makes exact knowledge impossible, but it is almost certain that a complete system of Japanese Agents was disclosed by his visit.10

{10} After Asada left, Ichikawa of Mitsui Bussan Kaisha (MBK) in Sydney sent him a package of maps and plans of fortifications. Asada telegrammed to request further maps of a similar kind for the Northern Territory. Defence complained about the state of Australian Intelligence provisions in a memorandum to the Attorney-General's Department on 26 September 1912, observing that:

from information received by this Department it would appear that espionage by foreigners is being carried out in Australia . even after detection suitable legislation does not exist to enable the Commonwealth to protect itself against organised spying. ... I am therefore to ask ... for advice as to the further legislative or other steps advisable adequately to protect against espionage generally.

{11} The Attorney-General's Department replied on 18 October 1912:

I presume that, by espionage, the memorandum intends to refer to the practice of illicitly obtaining or attempting to obtain secret official information in relation to Australia which would be useful to an enemy in the event of war.

The Defence Act 1903-1912 contains provision for the punishment of persons who unlawfully obtain plans, documents or information relating to defence works or unlawfully make sketches or photographs of defence works.

The memorandum continued that, under the Crimes Bill then in preparation, provision was made against the taking of unlawful soundings and for naval and military arrest of suspected persons, but that espionage was difficult to detect and no further legislative provisions could be suggested.11

{12} The key point was that Japanese research and information gathering in Australia was not illegal, no matter how much it might worry Australian authorities. It could even be argued that, if suitable maps were not yet available, the sounding of waterways was necessary. However, the legality of the activity made it no less potentially dangerous when officers in the Japanese defence forces visited and freely took copious notes.

The 1920s

{13} After the First World War, the question of control of territory previously held by Germany was the subject of long negotiations at the Versailles Peace Conference. Japan saw this as an opportunity to acquire the Pacific islands she had long desired in acknowledgement of services rendered to the Allies. She negotiated for those islands she had held during the war, including parts of New Guinea. Australia wanted to confine Japan to north of the equator, and succeeded.

{14} Against this background of international negotiation, Fearnley continued to operate in Newcastle and to report12 particularly on the activities of a respected Japanese businessman of Sydney who had arrived in 1888 to import Japanese plants. A "Mr K." set up a small import business in Sydney in 1890 and soon expanded to supply the shipping companies Nippon Yusen Kaisha and Osaka Shosen Kaisha and the Japanese Navy. He married an Australian and had two sons who ran the business after his death in 1923. The firm remained the biggest Japanese providore in Sydney until 1941.

{15} Both Fearnley and the Security Services were very interested in this providore. He met every Japanese ship, owned a guesthouse in Woy Woy, where resident Japanese holidayed, and Mikado Farm in Gildford next to the Sydney water pipeline. Over 80 per cent of sailors off Japanese ships at Sydney and Newcastle before 1920 gave this farm as their shore address. The farm was under observation and the movement of officers to and from it was noted.

{16} Mr K.'s vegetable shop in Newcastle did little business, but Japanese sailors with cameras visited frequently. Mr O., who ran the shop, was reported in connection with suspicious movements of officers in 1920 and shortly afterwards disappeared. Fearnley concluded:

[K.] is unquestionably in close touch with Japanese affairs in this state, and if there is any organised Japanese Intelligence Corps in Australia, I venture the opinion that Mr K. ... is a responsible officer in that service.13

It was estimated from the type and number of photos taken around Newcastle at that time, few of them of tourist interest, that the Japanese had first-class strategic information on the area.

{17} Some historians have interpreted Fearnley's Newcastle reports as proof of espionage. Others dismiss them as virtual paranoia. Piesse, in his capacity of Director of the Pacific Branch, felt Fearnley and Captain E. E. Longfield Lloyd (an ex-member of Army Intelligence who had recently joined the Branch) were over-reacting to Japanese activities in Newcastle and wrote to the Secretary of the Prime Minister's Department on 31 August 1920 to say that:

Captain Lloyd's ... presumption that espionage is going on ... cannot be said to be established by what has been ascertained.

In their fondness for Kodaks, Japanese abroad are not behind American tourists, and everywhere they show an alert interest in anything that is new to them. These qualities would have sufficed, without any ulterior purpose to gain for them the reputation for espionage which they now enjoy throughout the East ... Accepting the presumption that espionage is being carried on, what is its significance?

We have been familiar with Japanese espionage in Australia for ten or fifteen years past, and most of it has taken place on the coast from Port Stephens to Sydney. It is probable that it still continues. What is its object and what clue does it give to Japanese policy?14

{18} Piesse argued further that the Japanese General Staff had been modelled on German lines. For many years before the war Germany had collected information very widely, even in countries where she was unlikely to fight in the future, because it was impossible to foresee to which countries a war might spread. Piesse separated information-gathering from plans to invade―a position others were unable to adopt. He concluded:

It may be taken for granted that the Japanese ... collect information about countries without of necessity having a plan to attack them. This, at all events, was the view I found to be held by naval and military attaches in Tokyo. ... lf they follow this policy, ...there is every reason why ... they should collect information about Newcastle.15

{19} Piesse's assessment of espionage reports in the early 1920s was governed by his overall view of the danger from Japan. As Meaney argues, Piesse was convinced before 1914 that Japan constituted a serious danger to Australia but, after his contact during 1918 with James Murdoch (lecturer in Japanese at the Royal Military College, Duntroon, and Sydney University),16 he adopted a less alarmist and more sophisticated view of Japan. The 1920s were a relaxed time in the relationship between Australia and Japan. However, in the 1930s, Piesse became so alarmed by the re-emergence of Japanese imperialism that he wrote a pamphlet about Australia's lack of preparedness to meet a threat from that quarter; published under the pseudonym "Albatross", Japan and the defence of Australia appeared in 1935. Nevertheless, despite Piesse's positive views of Japan in the early 1920s, he was prepared to acknowledge that Japanese espionage had existed in Australia for some years. He was not prepared to agree that all Japanese with cameras were spying. Thus not all reports of Japanese activities before 1931, as presented by Walton, were interpreted as espionage by the less alarmist elements of the defence forces and government departments.

The 1930s

{20} The mandates gained by Japan after the First World War formed part of her inner territory. In the 1930s Japan fine-tuned her policy of expansion, which became known as nan′yō or Southern Expansion, formally declared by Japan in 1935. Frei17 outlines definitions of nan′yō during the 1930s: it was often spoken of in terms of an outer and inner nan′yō. The outer nan′yō generally included Malaya, Borneo, French Indochina, Thailand, Portuguese Timor and the Netherlands East Indies (NEI). Whether Australia was part of nan′yō and where it started and ended became preoccupations with Defence and External Affairs officials, who collected Japanese statements and geopolitical discussions on the issue.18

{21} As a result of Japan's increasing military activity, especially in China, and her expansionist policy statements, the years 1935-41 brought heightened concern about Japanese intentions towards Australia. Military and Naval Intelligence and External Affairs (which for a time had been a branch of the Prime Minister's Department, but again became a separate department in 1935) gathered intelligence about Japan's southern expansion. In particular, the Japanese system of economic penetration in South East Asia and the Pacific was studied, as Australian authorities were concerned to prevent any penetration of Australia.

{22} In 1938 the Navy believed that the objectives of nan′yō were three-fold: economic advancement; the desire for more territory or influence; and the provision of outlets for the employment of Japan's ex-naval officers and ratings in various maritime industries, "in the same manner as Britain regards her Mercantile Marine as a training ground for reserve Naval personnel".19 The activities of trading companies such as Nan′yō Bōeki Kaisha (NBK) were watched as they opened branches across the Pacific.20 By 25 January 1941, Naval intelligence had collected a file on Japanese intelligence and nan′yō.21 A summary of information gained about Japanese methods is evident in an annexure to Intelligence Summary No.9 of 4 April 1942 and demonstrates the quality of information the Navy had obtained.22

{23} Activities in the NEI (now Indonesia) were of key concern to Australia. The report details a history of Japanese activities since 1914 and outlines Japanese methods of penetration which Australian authorities felt would help investigations in Australia. The report stated that during the First World War, Japanese fishermen, traders and photographers were established at strategic points throughout the archipelago. Subsequently, an intermittent campaign of stirring up resentment against the Dutch began and by the 1930s attempts were made to secure a monopoly of trade and shipping. Propaganda campaigns among the locally born Chinese and Malays were financed by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and visits to Japan for Indonesian students and journalists were sponsored. Agents provocateurs stirred up incidents which could have provided Japan with a pretext for invasion, but none took place. However, plans for a Japanese administration in the territories was found in the records of the Japanese consul at Manado.23 Intermarriage with locals was also encouraged.24 Penetration was conducted in close co-operation with the Army and Navy.

{24} The boundaries of the nan′yō were not fixed but varied over the 1930s. Trading company documents captured and translated into Dutch by NEI officers contain a report by Mitsushiro Utamaru, an office manager and researcher of Nan′yō Kōhatsu Kabushiki Kaisha (NKKK), that was written in November 1939 for his company. In this document, Utamaru argued that when NKKK began developing from 1921 those areas gained under mandate during the peace settlement it was realised that they provided limited scope for Japanese economic activity, and that expansion beyond the existing nan′yō, especially to New Guinea, was necessary. The report details how the company looked for opportunities to take over a firm in New Guinea and succeeded by 1932. It complains about the restrictions Japanese firms experienced under the Dutch and of unfair competition from Dutch government operations attempting to limit Japanese expansion. The writer argued that Japan should define clear boundaries for nan′yō and make her territorial ambitions clearer, and complained that the government had shown little interest to date in the South Seas problem.25

{25} The move into New Guinea by NKKK was reported in the Melbourne Herald on 20 November 1935. The company's lease was only 700 miles from Darwin.26 The nan′yō was closing in on Australia.

{26} Considering Japanese activities to the north, especially through trading companies, it was important to establish which Japanese organisations existed in Australia and how many Japanese were resident in each state. Of immediate concern was continuing Japanese activity along Australia's coastline. Several reports were prepared and circulated. Two of the most comprehensive are discussed below.

{27} "Summarised reports of Japanese activities", listed by state from 1911 to 1938, included information gathering, soundings, surveying and reconnaissance, interest in minerals and the activities of firms. The report listed inquiries by Japanese about harbours and photographing of harbours, especially by firms such as MBK. It noted that 75 per cent of charts purchased in Fremantle in 1931 had been by Japanese.27 This is in contrast to Tanaka Hiromi's conclusion that the Japanese navy did not have sufficient military intelligence on Australia and that few charts in the Japanese Hydrography Department showed water depths. This fact, Tanaka argues, is testimony to the lack of plans for naval operations directed against Australia.28 It would be interesting to know the dates of these charts, as the Royal Australian Navy recorded that from 1913 onwards, as discussed above, the mappings and surveying of the north-west coast of Australia was very extensive. Japanese naval officers boasted at Thursday Island in 1920 that the Japanese Navy knew the Torres Strait better than the RAN. By 1935, Japanese charts of the Barrier Reef were better than those of the British Admiralty.

{28} The result of hydrographic surveying and its purpose became clearer in 1932, when a pilot at Esperance reported: "Facts indicate that hydrographical data supplementary to Admiralty Sailing Directions are issued to Masters of Jap [sic] ships by some authority in Japan." Once hydrography was completed, the Japanese were reported to be studying wharves and installations and exploring the hinterland. For example, an all-weather survey from Broome to Beagle Bay was conducted in 1937.29

{29} Concerns about sampan and other fishing activity were at their height from 1937. Fishing operations had become more organised and the RAN recognised the need to collect information on sampan movements, even if it seemed insignificant. By 1938 the concern was that ex-naval officers on North-East Asian sampans (who had often been suspected and reported upon) had been called up for active service in China, thereby providing Japan with an instant naval force.30 In November 1938, Naval Intelligence compiled a "Summary report of activities of Japanese fishing craft on the Australia Station 1933-38" for External Affairs. This lengthy document31 records many instances of the Japanese using charts of reefs and the coastline which were printed in Japanese, were far superior to Admiralty charts, and marked with wireless stations. It also detailed landings and anchorings, and instances of poaching and stealing, by the 90-odd luggers estimated to be operating between Broome and Darwin.

{30} Naval Intelligence did not wish to take any action to anger Japan because, the report stated, it was seen as fortunate that encroachment had not been backed by military force, as it had in the North-East Asian advance:

If the Japanese Mandated Islands are taken as the base, it is considered a reasonable assumption that 50 sampans would be available to sail in Australian waters. This gives a total (say) 150 small craft with a total personnel of at least 3,750.

{31} The report further noted:

According to information from a Japanese source, the pearling luggers are mainly controlled by Mitsui Bussan Kaisha of Kobe, Japan. The enterprise is subsidised by the Japanese government by way of loans and advances to build and equip. The vessels come principally from Palau. It is not known who controls and operates the sampans. Some come from Mandated Islands, others from Formosa.

Although Japanese intentions were not known, it was concluded that the Japanese could land and supply at Darwin 2000 men, given their intimate knowledge of the coast. From 22 November 1941 the RAAF watched lugger movements out of Darwin.32

{32} Because Japanese firms were involved in penetration of the NEI, and connected with sampan activities in northern Australian waters, the work of firms such as MBK came under notice. In 1936, MBK's activities in New Guinea and New Caledonia were recorded. In 1940 it was thought that MBK was intending to move into the fishing industry in North Australian waters.33 This prompted a close watch on Queensland branches of Japanese firms such as Araki & Co.34 It was noted that Mitsubishi, which had a branch in Sydney, seemed close to the Japanese government and had been instrumental in economic penetration in the South Seas.35 There was an instruction to watch any Japanese in Australia who had also been in the NEI and were attached to firms.36

{33} It is among Security Service, Military Intelligence and External Affairs files that the best evidence for spying in Australia is found for the 1930s.37 In "Correspondence between the Minister for the Army and the Prime Minister re Australia's preparedness for war",38 Consul Wakamatsu was reported to have established a Japanese espionage service in Australia in the mid-1930s. Japanese visitors and businessmen who entered Australia were observed, but the difficulties of obtaining evidence was reported as very great because communications took place through the consular services. Further, on 18 August 1936 an intercept provided evidence of funds allocated by the South Seas Section of the Japanese Foreign Office, inaugurated on 9 September that year, to Japanese legations and embassies for Secret Service work. The purpose was to make active political endeavours behind the scenes on international diplomacy, and to investigate the possibilities of emigration and trade investment.39 In 1941, the annual allocation to the Japanese Minister in Australia for intelligence was 30,000.40

{34} Such was the concern about espionage and infiltration that, in May 1939, Army officers spent five weeks working with the New South Wales Police department responsible for compiling records on suspected aliens. Sydney had the highest number of employees of Japanese firms in Australia and 84 Japanese were the subject of investigations in which the Army assisted.41 The Police in New South Wales and other states, and the Security Services, had collected the names of Japanese residents since 1937.42 By 1940, maps existed which recorded the location of Japanese across each city and state. W. H. Barnwell compiled a comprehensive report of Japanese associations in Australia for the Commonwealth Investigation Service.43 Police and Security Service officers shadowed Japanese across the country. In Sydney this was a daily activity from 1940.44 Information gained by this persistent activity provides a much better picture of Japanese activities in Australia during this period than had been previously available. Through a study of the Japanese company records seized by the Controller of Enemy Property45 on 8-9 December 1941, the activity of Japanese firms can be constructed for the first time. From these records it is clear that some 54 Japanese-owned import and export firms were established and thrived in Sydney for varying lengths of time between 1888 and 1941. Many had branches in Melbourne, Adelaide and Brisbane.46

{35} What this newly-available body of evidence reveals is that Australia was part of the peaceful penetration by Japan through trade, settlement and cultural contact, just as other countries were after the end of the Tokugawa period in 1868. Japan needed to expand, trade and shed population. Japanese immigration to Australia for the purposes of trade began in the 1880s and 1890s, when young Japanese men set up small, individually-owned and operated import and export firms in Sydney. Such activity paved the way for larger Japanese firms, such as MBK (1901), to establish branches in Australia and for a large trading company network to develop. Some firms owned by Japanese interests in Japan were managed by long-term Japanese residents of Australia, who often married Australians or arrived with Japanese wives.

{36} The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 did not stop the development of this network, nor restrict long-term residence by Japanese. Although the naturalisation certificates of Japanese who had arrived before Federation were cancelled,47 tourists, students and merchants entered on passports after 1904 without being subjected to the Dictation Test. They could apply for extensions of up to three years at a time, and leave and enter Australia with a Certificate of Domicile, without being subjected to the test.48 Atlee Hunt (secretary of the Department of External Affairs, 1901-16) acknowledged that restrictions on Japanese were nominal for mercantile representatives during the first two decades that the "White Australia" policy was in operation. If the Consul-General requested an extension, it was granted.49 Some Japanese who arrived during the First World War were still resident in Australia in 1941. Shorter stays of 3-10 years were very common.50

{37} During the 1930s, Japanese firms controlled 95 per cent of Australia's trade with Japan and most of its trade with Asia.51 Even during the Second World War, six months prior to the bombing of Pearl Harbor, this network comprised twenty-one firms. The merchant population of the Japanese community in Sydney alone totalled 40 per cent of a community of some remaining 319 families in 1941, all of whom were either repatriated or interned for the duration of the war.52

{38} The Japanese community in Sydney was compact and hierarchical. No-one could do business without being part of the network. Merchants belonged to the Nihonjinkai and laundrymen to the Dōshikai. Businessmen helped each other out with orders. The Japanese government looked after its citizens to a degree through the consulates and local Japanese societies. It was also commonplace for merchants to take sailors home.53

{39} The senior firms were MBK and Mitsubishi. The activities of these companies and organisations in Australia are still a matter of speculation, but there is no evidence in the records of their involvement in espionage. Japanese companies, with the exception of Kanematsu, which was 50 per cent Australian-owned, have no details of their Australian operations before the Second World War. MBK records54 only that it opened a branch in Sydney in 1901. In writing about its relationship with the Japanese government, MBK states that in its early years after it was established in 1876, it was necessary to take government contracts for wool and other raw materials. During the 1930s MBK was a harsh critic of the government's militarist policies and argued that Japan could not possibly win a war against the United States. For this, one manager was imprisoned. MBK, although working on government contracts, was not close to the Japanese government. Trading companies were multinationals and generally all they were really interested in was trade. They had opened world wide as we see from MBK's history, wherever a trading advantage presented itself.

{40} Seeing that a lot of material was burned early in December 1941 and smoke was observed daily coming from the consulate in Sydney in the fortnight before Pearl Harbor, it is likely that any material relating to espionage was destroyed. However, the four years of surveillance by police did provide information on individuals in the spying organised by Wakamatsu.55

{41} There were two types of agents: ones who were long term residents and others who visited for a short time. Known agents were Jiro,56 a trading company manager of a firm with branches in Sydney and Brisbane; a laundryman named Dino, who acted as a driver for visiting spies in Sydney; and Ita, an older local Japanese recently arrived in Australia and resident in Brisbane.

{42} Jiro was one individual who figured constantly in the network of information and report-giving.57 He arrived in 1916 as the nephew of a respected Townsville merchant and also of a Japanese general. When his uncle in Townsville died, he took over the business and opened branches during the 1920s in Brisbane, Sydney and Melbourne. He was a playboy, gambled and had expensive tastes. His trading company was one of the largest in Sydney but, when he was repatriated in August 1942, he left debts in Australia totalling 112,000 in federal income tax and 205,000 in personal debts.

{43} Jiro became active as an agent in 1933. He was shadowed by a police informant who befriended him at a popular golf club. Jiro photographed parts of Sydney's road and harbour system and exported the film in hollow golf clubs. The Brisbane office was reported as a "revolving door" for people under notice, and it was through this branch's managerial residence in West End that the elderly Ita passed on information. Containers of goods shipped from this firm had their contents disappear in transit along the Australian coast. The case of the empty containers of goods discovered by Customs was never solved.

{44} Jiro's laundryman, Dino,58 a resident of nearly 40 years, doubled as a driver for important Japanese visitors to Sydney and Newcastle and took them on tours. He was also the laundryman for the consulate and therefore able to carry information between it and Jiro undetected.

{45} Dino had arrived at the age of 14 and worked at a boarding house, studied at school, then worked as a pearler before establishing a laundry. He married May, whose brother was also married to a Japanese. Dino was permitted to stay on Certificate of Exemption from the Dictation Test until 1935, when he was informed he could remain in the Commonwealth while he was of good character. Dino's good character was questionable. By 1940 he was observed driving known visiting Japanese intelligence agents around Sydney, Newcastle and the Blue Mountains. When Dino was interned, May became the leader of a wives-of-Japanese-internees circle and raised money for the Japanese comforts fund. She was ordered to relocate 200 miles from the coast and chose West Wyalong, close to the camp at Hay where Dino was interned.59

{46} This little part of the network in Sydney was further complicated by intermarriage. May's sister-in-law worked as secretary for the Japanese Chamber of Commerce. The head of the chamber was the manager of MBK. Another member of the chamber was a Japanese newspaper, a semi-government agency in Japan, which was involved in espionage in Australia between May 1938 and 1940 and passed information to selected masters of ships. They also sent news items from Australian papers to Japan, and kept names and contacts. Their secretary was Sylvia Walsh, the daughter of Adela Pankhurst Walsh of the Australia First Movement, and she distributed the collected information to Japanese firms.60 This interconnectedness of the trading network and the patterns of intermarriage between Australians and Japanese, and the employment patterns of Australians who were Japanese sympathisers, made it impossible for the Security Services to be certain who was loyal.

{47} The most infamous visitor was Major Hashida, who was granted a two-month permit by the British Embassy in Tokyo to visit Australia in January 1941 with the request that he be afforded every courtesy, as he was coming to Sydney on a health trip. On the contrary, intelligence information was that he was coming not only to see the coastline and military installations, but to order the evacuation of the wives and children of Japanese residents as soon as possible. Departures certainly began shortly after his visit, with a high proportion of residents of Thursday Island receiving telegrams about dying fathers and sick uncles containing urgent requests for the recipient to return to Japan.61

{48} During his stay, Hashida kept a diary and visited thousands of kilometres of Australian coastline photographing beaches. The diary was found on him when he was detained by Customs officials in the NEI, and a translation was subsequently provided to Australian authorities. In this he recorded military details of troop strengths and facilities. He had converted road maps into detailed military maps.62 News reports on the visit stated that its purpose was to gather information about Australian industries and armed forces.63

{49} Fear of espionage and penetration did not cease with the internment of all known Japanese and Japanese sympathisers thought to be a danger in December 1941. After Pearl Harbor, the defence forces gathered a great deal more information on Japanese activities. Fear that enemy agents would be parachuted into Australia, or landed on a remote part of the coast, heightened after the receipt of reports of agents landing in the Philippines, Borneo and New Guinea from 193764 to February 1943. Reports of captured Chinese merchants in New Guinea who admitted they worked for the Japanese led to a fear of White Russians in Australian uniforms being landed in Australia, as had happened in India.65

{50} These fears and reports occurred at the height of the attacks on Australia, and apart from the bombings of Darwin and midget submarine activity at Sydney and Newcastle, Japanese attacks occurred on shipping around the coast from May 1942 to June 1943.66 Over a period of eighteen months of war the Japanese operating along Australia's east coast sank eighteen ships. In addition, twenty-two ships were attacked in Australian waters, some of them sustaining serious damage; 621 seamen were killed and a "considerable number" wounded. Further sporadic attacks and sightings occurred until February 1945.67 Given this body of experience, belief in invasion as a possibility at Sydney-Newcastle or in the West, at Perth-Geraldton, or at least the crippling of Australian mercantile activity, was taken very seriously.

Effects of espionage on Australian government policy

{51} Apart from the effects of fear about Japanese invasion and information-gathering, proven espionage was a major factor in the decision to intern all Japanese, even children and the elderly, who could, after all, it was argued, shine a torch to a plane from a backyard. It was believed that even harmless Australian-Japanese who had been here 45 years or more could perhaps be blackmailed into supplying information or engaging in sabotage. The power of the network and the systematic information- and intelligence-gathering over almost 60 years had made authorities cautious. Damning reports on Japanese activities compiled by Barnwell and others for the information of the Aliens Appeals Tribunals, which heard cases against internment, made it futile for the Japanese to appeal. Apart from the alarmists' fear of the inscrutable Japanese character, and the belief that a Japanese was loyal to the Emperor regardless of length of residence as some kind of genetic trait,68 the activities of the network was a factor in wholesale internment and repatriation policies. When the question of the Peace Settlement arose in 1945 and the worldwide power of the trading companies was investigated, Australia was reluctant to allow businessmen in on the same terms as before the war.

{52} This is what the Army knew and how they responded, but how does the historian assess this? Did the defence forces and Security Services over-react to Japanese activities in Australia? Set along side the Japanese archival record, some insight into the purpose of Japanese activities can be gained.


{53} Frei argues that Japan had a long tradition of information-gathering.69 Her seclusion until 1854 meant that information about western ways was vital to her advancement and development as a nation that could compete with other nations. Some information on Australia filtered back from pearlers and sailors, but detailed studies only appeared from the 1880s. Three of the best early studies are as follows. Hashimoto Masato70 attended the Melbourne Exhibition in 1876 and wrote a two-volume book on Australia containing statistics on climate, population, agriculture import, exports, education and the legal system, noting the potential for an Australia-Japan relationship. Sakata Haruo attended the exhibition in Sydney in 1881 and also wrote a report.71 He warned that Japan should initiate contacts "lest the white people get all the trade." A government publication resulted from research carried out in 1894 by Kanjūrō Watanabe, who was employed by the Foreign Ministry to draw up an accurate report about Australia (which he submitted in May that year). Watanabe travelled from Darwin to Sydney, obtaining information from Japanese immigrants.72 The purpose of the research was to provide accurate information for the Japanese Government to use in any future talks with Australian governments, and to serve businessmen, officials, journalists and prospective immigrants.

{54} Examination of the National Archives and the City of Sydney Archives reveals a constant flow of requests for information throughout the period under investigation. These came from Japanese local and central government authorities, as well as consular bodies and firms. One query received in 1910 concerned the training of naval cadets.73 Another, made in December 1919 by the Japanese Consul in Sydney, was for a panoramic view of Melbourne for the Japanese Education Department.74 Requests in the 1920s and 1930s were for information about the metropolitan railway network in Sydney, about Canberra's water reticulation system, about agricultural policy, and communism in Australia, as well as for maps and government statistics. So many requests were received that the point was reached where it was questioned what further information Japan could possibly want. Such requests continued even into the war period, with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Library being asked for land maps and air charts for Australia and British Islands in the Pacific!75

{55} Purchases of books by mail order from Sydney stores were reported, including the latest Australian census books and statistical registers for States and the Commonwealth, and official bulletins on trade, shipping, and the hardwoods of Australia. In 1940 Ichikawa was reported to be buying yet more books, with Inspector Mitchell of Sydney remarking on 16 December that it was well known that Japanese buy up all books on the South Seas and Australia.76 Frei notes the very large collection of such books in the Diet library.

{56} Much of the information was used in book-writing and certainly Ichikawa of MBK wrote on Australia.77 Books on Australia experienced a boom period between 1936 and the 1940s, and some authors continued to write on the subject even after the war and into the 1950s. Frei sees this as partly a reflection of Australia's part in, or relation to, the nan′yō at a time when Japan was really achieving. The people writing were well-informed, and often had spent extensive periods in Australia ― including a number of company managers who had administered branches there.78 Kanematsu (Australia) Pty Ltd was responsible for many publications on aspects of Australia, particularly the monumental 600-page work entitled Gōshū (Australia) published in February 1943 and supervised by the managing director, Hayashi Sōtarō; it analysed the entire spectrum of Australia's economic situation, with information on everything from eucalyptus oil to Aborigines.

{57} Thus, information-gathering was openly undertaken as thorough research throughout the period of Japanese residence in Australia until 1941. However, despite the open nature of the requests and research, the activity brought cautious reactions from Australian defence and government because its purpose could not be ascertained. The surveying and photographic activities caused most alarm, especially when undertaken by naval officers or sailors.

The invasion question

{58} Did Japan intend that Australia would become part of nan′yō? Frei argues that the concept of nan′yō was not new. The Japanese had gone forth before the Tokugawa exclusion and was resuming it "to do as Europeans do". Southern fever was acute from 1887-1894 for trade and settlement. It was a major Japanese pastime.

{59} According to Frei's analysis of Japanese sources, Australia was included in Japan's geopolitical considerations. There was a planned advance into Portuguese Timor in 1936 through the operations of the Nankō or NKKK, which co-operated closely with the Navy. The plan was to meet the wishes of the local governments and to guide the people to pro-Japanese attitudes through propaganda. Australia, therefore, had to be neutralised. There was concern that Broome offered safety to the Dutch, and Darwin to the US Pacific Fleet.79 Japan did not want Australia to become a strategic springboard for a counter-offensive by the United States. Thus early in 1942, Australia was seen as a menace to Japanese occupied territory in the "inner nan′yō". This led the Navy to push for total control of Australia, but the Army felt that ten divisions would be needed to hold the territory. Army-Navy conferences in February 1942 argued about invasion, but could only agree on the occupation of New Guinea and that the destruction of Darwin was important for Timor and Java.80 Sissons concurs with Frei's analysis.81


{60} There is a need to distinguish between information-gathering for writing about Australia and speculation on Japan's geopolitical position in relation to nan′yō, as distinct from information intended for military use. However, this is a distinction that would have been difficult to make in the circumstances after 1936. And before then, as Nicholson lamented, few Australians knew anything about the Japanese. There is a very fine line between a harmless insatiability for knowledge and using information to military advantage. In the period prior to Japan's militarist phase, from the statements of purpose in regard to information-gathering that are available, the intent appears to have been diplomatic. The information was intended to aid Japan in negotiations with other countries and to advance her trade.

{61} There is a need to place Japanese activities within the context of a Japanese tradition of researching, and economic penetration. Few saw military conquest of Australia as a possibility, except in the early days of the war when Japan was making great military advances. To see Japan's intentions towards Australia, we need to separate the invasion question and consider the much wider agenda of peaceful economic and cultural penetration. In this context Australia was firmly on the agenda of those international traders who saw the potential that Australia presented.

{62} The particular irony in the invasion and espionage debate is the fact that Australia had, in fact, been thoroughly penetrated by Japan by 1930, as Australia's trade with Japan and large areas of Asia was mostly controlled through the Japanese trading company network. The belief that "White Australia" kept Asians out and that no significant community of Japanese existed in Australia between 1901 and the 1970s has perhaps clouded the historical debate.

© Dr Pam Oliver

The author

Dr Pam Oliver is a part-time researcher on an ARC-funded project in the School of Australian and International Studies at Deakin University, and an honorary research associate at Monash University's School of History and School of Asian Languages and Studies. As an historian, she is currently researching in the area of immigration to Australia, in particular the Japanese presence and its implications for Australian policy making and nation building in the period 1860-1970. Research for this paper was funded by the Australian War Memorial's former John Treloar grant-in-aid programme.


  1. H. P. Frei, Japan's southward advance and Australia from the Sixteenth Century to World War II (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1991).
  2. D. C. S. Sissons, "Australian fears of Japan as a defence threat", Australia, Senate Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence - Reference: Japan, Official Hansard Report, 28 April 1972.
  3. R. D. Walton, "Japanese espionage: Australia, 1888-1931," Journal of the Australian War Memorial, no.11, October 1987.
  4. N. K. Meaney, Fears and phobias: E. L. Piesse and the problem of Japan, 1909-1939 (Canberra: National Library of Australia, 1996).
  5. NAA (VIC), B197, item 1877/5/15.
  6. NAA (VIC), MP84/1, item 1856/1/79.
  7. NAA (VIC), MP84/1, item 1877/5/5.
  8. NAA (VIC), MP1049/1, item 1911/014.
  9. NAA (VIC), MP84/1, item 1902/2/66.
  10. NAA (VIC), B197, item 1877/5/15.
  11. NAA (VIC), B197/0, item 1877/5/15.
  12. NAA (ACT), A981/1, item JAP 55 [relied on by Walton].
  13. NAA (ACT), A981/1, JAP 55.
  14. NAA (ACT), A981/1, JAP 55.
  15. NAA (ACT), A981/1, JAP 55.
  16. Meaney, Fears and phobias, p.13.
  17. Frei, Japan's southward advance, pp.151ff.
  18. NAA (ACT), A981/4, item JAP 27.
  19. AWM 124 3/10.
  20. AWM 193 231 & 21/5; NAA (ACT), A981/4, item JAP 38 part 3.
  21. AWM 188 49.
  22. AWM 193 397, "History of espionage in NEI".
  23. AWM 193 397, "History of espionage in NEI".
  24. AWM 54 883/1/103.
  25. A981/1 JAP 37 (in Dutch, translated for the author by Maria van Galen Franciscan Missionaries of Mary).
  26. NAA (ACT), A981/4 JAP 158, part 2.
  27. AWM 124 3/126.
  28. Tanaka Hiromi, "The Japanese Navy's operations against Australia in the Second World War, with a commentary on Japanese sources," Journal of the Australian War Memorial, no.30, April 1997.
  29. AWM 124 3/126.
  30. AWM 124 3/10, "Japanese encroachment in Australian waters".
  31. AWM 124 3/10.
  32. AWM 188 49.
  33. AWM 124 4/168.
  34. AWM 124 4/336.
  35. AWM 193 2.
  36. AWM 124 3/126.
  37. NAA (NSW), C123, NAA (ACT), A367, A1379/1 EPJ*, NAA (SA), D1901, NAA (VIC), MP529, item B13.
  38. AWM 51 131.
  39. NAA (ACT), A981/1, item JAP 18.
  40. NAA (ACT), A981/1, JAP 120, part 1.
  41. AWM 193 1.
  42. NAA (NSW), ST1233/1, item 17060.
  43. NAA (NSW), SP1714/1, item N40344.
  44. NAA (NSW), C123 series.
  45. NAA (NSW), SP1098, SP1099, SP1101, comprising some 3,114 boxes.
  46. P. M. Oliver, "Japanese immigrant merchants and the Japanese trading company network in Sydney, 1880s to 1941", in P. Jones & P. M. Oliver (eds.), Changing histories, Australia and Japan (Melbourne: Monash Asia Institute, 2001).
  47. NAA (Vic), MP529/1, item 4/74.
  48. A. C. Palfreyman., The administration of the White Australia Policy (Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 1967), pp.11ff.
  49. NAA (ACT), A981/1, JAP 101, part 1.
  50. NAA (VIC), B13, General and Classified Correspondence, Annual Single Number Series, 1902-1985, Collector of Customs, Melbourne.
  51. W. R. Purcell, The Nature and Extent of Japanese Commercial and Economic Interests in Australia, 1932-41, Ph.D. thesis, 1980, University of New South Wales.
  52. NAA (NSW), C123.
  53. Interviews: Nakamura family, 1998, and former employee of Yano and Joko, 2000 [name withheld].
  54. Mitsui & Co. Ltd, The 100 year history of Mitsui & Co. Ltd. 1876-1976.
  55. NAA (NSW), C128/P1, box 1, Secret Commonwealth of Australia Security Service Reports for October to December 1941.
  56. Names have been altered in cases of persons suspected of espionage.
  57. NAA (ACT), A1379/1, item EPJ7, and NAA (NSW), SP1098/7 series.
  58. NAA (ACT), A1/1, item 1935/1444, and NAA (NSW), SP1714/1, item N27827.
  59. NAA (NSW), SP 1714/1 item N27827.
  60. NAA (NSW), SP1714/1, item N40344.
  61. AWM 124 4/110, 4/336, 4/337.
  62. NAA (ACT), A981/1, item JAP 145.
  63. NAA (NSW), SP1714/1, item N60621.
  64. AWM 54 627/1/3 and 883/4/10.
  65. AWM 54 779/3/74.
  66. AWM 124 2/2, Unpublished material on operations of Japanese submarines in Australia waters World War II, p.10.
  67. See also AWM Film No.F04019 Cpl Theo "Tip" Carty, Nakaroos 1942; and R. & H. Walker, Curtin's cowboys: Australia's secret bush commandos (Sydney: Allen & Unwin, 1986), pp.58ff.
  68. NAA (VIC), MP529/3, item 4/74.
  69. Frei, Japan's southward advance, chap.4, pp.49-56.
  70. Hashimoto Masato, Fu Goshu Meruborun hakurankai kiko (An account of the trip to the Melbourne exhibition), 2 vols., Department for Industrial Promotion, 1876.
  71. Sakata Haruo, Goshu Shidonifu bankoku hakurankai hokokusho (A report on Sydney's world exhibition), 1881.
  72. Watanabe Kanjuro, Goshu tanken hokokusho (Report on the exploration of Australia), Tokyo: Gaimusho Tsushokyoku, 1894.
  73. NAA (VIC), MP472/1, item 5/17/7761.
  74. NAA (ACT), A981/1, item JAP 101, part 1.
  75. NAA (NSW), C443/P1, item J423.
  76. NAA (ACT), A981/1, item JAP 101, part 3.
  77. Ichikawa Taijiro, Goshu keizaishi kenkyu (A study of the economic history of Australia), Shosankaku, 1944.
  78. Matsunaga Sotoo, Goshu inshoki (Impressions of Australia), Wani Shoten, December 1942; Tagaki Saburo, Taiyoshu no genjo ni tsuite (On the conditions in Oceania) October 1941; Hayashi Sotaro, Nichi-Go tsusho mondai (The Japanese-Australian trade problem), Kabushi Kaisha Kanematsu Shoten, 1936; and Nishikawa Chuichiro, Saikin no Goshu jijo (The recent situation in Australia), Sanyodo Shoten, 1942.
  79. Frei, Japan's southward advance, pp.160-2.
  80. Frei, Japan's southward advance, pp.163-9.
  81. Sissons, "Australian fears of Japan as a defence threat".