Four Years in a Red Coat by Miyakatsu Koike

Reviewed by Norrie Sanders

How would you feel if you were happily working overseas, then arrested without trial and deported to another country and held indefinitely in custody by armed guards? All through no fault of your own. Such was the fate of Miyakatsu Koike, a Japanese national, working in Indonesia for a Japanese bank. The day after the bombing of Pearl Harbour in December 1941, Japanese civilians in allied countries across the world were arrested and interned, regardless of their circumstances or allegiances.

Mr Koike had been living in equatorial Surabaya with his wife since 1935. They had a young family but with the advent of rapid Japanese advances in the Pacific, his wife and children were repatriated to Japan in mid-1941. The Indonesian islands were then Dutch colonial outposts, just as other parts of Asia and the south Pacific were controlled by Britain and France. Rather than send internees across the world, Australia agreed with its allies to intern the Japanese for the duration of the war. Approximately 15,000 people from thirty nationalities were interned, of which more than half came from overseas and the balance from Australia.

The Australian military ran both internee and prisoner of war camps. The two were geographically separated, but the camps looked very similar – including barbed wire fences and uniformed guards. Although families were housed in a camp in Tatura, Victoria, unaccompanied male civilians were held in the vast plains of SA’s Riverlands, at a place ironically known as Loveday. At its height, Loveday held over 5,000 prisoners.

After a month as a prisoner of the Dutch, Mr Koike and his compatriots found themselves on a ship, without being told of its destination.  After a rough sea voyage and a train trip from Adelaide, on a very hot 31 January 1942, they arrived at the “desolate” tent camp (Loveday), which was to be Mr Koike’s home for the next four years. The men were required to wear prison garb – former military uniforms dyed red.

Mr Koike kept a diary throughout his internment, although some sections are missing and some notes and facts were added later. Much later as it happens, because he did not publish until 1987 and the English translation only appeared in 2022. The latter has helpful preambles on the historical context and Mr Koike’s circumstances. An absorbing inclusion is pre- and post-war photographs of Mr Koike’s family and colleagues, as well as Australian archival photographs of daily life at Loveday.

As a unique historical record1, the diary is undoubtedly of great interest to historians. As a book, it is at once fascinating and tedious. The fascination comes from many aspects – including the clash of cultures, the food, daily activities, work, attitudes of the guards, feelings about Australia and celebrations of Japan and Japanese traditions. The tedium comes because this was not a diary written with publication in mind. There is no overarching narrative to tie it together or even to provide Mr Koike’s reflections on events and people. This is no fault of Mr Koike or the publisher – it simply reflects that fact that he sought to keep a personal record of his experiences. He also came to know that such documents could be confiscated and read by the authorities and at the very least, there may be some self-censorship.

The daily entries are unadorned, and mostly short, though not lacking in detail. For example, we learn that on Christmas Day, 1942, the white team defeated the red team at baseball by 8 runs to 5, and was followed by a rare event: “Today was Christmas Day. At three o’clock in the evening a cup of (low alcohol) beer was distributed to each person. As it was a long time since we had last had beer, everyone quickly became drunk “(p151).

On infrequent occasions when the internees are exposed to Australian citizens, there is sometimes friendliness and sometimes animosity. Koike acknowledges that the latter may have been a direct result of a loved one dying at the hands of Japanese military. Meanwhile, the internees remain connected to their country through ritual, for example, the Emperor’s birthday. They are also buoyed whenever news filters back of Japanese victories.

Despite this, it is easy to empathise with the plight of these civilians who apparently had no part in prosecuting the war. Even they acknowledge that their hardships and deprivations are as nothing compared to those at the front line of the fighting.

The men are organised and inventive – conducting games and sporting days with sumo wrestling, udon, mah-jong and baseball, to name a few. In the middle of the dusty plains, they build shrines, carve timber into figurines, paint, tend graves and create Japanese gardens, complete with ponds and bridges.

Koike’s feelings are seldom expressed, but he often refers to the vastness of the continent, one that is poles apart from his mountainous homeland or adopted Indonesia. Perhaps he would have related to the view of another transported prisoner, William Smith O’Brien, the nineteenth century Irish Nationalist who found that even the beauty of Tasmania was no substitute for his homeland:  “To find a gaol in one of the loveliest spots formed by Nature in one of her loneliest solitudes creates a revulsion of feeling I cannot describe.”

The diary tells little about the social interactions among and between the different ethnicities.  Indeed, we find out much more about what they ate than how they felt.  Towards the end of the war, the internees are briefed on the bombing of Japanese cities, which must have come as devastating news.   Mr Koike mentions the briefings, but not their content or impact.

After being transported back to Yokohama, the description of the long awaited meeting with family is short on emotion but strong on practicality:  “There I met my brother and my wife for the first time after such a long separation. When I heard that both had travelled with a simple packed lunch of rice balls, I became very aware of the shortage of food in mainland Japan” [p199].

Although the diary raises more questions than it answers, it opens our eyes to an obscure chapter in Australian history and reminds us that countries that wage war in foreign lands are willing to treat their own citizens as collateral damage.

  1. Koike’s diary was the only one cited by Christine Piper’s 2014 thesis “After Darkness: Japanese civilian internment in Australia during World War II”, which is a fictional account set in Loveday that also drew on memoirs, interviews and writings of internees. Her thesis attempts to explain why certain subjects were deliberately omitted from those records and to try to piece together a more coherent picture.

Four Years in a Red Coat: The Loveday Internment Camp Diary of Miyakatsu Koike

(2022)

by Miyakatsu Koike; translated by Hiroko Cockerill; edited with an Introduction by

Peter Monteath and Yuriko Nagata

Wakefield Press

ISBN: 9781743058961

$29.95 [paperback]; 214pp

 

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