I have read some of Anita Heiss’s commercial women’s fiction and her memoir Am I Black Enough For You?. The non-fiction was quite different in style from the fiction, other than the strong messages and pride in her Aboriginality. Barbed Wire and Cherry Blossoms is a different genre again, but with similar themes, essentially a love story during World War 2.
The subject of Aboriginal Australians is played out again as the setting is a mission where the local Indigenous community are forced to live under The Aborigines Protection Act. The nearby prisoner-of-war camp houses Japanese soldiers. After a number of them escape, one of them turns up at the mission, and an elder, Banjo, makes the decision to hide and protect him. He and his wife Joan enlist their oldest daughter, Mary, to take food and water to him every day.
As Mary gets to know Hiroshi, the contrasts and similarities between the two cultures, faiths and connection to land are raised. Hiroshi is one of the Yamato people, the original inhabitants of Japan, ‘not like other peoples who have settled there in many regions of my country’. Mary talks to him about her Wiradjuri background, the country of many within Australia, ‘like the map of Europe’.
The expectations of Hiroshi as a soldier, the shame that his capture would bring to his family, particularly his father, that his sisters may be ostracised and not be able to marry, help to explain the way the Japanese behaved during the war. He did his duty, despite wanting to be a writer, not a soldier. The way that the Japanese were perceived and labelled in the community and by the media were portrayed in a way that were true to the time, but raise questions as to their validity. To me it reflected on how different races are targeted today for their practices and beliefs, based on a set of assumptions.
Aboriginal soldiers on the other hand were ‘fighting a war for a country that denied them the right to be Australian citizens, or to earn equal wages or marry without permission of the Manager’ and used as human fodder. Those back home were at risk of having their children removed, the authorities ‘always looking for a reason to say the Blacks were unfit parents. A speck of dirt on the floor. Beds not made perfectly. Kids not clean enough’.
They were segregated in theatres and hospitals, can’t vote, but ‘dream about having the same rights as white people, so [they] can live a full life’. There is the option of taking a certificate that would give them certain privileges, but they have to deny their Aboriginality, and cut themselves off from family to get one. This was more commonly offered to those referred to as ‘half-castes’, where they were encouraged to assimilate, and the hope was the ‘full-bloods’ would die out.
The Japanese soldiers, particularly Hiroshi, are given a human face, ‘someone’s brother’, and Banjo sees they are ‘at war with this government, then, to my mind, this fella and I are on the same side’. He recognises he has ‘been through a lot in the war, like our own fellas have. He probably has a family just like us.’ Despite the hatred towards and fear of the Japanese he says ‘We aren’t filled with that hate. You know in our house we treat people the way they treat us’.
Life on the mission is also contrasted with the camp for prisoners-of-war, where the conditions in the camp are better than those for the Aboriginal people. ‘This government treats its prisoners better than it treats us and so we should be angry at the government, not the Japanese POWs. These fellas are just doing their duty to their country, like Aussie soldiers are. War is not any soldier’s fault’.
This book challenges the stereotypes around both Aboriginal and Japanese people from that time, and the racism faced, some of which are still experienced today. It also raises questions about war generally, that doesn’t discriminate – ‘at the end of the day, no one is better than the other in war’, where men ‘from many different countries were feeling the same grief and torture’. Issues which are still current now are introduced such as who is ‘the enemy’, the laws we live under, who we answer to, and who is deserving of justice, rights and goodwill. These are all contained in an accessible story, making for both good reading while opening our eyes to matters we may not be aware of.