This essay by Bob Wurth was published in the Opinion page of the Sydney Morning Herald on January 12, 2010.

Visions from the deep off Brisbane's Moreton Bay showing a rusting wreck with large red crosses on the side bring us closer to the reality of the Japanese torpedoing of the Australian hospital ship Centaur in 1943.

Australia has deliberately chosen not to seek an apology from Japan for the sinking of the brightly lit and clearly marked hospital ship, in which 268 non-combatants died. That choice is doing Japan a disservice.


Unlike Germany, Japan still reacts with   reluctance and sluggishness when it comes to apologising for its wartime atrocities, while generalised apologies are reluctantly given.

  When I was researching the Imperial Japanese Navy in 2007, the Japanese Maritime Self Defence Force's First Service School sent me a brochure about its naval academy at Etajima, in the Seto Inland Sea. The same Etajima with its beautiful old buildings was the academy for the wartime imperial navy. (Pictured right). The brochure, since replaced, read: "Today we regard the old Imperial Japanese Navy with respect and affection as having shown us our national superiority."

At Etajima I discovered a naval academy revelling in the past. Etajima's ''educational museum'' in a grand Hellenic style building (pictured), displayed two photographs of the one-time chief of the Naval Air Fleet, Vice Admiral Takijiru Onishi, the ''Father of the Kamikaze''.

Onishi was the relentless killer of many hundreds of Japanese boys, often taken from high schools and sent on one-way missions. The inscription reads: "Admiral Onishi was greatly loved and respected by his men of the Kamikaze special attack corps."

A museum centrepiece is a large bust of the commander-in-chief, Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto, who initiated the raid on Pearl Harbour. Across the water at Kure, visitors pay tribute to Japan's maritime wartime technology with a massive scale model of the super battleship Yamato.

Across Japan today, especially at the Yasukuni shrine and museum in Tokyo (pictured below), there are blatant examples of Japan honouring its war criminals and fascists along with the traditional memorials to Japan's war dead. For decades Japan has sought to bury its atrocious war history by sanitising the school textbooks of Japanese student.

When the wreck hunter David Mearns discovered the Centaur before Christmas, the Japanese embassy in Canberra refused to take responsibility for the sinking, saying the circumstances surrounding the torpedoing remained "unclear".

True. The question is: Did the Japanese submarine I-177 know the Centaur was a hospital ship?

In 1979 an official history of Japanese naval operations stated fleetingly that the I-177 was responsible for sinking the Centaur. This is about as close as Japan has ever come to an apology.

The master of I-177 was Lieutenant Commander Hajime Nakagawa. He had reported sinking a ship off Australia on the date of the Centaur's sinking. But one writer of Japan's official war history, Kanemi Sakamoto, said in 1981 there was no evidence to say Nakagawa, or his crew, were aware that their target was a protected ship.

"I believe that if Mr Nakagawa knew that the Centaur was a hospital ship, he would not have attacked", Sakamoto said.

But Nakagawa's reputation has courted suspicion. He was jailed for six years in 1948 for shooting survivors of a British merchant ship that his submarine had sunk in the Indian Ocean. There was insufficient evidence for bringing charges against him over the Centaur. He refused to comment on the hospital ship, and died in 1991.

In May 1943 the Australian prime minister, John Curtin, said: "This deed will shock the conscience of the whole civilised world and demonstrate to all who may have had any lingering doubts the unscrupulous and barbarous methods by which the Japanese conduct warfare."

Curtin wrote to the Japanese Government through the Swiss, saying: "The Commonwealth Government reserves the right to claim full indemnifications and redress for the losses sustained."

Japan's foreign minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu (pictured below right), later jailed for war crimes, rejected Curtin's protest. "Thorough inquiry by the Japanese Government has revealed no facts justifying the Australian allegation," he said.

Curtin's reserved rights have long gone. On December 30 the Department of Foreign Affairs said successive Australian governments had taken the position that the 1951 peace treaty legitimately and finally resolved the issue of reparation claims on Japan. "The Government does not seek further apologies from Japan. The Government accepts Japan's repeated apologies for Japan's wartime activities."

But Japan has never apologised for sinking the Centaur.

Australia does Japan no favour either by saying it does not want an apology. The stance only encourages those in Japan who seek to bury their war history, and it discourages courageous Japanese who think historical truth just may help prevent future wars.

As Australians view underwater scenes of the Centaur, a simple sorry, perhaps with a joint Japanese-Australian ceremony over the wreck, would be good for us and a helpful step for the Japanese coming to grips with the past. It is the way mature partners and friends in trade and defence should act.

Bob Wurth is an author whose works include 1942, Australia's Greatest Peril and the forthcoming Capturing Asia. #

After 66 years, differing interpretations...

Curtin in 1943 confident of redress over sinking.

Rudd says Japan today is vastly different.

Postscript by Bob Wurth.

Prime Minister Kevin Rudd has described the sinking of the Centaur in May 1943 as a complete breach of international law, but said it was part of the war.

Over 66 years ago Prime Minister John Curtin told Australians they could feel confident the government would do its best to establish redress over the sinking of the hospital ship.

Mr Rudd has indicated that Japan is vastly different:

"The action to sink the Centaur by the Japanese Navy at the time was in our view a complete breach of the international law; it was also a complete violation of the most basic international humanitarian conventions," he said, according to ABC News Online on January 21, 2010.

"[But] the Japan of today is a vastly different Japan."

Cameron Stewart in The Australian on January 212010 reported that the Defence Department had secretly warned the Rudd government to remain silent about Japan's culpability in the 1943 sinking of the Australian hospital ship, fearing that a renewed focus on the wartime atrocity could damage military ties with Tokyo.

The confidential warning, Stewart wrote, was issued by Defence in late 2008 shortly before the federal government announced that it would help fund a search for the wreck of the Centaur.

Dispute over meaning of a Defence Dept brief

Defence Minister John Faulkner (pictured with PM Rudd) denied that a brief from the department warned the Prime Minister to stay silent about Japan's role in the wartime sinking of the Australian hospital ship the Centaur.

Senator Faulkner confirmed there was a brief sent to then defence minister Joel Fitzgibbon and then defence science and personnel minister Warren Snowdon in 2008.

But he said it did not advise Prime Minister Kevin Rudd to avoid bringing renewed focus onto the sinking of the ship, which killed 268 people when it was torpedoed by the Japanese in May 1943.

"That's not of course the case at all," Senator Faulkner said. "Defence didn't do that and didn't want to do that.

"What the brief was about was the importance of making contact with the Japanese Government about the plans that we were developing in relation to finding the Centaur.

"In particular there was the hope that there might be some involvement from the Japanese Government in terms of assisting with archival research."

Mr Rudd has said he does not recall ever receiving the brief.

Cameron Stewart in The Australian wrote that when the wreck of the Centaur was discovered last month, the Rudd government carefully avoided any fresh controversy, saying Japan had apologised repeatedly for its wartime actions and was "now a different country".

The Defence report on the Centaur advised that there would be no legal basis for Australia to demand an apology from Japan over the sinking of the hospital ship.

"Japan bears no special obligation in the case of the Centaur," the report says.

"Legally Japan discharged its responsibilities to Australia in the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which recognised that Japan should pay reparations to the Allied Powers for the damage and suffering caused by it during the war."

Defence said this treaty waived all other wartime claims by allies against Japan, including any new ones involving Centaur.

The report, The Australian reported, advised the government not to ask Japan to help fund or assist in the search for the Centaur. "There is a strong reticence in Japan to engage on wartime issues," the report says.

"Despite repeated Australian efforts, the Japanese government and bureaucracy showed little interest in assisting with the discovery of the Japanese midget submarine M24 near Sydney in 2006" Defence was reported as saying.

Curtin in 1943: Country could feel confident criminals would be brought to justice.

On May 18, 1943, four days after the sinking of the Centaur, Prime Minister John Curtin said his government was bound to regard the sinking of the Centaur as an entirely inexcusable act undertaken in violation of a convention to which Japan was a party and of all the principles of common humanity.

He went on:

  "An immediate and strong protest in these terms is being addressed to the Japanese Government, and the country may feel confident that the Government will do its utmost to establish right of redress and ensure that the war criminals responsible for this dastardly act are brought to justice."

That redress from Japan over the sinking, in any form, now seems more remote than ever.

The Centaur was found on December 20, 2009, by search director David Mearns and his team, working with Australian and Queensland government support, 30 nautical miles east of Moreton  Island, south east Queensland.

A commentary on how people today think?

Of the 46 'bloggers' who expressed an opinion on the Opinion piece in  the Sydney Morning Herald, the vast majority indicated that the matter of an apology should not be pursued.


Read the full transcript of the 1944 inquiry in to the sinking of the Centaur:



Wartime poster, Australian War Memorial.

Naval Academy educational museum at

Etajima, Japan.

Vice Admiral Takijiru Onishi.

Giant model of the battleship Yamato in the

Yamato Museum, Kure, Japan.

Yasakuni shrine, Tokyo.

Yasakuni shrine museum.

John Curtin.

Wartime Japanese foreign minister, Mamoru Shigemitsu.