a study in the tension between the obligations of private friendship and public duty.

Canberra Times, Panorama book reviews, June 10, 2006.


"This is an intriguing book, thoroughly researched and easy to read, that will force its readers to think hard about friendship and public duty."


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Saving Australia reviewed: Michael McKernan.

On May 31, 1942, six young men submerged off Sydney wrote their last letters. They were about to enter three midget submarines with the task of causing mayhem in Sydney Harbour. Within hours four would be dead. One submarine escaped. But before that the harbour would come alive with searchlights and warships on patrol, and 21 Australian sailors on the Sydney ferry Kuttabul would die after the ferry was torpedoed.


Watching the action from the balcony of Admiralty House, Kirribilli, was Australia's Governor General, Lord Gowrie, and his wife Zara. "We couldn't actually see the submarines", Gowrie reported to the King, "But we could see the small craft buzzing about dropping depth charges and searchlights moving all over the surface of the water."

Just a few weeks earlier Lady Gowrie had been advised by Sir John Latham, former Australian representative in Tokyo, about to resume his post as Chief Justice of the High Court of Australia, that Japan's senior representative in Japan, Tatsuo Kawai, wanted to send her a gift.

Kawai was under house arrest in Melbourne with all of his Japanese staff, awaiting repatriation to Japan. Yet in peacetime he had promised Lady Gowrie a bonsai pine and now he wanted to make good his promise. "Trees are international," she wrote to Latham in delight, and she would accept the kind gift, "I shall not even ask a higher authority."

She asked Latham to thank Kawai because she did not think a letter of her own would get through. Nor would the bonsai pine. A higher authority, in the person opf the secretary of the Department of External Affairs, intervened and ruled against the gift.

There were 20,000 Australians in captivity after the fall of Singapore and they were about to experience some of the worst and most degraded captivity that prisoners of war had ever known, and the Japanese were sinking ships off the east coast of Australia and had entered Sydney Harbour to kill Australian sailors.

And Zara Gowrie, remarkably, had agreed to accept a gift from an interned Japanese national who had played a part in providing the intelligence that would guide the submarines into the harbour. Was she mad?

Investigation

This book is a study in the tension between the obligations of private friendship and public duty. Bob Wurth, a journalist with extraordinary academic capacities - his footnotes are as detailed and thorough as any I have seen in a long time - does not have her in his sights in exploring this tension. It is the Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs, H.V. "Doc" Evatt, and Prime Minister John Curtin, whose friendship with Kawai he wishes to investigate.

Kawai seems to have a genuine genius for friendship. Evatt, we know from so many sources, never seems to have trusted people other than the close family circle and one or two real intimates. Curtin had few political friends and in moments of the greatest difficulty in the war turned to Lord Gowrie who became confidant and counsellor. Yet both of them, separately, found something so attractive in Kawai that they soon regarded him as a close friend. Evatt allowed him extraordinary liberties in the days when war with Japan seemed increasingly likely, and even after war broke out. Evatt seems to have believed in the last days of the peace that somehow he and Kawai might broker an Australian settlement with Japan that might avert the coming war.

Curtin never quite went that far but he gave Kawai special access to him and opened his mind and heart to him.

How does Wurth explain this strange turn of events? In part through his account of the attractive personality of Kawai. Wurth journeys to Kawai's place of spiritual renewal, his holiday home at Manazuru, still intact, in peace and tranquillity, and finds there the spirit of the cultured diplomat, who, throughout his life, wrote, in brief verse, a narrative of events as they happened. Well and good, I suppose, but the book provides no conclusive answer to just what it was that made Kawai such a sympathetic character.

Friendship, I think Wurth is saying, is ultimately unfathomable.

Perhaps we need to go to the naivety, stupidity and vanity of the Australians to account for Kawai's hold over them. These are not words that would normally be used in any study of Curtin, and to be fair, he fades out of the narrative once war has been declared.

In an absorbing epilogue, Wurth suggests that Curtin gave Kawai a great deal more than he received from the friendship. Curtin showed him spiritual qualities in his own character which, because they were so attractive, Kawai embraced in a life-changing reorientation. Naivety, stupidity and vanity are words, though, that people have used of Evatt, and it will be the reader who measures out what weight to give each in judging Evatt's relationship with Kawai, as Wurth leaves us, to some extent, guessing. Evatt matured as a minister, Wurth suggests, as the war progressed and he details the strength Evatt brought to discussions of the rights of small nations by the end of the war. Paradoxically, too, Evatt had become virulently anti-Japanese.

This is an intriguing book, thoroughly researched and easy to read, that will force its readers to think hard about friendship and public duty. I tossed and turned on this one, not quite accepting that the Australians had done too much wrong, though perhaps too trusting of a man whose motivation in 1941 and 1942 is still not entirely clear.


I cannot accept the book's sub-title though, "Curtin's secret peace with Japan", because it wasn't and this is not what this book is about anyway. But it was naive, stupid and vain of Zara Gowrie to think that she could accept a present in friendship from Kawai, then a security risk and still the representative of an aggressive and darkly menacing foe.

And she was only a bit player in the story.

DR MICHAEL MCKERNAN IS A CANBERRA HISTORIAN AND AUTHOR.

Then roving ambassador to America and Europe Tatsuo Kawai with Nazi war criminal Hans Frank in Poland in 1940.

 

Governor General Lord Gowrie with the first Japanese minister to Australia, Tatsuo Kawai, in Canberra in 1941.

Tatsuo Kawai at Parliament House in Canberra in March 1941 wityh members of Parliament, including former prime minister Billy Hughes (Back to camera.)