Broome and the Japanese

An Archway of bamboo and Eucalyptus frames the main path through more than seven hundred graves of Japanese who have died in Broome

I was standing in the main street of Camooweal, waiting for my wife and struck up a conversation with an elderly man, with the look of a stock man about him. When he heard I was travelling to Broome, he said wistfully “I bin to Broome – you gotta see that Japanese cemetery”. So I did.

Broome is the most multicultural country town I have ever visited – they proudly claim to have invented the way of life for others to follow. The early aboriginal influence was just like Derby, with young Aboriginals of both sexes captured and “blackbirded” into the pearling industry. There they were used as bare skinned divers, harvesting the shell from shallow waters. There was a very strong local contingent travelled from Broome to Canberra for Kevin Rudd’s famous  Sorry Speech and some local people are still putting about thank you posters to express their appreciation for this step in mending relationships.

An early example of a grave which shows a combination of western influence (the iron railing)  with the Japanese and English script

However the group in Broome with the most interesting relationship with the town are the Japanese. When the pearl shells were exhausted in shallow waters the Pearling Masters bought in Japanese Hard Hat divers. First they dived with hand-operated pumps, but later developments allowed engine operated compressors, with two divers operating at once on each lugger. This enabled a massive increase in the amount of pearl harvested, but in a very dangerous way.

The divers were indentured labourers, from peasant stock in little Japanese villages. They had to work for years to repay their fare to Australia before they started making more than their keep. Since the Japanese refused to train anyone but other Japanese to dive, their control over the industry increased, as did their social standing in Broome, where the most successful divers where the sporting heroes of the time. A thriving Japanese community built up in Broome in the Sheba Lane area, with their own shops and pubs. Some of the divers and their tenders (assistants) were able to bring over girlfriends and wives from Japan, but many married local Aboriginal or Malay girls. Broome has many part Japanese families who are very prominent part of the community today.

Then World War 2. With the advent of war, the bombing of Darwin and then Broome, as each ship docked the men were taken into internment camps and locked up for the rest of the war – more than three years. It seemed the end of the Pearling Industry, with no divers and the boats destroyed to prevent them being used by Japanese invaders.

After the war finished, the divers were released and returned to life as normal in this town. Where in the rest of Australia there was hatred between Australian and Japanese because of the cruelty of the war, in Broome there seemed to have been sympathy from the locals who knew the Japanese personally and understanding by the Japanese of why they had been imprisoned for the duration of the War.

In Broome, the Japanese established their own cemetery – it is still in use today. Diving was a cruel, dangerous industry with drownings, shark attacks and death from the “bends” when divers were bought up too rapidly from the bottom for the nitrogen to get out of their blood. Many other Japanese stayed on in their new land rather than return to their village life. There are  707 graves, with more than 900 burials in the Japanese cemetery, restored with the support of a Japanese shipbuilding company, standing as monuments, not only to the individuals but to a proud culture transplanted and integrated successfully into such an alien landscape so far from their japanese home villages.


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