Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian writers in Japan

Given I’m currently travelling in Japan, I thought I’d write a couple of Japanese-oriented posts. My first one – introductory, rather than in-depth – is about Australian writers who live or have lived (loosely defined) in Japan.

An early Australian writer who went to Japan was Rosa Praed who visited Japan around 1894–95 on her return to Australia from England. Resulting from this visit was her novel Madame Izàn: A tourist story (1899) in which, writes Clarke (see below), she “raised the then daring subject of an interracial marriage between a Japanese man and an Irish woman”. This novel is available online, but I’ll just share this little description of the characters’ arrival in Japan:

And now they were in the harbour, where among the native craft and merchantmen were French and English and American men-of-war and a fierce Russian battleship, which looked as though it could, with its big guns, gobble up, as easily at the wolf gobbled up Red Riding Hood, pretty, harmless Nagasaki, lying so peacefully at the foot of her green hills.

Praed visited at an interesting time!

Ogai Mori, The Wild GooseA different sort of Australian writer who lived in Japan, in Kyoto, for twenty years, is Meredith McKinney (who also happens to be poet Judith Wright’s daughter). She is best known as a translator of Japanese literature. Back in Australia, since 1988, and living near Canberra, she’s an associate professor at the Australian National University’s Japan Centre, and writes on Japanese related topics. An example is her analysis in Griffith Review of atomic power and Japan after the Fukushima meltdown, “Continuing fallout”. She continues to translate, her books including Penguin Classics editions of Sei Shonagon’s The pillow book and Natsume Sōseki’s Kokoro, and Finlay Lloyd’s edition of Ogai Mori’s The wild goose (on my TBR).

American-born Australian writer Roger Pulvers has also lived in Japan, mainly Kyoto and Tokyo, for many years. (He is also now based in Canberra I believe.) He’s a playwright, novelist, scriptwriter and, like McKinney, a translator and a writer on Japanese topics. This year he was awarded the Order of Australia for his service to Japanese literature and culture. There’s an extensive article on him in Wikipedia. Broinowski says of his writing:

Always evenhandedly satirical of Australians and Japanese, Roger Pulvers has returned repeatedly in his fiction, drama, and filmscripts to the Pacific war, its consequences, and the moral dilemmas it raised.

Book coverAn Australian writer who seems to have disappeared from view is Andrew O’Connor, who lived in Tokyo and Nagano for a few years in the early 2000s. His novel Tuvalu won the The Australian/Vogel Literary Award for unpublished manuscript in 2005. I read it back then, before blogging. You might think from the title that the novel is about Tuvalu, but you’d be wrong. It is set primarily in Tokyo, with Tuvalu representing an escape-fantasy. (Hmm, not now!) O’Connor captured well the life of young expats in Japan, and that strange, black, other-worldly tone you find in some modern Japanese literature.

Around the same time, some may remember, Peter Carey published a travel book, Wrong about Japan, which chronicled a trip he made to Japan with his son. It was pretty controversial at the time, because of the approach Carey took. However, Wikipedia quotes Stephen Mansfield of The Japan Times who wrote in 2018 that Wrong About Japan was “not universally appreciated when it was first published in 2005, but time has proven it to be a small, highly original contribution to books on this country.”

It seems that in this book Carey begins by appearing to be a naive tourist in Japan, but Broinkowski writes that:

Gradually however, he allows it to emerge that he has been in Japan more than once before, has done considerable research, and has excellent contacts. When in Japan, Carey doesn’t do as the Japanese do, but he respects the ascendancy of Japanese civilization, and unusually among male writers, doesn’t make a contest out of it.

Book coverAll these writers I knew about when I conceived this post, but one I didn’t know who had spent significant time in Japan is novelist and short story writer, Paddy O’Reilly. According to her website, not only has she been an Asialink writer-in-residence in Japan, but she spent “several years working as a copywriter and translator” there. The knowledge she gleaned as a result has informed several of her stories (including two in The end of the world, 2007) and a novel, The factory (2005).

And then there’s Tara June Winch who popped up serendipitously in this month’s Qantas magazine with an article titled “The journey” in the QSpirit section. She talks about having an idea for a novel set in Japan, inspired by the Japanese word hakanai, which she understands to mean “something that is beautiful or precious” because it doesn’t last long. She envisaged her character approaching Mt Fuji, but then became stuck. She writes:

I was adamant that if I could only walk up the side of the mountain myself, the story would be waiting for me in the still quiet, in the pine forests.

So what do you do? You find an artist residency, that’s what! She went to Japan with her daughter. They slept on futons on tatami mats, gradually made friends, and joined in the culture. She never did write the novel, but, she says, hakanai was “the essence of the the entire trip. Hakanai was my daughter’s childhood – beautiful and precious, just because”. We know what she means.

There’s actually quite a lot of academic writing out there on the topic, analysing interpretations, but I hope this has provided a little intro to some Aussie literary connections with Japan. I’d love to hear what you know or have read.


Alison E. Broinowski (2101). The honbako is bare: what’s become of Japan/ Australia fiction? (University of Wollongong Research Online)

Clarke, Patricia (2003). “Two colonials in London’s Bohemia” in National Library of Australia News, XIII(12): 14–17, September 2003 (A source I used to add information about Praed to Wikipedia, a decade ago!)


40 thoughts on “Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian writers in Japan

  1. Damn you WG: So much I want to write here – but I am away from my hondana (bookshelf) to which I want to refer for lots off literary links – some of which you have mentioned here. Such a rich connection between our two lands literarily.

    Anyway – one story with “clusters” (embellishments):

    I was on an exchange teaching position to Matsue – in western Japan – on the Sea of Japan side – part of the ancient Izumo region.

    Before taking up the two-year teacher exchange (1991-1992) I spent five weeks in Yokohama/Tokyo. One of my week-end jaunts around Tokyo during that period I picked up a Literary Journal – there’d been a competition – a young Australian poet/writer had won second prize for his poem “Evenings on the Uji-gawa” – Christopher KELEN. Hmm I thought – must the related to the writer Stephen KELEN (Snr, mind)! Whom I had met at a multicultural writers’ seminar at the Sydney Goethe Institute in 1985. And then appeared Stephen K’s book on Hiroshima – he’d been part of the BCOF establishment at Kure – putting out the Forces newsletter – and had attended the first anniversary of the A-Bomb madness on in nearby Hiroshima – beginning to reshape itself out of the ashes.

    Then to the provinces – Matsue – the city most associated with Lafcadio HEARN – a more-or-less contemporary of MORI Ogai (Japanese family names first) and NATSUME Sōseki to whom you have made reference. And both grist to my literary pilgrimages in and around Japan. After some months – there came the next contingent of replacement JET Program foreigners (generally early to mid-20s – university-educated – but very few actually “teachers” though full of abilities and energy) from various parts of the English-speaking world – to take up positions in secondary schools – junior high or middle school – and senior high – for up to three years bak then – to assist in the move towards the study of English as a spoken language – able to be heard – not simply as a language for reading manuals – and for writing.

    I was visiting one of those chaps from Australia and I mentioned the fellow who’d won the literary prize. Turns out they were at school together. He reached over – dialled his ‘phone – and introduced me to Christopher – or Kit. Whom I met the following year when my wife and I were out on the isles of exile (the Oki Islands – Emperors sent there back in mediaeval times) – and bumped into Kit and his mate Matthew Power. Himself a former editor of the (an?) Anglican newspaper in Sydney – and a poet, too. Kit’s father was from Hungary Istvan-became-Stephen – and in the late 1920s a world champion ping-pong/table tennis player – and with fellow players took this new sport in the early 1930s off to China and Japan – arrived – and then stayed – in Australia. Later in the year of meeting Kit – I visited him and his artist wife Carol ARCHER – in northern Kyoto – having that day put my wife onto the ‘plane back to Australia – about seven weeks before my own return from that exchange posting.

    Elizabeth KATA – Hal Porter (hmm?) and Tom Hungerford (yes!) – Ruth PARK visited and wrote about her time there – I thought Peter CAREY’s book was a gem – truly. Anyway – I want reference to my bookshelf before I go further. Thanks for this, though! Again! Hontō-ni, taihen arigatai to omou!

    • Thanks for all this Jim. I knew you’d have some stories. We went to Matsue on our last trip, mainly to visit the Adachi Garden, but we also visited Lafadio Hearn’s place. I think you commented then on your Matsue experience.

      Our first two visits to Japan was while our son was a JET there, in Tsugawa in Niigata prefecture. He wasn’t a teacher then – as most of them aren’t as you say – but as a result of his time there he decided to make teaching his professions. Who knows what he would have done if he hadn’t gone to Japan.

      Thanks for the additional names. I know you’d have some of those too!

    • We spent three nights on Awajijima, and are now in Wakayama Prefecture, both places new to us. We’ll be revisiting Kanazawa, Matsumoto and Niigata, and ending up at another new place for us, Mito, before returning home.

      • Re your son’s period as a JET program person – and finding a love for teaching out of that experience – I don’t doubt it and can name friends who found their way similarly to formal paedagogical studies and so appropriately qualified teaching appointments. Wakayama-ken was a place I came to know during my exchange period – following up on historians in that local – especially in the south and around to the south-east (Shingu-city) where the greater part of the pearl-shell divers of the Broome, Arafura Sea and Thursday Island/Torres Straits came from. Taiji was – till dis-sister-cityed (if there is such a term) or “divorced” by Broome – in a special relationship (because Taiji – an old whaling town – became a bay reddened each year with the slaughter of dolphins). There I met a noted Broome pearl shell diver in his aged and ill-health retired life. Moving stuff. Taiji – should you get there lies below Nachi no Katsuura and Nachi no Taki (waterfall) and where when one of my university students years later told me his high school Home Room teacher’s name – I realised it was my host with whom I had stayed – a noted Historian – on part of the Pilgrimage Path upon which his family Honjin (Edo era Inn) stood. Kyuhara Shuji his name. Small world stuff. And later I met one of the men involved in the Breakout Incident in Cowra in August 1944 – his wife was from the same tiny village of Ichinono where Kyuhara-sensei had his home where I had stayed. Japan is in such senses a tiny country – the links cut right across its length and breadth.

        • Thanks Jim. Not only did we make it to Taiji, but that’s where we stayed for four nights. Complicated story, but essentially we wanted somewhere accessible to the southern Wakayama sights. It worked very well, but we did feel a bit uneasy. BTW, I read that Broome didn’t stick with its de-sister-city-fication!

  2. I didn’t know about any of those writers, not even Rosa Praed. My uncle was a naval attache in Japan and brought back red silk pyjamas which I wore to a fancy dress party when I was six. That’s the extent of my knowledge of Japan. Enjoy your trip.

  3. I was going to mention Hal Porter, but I see Jim has beaten me to it. My memory is dim, but I think that Porter’s general contempt for his characters translates into racism at least sometimes in his Japan stories. When I read (some of) them in the 1970s, I remember being uneasy about his mimicking of the Japanese difficulty in pronouncing L.

    • Thanks Jonathan. How times change eh, in terms of what we think is acceptable. Except clearly you were aware of it then too. Of course, Hal Porter would have experienced WW2 unlike us baby-boomers. I think many of his generation (and my parents who are a little younger than Porter but also experienced the war) haven’t really every fully accepted the Japanese because of it?

    • I agree with your assessment of Hal Porter, Jonathan – and his racist tendencies – i recall reading a biography/exposé of his life and thinking what an unattractive character he was – though back in the early 1980’s I’d received his own memoirs as a gift and been fascinated that one could recall so much in such detail. The later biography in a sense supported my surprise/disbelief in peeling back the covers to reveal his autobiography as something self-serving and diverting attention from things we now see spotlighted. Alan Clifton’s Time of Fallen Blossoms (1950s) first came to my attention in a Fairfax piece from Alex Mitchell in the early 1990s – from Clifton’s time with BCOF in the 1940s – an honest exposé of the seamier side of the Australian occupation period.

        • I was so naïve back then that I wrote to Hal Porter re Watcher from the Cast-iron Balcony – in the same week that he was struck by a car in Ballarat – hospitalised – never regaining consciousness. And around that time, too or slightly later – I wrote to Gwen KELLY (Always Afternoon – later a TV series) praising her writing as something of the order of the writing of Porter – to which she kindly replied. I think we were all in the dark over Porter back then – yet I still feel annoyed at myself – but this was also prior to Helen DALE (DEMIDENKO) and her book – a more innocent and trusting time I think. (Check Mary LORD’s biography of Hal Porter (1993) Chapter headed: “Enter Uncle Hal”.

  4. Have you read ‘Legless in Ginza: Orientating Japan’ by Robin Gerster (MUP, 1999)? It’s a Melbourne academic’s account of his two years teaching at Tokyo University. The blurb describes it as ‘witty and idiosyncratic’. You might enjoy it.

    • I wrote to Robin GERSTER just a year or two after my return from Japan having found his book “Walking in Atomic Sunshine (Australia and the Occupation of Japan)” a Professor at Monash – at the State Library of NSW bookshop. Very impressive. And just four weeks ago got to meet him when he addressed a gathering as part of the City of Lake Macquarie “History Illuminated” program. This title has just been re-released with a new Afterword. He is very definitely across his subject! Although I really admire Shirley HAZZARD (especially her novel The Transit of Venus – 1980) I read her next novel The Great Fire (2003) quite critically – certain things did not ring true (admittedly to my own limited understanding) though an interesting book. Dianne HIGHBRIDGE or TAKAHASHI – as her cousin notes below – marvellous writer – but not till reading her novel did I realise that this beautiful essayist/explainer of Japan in The Japan Times English language press was Australian. And Roger PULVERS – thank you Sarah DOWSE for drawing everyone’s attention to him – one of the most extraordinary Australian writers/playwrights/translators on the Japan/Australia world – while having a background out of the US – anda Russian linguist. Is there nothing this man can’t do! Nope! And you now alert me Sara to a couple of just published titles – more thanks! Oh, and Formosa/Taiwan. I have a mate in Hsinchu – just slightly south-west of Taipei – the Silicon Valley of Taiwan! So they say!

  5. I have just read two of Roger Pulvers’ recent books – The Unmaking of an American and Half of Each Other. The first a memoir, the second a very moving, beautifully written novel. It wouldn’t surprise you to know that Roger and I come from the same milieu – postwar Los Angeles – and when I heard him being interviewed by Richard Fidler I immediately bought the memoir, which is both hilarious about his youth and biting about America. I got in touch with him after reading it and we met again after something like forty years, which is when he gave me the novel. Another is due out soon. Being an expatriate American working in Australia doesn’t matter as it once did and it’s good to see his reputation starting to take off here, whereas in Japan he has been an important public figure for years. In the 1980s, however, the Australian literary scene was almost exclusively concerned with telling Australian stories, in the narrowest of senses. (Vide the controversy re the Miles Franklin, for instance.) That was a terrific development in my view, but it did make it hard for someone like Roger or me. Globalisation certainly has brought its own issues but it’s broadened the literary purview immeasurably. By the way, I did love Paddy O’Reilly’s The Factory too.

    • Oh thanks Sara. Of course! No, it wouldn’t surprise me that you know him. How lovely that Fidler was the result of your reconnecting. I heard the Fidelr conversation – oops, or was he also interviewed recently by Philip Adams? Anyhow I was interested, because I had come across him in the late 70s/early 80s and so was intrigued to see him pop up again. Thanks for the recommendation re his books. They don’t seem to get much air here? But then, as we know, so many books don’t.

      I like your comments about Miles Franklin and the Australian literary scene. I do feel that sometimes her criterion has been applied too strictly. There was probably value in that when our literature was younger, but I agree that recent broadening is a good thing.

  6. Fabulous post, Sue, especially relevant to me as I am also currently travelling in Japan (leaving tomorrow for Taiwan). I’ve bought a couple of Japanese authored novels to read on my travels, but I’ll be looking up Roger Pulvers’s work on my return. I’m already a huge Paddy O’Reilly fan!

      • Apologies for the belated reply. I bought ‘Convenience Store Woman’ by Sayaka Murata, which was truly delightful, and ‘Kitchen’ by Banana Yoshimoto, which is still on the TBR. The Daikanyama T-Site bookstore near Shibuya in Tokyo is well worth a visit if you’re in the neighborhood.

        • Thanks Angela. I’m glad you liked it. I read Kitchen over twenty years ago now, so only remember that I liked it.

          Thanks for the recommendation. Unfortunately we won’t get to the bookshop as we are not going to Tokyo this trip. We landed at Haneda and went straight down south. And we leave from Narita training in from the north that day.

  7. Dear Whispering Gums, I enjoyed your post on Australian writers in Japan, thank you. One of my favourite writers in this category is Dianne Highbridge, who has lived in Japan for more than 30 years. Her husband was Masahiro Takahashi (Takahashi translates as High bridge). She was recently the teacher at Temple University, Tokyo campus, of their Creative Writing: Telling the Story program, and other writing courses. Sadly she passed away earlier this year. Two of her books are (1) In the Empire of Dreams (short stories set in Japan) and (2) A Much Younger Man (set in Australia and very controversial when it hit the US). One of the stories from ‘In the Empire of Dreams’ has since been made into a film. I hope you can enjoy reading about Dianne, and her books, which are available through GoodReads, Amazon etc. When I lived in Japan we met regularly, (she is my cousin) and I find her writing fabulous, moving and evocative. Best wishes, Heather Holliday


  8. Friend Teresa tried to post a recommendation, but had trouble so I’m posting it here in case it interests others too:

    “I just wanted to mention Robin Gerster’s book ‘Legless in Ginza: Orientating Japan’ (MUP, 1999). It’s an account of a Melbourne academic’s two years as Chair of Australian Studies at Tokyo University. Robin is a Professor of Literary Studies at Monash, and the book is described in the blurb as ‘witty and idiosyncratic’.”

    Teresa thinks I might like it. It certainly sounds interesting.

  9. Pingback: Monday musings on Australian literature: Australian writers in Japan — Whispering Gums – Truth Troubles

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