By Andrew Hasegawa
Over the past few months I’ve been digitising documents at the National Archives of Australia’s (NAA) Melbourne reading room for the Past Wrongs Future Choices (PWFC) project. The documents are transcripts of objections given by Japanese internees at the Aliens Tribunal No 4 in 1942.
The National Security (Aliens Control) Regulations 1939 created an Aliens Tribunal that enabled ‘enemy aliens’ to appeal their internment and seek release. There are 164 transcripts of evidence given by Japanese internees amounting to 1,076 pages, held by the NAA in Melbourne that I’ve managed to digitise.
It feels like fate that I ended up being the one to do this work. I had attended a meeting about internment organised by the PWFC partnership when the Project Co-Director Jordan Stanger-Ross asked if anyone knew where in the NAA the transcripts of evidence given at the Aliens Tribunal could be found. I knew exactly where they were because I first became familiar with them as an 18-year-old.
That was in 1979, and I had just received a letter from David Sissons, a historian and political scientist, who contributed important scholarship to the histories of the Japanese diaspora in Australia. In his letter, he asked if I could obtain a copy of the transcripts of my great-grandfather’s (Setsutaro Hasegawa) evidence given at the Aliens Tribunal. At that time, access to these transcripts was restricted to families of the person who’d given the evidence. I recall contacting the NAA, then based in Brighton, a bayside suburb of Melbourne, and catching a train just so I could obtain a hard-copy.
Now almost half a century later, I found myself revisiting these transcripts, this time scanning them for the Archival Cluster of PWFC. This ‘cluster’ will archive historical records pertaining to Nikkei experiences of internment during WWII, and build a global database for future research. The files that I scanned are now out of copyright and can be published on third party websites, subject to correct citation, of course. When Finnish, Czech, Italian, and German transcripts are included, there are 416 files in the series, and of those only 18 have been digitised. Seven are specific to Japanese internees.
At the start of the process I had to learn how to operate the scanner. It’s a sophisticated device that produces high resolution images. I had to download software onto my computer to allow me to operate it and temporarily store the JPEG files on my hard drive. I spent a couple of days at home trying to master the scanner before I went into the NAA reading room for a test run. Even then, I encountered a few teething problems. For example, the transcripts are typed on translucent foolscap sized paper and the mat to place them on is black. This resulted in poor quality images that were difficult to read. I finally figured out a solution – by placing a piece of white cardboard under each foolscap page, I managed to scan a much clearer image.
In the first instance, gaining access to the transcripts took some time. Initially, I made a request electronically via the NAA website to view the records. The NAA confirmed the records’ availability on a specified day. I then booked a seat in the reading room. The Melbourne NAA reading room is only open three days a week, with a strict quota on the number of visitors. After several visits I was able to negotiate to have the transcripts held in the reading room until my assignment was complete. Several months prior to this, I had already sought permission to bring in the scanner.
In the reading room I discovered many of the transcripts had been pinned together. Removing the pin requires no special skill, but it had to be done by a NAA staff member. Sometimes they were busy, sometimes not, and this just added time to the scanning process.
After I spent an hour scanning the documents, they all started to blur into each other and look the same. I was surrounded by manilla folders, translucent foolscap pages, folders on my hard drive with alphanumeric identification tags, and JPEG files with names I couldn’t remember. It created an environment where one sneeze or a blink of an eye could lead to a mistake.
To diminish the possibility of error, I created folders on my computer for each transcript using their unique control symbol and item ID. I also named each JPEG file immediately after scanning to ensure accuracy. The process from start to finish was labour-intensive, tedious, and required concentration. There was no room for error. I estimate that the whole process took more than 80 hours of work.
After scanning, each file had to be named using specific guidelines, for example “au_naa_mp529-3_tribunal4-101_1164596_001.jpg”. The JPEG images were then transferred from my hard drive to the University of Victoria’s server in British Columbia, Canada using a file transfer service called FileZilla. This software allows any researcher, who has been granted access to the University of Victoria’s server to transfer to a specific folder.
In total, 164 transcripts were scanned, and 1,076 JPEG images each with a unique file name have now been transferred to the University of Victoria’s server. In the future, these JPEG files will be converted into PDF format and made available to the public online. The files contain important information about a little-known aspect of Australia’s internment history, and sheds light on the lives of individuals and government attitudes towards them. Of note is the fact that only a handful of Nikkei people who appealed their incarceration at the Aliens Tribunal were successful in winning their freedom. This assignment was a PWFC initiative that will hopefully, help tell the story of what happened to civilian Japanese who were incarcerated in Australia during the Pacific War.
Andrew Hasegawa is a fourth-generation Nikkei Australian and the great-grandson of Setsutaro Hasegawa, who immigrated to Australia in 1897. Born in 1960, Andrew’s Japanese ancestry was the inspiration for him to learn Japanese and live in Japan for many years. These days he lives in Melbourne, imports Japanese lifestyle goods and researches the story of the Japanese in Australia.
Other stories about PWFC Project:
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All photos supplied by author.