By Andrew Hasegawa

When Setsutaro Hasegawa died on 4 October 1952, the Hasegawa family’s relationship with Japan became paper thin. At the height of the northern hemisphere summer in August, Japanese pay homage to their ancestors, but no one gathers at his grave. Japanese tradition was lost before it was ever gained. It was an era when it was easier to deny our heritage than to acknowledge it.

We call Setsutaro Hasegawa ‘Grandpa Hasegawa’ even though he’s my great-grandfather. And Grandpa Hasegawa knew who he was. There was no confusion triggered by internment, war, and 55 years living in Australia. He died a proud Japanese man. In 1942, when he fronted a tribunal seeking an early release from internment, he was asked whether he was a patriotic Japanese. He didn’t hesitate to reply, ‘naturally’.

Grandpa Hasegawa was born on 24 December 1871 in the port town of Otaru in Hokkaido, the son of a public servant, Setsuzo Hasegawa of Niigata, and Matsu Koike of Tokyo. Setsutaro was the eldest son and raised in a household where it was expected he would look after his parents and, under the laws of primogeniture, inherit the family estate; which he did in 1907.

At some point he headed to Tokyo to pursue his education. Details are scant but we know he had lived there for a time. There is not a single document in Australia, be it marriage or death certificates or any of the documents associated with internment, where he acknowledges Otaru as his city of birth. In the six months prior to departure, he lived in Kobe. After finishing his education he became a school teacher.

Late 1896 or early 1897, he boarded the steamer Yamashiro Maru and arrived in Australia on 12 February 1897, aged 26. He came to Australia to learn English, initially working for Arthur Tuckett, a businessman who hired young Japanese men to work as home-helpers. Passports were confiscated and the workers underpaid, a familiar story, even 124 years later. Grandpa Hasegawa didn’t stay an employee of the Tuckett household for long. He reclaimed his passport and continued his Australian adventure.

Setsutaro Hasegawa’s passport

In an era when finding work in the hospitality industry was not an option, many Japanese found themselves working in laundries and then setting them up and managing them themselves. Why were so many Japanese in Australia involved in the laundry business? Because barriers to entry were low and you didn’t need a lot of capital to set one up. The equipment was Japanese, standards in Japanese laundries were higher than in local ones, giving them a competitive advantage, and then there was the Confucian work ethic. Grandpa Hasegawa became a laundryman by accident, and that he stayed in Australia for the rest of his life was also an accident.

In 1905, Grandpa Hasegawa married Ada Cole and late in the same year, their first child Leo Takeshi was born. In 1907 the second son Moto Kozo arrived, followed by Joe Gonzo in 1911.

Rear left Setsutaro Hasegawa, centre Ada, left front Leo Takeshi, right front Moto Kozo

Around 1910, Grandpa Hasegawa and his family moved to the inland town of Ballarat, where he set up a laundry. What motivated him to move from Geelong to Ballarat is unclear but he lived there until around 1914. In the local newspaper, he and wife Ada were recorded as having won prizes at dog and poultry shows. He was not shy about involving himself in local activities and was probably the only or one of very few Japanese in town at that point in time.

In 1913 he made an application to be naturalized as an Australian citizen. That was rejected, because ‘natives of Asia are not eligible’. At some point his wife left him. I puzzled about when this happened for decades. In the record of interview at the Aliens Tribunal in 1942, he said he had not seen her for 20 years, suggesting early 1920s. Then a distant relative and great granddaughter of Ada told us that she had given birth to a child in 1915 and another one in 1917, leading me to conclude that sometime around 1913 or 1914, Grandpa Hasegawa had become a single parent.

He moved back to Melbourne and was recorded as living with his tailor and friend Ichizo Sato in 1916, before returning to Geelong and sharing accommodation with another life-long friend, Motoshiro Ito. In the Hasegawa family there are no stories about those times; Grandpa did not share his emotions or talk about what happened. Geelong then became the family’s permanent home through to his death.

During cross-examination at the Aliens Tribunal in 1942, Grandpa Hasegawa told his inquisitor that he had not had contact with his family in Japan for more than 30 years. The family register indicates his father died in 1907 and that he became the head of the household that year. There are a couple of photos of his mother, sisters, and other family members that date from the early twentieth century. There was no sign of his father and around the same time, an elegant photo of Grandpa and family was taken in Geelong. I speculate that at some point he broached the subject of why retuning home was difficult, and his mother cut him off, because he could not fulfil his duties as the eldest son.

Adrift, alone, and a single father of three sons, he battled on without complaint. His economic situation changed from stable to comfortable in the mid 1920s. I wondered about this for many years, and then one day the penny dropped: he had sold the assets that belonged to him in Japan under the laws of inheritance, and become a man of means. He bought a house and owned the freehold of the business he operated in a prime location in central Geelong. There was a car and some other landholdings, and the youngest son, Joe Gonzo, was sent to an exclusive private school in Geelong. Life was comfortable and, as one of my aunts once said, they were the ‘good times’.


The good times ended on 8 December 1941 when the police knocked on the door of 21 Little Ryrie Street and arrested Setsutaro Hasegawa. He was just short of his 70th birthday. The laundry closed, the family’s economic situation deteriorated and, being a Hasegawa went from being a matter of no concern to one of heightened self-awareness. By the end of the war, just when you might have thought things would improve, they became more difficult.

Setsutaro Hasegawa’s Certificate of Alien Registration, photo taken January 1940

Grandpa Hasegawa was not a gregarious community character, he was happy tending to his Japanese garden, breeding goldfish and birds. He was the patriarch of the house and meals did not begin until he was seated. After dinner he retired to his room and studied, read and kept diaries. He knew that if you wanted to breed goldfish with certain characteristics, you had to understand how to do it, so he bought a book. During cross-examination at the Aliens Tribunal, his good friend George Taro Furuya was asked in what language he spoke to Hasegawa. He replied, ‘Japanese’ of course. One of the tribunal panel comments on Grandpa Hasegawa’s English language skills and how good they were. My aunt said he had no ‘accent’, nor was there any feeling that he was struggling to understand.

Identity Crisis

The seeds of the Hasegawa family identity crisis were planted during the Pacific War, and what followed was oppressive. Capturing the mood of the moment in words is not easy. During the Pacific War parts of northern Australia were bombed, Japanese soldiers came within 32 kilometres of Port Moresby and tens of thousands of Australian soldiers found themselves prisoners of war in South East Asia. The death rate in the camps was just short of 30 per cent. In September and October 1945, 14,000 POWs returned home with tales of deaths and atrocities in the camps. Amongst those who returned home were those who were mentally and physically ill, who often led short lives as a result. Of those who recovered and returned to a ‘normal life’, there were those who forgave and those who remained bitter.

My Aunt Matsu, the second eldest daughter of Leo Takeshi and granddaughter of Grandpa Hasegawa, remembered the forties and fifties ‘with bitterness’. At school she was persecuted and rocks thrown at her because of her Nikkei heritage. Outside of the family she was known as Sue. When my mother considered naming my younger sister with a Japanese name in the early sixties Aunty Matsu intervened and told her you must not do it. My mother heeded her advice and my sister was named Elizabeth. Aunty Matsu once told me that she occasionally ran into people she had been to school with when she was young and if they approached her to start a conversation, she could not ‘look them in the eye’, such were her memories of those times. Matsu was conflicted about her love for her grandfather and her difficulty dealing with her Japanese heritage. She was a good cook; my cousins tell me she often made Japanese food and was partial to Japanese pickles. In the 1990s, when being part Japanese had stopped being a burden, she was my guest in Tokyo, enjoying what she had so long had to hide: her Japanese heritage.

The Hasegawa family house was located in central Geelong and my grandmother, Grandpa Hasegawa’s daughter-in-law, knew just about everyone. So it was no surprise when, in 1953, three hungry, lonely Japanese students studying wool-classing at the Gordon Institute were introduced to the family. In the Hasegawa household they found food and friendship. One of the students was Hironoshin Furuhashi, a former world record holder in the 1,500 metre swimming event and an Olympian, sometimes referred to as ‘the flying fish’. He was later the Japanese Swimming Federation President through to his death in 2009. His experience in Australia in 1953 captured the intensity of the hatred towards Japanese in some quarters. In swim-crazy Australia, state swimming associations banned him from swimming in competitions. The racist attitude of these associations was prominent in the print media at the time but not everyone agreed, and eventually he was allowed to swim. In a brief online biography Furuhashi mentions the deep hostility of some Australians towards him because he was Japanese, and the troubles he had finding accommodation.

Left rear – Hironoshin Furuhashi, left front – Motoshiro Ito, life-long friend of Setsutaro Hasegawa, circa 1953

The encounter between the Hasegawa family and Furuhashi is still talked about to this day, emphasising that deep down, most in the family were proud of their grandfather and their Japanese heritage, but unsure of  how to deal with it. My father, a keen amateur swimmer, often talked about ‘the flying fish’, while his younger sister still displays a beautiful Japanese doll sent by Furuhashi to the Hasegawa family following his return to Japan. In a hostile environment, Furuhashi and the doll became, and still remains a family symbol of connection with Japan.

One of two dolls sent by Furuhashi to the Hasegawa family on his return to Japan

The end of the Pacific War resulted in a deepening of the identity crisis for Japanese in Australia. On release from internment the majority were repatriated, often against their will, to Japan. Only a small group was allowed to remain, with the criteria in most cases being a spouse or partner who was Australian. Sixty nine Japanese were released early from internment and another 143 were allowed to remain in Australia. Many of the 143 who were not repatriated were children with one parent who was not Japanese. The easy thing to do for many Australians of Japanese descent was to deny their heritage and change their names.  In the Hasegawa family the second son of Grandpa Hasegawa, Moto, changed his name to his mother’s maiden name Cole and his first name to Jack in the 1940s. The third son also changed his surname in 1956 to Cole. Both sons of Grandpa Hasegawa chose not to talk about their Japanese heritage, thereby snuffing out identification as being part Japanese in their families. What Joe and Jack did was common and rational rather than unusual in the Japanese community in Australia. This is the reason why there are so few people who identify as being pre-war Nikkei in Australia.

In the 1960s, community attitudes towards Japan were starting to change. The tide started to turn as Japan presented a warm friendly face to the world when it hosted the 1964 Tokyo Olympics. The bullet train that began operating in 1964 was a symbol of Japan’s technological prowess and modernity that helped give it further credibility. Japanese consumer goods become widely available and many Australian children would have watched the animation super hero Astro Boy (Tetsuwan Atomu) on TV, not knowing it was Japanese.  By the end of the 1960s Japan was Australia’s largest trading partner, Japanese language departments opened at Monash and Queensland universities in 1966, and several well known private secondary schools, for example, Geelong Grammar, introduced Japanese language learning into their curriculum.

At home in the households of the various strands of the Hasegawa family, not a lot had changed. No one was keen on embracing their heritage. I was born in 1960 in a small country town not far from Geelong. In my grade three primary school photo, the only person in it with a non-Anglo-Celtic background was me. My father often spoke about Grandpa Hasegawa who was his male role model. He had taken possession of his passport, certificate of alien registration, a diary, some letters from Japan and other bits and pieces. He would occasionally show me these family treasures and talk to me about Grandpa, and then remind me ‘you must never change your surname’. I didn’t really understand why he kept making that point until I was a teenager.

White Australia, Andrew back row third from left, 1969

Andrew’s Japanese Adventure

During the 1970s, I spent many summer holidays at my grandmother’s house, she was Grandpa Hasegawa’s daughter-in-law. She talked about her father-in-law often, she nursed him in his twilight years and in return, he gifted all his property and personal effects to her ahead of his death. Out the back in the shed were two trunks full of hand tailored suits that had been worn by Grandpa Hasegawa and made by Ichizo Sato. I used to peer into those trunks admiring the beautiful suits and the handful of other items in them. My curiosity became an obsession and I decided to seek answers to all the unanswered questions.

My first point of call was the Public Record Office of Victoria. I wrote to them on the off chance they might have a record of Grandpa Hasegawa’s arrival. Several weeks later, I received a reply confirming the details. My next point of call was the Consulate General of Japan in Melbourne to see if they could help with the translation of Japanese language documents that had withstood the test of time. They couldn’t, but introduced me to James Oki, an elderly Japanese man who spoke English with a crisp American accent. I made an appointment and went to his apartment in East Melbourne and showed him my small collection of Japanese language documents. He agreed to help.

Several weeks later I retuned and he told me the letters from Japan were not easy to read and he could only decipher bits and pieces of them. The passport was straight forward, and the gem he uncovered was that Setsutaro Hasegawa’s birth was registered in the port city of Otaru in Hokkaido, not Tokyo. My next act was to write to the City of Otaru and ask for a copy of the family register. About a month later a copy arrived and I was back asking Oki san if he could help translate the documents.

And so began an adventure to learn about the land where Setsutaro Hasegawa was born, Japan. In 1981, forty years ago this year, I arrived in Japan. I was twenty. It was the start of a lifelong relationship with Japan that continues to this day. I spent several years living in the Kansai region, studying Japanese and teaching English before returning to Australia to finish my university degree.

In late 1985, I returned to Japan to collect data for my honours thesis on the ‘buraku‘ community in southern Osaka. It was, and still is a sensitive subject which I became familiar with on my first visit to Japan, when a student at the university where I was studying broached the subject, then told me I wasn’t allowed to talk about it. That made me even more interested, and I went to the library, found a book called Japan’s Invisible Race and devoured it. My thesis topic on the Japanese outcaste class was rejected several times, because the head of the Japanese department said you cannot succeed unless you have access. His point was fair, you can’t just walk into a community and start knocking on doors. I persisted and the Japanese department reached out to a well-known Japanese academic who agreed to help me enter a buraku community. Even then there were no guarantees; it was a series of introductions that got me in. Two local leaders of buraku communities I was introduced to rejected me. Then the third person on my list asked me what I wanted to do and said ‘welcome’. I was in with unfettered access. I was given the privilege of entering the Yata community, interviewing residents and gaining an insight into Japan that stays with me to this very day. Many years later I realised that my patron was a leading figure in the Buraku Liberation League, a warrior for his cause.

Japanese heritage, food, and ‘yuck, I’m not eating that!’

Dealing with our Japanese heritage has always been a thorny issue in the Hasegawa family, as many of us lived through a period when Japan was not popular. When my daughter Anne was born in the early 1990s I thought the issues that had plagued us were long gone but that was not the case; she decided she would rather be European than Japanese.  On a bad day it crossed my mind that she would probably have happily traded Mum and Dad in and replaced them with white Anglo-Saxon parents.

Anne aged 7 in Tokyo, Shichigosan ceremony

Anne’s mother is Japanese and was born and raised in Japan, while I am a fourth-generation Nikkei Australian. Anne grew up speaking Japanese and at the age of four relocated to Tokyo, attending a Japanese kindergarten before entering a primary school with a bilingual curriculum. She was treated as a Japanese native speaker and learned Japanese at the same pace as children in the Japanese school system.  In Japan there were no signs that she would reject her Japanese heritage. It was all smooth sailing until we moved to Hong Kong and Anne started attending a school modelled on a British primary school.

Before long Anne’s American accent, acquired in Japan, was fading fast and the Queen’s English was in. I did not know this at the time, but Anne made it clear to her mother that her carefully prepared school lunch box must not contain onigiri (rice balls) or other Japanese food. It was the start of her becoming very picky about what she ate and much of what she rejected, but not all, was Japanese.

There had been an incident at school in Hong Kong when Anne was teased for eating Japanese food, triggering a twenty-year period when she marginalised anything to do with Japan. That day the lunch box contained onigiri with shiso; that was the source of her angst.

“Eeewww, what is that? 

That looks gross. You’re gross.

It’s purple! Why is it purple? Yuck. 

It smells funny! Blergh!”

Raw fish, be it sushi or sashimi, was out. ‘Yuck, I am not eating that, let’s eat Mexican instead’. It was a familiar response that was heard many times over the years. I sat quietly watching and wondering at what point her feelings might change. It was a slow process. Occasionally I would share some Hasegawa family history with her, but she showed little interest.

Then one day about four or five years ago, Anne declared that she had started to eat raw fish and sushi again. Just why she had re-acquired her taste for raw fish is not clear. I suspect if she were with her friends, and everyone else was enjoying sashimi, then she would have been the odd one out, considering her heritage.

I used the drip feed system over many years, occasionally sharing information about children with mixed heritage with her. Once in while she would show some interest. Then, suddenly, about two years ago, she demanded to know more about who she was. The identity crisis was over; Anne turned her cooking skills to making Japanese food and embraced her heritage. It has been a remarkable journey watching her accept who she is. She even wrote an article about this turnaround.

Other stories about the Hasegawa family:

Story of the Hasegawa Family by Andrew Hasegawa

All photos supplied by author.

error: Content is protected !!