Coral, Jack, and Setsuko in Caulfield, Melbourne, 1954

All individuals featured in this article have been approached for permission to be named.

By Jim McFarlane

My name is Jim McFarlane. My sister Coral and I come from a Japanese mother and an Australian father who met in Hiroshima during our father’s service in the occupation forces in 1952. Setsuko Nakamoto and Jack McFarlane met through my uncle Mitsuaki who, as a young boy, came to the camp regularly to practice his English. A romance developed; my mother was attracted by my father’s charm and good looks and my father being in his forties saw that the prospect of marriage and a family life was still not out of the question.

Setsuko fell pregnant and Jack had to go back to Australia with the army in order to be discharged. A lengthy wait ensued as at the time the White Australia policy was in force, and even though Jack and Setsuko were married, they were not allowed to make a home in Australia. In the meantime, Coral was born in Hiroshima and it must have been a gruelling time for Setsuko. Would Jack abandon her and Coral like so many other soldiers did their Japanese wives, or would he honour his vows and stay true to their relationship?

Setsuko and Jack, Kure, circa 1950

Coming to Australia

A change of government in Australia with a new immigration policy allowed Setsuko and Coral to finally come to Australia and for Jack to see his now 18-month-old daughter Coral for the very first time. They travelled by ship along with two other war brides, Satchy Faulkner who went to New Zealand; another lady whose name I have forgotten went to Western Australia. These women developed a deep camaraderie sharing their hopes and dreams of living in a new country whilst harbouring the regret of leaving their families behind. Sadly, once the ship arrived in Australia, they all went their separate ways and were never to meet again.

On the ship, a friendly couple that were returning back to Australia, noticed my mother and her companions. They were the Ringland-Andersons. John was a famous eye surgeon and keen amateur photographer. He and his wife Mary were enthusiastic art lovers and were instrumental in the creation of the Borovansky Ballet, the company that later became The Australian Ballet. The Ringland-Andersons were extremely kind to Setsuko. They lived in Melbourne, looked after her, and invited us as a family to their home many times. As fate would have it, my partner Yvonne many years later joined the administration of The Australian Ballet and still works there with over 35 years service. As a photographer I have had The Australian Ballet as a client for around 30 years and I still get the odd call from them. For Yvonne and I, our life’s lesson is that the arts, by its nature is an industry that is truly multicultural, and that those people who love the arts are generally the most humanitarian.

It was a difficult time to be a war bride in Australia during the early 1950s. Cherry Parker was the first war bride in Melbourne. For at least the first year she needed to be accompanied by a bodyguard wherever she went. The second war bride was Setsuko. One would have expected that they would meet, become friends and support one another. Unfortunately, this did not eventuate. Cherry lived in Ringwood and we lived in Caulfield on the other side of Melbourne. Back then, communication was very difficult, as many households didn’t even have a phone. They were always aware of each other but Coral and I cannot recall to this day ever having met Cherry Parker.

With little English, it was a trying and lonely time for Setsuko in 1950s Melbourne. Our Australian neighbours even drew up a petition to rid the street of us. My mother’s friend Miyuki, recalls the time living in Geelong when walking along the street she stumbled across some Japanese sailors who happened to be in port. Miyuki was too shy to introduce herself to them but followed close by just in earshot so that she could hear their Japanese voices.

Jack, although loyal, was not a supportive husband. He held misogynistic attitudes and was indifferent to Setsuko’s need for a break from the kids, and was often completely ignorant of her emotional needs. Jack was the result of an Italian, Scottish, Catholic rural upbringing. He was brought up in boarding school away from his siblings and had tough overbearing parents. His father hated him. Jack was dogged by severe low self esteem for all of his life and was delusional. These days this would be recognised and seen to with counselling and therapy but not in the 1950s. Our father was a victim of self-loathing mixed with living in a blokey society where ignorance represented strength, and compassion, weakness. Setsuko’s was a life of suburban, cultural, and spiritual anonymity and her only form of self-expression was to put her heart, mind, and soul into raising her the kids.

Setsuko was quite fortunate in as much as Jack had already owned our home in Caulfield. That gave them an enormous head start compared to other people. Our neighbourhood was leafy and middle class. Many people were professional types or ran their own businesses. Our Jewish neighbours were all pretty much part of the clothing trade. Apart from rice, the local shops were all stocked with plain Aussie food so if Setsuko needed anything Asian, it required a trip into Chinatown in the city. There she could get Chinese ingredients and adapt them to Japanese cooking. Over time, Japanese ingredients slowly appeared, soy sauce, seaweed, wasabi and other products. There was a fish shop in Caulfield where she could get fresh fish. I remember the owner was amazed that Setsuko could tell which fish was fresh; the locals had no idea.

Jim, Setsuko, and Coral in Caulfield, 1957

The generosity of neighbours

In Caulfield, many of our neighbours were Holocaust survivors. They were the ones who were the kindest to Setsuko. In her they saw their own life stories and could only feel compassion for her. Kind people never wish their own unfortunate experiences to be lived by others… The Himes, the Silbermans, the Silvers, the Landaus, the Kligers, the Michaelsons, the Shwartz’s – each and all of these families were kind to Setsuko.

I have always regarded with great fondness our Jewish neighbours in Caulfield. This brought me into sharp, inner conflict when several years ago, when visiting Gaza as a photojournalist, I bore witness to the atrocities that have been inflicted upon the Palestinians by Israel. It broke my heart. In the meantime, whilst Setsuko enjoyed friendship with our Jewish neighbours, Jack remained aloof, as he was an anti-Semitic. To me at a young age this was a lesson in the complexities and contradictions that racism presents. Setsuko herself was not totally immune. I remember her discomfort towards the Vietnamese with their supposedly crude and unsophisticated ways. She feared that among the Australians, the Vietnamese would be mistaken as Japanese. I have always found it curious that so many migrants are themselves anti-immigration and unsympathetic towards refugees. My own theory is that once people become prosperous they become selfish. I have experienced first hand the generosity of the poor and dispossessed. In Niger and in the refugee camps of Gaza and Jordan, I have been given food many times by complete strangers who don’t even have enough to feed themselves.

As Coral and I started school, Setsuko’s English started to improve and when we became old enough, Setsuko started working in a clothing factory making quilt dressing gowns. Being an outgoing and gregarious person, she quickly made friends with the other migrant women and shared food and recipes. Les, the night watchman would bring her bags of scrap material, which Setsuko would take home and transform into quilts. Before we knew it everybody we knew had their beds graced by her handiwork. Years later, Coral, an accomplished needle worker herself, had her work in everybody’s homes too.

A small Japanese community

By this time a small community of Japanese began to develop on our side of Melbourne. Some were war brides, others were associated with Sukiyaki House, which was the first Japanese restaurant in Melbourne. Others were business families sent to Australia from Japan during the time of Australia’s wool boom. Setsuko became the ‘go to’ person for new arrivals who needed to get to know the lay of the land here. Setsuko relished the status that this role gave her and was always ready with homespun advice for new mothers and arrivals.

People were attracted to her generosity, her sometimes brutal honesty, and sense of fun. A new sense of independence gradually emerged and opportunities arose too. Setsuko, a hard worker who lived on her wits, became very adept at doing a lot with very little. She was soon much sought after in the emerging restaurant trade and was useful for her dress making skills too. None of this was ever well paying but it got Setsuko out of the factory and into an environment where she was working with friends, speaking her own language, developing skills, and enjoying the freedom of greater mobility.

There were a few families that we had the most to do with in our early years. Auntie Tommy (Machiko Bryce), who passed away about 10 years ago, was married to Doug, who died in the late 1960s. They had a son Charles and a daughter Edith, who tragically died in a car accident when Edith was only 18. Edith was bridesmaid at Coral’s wedding. That accident tore Auntie Tommy apart and she never really recovered; Tommy was the driver. Charles has a partner Janet and two daughters, Catherine and Tara. Auntie Tommy was from Okayama and was the best educated of my mother’s friends. Her English was very good and she drove a car: the only war bride I knew who could! They lived in Clayton and I remember regular visits in our growing up years. Auntie Tommy had a hard life. At first she nursed Doug, who had severe asthma which he finally fell victim to in his mid 50s. Then of course was the tragedy of her daughter Edith. In later years Tommy absorbed herself into ballet, music, and cultural events.

Auntie Jean (Sadae Abe) Lawrence was married to Jimmy Lawrence and they have a son Ted. Jack was very fond of Jimmy Lawrence; they knew each other in Japan and it was Jimmy who kept an eye on Setsuko after Jack went back to Australia and Coral was born. Jimmy suffered very badly from arthritis and died in the late 1960s, around the same time as Doug Bryce. They lived in Wodonga so we didn’t get to see them so much other than visiting Jimmy in the Heidelberg Repat hospital where he was admitted many times. Their son Ted is a very keen and gifted musician. He studied electronics at RMIT and after graduating was taken on by Sanyo in Albury at the time colour TV was taking off here. He was sent to Japan many times for company business. On one occasion he took his mother along with him to visit her family. Very tragically, Jean died while they were there. She had not enjoyed good health, but it still came as a very bad shock. Naturally, her family took over the funeral arrangements and poor Ted who spoke almost no Japanese endured a full Buddhist funeral service without anybody explaining to him what the ceremony involved. Ted had always lived with his mother. What a sad, empty and lonely house back in Wodonga he must have returned to.

Hiromi Elrick was married to Peter, a Scot. They lived around the corner from us in Caulfield. Hiromi was from Kumamoto. They had four kids – Margaret, Jimmy, Leslie, and Brian. It was Hiromi that Setsuko did her sewing with. Hiromi had a bit of a business going amongst our Jewish neighbours and they gave her lots of work. Michiko Marquis was married to Stan; they had a daughter Maggie and for a while they lived in Caulfield. Michi was the brains of the outfit and was very entrepreneurial. She set up a small café next to the Glenhuntly tram depot. There was lots of regular business with the tram workers and, as the trams operated from early morning until late at night, they were kept very busy. Setsuko often helped them out in the kitchen and experimented using Japanese seasonings on their pies and chips. Michi later moved on to Croydon, a growing district during the immigration boom. There she set up a general store; they prospered there and did well for themselves.

Mitsue Evans was married to Ted Evans and had two sons, Brian and Wayne. Ted had some kind of business in Seoul, Korea and in the 1960s brought his wife and boys to Australia where he pretty much dumped them. In Korea, Brian and Wayne grew up in an American expat district and had American accents and an American education. They lived in Edithvale and later moved to West Brunswick. Mitsue was a hat designer and was often exploited by her employers because in the Japanese tradition she never asked for a pay rise or complained – but she did complain to Setsuko. Miyuki Linsdale was the one with whom Setsuko shared her passion for cooking. Miyuki had a tough life holding her family together with an alcoholic husband. She seemed to try to spend as much time away from home as possible and she and Setsuko would cook delicacies for each other. Miyuki reintroduced Buddhism to Setsuko. This became increasingly significant for Setsuko as Coral and I were reaching the age that we would inevitably be leaving home. The prospect of being alone at home with Jack for the rest of her years was not a happy one for Setsuko.

Across the road from us was Wally who worked in the travel business and had a fascination with Japan, having travelled there many times. He had made lots of Japanese friends there and they would come and stay at his house while on working holidays in Australia. Kyogo Ue was pretty much adopted by Setsuko as another son. He was fond of her and included her in every social gathering that was going on. Like Setsuko, Kyogo was outgoing and had lots of friends. Setsuko enjoyed their friendship immensely and was always running across the road with saucepans of delicacies for him. Kyogo gained permanent residency in Australia and still lives here.

Setsuko becomes a grandmother

The years moved along, Coral started working as a secretary and soon married and started a family. Two daughters Tara and Amy were born. Setsuko being very vain was at first a bit awkward with the prospect of being a grandmother. She later warmed to it, but it was a sign to Setsuko of not only her own mortality – she never wanted to grow old – but of Coral’s independence, and Coral’s need to run her own family on her own terms. For Setsuko, being needed was her only need.

My attentions too were straying away from home. In my younger years, I was always out tearing around with mates. Setsuko had worked very hard and had sacrificed a lot to see her kids through. She did this single handedly with little interest from Jack. I remember Jack never once went to a parent teacher night with Coral. So losing the grasp she had on her kids was hard for Setsuko. Setsuko’s health was starting to fail. She was diagnosed with diabetes and in those days it demanded that she have a very severe diet. Being so passionate about food, she refused to comply, pronouncing that if she can’t eat what she wants life wasn’t worth living. This attitude saddened us but Setsuko was her own person and that same willfulness that got her through her life could also turn destructive too. In this way Setsuko had much in common with her fellow war brides. Each and every one of them were larger than life characters, brave, confident and uncompromising. I often chat with Coral and we ask each other if any of the war brides were ever really happy? I think for them it was survival first, and if happiness should come long, that was a bonus.

Back to Japan…after 25 years

Setsuko always wanted to go back to Japan for a visit. In her low moments there must have been nagging doubts as to whether she made the right decision coming to Australia. A visit may put things into perspective. She was very keen to see her five brothers and sister after all this time. Setsuko was very fortunate that when she left Japan she had the blessing of her family. After the destruction of the family home and the whole country in chaos, they told her to seek a better life. So for Setsuko there were no awkward moments and no animosity to reconcile. Many other war brides were not so lucky; most of them were disowned by their families.

So after 25 years Setsuko finally made it back to Japan. She stayed there for about three months. I went over for six months, sharing Setsuko’s final month there together. Setsuko was thrilled to see her family and again they were wonderful to her. Her youngest brother, Shinya was only eight years old when she left and Setsuko remembers that he followed her everywhere when he was a boy. He followed her in the exact same way 25 years later. By now, the family had moved mostly to Tokyo and were doing okay with their lives. Uncle Yoshiharu, whose home we stayed at, ran a stationery store. Two other uncles were teachers. Mitsuaki, who came to Jack’s camp as a kid, lives in Hokkaido. He became an English teacher. Setsuko’s only sister, Katsuko, married a teacher as well. Keiji was the head of an exclusive high school. He was fascinated to hear Setsuko’s voice because she spoke in a style that was 25 years old and he saw her as a walking time capsule.

That cultural gap had taken its toll on Setsuko; she ended up disliking Japan and finding it a big disappointment. Those lonely times in Australia when she missed her family conjured up images of Japan in her mind that were rich in sentiment and stayed with her until they were cruelly dashed on her return. This story is not unique to Setsuko: many migrants when visiting their home countries felt as though they had returned to a strange place where they didn’t quite fit in. And as they didn’t fully belong in Australia, they found themselves stranded in a physical and cultural limbo. Setsuko was fortunate in this regard; it helped make her mind up that her true home was Australia. Japan had changed a lot, but so had she. Uncle Yoshiharu arranged a bit of a family reunion in their hometown Ogori near Hiroshima. After the plane landed in the snow at the airport, we took a taxi to the house. Setsuko was very chatty to the cab driver to the extent that I was forced to comment. Her reply was that she hadn’t heard nor spoken that dialect for 25 years.

There was a big reception waiting for us in this beautiful old farmhouse. People came from far and wide. It was a reunion for Yoshiharu too because living away in Tokyo meant that he hadn’t seen them for ages either. Over the next few days we drove around Setsuko’s old haunts. There was the university where she had worked as a typist and there was a place not far from the house where we stopped and she said, ‘this is where I was standing when the atom bomb went off. The mushroom cloud was over there.’

Later we found ourselves standing at the entrance of a train station. ‘This is where I said good-bye to my mother’, Setsuko said. ‘I can see her here as if it were just yesterday. Somehow she was able to find herself some lipstick (difficult during rationing) and my last memory of her was when we parted: she turned around nodding with reassurance to me as she smiled good-bye. I will always remember how pretty she looked….’

It was the furthest thing from my mind as a 22 year old that in just a few short years, we would lose Setsuko. She was only 56. In the years since her passing, Coral and I have kept in close contact with our remaining uncles and cousins in Japan and we are very close to them. They have visited here, and Japan is like a second home to us. We are so lucky to be part of a multicultural family and it makes us feel privileged, special, and different.

Here is one of Setsuko’s pronouncements that I think well describes her:

‘When inviting people over for dinner, never try to guess what they will like because you might be wrong. They won’t like it and you won’t like it. Always cook what you like because you will be good at it. If on the other hand they don’t like your cooking, at least you will like it. But if they do like your cooking, you’ve made a friend.’

All photos supplied by author.