When Kazuhiro Suzuki remembers his father, he recalls the scars of war and feels the weight of the past.
Japan’s ambassador to Australia has adopted a relatively low-key approach since arriving in Canberra in May – at least compared to his famously rambunctious predecessor, Shingo Yamagami.
But the calm-spoken envoy has a powerful family story that runs like a thread through Japan’s modern history: its ruinous embrace of militarism and empire in the 1930s and World War II, the colossal brutality and the loss of life during the final spasms of this war in the Pacific and its remarkable economic and strategic transformation over the following decades.
And now that Ambassador Suzuki has found his feet in Australia, he decided to tell this story, believing it sheds light on something essential about the relationship between Australia and Japan.
It is also the story of how quickly and profoundly things can change in the space of a single generation.
Harunobu Suzuki was supposed to die in war
The ambassador’s father, Harunobu Suzuki, came of age in Imperial Japan. He attended the Imperial Army Academy, before training as a kamikaze pilot as World War II reached its terrible conclusion.
Their duty was grim. After Allied forces slowed Japan’s advance and then began to push it back, kamikaze pilots – some of them still teenagers – were tasked with a suicide mission.
They launched their bomb-laden planes into the sky, before crashing them into American and British ships in a desperate attempt to sink them.
Harunobu was about to join these ranks, another young life lost among countless deaths.
“He was going to carry out his duty, carry out a kamikaze attack on allied forces off the coast of Okinawa,” Mr Suzuki told the ABC in an interview at the Japanese Embassy in Canberra.
But then chance intervened.
“During his training, he had a very serious accident…a big fire in the plane. Half of his body was burned,” the ambassador said.
“So he was hospitalized. He was supposed to be dead.”
This terrible accident probably saved his life.
The young man remained unconscious for a long time, before beginning a slow convalescence. Once restored, the war finally ended on August 15 after the United States dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Like everyone else in Japan, Harunobu began to build a new life in the rubble of war. And one of the things he did was start a family.
As the ambassador says very clearly: “He couldn’t die. And that’s how I was born, later.”
But the war still haunted his father, as did the brutal fact of his improbable survival.
“A lot of his friends did this (kamikaze) job and then died. But he was the survivor,” Mr. Suzuki said.
“So after the war he felt very ashamed, that he couldn’t die, like his friends. It was all the time… a kind of trauma for him. And it took him a long time, I think , to overcome it.”
Added to this guilt was his family’s grief. Harunobu was the youngest of four boys in his family, and his two older brothers also died in the war; one fighting in the Philippines, the other in Burma.
After the war, he embarked on his new career as a lawyer. But even then, the war threatened the family in a different way.
“He was very conscious of his guilt and, in a way, he sacrificed our family. He wanted to contribute to society in other ways,” Mr. Suzuki said.
“He became…a pro bono lawyer. He didn’t get any money, and when he did get money, it was very small amounts. So our family was pretty much a poor family.”
The ambassador remembers being teased relentlessly by richer kids at school because he didn’t have his own study room and because his family’s house was very dilapidated.
Eventually, the boy’s patience broke. He remembers exploding at his father one day, crying helplessly and accusing him of not providing for his family.
His father, he said, was stunned. He changed his career path, moving into conveyancing and real estate law, and built a new house for his son and his family.
Japan, meanwhile, has emerged as an economic powerhouse again, enjoying decades of soaring prosperity that many in the country – after 30 years of recent anemic growth – must look back on with wistfulness.
Of course, Japan’s strategic outlook has also completely transformed since World War II, and its former enemies are now close allies or friends.
The ambassador’s father died in 2007, long before his son became ambassador to Australia this year.
But he lived to see his son hold a top diplomatic post in his 30s, with primary responsibility for the U.S.-Japan military alliance — a strange irony for a man who spent months preparing to kill as many American sailors as possible by suicide. assignment.
And now his son is ambassador to Australia, another former World War II enemy and a country that still retains lingering and painful memories of Japanese wartime atrocities and cruelties in the Pacific and Southeast Asia.
“Reconciliation”, the foundation of friendship between Australia and Japan
The situation couldn’t be more different. Tokyo and Canberra have long enjoyed close economic ties, but are now busy rapidly building strategic and military ties, with an eye on an increasingly bellicose China.
The two countries signed a series of key security agreements and pledged to engage in increasingly sophisticated joint exercises with a growing number of friends and allies.
Last August, two Japanese F-35 fighter jets arrived in Australia for training – the first time Japan has deployed the aircraft overseas.
The ambassador says his father was delighted to see him working with the United States, and he is confident he would be just as happy to see him in Canberra now.
“My father was very, very proud of it, and he was very happy about it. So I’m sure being an ambassador here as well, I’m sure he’s very proud of it,” he said.
“Before we were enemies, we are the enemies, but now we are good friends and trying to keep the peace.
“And I think that’s what he really wanted to see between…the former Allied countries and Japan.”
It could also explain why the ambassador made the decision to speak about his family’s personal history – which is not a decision, he suggests, that came easily or naturally to him.
He first told the story in public at a Japan Self-Defense Forces Day reception at the Japanese Embassy in Canberra last month, prompting audible gasps from some of the the crowd.
As the event approached, he realized it would be the perfect time to take the plunge.
“If I didn’t do it then, I probably wouldn’t be able to do it forever,” he said wryly.
But, he said, the story is important to tell.
“I also think and hope that my family’s story… will tell people how important it is to overcome these difficulties and seek reconciliation,” the ambassador said.
“Japan (and) Australia now have extremely excellent relations. But these are based on our reconciliation after the war in the Pacific.
“And this great reconciliation is…truly the foundation of our friendship.
“War leaves scars on those involved, on both sides. And it takes time to heal.”