Every two hours a slow local train stops at Tanami station, a small seaside village near the very southern tip of Honshu Island. This is where photographer Yasukichi Murakami was born, and left at the age of 17 in 1897 to sail to Australia.
The old Tanami port where Yasukichi would have farewelled his family is only a few hundred meters away from where the Murakami family home once stood. Yasukichi would have grown up looking out to sea everyday watching the men of Tanami leave, many who sailed overseas to find work in places like Hawaii and Australia on indentured contracts.
Old Tanami port. The stone wall of the Murakami family home can be seen on the far left. Photo by Mayu Kanamori
Reiko “Ruruka” Minami, Yasukichi Murakami’s grand-daughter met me at Tanami station. Ruruka is about my age, and like me, an artist, a performance maker. She performs in sign language whilst my performances use photographs to communicate.
Ruruka Minami at Tanami station. Photo by Mayu Kanamori
Ruruka took me to her family home to meet her mother, Yasuko Pearl Minami (nee Murakami). Travelling to meet a 89-year-old woman whilst carrying on my iPad a photograph of young Yasukichi induces my mind to play tricks, creating an illusion as if I am meeting Yasukichi’s mother, but this woman is his daughter.
Yasukichi Murakami’s photo travelled with me to his hometown in Tanami, Wakayama, Japan. The eucalyptus bark and nuts were found at Yasukichi Murakami’s gravesite in Cowra, NSW. Self portrait photo of Yasukichi Murakami by Yasukichi Murakami, Courtesy of Murakami Family Archives. Photo by Mayu Kanamaori
Yasuko Pearl who was born in Broome, Western Australia and married a man from Tanami whilst they were both interned in Tatura, Victoria during WWII. She is the third born between Yasukichi and his wife Theresa Shigeno.
In her home, Yasuko Pearl showed me many original photographs taken by her father Yasukichi Murakami. In Australia, these photographs were lost when Yasukichi and his family were arrested in Darwin in 1941 for being an enemy alien. But Yasukichi throughout his life had sent his photographs to his mother in Japan, allowing us to see what life was like for Yasukichi during his lifetime.
Ruruka Minami and Pearl Yasuko Minami looking at old photographs. Photo by Mayu Kanamori
Whilst looking through these old photographs we came across a family photograph taken in Tanami. It is the only photo I have seen of Yasukichi and his mother Yasu in Japan along with Theresa and 5 five of his 9 children. I am told that this photo was taken in Tanami when Yasukichi returned to his place of birth. I know from his immigration records that this was 1925.
Yasukichi Murakami and family in Tanami, Wakayama Prefecture. 1925.
Left to right: Yasu Murakami, Frances Yasunosuke Murakami, Theresa Shigeno Murakami, Bernadette Yoshiko Murakami (baby), Pearl Yasuko Murakami, Kathleen Masuko Murakami (standing), Richard Jukichi Murakami and Yasuichi Murakami. Photo by Yasukichi Murakami. Courtesy, Murakami Family Archives
Yasukichi’s father Jubei Murakami was a successful man. Unlike other men from Tanami, Yasukichi did not need to leave home to find work. I imagine Yasukichi left home full of youthful energy, looking forward to his adventures ahead. I too remember when I first left Tokyo to come to Australia in 1981. I too did not need to come to Australia.
His family home was on what would have been the best part of the village, along the main road in the centre of town. There is still a stone fence facing the sea today, which had belonged to the Murakami family. This block is now sub divided into three lots with houses on each end and a vacant block in the middle. This vacant block is now owned by Yasuko Pearl.
When Yasukichi returned to Japan in 1925, he found that the Murakami family had fallen on hard times and their property had been sold to others. With money he had earned in Australia, Yasukichi bought back part it and housed his mother there. This is the vacant block owned by Yasuko Pearl today.
Hearing this story made me a little teary. It was not so much that I was moved by the actions of a faithful son, but that of the diasporic condition.
It is recorded in Yasukichi’s unsuccessful Australian application for naturalization in 1939 that he had returned to Japan for “holidays” in 1925. It is our diasporic condition that touches my heart. Whilst others enjoy their holidays in exotic and fun-filled destinations, when people like Yasukichi, myself and so many of us who have crossed the seas go on our holiday, we mostly go back to where our loved ones live, and we do what we will to reconnect and rekindle that love. And then we move back to another life with other loved ones.
The day I left Tanami, Ruruka decided to perform for her grandfather Yasukichi Murakami on this vacant block of land that she would most probably inherit one day. I videoed her performance to take back to Australia and to play it back by Yasukichi’s grave in Cowra.
Ruruka Minami performing in sign on the stone wall by her family block. Still image from video by Mayu Kanamori
– Posted by Mayu Kanamori
* For Ruruka Minami’s Shuwa Nikki (Sign Language Diary), click here.
* For more on the diasporic condition via a speech transcript for the Japanese on the Move, a project by Ingrid Piller and Kimie Takahashi, click here.