As COVID-19 wreaks havoc on our usual way of life, the language of war proliferates. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has called it the “the battle that all Australians are enlisted in as we fight this virus”. French President Emmanuel Macron has declared: “We are at war”; and US President Donald Trump is calling himself the “wartime president”.

For Asian Australians, and temporary Asian migrants, this fervour has brought increased racist attacks against them. This kind of xenophobia is common in wartime, and for Japanese Australians it was most pronounced during and after the second world war.

In considering the significance of the upcoming Anzac Day, we look back at the experiences of two of the estimated two dozen Japanese Australians (or Nikkei) who enlisted. Reflecting on their treatment during wartime, we ask what their stories reveal about the pressures on Asian Australians now.

Under the radar

Japanese people started migrating to Australia in the mid-19th century – before the White Australia Policy (established in 1901 as the Immigration Restriction Act). Some of the earliest Japanese migrants were circus performers, pearl divers, and sex workers. Japanese communities were established in cities including Broome and Darwin where the pearling industry was strong.