In February 1946, the Australians of the British Commonwealth Occupation Force (BCOF) moved into western Japan to ‘demilitarise and democratise’ the atom-bombed backwater of Hiroshima Prefecture. For over six years, up to 20,000 Australian servicemen, including their wives and children, participated in an historic experiment in nation-rebuilding dominated by the United States and the occupation’s supreme commander, General MacArthur.
It was to be a watershed in Australian military history and international relations. BCOF was one of the last collective armed gestures of a moribund empire. The Chifley government wanted to make Australia’s independent presence felt in post-war Asia-Pacific affairs, yet the venture heralded the nation’s enmeshment in American geopolitics. This was the forerunner of the today’s peacekeeping missions and engagements in contentious US-led military occupations.
Yet the occupation of Japan was also a compelling human experience. It was a cultural reconnaissance — the first time a large number of Australians were able to explore in depth an Asian society and country. It was an unprecedented domestic encounter between peoples with apparently incompatible traditions and temperaments. Many relished exercising power over a despised former enemy, and basked in the ‘atomic sunshine’ of American Japan. But numerous Australians developed an intimacy with the old enemy, which put them at odds with the ‘Jap’ haters back home, and became the trailblazers of a new era of bilateral friendship.
Travels in Atomic Sunshine is a salutary study of the neocolonialism of foreign occupation, and of Australia’s characteristic ambivalence about the Asian region.
“Robin Gerster is a superb writer and in his hands the numerous anecdotes, incidents and details of the occupation gleaned from extensive combing of archives, newspapers, diaries and novels come to life. In lesser hands, the wealth of individual observations might weigh down the narrative, but one of the strengths of Atomic Sunshine is its concentration on personal encounters and perceptions.”
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“elegant and sardonic history…”
Sydney Morning Herald
“This troubling, significant book offers us a crucible of what Australians can be like in victory over a justly hated enemy.”
“…A well-written and highly readable account of an interesting episode in Australian history and a valuable addition to the growing literature on the history of Australia's relations with Asia.”
The International History Review
“Gerster, who draws on a rich supply of sources, tells an absorbing story of two nations in a state of change.”
The Sunday Age
“Gerster’s Travels in Atomic Sunshine is a scholarly, superbly documented study and a narrative written in a highly readable style. It incorporates provocative arguments and sophisticated insights without becoming “academic”. It is a book that is bound to become a classic social history of a major era of the Australian-Japanese postwar encounter.”
David Palmer, Transnational Literature
“In a rich meeting of history and literature, Gerster explores the big issues of race, culture, and national identity as victor and vanquished meet in the aftermath of a world war. The love, betrayal, greed, generosity, compassion, and casual brutality of individuals are his evidence and the strength of his narrative.”
“Robin Gerster's brilliant account of the little-known story of Australia's occupation force provides new, and often unsettling, insights into Australian responses to Japan and the Japanese at the end of the Second World War. Amid the atomic wasteland of Hiroshima, Australians and Japanese fraternized across the barriers of language, history, and different wartime experiences.
Gerster's evocative cultural history of Australian–Japanese relations is as hard-hitting as it is perceptive.”
“Gerster has a fascinating story to tell and he has done so in a lively and compelling narrative way that makes Travels in Atomic Sunshine accessible to readers well beyond the historical profession.”
judges' comments from the 2009 NSW Premier's History Awards
“This is a fascinating study of cross-cultural contact and the ways that World War 2 changed the attitudes of many Australians…Of particular note is Gerster’s nuanced and careful analysis of fiction and memoir, which allows a candour and intimacy not always accessible in other sources.”
judges' comments from the Prime Minister's Prize for Australian History