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Attitudes to the war
Mrs MATSUO’s visit to Australia in 1968
[Watch a video of her visit to the Australian War Memorial on 1 May 1968]

Video details
Size: 36 Mb
Length: 2'23"
No sound
Source: AWM F10163

After J.J. McGrath, Director of the Australian War Memorial, visited Yamaga in 1965, there was a call among the local people to send Mrs MATSUO Matsue to Australia as a return visit. They wanted 82-year-old mother to go to Australia to see Sydney Harbour where her son, Keiu, died. Yet, the main purpose was to visit the Australian War Memorial, where the midget submarine and the seninbari (thousand stiches body belt) were displayed. The blood-stained seninbari had been worn by her son at the time of the attack. Public subscriptions to collect the necessary funds to send her to Australia were organised in Kumamoto in 1967 by Professor MATSUMOTO Tadakazu of Kumamoto University, who had visited Canberra previously and seen the belt. The subscription drive was so successful that enough money was collected to send her as well as her daughter, Fujie, to accompany the aging mother. MATSUMOTO would travel to act as a coordinator and interpreter. For Fujie, it was also going to be an emotional trip, as she was the one who worked on and presented the body belt to her younger brother.

The RAN coordinated their schedules in Australia. In October 1967, the Australian press reported on the mother’s wish for a visit, as well as on a previous failed attempt to repatriate the body belt. Some readers wrote to the newspapers and the Australian War Memorial to urge that the mother’s wish be realised. W.R. Lancaster, who succeeded McGrath as Director of the Memorial, consulted the Memorial Board of Trustees to re-evaluate the previous decision, and eventually decided to reverse it. MATSUO’s belt was to be repatriated to the family in Japan.

Mrs MATSUO touched down in Sydney on 28 April 1968, accompanied by her daughter and Professor MATSUMOTO. Her arrival became big news in Australia and the delegation attracted a high level of media attention throughout their stay in Australia. The image of the tiny elderly mother with a walking stick, who had travelled across the globe to pay homage to her son and other submariners, captured the people’s imagination and their hearts. It was surprising for many Japanese that the Australian reception was overwhelmingly warm and welcoming.

In Sydney, Mrs MATSUO was firstly taken to the spot in a small launch, where CHUMAN’s submarine detonated its explosives to scuttle the vessel. Both crew members had died in this explosion. She cast some flowers and poured sake into the sea. Then they sailed to Taylor’s Bay to visit the spot where MATSUO’s submarine had been sunk. Supported on both sides by two young Australian sailors, the mother stood at the rear deck of the launch and read out her poem, which expressing her yearning for her son. Then she cast a card with the poem to the sea and poured his favourite sake, brought from his home town, into the water. Later on the day, she visited the cenotaph at Martin Place in Sydney and laid a wreath to honour the Australian war dead.

On 1 May, the delegation flew to Canberra. Firstly, they went to Parliament House to pay courtesy calls to Prime Minster John Gorton and C.R. Kelly, Minister for the Navy. Gorton received Mrs Matsuo in his office and warmly embraced her to welcome her to Australia. The mother, only half the height of the Prime Minister, charmed the host with her friendly and natural smile.

From Parliament House, they moved to the Australian War Memorial to see the midget submarine, which was on outdoor display. There, with Lancaster as guide, Mrs MATSUO stroked the body of the vessel with her hand and read out her poem, which said that she felt as if her son’s voice was calling her from the wreck. Later, at the Director’s office, Lancaster presented her with the body belt, cased in a glassed frame. The mother held the case tightly in her hands, her body shaking, and put it on her cheek. Overwhelmed with emotion, she covered her face with a handkerchief and then held Lancaster’s hands to her cheeks to thank him. She reached up and hugged him; his arms went around her and he kissed her. Fujie was also filled with emotion and could not stop her tears.

They made another private visit to the midget submarine in early morning of the next day, to soak up the atmosphere quietly before departing for Melbourne, where they spent a few days in recreation and sightseeing. The delegation arrived back in Japan on 8 May.

The visit was reported in detail in Japan as well. The fact that an elderly mother had travelled all the way to Australia and been welcomed not only by the Australian public but also by the Prime Minister of Australia greatly impressed the Japanese people. Furthermore, the visit brought out the common emotion of the mothers of Australia and Japan, who mourned their sons’ deaths in battlefields far from home. The grief these women experienced was the same, whether they were in Japan or in Australia. Photographs of the 82-year-old woman, smiling brightly and dressed in a traditional kimono, clearly won the hearts of the Australian people.

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