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Attitudes to the war
Midget Submarine

In June 2008, the Australian Government proclaimed the Battle for Australia Day on the first Wednesday of September each year. According to Alan Griffin MP, Minister for Veterans’ Affairs, the day is “to commemorate the services and sacrifice of all those who served in defence of Australia in 1942 and 1943 when we faced in the gravest threats in our nation”. [1]
Although the minister did not mention specifically, this threat was coming from Japan. In 1942, for the first time in its history, Australia experienced direct attacks on its soil. On 19 February of that year, in Darwin, the first two Japanese air raids were launched against (there would eventually be 64, in total). Subsequently, other towns in northern Australia, such as Broome and Townsville, were also bombed.

Even though the bombing of Darwin caused large-scale damage, the Japanese midget submarine attack in Sydney was probably more shocking for most of Australians at the time. On the night of 31 May 1942, three Japanese midget submarines penetrated deep into Sydney Harbour without being detected. One of them fired its torpedoes against military targets at Garden Island naval base. When the chaotic night was over, 21 Australian and British naval ratings and six Japanese submariners were dead. Two submarines were sunk, and one went missing. The photographs of the midget submarines which were salvaged from the bottom of the Harbour became striking symbols of the threat Japan had posed to Australia and have been used repeatedly to illustrate book covers and newspapers on this topic. These photographs serve to revive the memories of the attack for the Australian people. The iconic display of the midget submarine at the Australian War Memorial since 1943 also reminded thousands of visitors about this part of Australian history.

The Japanese raid on Sydney Harbour has been the subject of numerous books and articles. Of these, David Jenkins’ Battle surface (1992), has long been regarded as the most authoritative. The most recent publication on this topic is A very rude awakening (2007) by Peter Grose; it appeared after the discovery of the last midget submarine in 2006, which had been missing since 1942. An extensive reading list on the attack is available on the Australian War Memorial website : ( There, readers can find not only the booklist, but are able to read the relevant section in the Australian official history, written by Hermon Gill. The link to the National Archives of Australia factsheet on the midget submarine attack is available there as well.

The purpose of this website is not to revisit the incidents related to the midget submarine attack itself. Rather, through the series of essays and photographs, we are going to examine what actually happened in the aftermath of the attack. The Australian authorities salvaged the wreckage of two vessels from the harbour and the bodies of four Japanese crewmen were retrieved from them. Had this attack happened in a remote area of Australia, the wrecked submarines would probably have been left on the beach and the bodies would have been quietly buried in a nearby cemetery. However, as the attack was carried out in the middle of the largest Australian city, the media attention was intense. The authorities had to deal not just with this unprecedented incident but also with the question of what to do with the remains of the enemy combatants.

A composite midget submarine was constructed from the wreckage of two vessels, and it went on a fund-raising tour, travelling more than 4,000 kilometres throughout the south-eastern Australia. It eventually reached the Australian War Memorial in Canberra in April 1943, where it went on permanent display; ever since it has been regarded as one of the Memorial’s iconic displays. But over the last 65 years, the way it has been displayed has changed considerably; this shift in display style will be discussed in one of the essays.

Back in 1942, soon after the attack, the bodies of four submarines, which were retrieved from the two sunken vessels, were cremated after a military funeral in Sydney and their ashes were later repatriated to Japan on the exchange boat which transported Japanese diplomats and civilians back to Japan from Australia. The arrival of the ashes in Yokohama in October 1942 stirred high emotion in Japan. The web essays cover these events extensively as the funeral was an exceptional occurrence during the war. The courteous gesture by the Australian authorities to hold the funeral and repatriate the Japanese sailors’ remains was well publicised, doubtless for propaganda purposes, by both Australian and Japanese authorities. After receiving a hero’s welcome in Japan, the submariners were elevated to legendary status, with numerous articles being written not only about their military careers and campaign experiences, but also on their childhood and family background. A large-scale feature film was released in 1944 in Japan. In it, a torpedo attack on an Australian warship moored near the Harbour Bridge was simulated to show how successful the outcome of the raid had been. Even though the submariners were revered as heroic military gods during the war, most of these legends were forgotten quickly after Japanese defeat in 1945.

However, memories of the midget submarine crew did not disappear completely. Interestingly, MATSUO Keiu, who had come from Yamaga in the Kumamoto prefecture, is still remembered in the local community and by those living in the surrounding area. This was not just because of MATSUO’s heroic deed during the war, but more because of his mother’s visit to Australia in 1968. At the age of 82, she had travelled to the Australian War Memorial in Canberra to receive her son’s personal relic and to see the composite midget submarine. She enjoyed an exceptionally warm reception, and the Japanese public was pleasantly surprised to see how she had been received, given that some level of hostility towards former enemies had been anticipated. The story of the submariners acquired another dimension when this aging mother’s visit left strong impression in Australia.

The story of the midget submarine attack and its aftermath are told and retold many times by various people. During his visit to Australia in May 2002, KOIZUMI Junichiro, then Prime Minister of Japan, referred to it and expressed his appreciation of the courteous Australian treatment of the crew’s remains. In his speech at the Parliament House (included on this website), the attack was narrated not as an incident between the two warring nations, but rather in the context of a process of reconciliation between two nations.

Yet, on various occasions over the years, some aspects of the attack and its aftermath became confused, with fact and fiction becoming mixed together as the story was told and retold. For example, in the Japanese language website hosted by the Australian Embassy in Tokyo “Sketches from the Australia Japan relationship”, we can find the following description about the Sydney attack in Sydney.

“CHUMAN’s vessel was caught in the anti-submarine net at the entrance of the harbour and self-destructed when it could not release itself. MATSUO’s vessel could not launch the torpedos due to a failure in the discharge mechanism, and it re-surfaced above the sea level. Lieutenant MATSUO revealed himself out of the open hatch under the search light and Petty Officer First Class TSUZUKU who was in the vessel eventually killed themselves.” [2] (original text in Japanese, translated by K. Tamura)

MISHIMA Yukio, a well known Japanese novelist, describes a scene of Sydney attack in detail as follows: “It was said that, under the bright moon light, a midget submarine resurfaced when it was under attack. The hatch opened and an officer appeared with his Japanese sword. He received the gun shots while holding up his sword and died.” [3] (original text in Japanese, translated by K. Tamura)

Although the scene both the Australian Embassy and MISHIMA had described might be visually impressive for a movie scene, in reality, it did not happen. The following essays in this website attempt to delineate the historical facts from fiction. Similarly, the essays and translations will examine the Australian and Japanese reactions to the midget submarine attack and subsequent events during and after the Pacific War.

1. Media release from Alan Griffin’s office, dated 26 June 2008.


3. MISHIMA Yukio, Kodogaku nyumon, Tokyo: Bungei shunju, 1974, p. 50.

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Midget Submarine links
Midget Submarine
Body identification
Navy funeral
Funeral broadcast
War heroes
Mother's visit
Relic list

Attitudes links
Australian Attitudes
Tamura diary
Southern Cross
Midget Submarine

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Click images to enlarge. Prime Minister Koizumi inspects the Japanese Midget Submarine in Anzac Hall of the Australian War Memorial during his visit to Canberra on 1 May 2002.
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Visitors inspect the Midget Submarine from the mezzanine and ground floors in Anzac Hall.
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