‘Mr Tsuda died.’

A day later: ‘Cloudy with some showers. At half past three in the afternoon we observed a minute of silence for the spirit of Mr Tsuda.’

‘Mr Inokichi Suzuki died. Recently the cosmos has been in full bloom, and we had a good crop of snow peas. The spring onions are growing quickly.’

The next day: ‘We observed a minute of silence for the spirit of Mr Suzuki. The tents in the second and third rows were inspected.’

These are typical entries in the diary of Mr Miyakatsu Koike, recording his internment by Allied forces following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on 7 December 1942. Before the attack, Koike was an employee of the Yokohama Specie Bank in Surabaya. There, with his wife Fumiko, he lived a ‘full life’ in that ‘land of perpetual summer’, playing tennis and golf, taking photos and travelling. When the attack came, and soldiers from the Dutch East Indies army began rounding up Japanese nationals, Koike was more resolute than surprised. His instinct, he writes, ‘told me that this day would come, and I was prepared for it.’ In fact, Koike had stayed in Surabaya despite the sense that conflict was approaching, ‘in the hope that I could do something for the Japanese empire, even though my ability was limited.’ The consequence of this resolution was, for Koike, an unhappy one. Separated from his pregnant wife, who had already returned to Japan, Koike was interned for the next four years, first in Sumowono Detention Camp in Java, and then in Loveday Internment Camp in South Australia.

An unhappy consequence, but not a horrific one. The horrors of the Second World War were happening elsewhere, far from Loveday, a rural town not quite on the Murray River. As Koike himself writes towards the end of his diary, ‘although we were forced to live in the camp without freedom, it was fortunate that we were able to spend our time peacefully.’ So there are no atrocities recounted in Four Years in a Red Coat, nor are there great revelations or epiphanies – only dreariness, waiting, unfreedom. Deaths, such as those of Mr Tsuda and Mr Suzuki, punctuate the text, surrounded by mundane details about tent inspections and snow peas. The deaths themselves are bare, unadorned by details of the deceased, or the manner of death, or the author’s response to them, other than the obligatory minute of silence. Even the solace that Koike offers these dead, who died so far from home, seems meagre, diminished: ‘our motherland,’ he writes in offering to these spectres, ‘recovered quickly from defeat and became the second strongest economic power in the world. Please watch over the progress of our motherland and rest in peace.’

But is horror, abjection – human suffering in extremis – the yardstick for a camp memoir? Perhaps, if the aim is to shock, to provoke empathy. Or is it better to say, if the aim is to be shocked, to empathise? Alternatively, is it revelation and wisdom one seeks? Am I supposed to learn something about how to live from a book like this? There are two separate mysteries at work here: why write an internment camp diary (why write anything at all)? And why read one (or anything)?

The first mystery concerns Koike, a 37-year-old bank employee. Why did he keep a diary of his internment, when most others did not? Especially when it was far from clear that the authorities would allow him to do so (at one point, Koike smuggles his notes from Sumowono to Loveday in his socks). Here, the text suggests that it was not to garner sympathy. At every turn, the diary spurns the empathetic gaze. Separated from his family, half a world away from his home, he writes: ‘I sent a letter to mainland Japan.’ The letter’s contents remain opaque. So too do Koike’s feelings about his family, including the son he has not yet met. Some of this opacity might be a matter of craft – or the limitations of language. Of the boat journey from Sumowono to Loveday, when the internees lacked for almost every essential – water, decent food, warmth – Koike writes that ‘our situation was such that I could not fully describe the hardship experienced by everyone.’ Sometimes, he resorts to cliché: ‘we were living through hell.’

At other times, the opacity of the text seems deliberate, where opacity produces an objective historical record – a sturdy, legible surface on which are written just the facts. In this vein he meticulously records details of camp regulations and routine, the number of occupants and the position of tents, the minutes of an official meeting with a Red Cross observer. Doubtless there is much in these details to interest anyone with a personal or professional interest in the internment of civilians in South East Asia and Australia during the Second World War.

There is another reason I can imagine Koike kept this diary. At the very beginning of his internment, he resolves to use this ‘group situation…to train myself’. The diary is, in part, a training to live with others, especially those from other cultures. It is a deeply ambivalent tradition into which Koike trains himself. ‘We could not hope to satisfy individual desires’, writes Koike of camp life. Instead, there could only be communal survival – for better or for worse. There are touching details about camp solidarity, such as the ceremony Koike and his seven tentmates hold to name their makeshift home, ‘eight best people’s house’. But there is also something of the Japanese chauvinist here: ‘we, the Japanese nation’, writes Koike of the interracial dynamic at the Loveday camp, ‘as leaders of the East Asian countries, were destined to embrace and guide many other nations whose manners and customs were different to ours’. Internees of Chinese and Taiwanese background, he implies, are untutored in the ways of self-sacrifice, too often putting themselves first. Elsewhere, his internalisation of the racial hierarchy underpinning Japanese imperialism is apparent as he reflects disparagingly on the disorganisation and inefficiency of his Indonesian captors, while praising the gentlemanly conduct of white Australian officials.

Yes, empires are imagined, felt things as much as they are steel, trade and gunboats: we see it when Koike and his fellow internees greet the news of the attack on Pearl Harbour with merriment; when one of the few rituals maintained throughout internment was worship of the Emperor; when Koike’s fellow internees sabotaged the growth of poppies at Loveday so as to prevent ‘the enemy’ from producing anaesthetics; when those same internees became kamiguchi, people who refused to believe that the war had ended with Japanese defeat. As Koike puts it, the news of unconditional surrender meant that ‘most people interned in the camp had been deprived of the foundation of their life, which they had worked unceasingly to build since Japan had declared war.’

At the same time, the frustration of individual desires – and the fracturing of hope – gives way to the beauty, and supreme indifference, of nature. It is here that the translation by Hiroko Cockerill shines, rendering Koike’s observations in plain, but evocative prose: ‘the beautiful shapes of Mt Sumbing and Mt Sundoro… illuminated by the morning sun, I felt as if I was looking at a fine scroll’; ‘marvelling at the surface of the sea, beautifully lit by the moon’; ‘a big moon, just like a painting, appeared on the horizon, and consoled us all.’ These moments of reflection leaven the otherwise flat record of internment, a flatness that is no longer a limitation of craft or language but the flatness of bare survival, of getting through the days without descending into self-pity. These minor notes of beauty are the flaw in the carpet, revealing the human behind the work – the consciousness recording the bare facts is not mechanical, then, but a suffering soul resolutely refusing indulgence of any kind. But suffer he does, and to record is to persevere. If there is any doubt that recording the bare facts is its own kind of heroic perseverance, just think how few do, when in Koike’s position. And think as well of the silences that creep into his diary, when, as he puts it, the entries are suspended. In some instances, as when his hopes of repatriation are dashed – by a clerical error, as it turns out later – he does not write in his diary for weeks or even months. Not just unable to record camp life, I surmise, but unable to do so with the reserve that is his last bastion of dignity.

There is, for me at least, an Ishiguro-like melancholy to Koike’s dignified reserve. After all, while the diary might have been written in the camps as a kind of training or discipline, the work I now hold in my hands is something else – for when Koike finally did return to Japan in 1946, he did not immediately publish his memos, as he calls them. Instead, he continued to work for the Yokohama Specie Bank until his retirement in 1959, playing his part, as the editors of Four Years in a Red Coat put it in their introduction, in Japan’s economic recovery. Only at the age of 82, and after more than three decades of leaving the memos in some half-forgotten drawer, does Koike finally return to the diary. Why return to it after so long? And why retain in the text so many absences and silences – why remain so reserved? Do I only imagine the hint of regret, not so much about life choices but about the lifeworld one was born into, the history one finds oneself on the wrong side of? Again, Cockerill’s translation shines most when Koike strains against his own reserve, as if straining to finally give in to indulgence, to self-pity – or, to put it differently, to finally allow himself to feel what any person might feel – as when Koike returns to his homeland, and the very first thing he does is attend a dinner party organised by the Yokohama Specie Bank for its interned employees. There, he sees his brother and wife for the first time since their separation. It is an enjoyable dinner, animated by lively conversation about everyone’s war experiences. Then, after the dinner, with his brother and wife,

we departed from there by night train. We boarded the train at midnight. Unfortunately, we could not find any empty seats, and stood talking for a while. Then I heard from my wife that my father had died while I was interned … I also heard that my first son, who was due to be born in March 1942, had died a week after birth … I was, indeed, an unfilial son, who had returned home not knowing of my own father’s death. The train was heading due west in the darkness. On the way, I was pleased to see Mt Fuji, as beautiful as ever, greeting me, a poor repatriated person.

There remains the second mystery: why read a camp memoir? This mystery concerns another thirty-something Asian man, whose occupation, if it may be called that, is to read and produce accounts of camp life. Beginning with my grandfather, a political prisoner for a decade in communist Vietnam, I have spent my adult life reading stories from camps across time and around the world. Latterly, I have solicited and edited them too, about life in Australia’s immigration detention system. Why? That is the question that lingers over my reading, of Koike’s diary and other prison memoirs, and over my own salvos in the memory wars. To bear witness, to stave off forgetting – that is my pat answer. But what does it mean? What does such witnessing do for a past that cannot be changed, that, inevitably, will be forgotten anyway, or worse, remembered as a monument, a cause for more suffering?

To put it another way, what work does remembering do when the memories are not our own? I like this way of putting the question because it runs together reading and curating, and makes it clear that both are active, and therefore fraught with transformative potential. When I read Four Years in a Red Coat, I am curating my own archive, making associations that are variously personal, political, and instrumental. I read about Loveday and I think of Woomera, of my grandfather, of seasonal workers flown in from the Pacific to pick tomatoes that seem to me to be the same tomatoes Koike and his fellow interns pick during the war. Which of these associations is permissible, which grossly reductive? To what uses can we put past suffering? These are questions for the editors and publishers who curate camp memoirs, too – here, Peter Monteath and Yuriko Nagata, and Wakefield Press, respectively – whose curation is always also a reading, which is to say, an interpretation; if I make some associations and not others, is it not because Koike’s diary has been read (and packaged) already, and read so that the Australian connection is foregrounded before others?

Every day on my ride into my office, I pass the Park Hotel, where dozens of refugees were imprisoned after being transferred from offshore camps for medical treatment in Australia. For more than a year, this hotel overlooking a park where my children play on the sensory playground set among the Moreton Bay fig trees, became one of the camps I keep reading about. The proximity of what had once been so deliberately distanced made me think of lines from Coetzee’s The Life and Times of Michael K:

Now they have camps for children whose parents run away, camps for people who kick and foam at the mouth, camps for people with big heads and people with little heads, camps for people with no visible means of support, camps for people chased off the land, camps for people they find living in storm-water drains, camps for street girls, camps for people who can’t add two and two, camps for people who forget their papers at home, camps for people who live in the mountains and blow up bridges in the night. Perhaps the truth is that it is enough to be out of the camps, out of all the camps at the same time. Perhaps that is enough of an achievement, for the time being. How many people are there left who are neither locked up nor standing guard at the gate?

The camps are everywhere, now. And yet I freely use my Australian passport, whose power is based on a racial structure held up by camps such as the one at the Park Hotel; I live on land stolen from peoples herded into such camps. So, after all, is there a connection between the two mysteries? Do we write and read about the camps only to train ourselves into the knowledge – the faith – that we are not on the wrong side of history, or guards at the gate?