Movie: Shirase and the Japanese Antarctic Expedition in Sydney

Research into some old photographs has uncovered details of the Sydney connection with Japanese explorer Nobu Shirase and his South Polar expeditions.

© Australian Museum
Susan Myatt, Archives and Records Unit


Research into some old photographs has uncovered details of the Sydney connection with Japanese explorer Nobu Shirase and his South Polar expeditions.

The photographer was Seizo Miisho, doctor on board the Shirase expedition schooner Kainan Maru, which by March 1911 had made it to Antarctica.

However, extreme weather forced the explorers to turn back and head for Sydney, where they planned to wait out the winter months before a second attempt in the race for the South Pole.

They dropped anchor in Double Bay on the 1st of May 1911 and Shirase and his team were given permission to make camp in Parsley Bay Reserve, Vaucluse.

At a time in world politics when imperial powers were jostling for influence, some contemporary newspaper reports were suspicious of the Japanese camping near the South Head fort.

But the local residents and their children by and large befriended the visitors, and supported them during their six month stay.

Seizo Miisho’s Sydney photographs document these friendships.

In the scrub on the western side of the Parsley Bay reserve the explorers were able to erect their prefabricated timber hut and three tents for equipment, food and bathing.

Dr George Read, a local resident and public hygiene expert, directed the Japanese to build a drainage trench around their camp to divert the natural watercourse, and this is his family. He was a supporting voice for the visitors at local council meetings.

Miisho photographed local school children and expedition members on the Parsley Bay suspension bridge, the easiest route to the Watsons Bay ferry.

At the time there were less than twenty houses in the area, and some people lived only 200 metres from the camp.

Robert Hilliar, a young boy at the time, gave an account of the visit in his old age. He talked of practically living at the camp with his dog Derby, and being spoilt with Japanese biscuits and sweets.

Adam Forsyth was a surveyor for the Lands Department and a local alderman. He was initially concerned about the camp, but was soon won over, and on the eve of their second voyage his son William wrote an article praising the explorers in the Sydney Evening News.

Charles Grice lived with his family at “St Neots”, and as president of the Vaucluse Debating Society he invited expedition scientist Professor Takeda to speak on Antarctica and Science. Sydney Japanese resident Mr Okimoka was on hand to translate.

By 1911 Parsley Bay was an established weekend picnic spot and Shirase and his crew recalled being distracted at times by too many callers.

They did however entertain the locals with martial arts displays, and to celebrate the coronation of King George they hosted a party and decorated the camp with British and Japanese flags.

Perhaps one visitor was actress Dot Miller, whose autograph book contains signatures and paintings by members of the expedition.

Her descendant loaned this exquisite book to the museum for copying, but the only known connection with the expedition is a friend William Borthwick, who went on board the Kainan Maru to farewell the Japanese in November 1911.

Other friends on board were two Antarctic heroes Professor Edgeworth David and Douglas Mawson, photographed here with Nobu Shirase. It was on this occasion that Shirase presented Professor David with the samurai sword as a symbol of gratitude for his support of the expedition.

The Shirase Sword is now in the care of the Australian Museum, and our link with this fascinating story.

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