Can anyone think of a historical issue from 60 years ago that an Australian politician could ruin his or her career by expressing an unorthodox opinion about?

Of course you can’t; the very idea is absurd.

Imagine, for example, that a senior minister expressed the view that when the Japanese bombed Darwin in 1942 they were not doing anything outrageous, just defending their national interest as they saw it. A few papers might run the story, and it might get some comments on talkback radio — as did Paul Keating’s remarks some years back on the fall of Singapore — but it would quickly blow over.

In Japan, however, history is taken much more seriously. Defence minister Fumio Kyuma has been forced to resign amid spiralling controversy over his comments on the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

Last Saturday, Kyuma apparently told a public meeting: “I don’t hold a grudge against the US. I understand the bombings brought the war to its end. I think it was something that couldn’t be helped.”

Julie Bishop and others may draw from this the moral that Australians don’t take our history seriously enough, and so we need to increase the amount of time children spend studying it — presumably at the expense either of learning about other countries, or of such minor skills as reading, writing and thinking.

But it seems to me the real lesson is that compared to many other countries, Australia’s history just isn’t so very important or interesting.

Japan has real, critical historical issues to face; the reluctance of its political leadership to face their country’s wartime responsibility continues to harm relations with its neighbours. That reluctance in turn is partly driven by what Japan suffered: the atomic bombings — Hiroshima arguably, Nagasaki certainly — were a war crime, and for a defence minister to suggest otherwise was monumentally stupid. But the most we have to argue about is the hanging of Ned Kelly or the dismissal of Gough Whitlam.

“Happy the people”, said Carlyle, “whose annals are blank in history-books!” No-one wants Australian history to be a blank page, but we should keep in mind that a lack of historical excitement is not always a bad thing.

Peter Fray

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