Cultural Sisterhood and Soft Power: The Japanese Collection at the Roc
Curator, Rockhampton Museum of Art
Japan excels in soft diplomacy, from long-standing international cultural initiatives to more grassroots outreach, such as its sister cities program. The sister city partnerships between Japan and Australia now number over 100, with many of the Australian cities located along the Queensland coast. Rockhampton is the sister city of Ibusuki, a small hot spring town at the semi-tropical southern end of Kyushu. This sisterhood played a pivotal role in what has become one of the largest public collections of Japanese art in Australia held outside a capital city.
Sister cities are intended to be apolitical—a goodwill gesture to encourage mutual understanding and a generally positive climate for trade and cultural exchange. Nevertheless, the soft diplomacy carried out by these locally driven relationships has often proven meaningful during strained moments of history, including a hostile incident at Rockhampton’s close neighbour of Yeppoon.
In 1980, a bombing incident in Yeppoon targeted a Japanese-funded resort development that had fallen out of favour with locals. The hostilities were triggered by the state government’s opaque motives for granting the land tenure to a foreign company, Iwasaki Sangyo (Corporation), and was compounded by the race-based antagonism of many resident World War II veterans—including the accused perpetrator.1 The bomb was planted deep into the foundations of a nearly completed building at the construction site. On the same day as the bombing, an anonymous threat to the state police department in Brisbane was also directed toward the Iwasaki Corporation.2 No one was ever found guilty for either act.
The Iwasaki Corporation persisted with its construction of the mega resort, which became a high-profile tourist attraction for the Capricorn Coast in the 1990s. While this era certainly marked its peak of relevance to Rockhampton, the Corporation’s connections to the region date earlier. In the 1980s, company founder Yohachiro Iwasaki, whose hometown is Ibusuki, donated artworks to Rockhampton Regional Council as part of the sister city program.3
Many of the Ibusuki gifts of the ʼ80s became regularly displayed and well-loved items of the then Rockhampton Art Gallery collection, as described by former Director Sue Smith.4 With the financial backing of Council and Smith’s passion for Japanese art, the 2000s saw a particularly astounding level of investment in acquiring historical Japanese objects for the collection, including woodblock prints, kimonos, sword guards (tsuba), hanging scrolls, sculpture, standing screens and armour.
The works collected are of specific historical periods, and their new home—in an Australian art collection—is far away from their original contexts. Their presence has inevitably served modern functions in contemporary Australia–Japan diplomacy, something unlikely to have been anticipated by their original makers and commissioners.
Take, for example, the impressive samurai armour dating from 1700 that came into the gallery in 2009. By 1700, Japan had been without warfare for around a century. To the samurai classes of the Edo period, their armour was mostly symbolic of their warrior ancestry. During this time, Japan resisted the growing colonising reach of European powers who dominated trade routes across Asia. However, by the nineteenth century, the samurai-led shogunate had become militarily weak and in 1868, Japan was forced to sign treaties that would allow Europe and the US to trade against its own interest.
The Meiji era, which began at this point, was thereafter characterised by major military, social and cultural reforms. The following Taisho period and pre-war Showa period until 1945 were both politically and culturally significant, involving a reckoning with European and American influences. While non-Japanese clothing and fashions were now found within urban upper classes, the kimono was also adapting to more modern trends. The Rockhampton Museum of Art (RMOA) holds several examples of the bold designs and bright colours popular in early twentieth century Japan. The collection’s arrow feather and crane motif kimono were created in the 1930s from silk, a booming industry of the era powered by the labour of rural working-class Japanese women and worn by its growing middle class of modern women.
In this peak age of kimono design and execution, Japan was transforming from colonised to coloniser, as its government’s imperial ambitions and military aggression expanded. The samurai legacy was appropriated for wartime, and samurai iconography—including the armour, the bushido honour code, and the katana-style longsword—also became part of a modern soldier’s narrative. In this context, Rockhampton first displayed its newly acquired samurai armour alongside three decorative Meiji-era sword guards, as well as the surrendered swords of Japanese soldiers from World War II held by Rockhampton’s Royal Queensland Regiment.
As such, Japan was at its peak of aesthetic innovation while becoming increasingly militaristic. Australia’s perception of Japan in aesthetic and political terms has been similarly at disparate ends throughout the past century. Over the decades, Japan’s image in this part of the world has ranged from an exotic Asian land of geisha and samurai in pre-war times to a direct military aggressor in the early twentieth century, and then a dominant economic force in the 1980s. Today, its most immediate connotations are with a high-tech land of cute kitties and anime, again reflected in the RMOA’s brief period of collecting Japanese manga titles.
Through the many Japanese objects in the RMOA collection, viewers can gaze at Japan’s more pleasing cultural aspects, displayed far away from any political tensions. In a 2007 press release for a major exhibition of this collection, From Samurai to Manga, Rockhampton mayor Cr Margaret Strelow said, “It would be a wonderful thing if...we could see the world through different eyes, to foster a closer friendship between Japan and Australia,”5 just as the Japanese collection does through a thoroughly aesthetic experience.
1 Erin Semmler and Paul Culliver, “Forty Years after Yeppoon Bombing That Stunned the Nation, Capricorn Resort's Future Still Shaky,” ABC Capricornia, 29 November 2020,
2 “Saboteurs Blamed for Yeppoon-Project Bombing,” The Canberra Times, 30 November 1980, 1, https://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/126161283.
3 To this day, the Iwasaki family maintain a foundation that supports several Rockhampton charities.
4 Sue Smith, “The Rockhampton Art Gallery,” unpublished document, c. 2007, held in Rockhampton Museum of Art archive.
5 Rockhampton City Council, “See the World Through Different Eyes at Japanese Eye: Colour and Pattern in Japanese Art and Design,” press release, 22 February 2007.