Ben Hills

As a child growing up in an Aboriginal community in the Kimberley, Lucy Dann always felt there was something different about her. “Moon face,” some of her school chums used to tease her. “You are not really one of us,” taunted an aunty. When she was in her twenties, Dann learned how true that was. The man she had always thought was her father made a deathbed confession: “I am not your real dad,” he whispered – a sentence that would launch Dann, now aged 40, on a decade-long quest for her identity. It finished earlier this year, 7,000 kilometres away in a tiny whaling village in Japan.

The story of the stolen generations and their search for their roots – their parents, their tribe, their traditions, the land from which they were separated – has been well documented. Dann’s story is different – it is the tale of an Aborigine seeking the secrets of her non-Aboriginal heritage. And succeeding.

Her journey ended on a hot May morning when she knelt at the bedside of a frail old man who had not seen her for nearly 40 years. As she hugged him, he acknowledged her as his daughter, slipping a gold signet ring from his hand and putting it on her finger.

But that is getting ahead of the story.

Broome, where Dann was born, has for more than a century been Australia’s most multicultural town. Mixed ancestry is the norm rather than the exception in this remote outpost of the tropical north of Western Australia – the flags of more than 60 countries are proudly carried in the annual Shinju Matsuri pearl festival procession, and exotic hybrids such as Irish/Malaysian/ Aboriginal barely raise an eyebrow.

Lured by the fishing, by the false promise of gold and by the pearling industry, men have long come here to seek their fortunes, leaving their families behind in Malaysia, across the Indonesian archipelago, in China and in the islands of the South Pacific.

Mostly, they have come from Japan – at one point between the wars, 2,000 Japanese lived and worked around Broome, far outnumbering the Europeans. For the 80 years that it boomed as a pearl-shell fishery – at one point, the town provided 80 per cent of the world’s mother-of-pearl – the stoic Japanese, waddling around the seabed in their lead-weighted, 200-kilogram diving suits, were acknowledged by all as the masters of the industry.

My partner, Mayu Kanamori, born in Tokyo but an Australian resident for nearly 20 years, first met Dann when we were visiting friends in Broome two years ago. She had become intrigued by the town’s “Japorigines” after photographing a beautiful young black girl with curly hair mincing along in the procession wearing a kimono and waving the Japanese flag.

Dann and Mayu became friends, bonding over a mutual interest in Japanese culture. When Mayu returned to Sydney, she sent Dann a historical novel called Harpoon, about a Japanese whaler who leaves his home to board a foreign whaling ship. After spending many years at sea, he concludes that he no longer belongs to any culture – he feels neither Japanese nor European.

In a letter to Mayu, Dann wrote of how strongly she identified with the whaler’s sense of dislocation. She wanted to go to Japan, which she thought of as a second home. As their friendship grew, she gradually told Mayu why.

Dann’s mother, a woman in her seventies who uses the name Biddy Boxer, is from the Bardi- speaking people who lived traditionally at Cape Leveque, about 200 kilometres north of Broome, until they were taken 20 kilometres south by missionaries to a mission at Lombadina. The man she knew as her father was Joseph Williams, who “won” Boxer from her previous husband in a boomerang fight. Dann was brought up in the Aboriginal way at Broome, then at Derby, where the family was forced to relocate to a dusty lazarette after her older sister contracted leprosy.

Dann had heard snide remarks from her extended family, but it was not until Williams lay dying that he told her he was not her biological father – though he had cared for her as though he were. Biddy confirmed it – her “real” father was a Japanese with whom Biddy had had an affair in the 1950s. He had come to Broome to build pearl-luggers, but had returned to Japan when Lucy was a baby and had not been heard from since. His name: Tamotsu Tsutsui.

This news left Dann feeling angry and confused. Why had her father abandoned her and her mother? Didn’t he love them? Had it just been a one-night stand? She had to find out, but how? The only clue she had to his whereabouts was that Tsutsui came from the town of Taiji in Wakayama Prefecture, on the Pacific coast of Japan’s main island of Honshu.

In the mid-1980s, with the help of a Japanese scholar who was visiting the Kimberley to study Aboriginal languages, Dann exchanged letters with her father. But she lost the correspondence, and the address, and had given up hope of ever seeing him. Could Mayu help her, she asked?

From Mayu’s side, the prospect of bringing father and daughter together was intriguing, both from a documentary perspective and an emotional one. Dann was serious about going to Japan; she had saved money for the trip, but was tentative about approaching someone in a foreign country, and nervous about the prospect of rejection. The two women made an agreement; Mayu would accompany Dann on the trip and help her make contact, and in return she would document the meeting with photos.

Taiji is a famous place in Japan. A traditional whaling village for centuries, in 1879 a mother whale defending her calf smashed up the fleet of flimsy traditional canoes, killing most of the town’s skilled hunters – a calamity fictionalised in Harpoon, the book Mayu had given to Dann. To save the town from bankruptcy, the survivors turned to dekasegi (literally “going-out income”), shipping the menfolk overseas to places such as Manchuria, Canada, Mexico and Australia, which was advertising, in those pre-White Australia policy days, for men to work its farms, mines and pearling industry.

Even among the Japanese of Broome, the men of Taiji commanded respect for their courage – they would dive to depths of 80 metres, the very limit of human endurance. Broome’s Buddhist cemetery is the last resting place of many of the young men who came on a mission to “save 1,000 yen” and succumbed, instead, to an agonising death from the bends.

The Tsutsui family, Mayu discovered, had kept up the pearl-diving tradition. She also learnt that Tamotsu and his father, Yuzo, had been interned, along with the rest of Broome’s Japanese population, after Pearl Harbour, and repatriated to Japan when the war was over. Tamotsu, according to records in Taiji, had returned in 1955 to work in the Broome shipyards.

The easy bit for Mayu was tracking Tamotsu Tsutsui down – when he returned to Taiji about a year after Lucy’s birth, he got involved in union affairs, started a construction company and was elected as a socialist to the local council. Persuading the old man, now 79, to meet the daughter he had not seen since she was a baby took longer. There was no reply to a letter. The telephone was answered by his wife, Shizuko, who said her husband was bedridden after a stroke and did not want to see anyone.

But Dann was not going to give up. She and Mayu flew to Japan – Dann discovered her birthdate only when she applied for her first passport – and took the train down from Tokyo to Taiji. There they located and sought a meeting with Tsukasa, the oldest of Tamotsu’s three sons. “Bikuri shitaya (I am astonished),” Tsukasa said when Lucy introduced herself as his half-sister. “Dad – wasn’t he a sinner!” He said his father had often talked about returning to Broome: “We knew there was some unfinished business, but we didn’t know what it was. Now we understand – it was you.”

Dann had been dreading the meeting, having heard that some Japanese were prejudiced against foreigners, and thinking she might be “too black” for them. But that first day, they welcomed her into the family, hugging and kissing her, taking her out to karaoke, drinking toasts, and introducing her to Taiji’s culinary treats – among them, boiled, stuffed whale’s intestine.

The following day, accompanied by one of her sisters-in-law, Dann set out to meet her father in his house, which lies between the mountains and the sea. Greeting his wife, they walked into the room, where Tamotsu lay in bed. Although old and ill, he knew immediately who she was. “Onja,” he whispered, using Lucy’s mother’s Aboriginal name. The tears flowed as they embraced. She showed him photographs of the rest of his extended family in Australia – Dann’s six children and two grandchildren. He gave her the ring and, perking up, declared: “I am going to live to the age of 100, so I am coming to Broome.”

Gradually, Tamotsu’s side of the story came out. How, after leaving his wife and three children in Taiji, he came to Australia to earn some money – and met “Onja” after spotting her fishing in the mangroves next to the barracks where the single Japanese men lived. He recalled their nights cooking up fish and vegetables or whatever he could scrounge, and drinking brandy with a raw egg stirred into it. How, when Lucy was born, he proudly carried the baby to the camp, showing her off to his workmates. How he said goodbye, trusting Joseph Williams: “Please look after my daughter.” His acceptance of his Australian family and his regret about leaving them helped give Dann some sense of peace.

Although she is proud of her Aboriginality, Dann plans to learn Japanese and stay in touch with her new family. “I am a different person,” she says now. “I know that if anyone looks at me in the street, or says anything, I can relax now because I know my father, and I know he loved me.”

The Heart of the Journey, a program about Lucy Dann’s search for her father, will be broadcast on Radio National’s Radio-Eye at 1 pm today. An audio/slide show of her odyssey will tour later this month (details on

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 12 August 2000
Edition: Late
Section: Good Weekend
Sub section:
Page: 46
Word count: 1823
Classification: Population Groups/Aborigines
Geographic area: Australia
Photography: MAYU KANAMORI, Courtesy Broome historical museum
Caption: Rising daughter:
Lucy Dann in Tokyo, en route to seeing her father, Tamotsu, in the small village of Taiji
Tamotsu upheld a long tradition of Japanese men coming to Broome to seek their fortune
In Broome he met Dann’s mother, Biddy, pictured with her daughter
A homecoming
Dann’s emotional meeting with her father, Tamotsu Tsutsui, in Taiji
Eating out with her brother, Tsukasa
Relaxing at her hotel in Taiji