Japanese Status in German New Guinea

From Nanshin: Japanese settlers in Papua and New Guinea, 1890–1949, by Hiromitsu Iwamoto (Journal of Pacific History, 1999), pp. 47-49:

The main characteristics of German attitudes towards Japanese were leniency regarding legal status and caution in granting land grants. The Germans granted the Japanese European status around 1905. Until then they had no legal status. Granting European status was not confined to the Germans, as the Dutch granted the same status in the East Indies in 1899. Threlfall argues that Komine‘s usefulness to the administration as well as the effect of the emergence of Japan in international politics after its victory in the Russo-Japanese War facilitated the granting of European status.

Indeed the administration recognised Komine’s usefulness when Albert Hahl, the Vice-Governor and Governor from 1896 to 1914, met him. According to Hahl’s diary, in 1902 Komine reached Herbertshöhe from Torres Strait; around this time Hahl had been facing a serious shortage of government vessels to perform administrative tasks. The appearance of Komine solved this problem:

A chance incident helped to solve my dilemma. One fine morning there was a small schooner flying the Japanese flag to be seen riding at anchor in the Herbertshöhe Harbour. The skipper, Isokide [sic] Komine, told me that his water and provisions had run out on his voyage from Torres Strait, where he had been engaged in pearl-fishing. He had no money to purchase supplies and asked me to employ him. I inspected his little ship, found it suitable for my purpose, and chartered the vessel.

Hahl used Komine’s schooner for later trips around the Bismarck Archipelago.

However, Komine gave a different account of the encounter. His story appears in his petition for financial assistance to the Consul-General in Sydney in 1916. According to Komine, he reached Rabaul in October 1901 and accidentally met Governor Hahl who had been under siege by ‘little barbarians’:

Nearly at the end of my exploration I anchored at Rabaul in October 1901. At that time the place was German territory and the natives were strongly resisting German rule. The punitive expeditions were suffering failures. When I arrived there, Govern Hahl and his staff had narrowly escaped the tight siege of the little barbarians and they were holding this small place. Their vessels, which were their only resort, were wrecked on the reef. They tried all measures unsuccessfully and were just waiting to be slaughtered. However, when they found my accidental arrival, they were overjoyed as if my arrival was God’s will and begged me for the charter of my ship. My righteous heart was heating up, seeing their hopeless situation, and I willingly agreed to their request. At the same time I joined their punitive forces. Sharing uncountable hardships with them and applying various tactics all successfully, we finally conquered and pacified the little barbarians.

Apparently Komine dramatised the encounter to his advantage. German records indicate no such incident either at Herbertoshöhe or at Rabaul. Nonetheless Komine’s description verifies two facts: the administration was suffering from a lack of seaworthy vessels; and he accompanied Hahl on his trips to other places. There were mutual benefits: Hahl needed a vessel and Komine needed provisions for his voyage. This circumstance contributed to the development of the two men’s relationship and later led to the emergence of the Japanese community in German New Guinea.

The men’s characters may also have contributed to some extent. Komine’s determined and adventurous nature which had been demonstrated on his arrival may have appealed to Hahl who was, Sack argues, ‘by no means free of the racial prejudices of his time, but … liked people, even if they were black or brown or yellow’. Similarly, Firth claims that Hahl ‘had broader and more humane objectives, though still primarily economic ones … unlike many German governors in Africa’.

The European status given to the Japanese, however, shows German subtlety Hahl pursued strict policies to maintain a racial hierarchy with whites always at the top. He never allowed his personal friendship to undermine this hierarchy. When court cases involving Japanese arose, they were not heard in the European courts but in a separate court constituted only for the Japanese. Similarly, the Germans were cautious about giving commercial advantage. The administration did not grant the right to purchase freehold to the Japanese. Indeed, the administration introduced a discriminatory law to restrict non-indigenous coloured people acquiring land: ‘land could not be purchased from the government by natives or by persons who had not equal rights with Europeans; and land could neither be bought nor leased by persons unable to read and write a European language’. In addition, the Germans limited the land rights of the Japanese, and of the Chinese, to leases only for a term not exceeding 30 years.

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Filed under economics, Germany, Japan, language, migration, nationalism, Papua New Guinea

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