Why Japanese Migrated to New Guinea

From Nanshin: Japanese settlers in Papua and New Guinea, 1890–1949, by Hiromitsu Iwamoto (Journal of Pacific History, 1999), pp. 57-58:

Migration in this period reflected Japanese social history. Migrants kept on coming from the rural southwest where underdevelopment continued as industrialisation was entrenched in urban centres. Rural depression intensified, particularly after the Russo-Japanese War, when industrialisation gained momentum with the rapid growth of export-oriented industries such as silk and cotton. The major impact on rural areas was the loss of self-sufficiency as agricultural production was integrated into the development of export commodities. As a result, rural-urban inequality increased, accelerating the tempo of the emigration of the rural people to urban centres and overseas. The statistics verify this. In only 10 years from 1904 to 1914, the number of overseas emigrants increased nearly threefold-from 138,591 in 1904 to 358,711 in 1914. The same tendency was seen in migration to Papua and New Guinea. The number increased from a mere two in 1906 to 109 in 1914, and most came from Kyūshū; 33 from Kumamoto, 28 from Nagasaki, and eight from Saga.

Most migrants were dekasegi-sha (literally ‘people leaving to earn money’) on three-year contracts, the same type of people seen in urban factories. The largest occupational group was artisans: 41 shipwrights, 18 carpenters and 13 sawyers. Many of them were from Goryō and Oniike villages in Amakusa. These villages were famous for boatbuilding from the Edo era, but in about 1907 many shipwrights lost their jobs due to the recession in the shipping industry. Eleven fishermen were another significant group. They came from fishing villages such as Isahaya-chō (Kita-takaki-gun, Nagasaki prefecture) and Jōgashima (Misaki-chō, Miura-gun, Kanagawa prefecture). Fishing villages in this period were also suffering a decline in jobs due to the development of a modern capital-intensive fishery and the resulting decline of small fishermen. Unemployment thus constituted a ‘push’ factor for emigration. It is highly probable that, like the migration to Thursday Island, the high wages in New Guinea became a major ‘pull’ factor.

Moreover the German administration’s different treatment of the Japanese relative to other Asians possibly became a ‘pull’ factor. The granting of European status delighted the Japanese who had been rejected in Australia because they were Asians. The migrants probably felt that the Germans recognised their national identity as subjects of an emerging empire which, they may have thought, was distinctive from other Asian countries. Although in reality the migrants were the victims of empire-building which increased the poverty of rural Japan, the improvement of their status from poor rustics to ‘Europeans’ satisfied their pride. Of course, such pride was merely an illusion which would vanish as soon as they returned to their impoverished villages, but it was a sweet illusion that attracted the migrants to the land of ‘dojin’ [“natives”].

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

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