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Written By

Bianca de Loryn


College of Arts, Society and Education

Publish Date

31 May 2021

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International Migrants Day is on 18 December 2020

JCU PhD student Tianna Killoran researches Japanese migration to North Queensland before World War II, and she knows why the Japanese were both welcomed and feared by the local population.

Townsville - the first Japanese consulate

Japanese migrants have been coming to Australia since as early as the 1870s. The first Japanese consulate was opened in 1896, not in Sydney or in Melbourne, but in Townsville.  “I thought it was strange that Townsville, of all places, would be the site for a consulate,” PhD student Tianna Killoran says.

“So, I started digging, and I found out that that there was already a reasonably large population of Japanese migrants in North Queensland in the 1890s.” At that time, around 3,000 Japanese migrants were living and working between Mackay and the Torres Strait.

Attracted by pearls and sugar

Why did Japanese migrants come to North Queensland? “Mostly they came for contracts in the sugarcane industry as labourers and in the mills, but also, especially, pearl diving,” Tianna says. The Torres Strait was famous for its pearl shell, and diving for pearl shell was dangerous . Between 1878 and 1941 more than 700 Japanese men died while diving for pearls in the Torres Strait.

But the wages were high, and young men from rural Japan were willing to risk their lives in order to build a better life. “In rural Japan, many were in poverty where they couldn't feed themselves,” Tianna says. “Even sending people away was preferable because it was one less mouth to feed. And there were also stories that you could go abroad, the men and the women, and earn lots of money, and send it back or come back home rich.”

Many Japanese would go to Australia for a couple of years and then go back home. But there were those who stayed in Australia and opened successful businesses away from sugarcane and pearling. “There were laundries, silk stores, some market gardening, a couple of other farms such as maize on the Atherton Tablelands,” Tianna says. “There was even a man with a soy sauce factory on Thursday Island.”

Tianna Killoran
Japanese Woman in Mareeba
Tianna Killoran (left) and Japanese woman in Mareeba (source: State Library of Queensland)

Female Japanese migrants in Queensland

Japanese women were often less welcome than the men. “Most of the literature says they worked as prostitutes,” Tianna says. “But I'm trying to find out if there was a bit more to that. Women often worked with their partners or on their own. They ran laundries and other businesses. There was a lady and her family who had a café, or others who ran a silk store.”

Some women in the Torres Strait were even involved in buying pearling luggers, the sailing boats that were used by the pearl divers. This was a bit tricky, but not impossible to do. “There were all sorts of laws that would limit luggers to only white pearling masters,” Tianna says. “But there were ways around them. Japanese migrants would put someone else's name on the deed, but they would own it.”

Migrants in Queensland: together but not always friendly

North Queensland was a sparsely populated area. In 1891 Townsville had a population of only around 13,000 people, whereas in 1897 Thursday Island alone had a population of approximately 800 to 1,000 Japanese migrants.

White Australians and Asian migrants did not always get along well. “At times the relationship was tense, because of the White Australia policy — and there was definitely racism,” Tianna says. There was also a certain worry about Japan, which was a powerful nation around 1900. “At the turn of the 20th century you've got the war with China,” she says. "And then in 1905 the war with Russia — and Japan wins both of them.”

This is why Queenslanders were divided about the Japanese migrants in the country. “They were saying, ‘we don't really want the Japanese people coming here. But also, we don't want to cause offence to the Japanese government or risk invasion’,” Tianna says.

Getting along with the neighbours

However, there were also brighter sides to the Australian-Japanese relationship. Because of Australia’s remoteness and its geography, North Queensland communities had to be cooperative and to help each other out. “There's a family I researched who lived in Cairns. They were a Japanese couple and they adopted a Chinese girl who was orphaned,” Tianna says.

“In Innisfail, there was a man who owned a silk store. He was quite friendly with a lot of the Italian migrants there who worked on the sugarcane farms. Even on Thursday Island people were cooperative, even though they were supposedly segregated into separate areas.” However, not everyone was happy with having the Japanese around.  "The relationship was often complicated and tense,” Tianna says.

Japanese Workers, Hambledon Sugar Plantation, ca 1896

Source: State Library of Queensland

From tense relationships to internment camps

The relationship between European-born Australians and the Japanese deteriorated when World War II began and Australians worried about Japan invading the country. “Pretty much all Japanese people who were born in Japan, and people who were born in Australia but had one or two Japanese parents were sent to internment camps,” Tianna says.

But this was proving difficult as the Japanese and Torres Strait Islanders at that time had been living together for decades, and sometimes also had fallen in love. “The government was worried about Torres Strait Islanders, where many of them had married Japanese migrants, and so many were either interned or evacuated.”

Japanese post-war migration to Australia

After World War II, it took Australia until 1966 to abolish the White Australia policy, and the Japanese rediscovered Australia as a place for a holiday or even to make it their home. Today, around 50,000 Japanese are living permanently in Australia, and almost half a million tourists from Japan visited Australia last year.

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