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Emigration and Wakayama: Outline

The history of emigration in Japan began when 153 people went to Hawaii as agricultural workers in 1868, and another 40 or so went to Guam in the same year.* They were later called Gannenmono and became the first contract migrants. In 1871 the Treaty of Amity and Commerce between Japan and Hawaii was concluded, and official diplomatic relations were established. Also in 1884, an official contract draft for immigration to Hawaii was concluded. On February 8, 1885, the first group of 953 emigrants sponsored by the government went to Hawaii, which is said to be the beginning of mass emigration. Twenty-two people of those who went to Hawaii were from Wakayama prefecture at that time; in June of that year, the second group of 983 emigrants included 33 people from the prefecture.

Although people originally went abroad to work in sugar cane plantations on a three-year contract, they were free to choose a job in 1900 when the Kingdom of Hawaii became a territory of the U.S. with the signing of the annexation resolution to the country in 1988. It is said that fishermen from the Kinan region, especially from Tanami Village, Nishimuro District, contributed to the development of fishery in Hawaii with their fishing knowledge and skills.

The annexation of Hawaii to the United States enabled the Japanese to move from Hawaii to the U.S. mainland, which was called tenko, the change of destination. Especially in California, which was developing, there was a shortage of labor force, and immigrants were welcomed to compensate for it, and the number of people going to California gradually increased. Their jobs were mainly in agriculture, railroading, mining, fishery, and commerce and industry, and some were so-called “school boys” who went to school by living and working in a master’s house, the others worked on plantations or opened small grocery stores.

Also, many people from Taiji Town or other regions went to California. In the early 1900s, they formed a community of Japanese fishermen on Terminal Island (or East San Pedro) located in the Port of Los Angeles. Most of the 3,000 people on the island came from Wakayama Prefecture and consisted of Japanese-born Issei and American-born Nisei. The men worked as fishermen and the women worked in canneries. Today, the community in Terminal Island no longer exists, and all the communities disappeared during World War II. Now, the fishermen’s monument and a torii, or a shrine gate, stand as reminders of that time.

In addition, many people from the prefecture went to Canada to engage in salmon fishing. Emigration from the Mio area, Mihama Town to Canada began when Gihee Kuno went to Steveston, Canada in 1888. After Gihee saw a crowd of salmon at Fraser River, he wrote a letter to his hometown to gather people from the area who had a skill of fishing. Eventually, they started a group emigration for a fishery. Their community was called Canadian Mio Village, while the people who succeeded there and came back to Japan spoke English-mixed Japanese, and brought a western lifestyle. That is why the Mio area in Mihama Town has been called “the American Village” since the Taisho era.

People from Wakayama Prefecture who longed for fishing work went not only to North America but also to Australia. Historically, the first group of emigrants to Australia started around 1878. Kiryu Nakayama, who is regarded as the pioneer of the development of Thursday Island, went to Australia from Wakayama Prefecture, followed by Toshinosuke Watanabe from Hiroshima Prefecture in 1882. One of their main jobs was to collect pearl shells used to make fine buttons; Darwin, Broome, and Thursday Island on the north coast of Australia were known as the largest pearling places in the world. In 1897, the number of Japanese residents in Australia exceeded 2,000, and those who were engaged in pearling on Thursday Island also reached 900. It is said that about 80 percent of the workers came from Wakayama Prefecture, especially from the Kinan region, the southern part of the prefecture. Although they played an active role as competent pearl divers, their work was so life-threatening that many died from the bends and cyclones. That is why Japanese cemeteries can be found at the most famous pearling sites; for example, there are 919 names legible on 707 tombstones at the Japanese cemetery in Broome.

Many people living in the areas along the Kii Peninsula, between the Pacific Ocean and the mountains, migrated through their local connections to the pioneers. They worked hard as fishers and divers at the destination, using their skills and knowledge, while building a community of people who shared the same hometown. Those who had lived with the sea from birth may not have found a mental distance to the countries across the Pacific, but rather affinities.

The coastal region of the Kii Peninsula was not the only place in Wakayama Prefecture that produced a great number of emigrants. The first area in the prefecture to send people to the U.S. is said to be the Naga area (formerly part of Naga District), located in the northern part of the prefecture and the middle part of the Kino-kawa River, and Ikeda-mura Village (former Uchita Town) had the largest number of emigrants in the district. Waichiro Honda, a native of Ikeda-mura Village, studied at Yukichi Fukuzawa’s private school and established the Kyōsyū Gakusha Private School in 1880 after returning home. He set up a counseling center for his students and taught them Western studies, Sinology, and history so that they could go to the U.S. Many of his students who had traveled to the U.S. later became so-called prominent figures, such as a merchant, a Doctor of Divinity, and a former ambassador to Germany. He was also heavily influenced by J.B. Hail, who had come for missionary work since around 1881, before Waichiro got baptized in 1883.

Emigration from Wakayama Prefecture to Brazil seems to have started around 1916, and about 6,000 residents (1,600 families) of the prefecture moved to Brazil before and after World War II. Although diplomatic relations between Japan and Brazil were broken off due to Brazil’s participation in the war, emigration to Brazil resumed in 1953 after their diplomatic ties had been restored in 1951.

The person who substantially contributed to the resumption of emigration was Yasutaro Matsubara, a native of Iwashiro Town (present Minabe Town), Hidaka District, Wakayama Prefecture, for he had moved to Brazil in 1918 to work as an interpreter for Japanese emigrants and had a close relationship with then Brazilian President Vargas. After returning home temporarily in 1952, Matsubara negotiated with Japanese government officials to implement an emigration plan to bring approximately 4,000 Japanese families into Brazil over eight years, around 20,000 people in total. The Japanese government agreed to the deal and started calling for would-be emigrants from around the country. In 1953, 112 members of 22 families from Wakayama Prefecture moved to the Federal Colony of Dourados in Mato Grosso, where Matsubara had settled, becoming the first group of postwar emigrants from the prefecture.


Note: As to the number of emigrants that year, there are different opinions.

This article is an edited and revised version of Imin to Wakayama: Senjin no Kiseki wo Tadotte, (Emigration and Wakayama: Tracing the Footprints of Ancestors), 2014, the exhibition catalogue, Institute of Kishu Economic and Cultural History, Wakayama University.

Translated by Rika Shibata (ISG)