Japanese trade records link families to the past

Pam Oliver is Honorary Research Associate of the School of Historical Studies at Monash University.

Early Japan–Australia connections

Communities of merchants and small businessmen grew up around the Australian coast, with Sydney becoming a major centre for traders. Thousands of Japanese came to Australia to work in Japanese companies or to explore new business possibilities. The records held in the Archives show this to be a period of bustling industry and major commercial expansion in the Pacific region by Japanese businesses. The photos in the collection remind us of the lives of those who journeyed south and the intertwined history of Japanese and Australians in the twentieth century.

Japanese traders are more popularly remembered for their involvement in the pearling industry, although administrative records covering the period from 1860 to 1941 illustrate that Japanese business and trading interests were quite diversified. One example is Fusajiro Kanematsu. At 25 he travelled from his home in Osaka to attempt to sell silkworm eggs in the Yokohama trade. He learned English and worked for the Mitsui Bank before starting his newspaper, the Osaka Daily News, or Osaka Mainichi Shinbun, by 1888. It was at this time he became interested in Australia and visited in 1887. Realising the potential for trade in Australia, he first opened a trading house in Japan and then returned to Sydney to open Kanematsu Australia in 1890. He realised the potential of Australia’s wool resources and shipped the first direct consignment of wool from Australia to Japan. By 1910 Kanematsu Australia controlled 60% of the wool market with Japan. Kanematsu was a visionary as at this time the cotton industry was developing in Japan but the wool industry was non-existent. However, Japan was requiring more wool, especially for military uniforms.

Kanematsu did not stay in Australia. He only visited it about six times and left the management of the business in the hands of Toranosuke Kitamura, who settled in Australia.

Enterprising individual Japanese people who initially arrived in Australia to work in other jobs, such as domestic service, also ran import and export businesses and operated shops, some of which provided banking facilities, especially in remote coastal towns. Some ran laundries. Respected Japanese were asked to act as Customs interpreters. Others became involved in the agricultural industry in New South Wales and Victoria and grew rice and tomatoes.

Japanese traders integrated with the communities of the cities or country towns in which they lived. One example of integration was the Muramatsu family, who settled in Cossack, Western Australia in 1888. The family opened a shop selling Asian goods imported from Singapore. One of the Muramatsu sons, Jiro, a naturalised Australian, later became the owner of a large pearling fleet by 1910.

Many Japanese married Australians. These cross-cultural families were well accepted in their local communities. The Nakashiba family of Cairns is a good example of this. They ran a store that carried local and imported goods, which contributed to the wealth of the town by attracting visitors who had arrived in Cairns by ship.

Trading companies, pearling and shipping records

People involved in trading with Japanese companies from 1860 are listed in correspondence records found in Japanese trading company records held by the Sydney office of the National Archives. For an individual working in the pearling industry, information is often recorded in a separate file under their name. There are also extensive entry records for Japanese company employees, visiting businessmen and their families. Some of these files even have photographs of the families!

Pearling and shipping crew records are located in many State offices of the National Archives. Crew members completed entry registration forms even though they were in transit. From 1902 ship captains were also required to provide crew lists at Australian ports, and many of these lists still exist.

Entry records

Arrival documents provide a valuable source of information about Japanese people. Customs officers filled out entry documents under the Immigration Restriction Acts of 1901 and 1904. Entry documents were filed under the person’s name and those available may contain full name, age, occupation, next of kin, physical description, date of birth and address, along with additional information recorded by Customs officers at the different ports. In some cases the arrival records include photographs of travellers.

Wartime records

Japanese people who lived in Australia in 1937 or afterwards and who did not leave Australia before December 1941 were interned for security purposes. The National Archives holds transcripts of internee appeals of individuals who sought release from internment. In many cases dossiers on Japanese from the World War II period are still available and often provide a great deal of detailed information about the lives of Japanese people in Australia.

After 1947

Post-World War II files created by the Department of External Affairs (now the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade) concern cultural exchanges and trade missions. If a Japanese family member participated in an important event, information about them may be found in files relating to that event – for example, the visits of Japanese prime ministers or the 1960 trade fair on the Aki Maru.

How to find records about family members

Information about records can be found by searching our RecordSearch database.

To find records on a family member, your first step should be to enter a surname as a keyword in the RecordSearch search screen. Because Australian officials sometimes mistook the first names and surnames of Japanese people, using an individual’s first name as a keyword search is also wise. Viewing these records is free, but charges apply for ordering copies.

More information about the records can be found in our research guide, Allies, Enemies and Trading Partners: Records on Australia and the Japanese, by Pam Oliver. The guide can be purchased or downloaded for free from the National Archives online shop.

Copyright National Archives of Australia 2019