Japanese in Western Australia







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The first Japanese known to have come to Western Australia were a troupe of acrobats and jugglers who travelled to several towns giving performances around 1874.

The first Japanese residents arrived in 1879 and settled at Cossack in the state's north west.

Japan had pursued a policy of isolationism until 1866 and up until that time it had been forbidden for any Japanese to travel overseas. When Japan finally opened up there was an official desire to know more about the west and people were encouraged to emigrate to western countries.

Japanese men worked in a variety of jobs, often on the fringes of European society. many were cooks, gardeners, laundrymen and by far the greatest majority were employed in the pearling industry that was based primarily in Broome.

A number of Japanese women also came to Western Australia and studies indicate that at least 50% were involved in prostitution. In Japanese society this was an occupation like any other and did not carry the stigma that is present in western society. The Japanese areas of the towns they settled in were known to be basically quiet and law-abiding.

The Anti-Asiatic League was formed in Coolgardie only two years after gold was discovered in 1892. This was to be the fore-runner of the White Australia Policy (one of the first enactments by the new Federal Government in 1901). Despite the draconian measure introduced to curb new immigration from Asia, most of the Japanese (and Chinese) who were already in Australia gained exemption from the newly introduced language tests that were imposed on new arrivals.

The White Australia Policy sought not only to restrict non-European immigration but also to remove non-Europeans from the country.

A constant thorn in the side of the policy was the pearling industry that made heavy use of Malay and Japanese workers.

The government set about making a change to this by bringing in white divers in 1912 and forcing the pearlers to use them on their boats.

This move was highly unpopular in Broome as the white divers were paid thirteen pounds a week compared to 2 pounds for Malay or Japanese divers. Also the European divers got a 40 pound bonus for each tonne of shells they brought up. Coloured divers had to bring up 8 tonnes of shell to get that amount of money.

Right from the start the white divers felt they were in a hostile environment. Neither the pearlers or the Malay and Japanese wanted them in Broome.

The government experiment was doomed to failure because it was easy for the pearling boats to take the white divers out to areas already stripped of pearls.

By the end of the first season the lead diver, Thomas Webber, was dead in what some considered suspicious circumstances and two of his comrades were seriously injured. The men felt bitter and betrayed and one of the men, John Nowry, felt strongly enough to give evidence before a Royal Commission into pearling that was held in 1913.

Nowry said he was certain that the white divers had been taken to areas already worked out and that there was no difference between Europeans and Asians when it came to detecting pearl shell on the sea floor.

In the end the pearlers won and by 1913 there were 1166 Japanese and 634 Malays and 107 other non-Europeans working on the boats. There were no Europeans at all on the boats.

In the late 1930s there were attempts by Nippon Steel to get access to the vast iron ore deposits at Yampi Sound. A dummy company (Brassert Co.) was formed and if negotiations had succeeded, Nippon Steel would have gained control over a very valuable Australia natural asset. As it turned out the Federal Government foresaw the likelihood of war with Japan and placed an embargo on all mineral exports.

In December 1941 a series of telegrams bearing the message 'Execute security warrant previously sent to you', went out to local police stations across the state. Within 24 hours of receipt of these telegrams most of the Japanese population then resident in the state had been placed under arrest.

With the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour came a wave of hysteria. The authorities over-reacted and all but 2 W.A. Japanese residents were thrown into internment camps. It didn't matter if they were born here, if they had been here 40 years or more, if they were women or children or old and infirm. It didn't even matter if they were not Japanese at all, but merely happened to be married to a Japanese. Even an Aboriginal woman was thrown into internment because of her marriage to a Japanese man.

German and Italian women and children were not interned like this, even men who had been in Australia over 20 years or were over the age of 70 were exempted from internment. No so for the Japanese. There were even ludicrous cases of internees who had sons fighting for the Australian Army in the Middle East or in New Guinea. In fact 70% of Japanese males placed in internment camps were over the age of 65.

Many Japanese left Australia when they were released in 1946-7 but some stayed on and were to suffer greatly once the atrocities carried out by the Japanese Army became public knowledge. While the actions of the Japanese armed forces during World War Two were cowardly and barbaric in the extreme, this was no reflection on innocent people who had made Australia their home, in some cases for 40 years or more.




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