Remembering the war in New Guinea
Japanese pre-war interest in Papua and New Guinea (Longer text)
Module name: Setting (Japanese perspective)
This page was contributed by Dr Iwamoto Hiromitsu
An adventurous and energetic Japanese skipper, Komine Isokichi, began to explore the waters of New Guinea in the 1890s. His exploration took place from the Japanese settlement on Thursday Island in northern Queensland in Australia. After a series of voyages to find new beds of trochus and pearl shells and a place to settle, Komine eventually reached East New Britain in German New Guinea in 1901 and there he ushered in a period of Japanese migration.
In 1901 Komine, after being squeezed out of Thursday Island where anti-Japanese feelings were strong among white shellers, and after his application for permanent residency to the British New Guinea administration was rejected, knocked on the door of German New Guinea. The door was ajar. He found employment with the German administration and established an amicable relationship with Germans who needed a greater labour force for developing their colony. Some years later Komine established an independent business (copra plantation, shipbuilding, trade and fishing) for which he recruited about a hundred workers from Japan. Consequently a sizeable Japanese community emerged and enjoyed a brief golden age in the last years of German rule. Meanwhile, in British New Guinea (later Papua), some Japanese traders and divers married Papuan women and settled down. Because of the small scale of their migration and businesses, the Japanese settlements in both British and German New Guinea attracted little attention from the Japanese government. The settlements show the unique pattern of Japanese involvement in the South Seas in the way that their presence was entrenched in European colonies.
Until the outbreak of World War I in August 1914, Japanese migration to New Guinea was constantly increasing. The number of passports issued before August 1914 was 32, compared to 22 in 1913. But the war halted further increase. In 1915 no passports to passengers bound for New Guinea were issued.  The battle in New Guinea was so small that no Japanese were injured nor their property damaged. Komine was quick to assist the Australians to capture a German ship Komet, and he was granted the title of naval captain for this feat. But the uncertainty about the future of the colony affected Komine’s business greatly. No new orders for shipbuilding came and trading stopped. Under Australian military rule, the Japanese faced the challenge of creating good relations with them, while abandoning long-term relations with the Germans. Japan was allied to Britain, which meant fighting alongside Australia against Germany. Therefore the war obliged the Japanese to switch their relations with white rulers from the Germans to the Australians.
The Australian civil administration was established in 1921 and inherited policies established during the military period. The administration continued to restrict Japanese migration to New Guinea and also trading for several years. Consequently Japanese influence became marginal: by 1940 their population had shrunk to about forty. Besides, Komine died in 1934. The nature of the community also changed. They were mostly businessmen, unlike the earlier period when most Japanese were artisans or labourers.
In the 1930s, Japanese interest in Papua and New Guinea became strong as nanshin-ron (southward advancement theory) rose among intellectuals. The increase in references to Japanese migrants in publications was an important trend from the mid-1930s. It stressed the fact that Japanese had had a long linkage with New Guinea. It was a significant change because until then nobody had demonstrated much interest. Government publications, such as the ones of the Department of Colonisation and the South Seas Government, devoted many pages to the history of Japanese migration (mainly about Komine) and commercial activities.  Although the information was a plain description of events and accounts of the migrants, it was the first time that the migrants were taken up by officials with such intensity.
Nanshin-ron advocates played a more important role. They exalted Komine as a national hero. In 1935 Sande mainichi (Sunday Everyday), a popular weekly magazine, published an article titled "Showa no Yamada Nagamasa, Nihon-to o sasagete tanshin doku-kan o ikedoru: Nan’yo no kaitaku-sha Komine Isokichi" (Yamada Nagamasa of the Showa period captured a German ship alone with a Japanese sword: a pioneer of the South Seas, Komine Isokichi).  The article began with a comment: "This is the story that impressed Debuchi Gen, a special envoy to Australia, who said ‘This is the most appropriate episode to promote Japan-Australia relations.’" The article emphasised Komine’s relations with Germans and Australians dramatically. It described how bravely he rescued the German governor who was being attacked by natives on a jungle track: "Mr Komine jumped off a seven-metre high cliff like a bird into the fighting and saved the life of the governor by a close shave." The article said that the capture of the Komet was proposed by frustrated Komine who saw the Australians unable to do anything because they were unfamiliar with the local geography, and that Komine organised the expedition and when he found the Komet, he climbed onto the deck by himself just carrying a Japanese sword and successfully persuaded the German commander to surrender. Because of this feat, he was given the chronometer of the Komet and the title of both naval and army captain. The article also emphasised that Komine was a good friend of the German captain and looked after his family at Rabaul while the captain was imprisoned by Australians, and later the captain thanked Komine, saying "Now I have learnt the greatness of the Japanese." Most accounts in the article were exaggerated.  No other written records and oral evidence can confirm that Komine carried a sword or that the German captain thanked him (generally the Germans resented Komine’s action). At the time of writing the article, Komine was already dead and nobody (except for those who actually knew about Komine) could challenge the accuracy of the accounts. Thus the writer could say almost anything to dramatise the events.
More significantly, the article was reintroduced in April 1941. Captain Kamijo Fukashi of the Imperial Navy wrote Sensen ichi-man kairi: zen taisen ji nan’yo no rekishi (The war front of ten thousand miles: the history of the South Seas during World War I) and inserted the article fully in his book.  Kamijo added a detailed account of the capture of Komet, although the addition seems to be his translation from MacKenzie’s The Australians at Rabaul that had been published in 1927. Similarly, in August 1941 the Nanpo sangyo chosa kai (Society of the South Seas Industry Research) published Nyu ginia, a book introducing general information on Papua, Australian New Guinea and Dutch New Guinea, and repeated the story about Komine’s feat, although briefly.  Thus just before the outbreak of the Pacific War, the government and nanshin-ron advocates began to popularise the Japanese in New Guinea, obviously intending to propagate and justify the nanshin. The Japanese in New Guinea, who had attracted little public attention in Japan, were suddenly and comprehensively integrated into the vast scheme of Japanese expansionism.
1. Kaigai ryoken kafu hyo (The list of overseas passport issues), 1913–1915, Japanese Diplomatic Record, 188.8.131.52
2. Takumu-sho takumu-kyoku (Section of Colonisation, Department of Colonisation), 1938, Goshu inin tochi ryo nyu ginia (Australian Mandated Territory New Guinea), Tokyo 83–93; Nan’yo cho chokan kanbo chosa ka (Research Section of the Secretary-General of the South Seas Government), 1939, Nyu ginia jijo (Goshu inin tochi ryo) (The situation in New Guinea (Australian Mandated Territory)), Koror, 314–18.
3. Mainichi shinbun-sha (Mainichi Newspaper Co.), Sande mainichi (Sunday Everyday), 8 July 1935, "Showa no Yamada Nagamasa, Nihon-to o sasagete tanshin doku-kan o ikedoru: Nan'yo no kaitaku-sha Komine Isokichi" (Yamada Nagamasa of the Showa period captured a German ship alone with a Japanese sword: a pioneer of the South Seas, Komine Isokichi), 30; Yamada is a popular legendary figure believed to have served the Ayutaya dynasty in Thailand as a military commander in the 17th century. Nanshin-ron advocates from the late 1930s to the early 1940s regarded him as a symbol of Japanese pioneers in the South Seas.
4. See Chapter 3, "World War I", in Iwamoto Hiromitsu, Nanshin: Japanese settlers in Papua and New Guinea 1890-1949, Journal of Pacific History, Canberra, 1999, 1.
5. Kamijo Fukashi, 1941, Sensen ichi-man kairi: zen taisen ji nan’yo no rekishi (The war front of ten thousand miles: the history of the South Seas during World War I), Nanto gunto bunka kyokai, Tokyo, 182–93.
6. Nanpo sangyo chosa kai (Society of the South Seas Industry Research) (ed.), Nyu ginia (New Guinea), Nanshin sha, Tokyo, 1941, 148.