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How Japan Reached Out to the World

What role did Japanese migrants play in the emergence of modern Japan in the 19th century? Martin Dusinberre reconstructs the voyages of the Yamashiro-maru steamship and re-examines methods of historical scholarship.
Tanja Wirz / Translation: Karen Oettli-Geddes
Japanese plantation workers on their arrival in Honolulu, around 1893. (Hawai’i State Archives)
Japanese plantation workers on their arrival in Honolulu, around 1893.(Hawai’i State Archives)

In June 1885, Kodama Keijiro, and nearly a thousand other workers, landed in Honolulu, where he had signed up for three years’ labor on a sugar plantation. His gravestone can still be seen there today. In November 1897, 21-year-old Hashimoto Usa reported to Australian officials that she had originally wanted to visit her sister Singapore, but that she’d been taken by force to a brothel on Australia’s Thursday Island instead. No further traces of her are to be found. And in March 1900, manufacturer Yasukawa Keiichiro made notes in his diary documenting his voyage to Kobe. However, of the 22 stokers and coal shovelers who kept the ship’s engines running, no details other than their names survive.

These are just some of the stories that Martin Dusinberre unearthed in his research about the people who traveled on the Yamashiro-maru steamship in search of work and a living at the end of the 19th century. Dusinberre, who joined the University of Zurich as professor of global history in 2015, came across the Japanese migrants by chance: after completing his studies at Oxford, he was working as an English teacher in Japan when he realized that a large number of people from the area around his host town of Yamaguchi had emigrated at the turn of the century.

Japan opens up

During this age under Emperor Meiji, Japan underwent a fundamental transformation, transitioning from a feudal state to a modern imperial power that aspired to be an equal trading partner to the West. Technological progress was embraced and the once – almost hermetically – sealed border gradually loosened. Part of the government’s efforts to open up the economy also included an official migration program shipping agricultural workers to Hawaii. However, unlike the enslaved laborers brought over from Africa to work on plantations across America, the migrants remained Japanese citizens and enjoyed protection from the Japanese state, which made agreements with the host country on how they were to be treated – yet also demanded that they send 25 percent of their wages home. “This money had a transformative effect,” Dusinberre says, “as it was used to build schools, new houses, war memorials, as well as essential new infrastructure such as transport routes and power plants. The migrants were important to the emergence of modern Japan.”

The country also used the migrants to promote its new, civilized image. Only men of impeccable reputation and married women were admitted to the program, and they traveled aboard one of the most advanced means of transport of the time, the Yamashiro-maru steamship, specially commissioned from Newcastle, England. Coincidentally, Newcastle University was where Dusinberre took up a position after his stay in Japan. It was while browsing the local archives that he came across documents about this Japanese-English ship which, from 1885 onwards, carried on its voyages to Honolulu a particularly large number of migrants from the very place where he had previously worked – confirmed by a passenger list from Tokyo. Intrigued, he resolved to learn more about this ship and the people aboard it: “I wanted to understand the world from their perspective.” However, this proved to be challenging, as next to no documents on the migrants were left behind. This brought Dusinberre to the following conclusion: “I have to write about this silence and the difficulties it leads to.”


What was not recorded in writing

And so, in his book Mooring the Global Archive. A Japanese Ship and its Migrant Histories, published in 2023, he takes readers with him on his detective work in Japan, Newcastle, Hawaii, Singapore and Australia. Along the way, readers learn about the thorns of historical research, especially when researchers are interested in something that’s typically not written down, archived or remembered: the voices of plantation workers, miners, sex workers, low-ranking ship crew and indigenous people, often ignored or totally silenced by the archives of colonial powers. Since only the Japanese elite could write at that time, it’s no coincidence that the voice of the factory owner mentioned earlier is more audible today than the voice of the ship workers he referred to.

“This was also an opportunity to consider what history is and how historians work,” Dusinberre says. “One of the most fundamental questions for me is: how do we historians see the world? Usually through the lens of an archive.” But what does that mean? What is an archive, exactly? Who created it? Who operates it? Who’s allowed to use it? What interests dictated what was archived? These are age-old questions in the field of historical research but, with digitalization, Dusinberre believes they have taken on a new relevance. He also sees clear advantages in digitalization: “Travel costs and carbon emissions can be reduced, more people have access to the archives, and searches can be made very quickly.”

Songs as a historical source

However, he also cautions against relying solely on online research. After all, not everything is digitalized or “un-moored”, i.e. unanchored and fully detached in the digital realm. And not everything that’s interesting as a historical source can be digitalized anyway. “It’s still important to conduct on-site research. We need the local context and the opportunity to stumble across things accidentally.” This was particularly evident in relation to the migrants’ stories he was looking for. He learnt about plantation worker Kodama Keijiro though a gravestone – after all, a cemetery is also a kind of archive – and in Kodama’s hometown, where he sought out people with the same surname. And a visit to an archive in Hawaii gave him the idea of using songs as a source (see box) when, just outside the archive building, the Royal Hawaiian Band were playing a Hawaiian resistance song.

Dusinberre stresses the importance of bringing the research process out into the open: “During my studies, I learned as a historian to conceal who I am and where I come from. We don’t even give it a thought. But that would be important!” Source criticism has always been taught in history studies: where does a source come from, who created it, and whose interests did it serve? But, Dusinberre believes, equally important is that researchers reflect on the position from which they’re writing. He illustrates both positions using the example of Hashimoto Usa. It was unusual for her to leave Japan as a single woman, because only married women were allowed on the migrant ships. The document he found about her contains a kind of report written in the first person. It’s written in English and signed with crosses, which shows that various translation processes took place: a young Japanese woman with the status of an illegal sex worker told a professional translator her story, which an Australian official then wrote down. Hashimoto Usa presumably wanted to report her abductors, whom she names, and protect her colleagues, whose names she doesn’t reveal.

Exploited or complicit?

Various forms of intersectionality came into play in the creation of this document. Similarly, as Dusinberre perused it, he asked himself: “What does it mean that I, as a white man and a Brit, am searching for this woman? Am I in the same position as the official at the time? Or am I seeing myself as an imaginary savior and her as a ‘victim’? What were the woman’s own intentions?” These are the contradictions that interest him: did Hashimoto want to work as a sex worker, was she forced into it or perhaps both? And what about the Japanese migrants in Hawaii and Australia: were they solely exploited or did some also cooperate with the colonialists?

These questions lack clear-cut answers, but they encourage us to think about the distribution of power and agency, and about the complex interplay within human societies that cannot be reduced to a simple division between victims and perpetrators. In this way, writing the book was also a kind of journey for Dusinberre. As he puts it: “At the beginning, I thought I would write the story of a ship. And in the end, it turned out to be a book examining how historical knowledge is created.”


Literature: Martin Dusinberre’s book Mooring the Global Archive. A Japanese Ship and its Migrant Histories, Cambridge University Press 2023, is freely available online thanks to support from the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF).

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