Anti-Asian Agitation in South Africa in the 1930s: Reactions to the "Japanese Treaty" and "Honorary White" Status

By Bradshaw, Richard; Ransdell, Jim | Southeast Review of Asian Studies, Annual 2010 | Go to article overview

Anti-Asian Agitation in South Africa in the 1930s: Reactions to the "Japanese Treaty" and "Honorary White" Status


Bradshaw, Richard, Ransdell, Jim, Southeast Review of Asian Studies


During the Great Depression, many white South Africans expressed great concern about the "threat" of growing Japanese influence in the Union of South Africa. This fear was sparked when word leaked that the Union had concluded a "Gentleman's Agreement" with Japan in October 1930, and alarm increased with the rapid growth of Japanese exports to the Union over the next few years (Bradshaw 1992, 242; Osada 2003, 198; Sono 1993, 317). While some South African leaders regarded the granting of special status to a few Japanese as necessary to facilitate Japan's purchase of South African wool, many whites argued that Japanese would begin purchasing land and settling in the Union and that Japan's exports would hurt nascent South African industries. The specter of a "Yellow Peril" was even used to support the idea that South African whites needed to unite in the face of this threat (Chilvers 1933).

Studies of the Yellow Peril "threat" (Rupert 1911; Thompson 1976; Hirakara 1985; Clegg 1994; Mehnert 1995; Naka 1997; Daniels 1999) have focused on Germany (Gollwitzer 1962), the United States (Hoppenstand 1983; Mugridge 1995, 46-59; Sharp 2007, 107-20; Wu 1982, 3), Great Britain (Hashimoto 2008), Australia (Murray 2004), Canada (Wang 2006), and France (Laffey 2005) but have generally ignored fear of the Yellow Peril in South Africa. Studies of Japanese-South African relations have focused, with few exceptions (Bradshaw 1992; Kitagawa 1997; Furukawa 1991), on the post-World War II period (Payne 1987; Musa 1988; Morikawa 1988; Osada 1992; Ampiah 1997; Alden and Hirano 2003; Skidmore 2004). Many general histories of South Africa rarely if ever mention Japan (Beck 2000, 121; Beinart 2001, 174; Ross 2008; Thompson 2000, 242).

This article examines the debate about growing Japanese influence in South Africa in the early 1930s, particularly as it appeared in the often controversial Rand Daily Mail (Gibson 2007). The anti-Asian agitation that emerged in South Africa during the Great Depression had both local and international consequences. Locally, it was used by advocates of British-Boer "harmony" to promote the establishment of a unity government that increasingly favored tighter controls on "yellow" and "black" peoples. On an international level, it was part of the rise of anti-Asian sentiment and the restriction of Japanese exports to its vital "new markets" such as South Africa in the early 1930s, which contributed to the decision by Japan's leaders to refocus their efforts on securing a "Co-Prosperity Sphere" in Asia (Dietrich 1938; Bradshaw 1992).

The Growth of Anti-Asian Agitation in South Africa

A few Asians from the East Indies (now Indonesia) were brought to South Africa by the Dutch East India Company (DEIC) soon after it established a fort at the Cape of Good Hope in 1652. Some Dutch settlers at the Cape expressed distrust of these often Muslim "Malays," but it was not until the late nineteenth century, when indentured servants from British India were contracted to work in the sugar plantations of Natal along the southern coast of South Africa, that whites in this British colony began to express fears about the increasing number of Asians in South Africa. Many Indians who completed their period of indentured service opted to remain in South Africa and often became merchants. By 1896, Natal's population of Indians (51,000) exceeded the number of whites (50,000), which gave rise to white fears of an "Asian peril." Whites began to pass discriminatory legislation against Indians, who responded by forming an Indian Natal Congress to fight for their rights. By World War I, campaigns by South African Indians against various forms of discrimination had increased the concern of many whites about the presence of Asians in the Union (Worden et al. 1998, 128; Henning 1993; Bhana 1997; Copley 1987, 19, 24; Saqaf 2009).

By this time, South Africans had also become increasingly concerned about growing Japanese influence in South Africa. …

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