Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Japanese Fisheries Based in Singapore, 1892-1945

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

The Japanese Fisheries Based in Singapore, 1892-1945

Article excerpt


In the pre-war and the occupation periods, Japanese fishermen occupied a very important position in the fishing industry in Singapore, where fish constituted a major source of protein for the Chinese, Malays, and Indians.(1) As Table 1 shows, large numbers of local Chinese and Malay fishermen were engaged in fishing. But, since their catch was not commercially significant, the British colony was heavily dependent upon imports of seafood before the Japanese fishermen began to supply large quantities of fresh fish in the second half of the 1920s. In 1924, for example, the fresh fish landed in Singapore amounted to 6,400 tons of which 17 per cent came from the local waters (including the catch by the Japanese), six per cent from Johore, and 73 per cent from the Netherlands Indies.(2) In 1937 13,000 tons of fish were landed, with local fishermen responsible for 17 per cent, the Japanese 41 per cent, and the remaining 42 per cent brought largely from the Netherlands Indies.(3)

It should be noted that, as Table 1 shows, the number of Japanese fishermen rose from 200 in 1920 to 688 in 1929 and 903 in 1933, finally reaching a peak of 1,752 in 1936. Moreover, in the 1930s the fishermen accounted for a quarter to one-third of the total Japanese population in Singapore. As of 1 October 1934, for example, there were 3,287 Japanese residents, of whom 971 were directly engaged in the fishing industry, and 189 were their dependents.(4) Together, they accounted for over 35 per cent of the population.

In what follows, I shall study the factors behind the rise and fall of the Japanese fisheries based in Singapore before the Pacific War, examine the activities of the Japanese [TABULAR DATA FOR TABLE 1 OMITTED] and local fishermen during the Japanese occupation period, and evaluate the economic contributions made by the Japanese fisheries to Singapore and Japan.

Local Fishermen and Japanese Fishermen

The local fishermen used various fishing methods including kelong (fish trap) fishing, drift netting, and line-fishing, but were not productive compared to the Japanese fishermen. In the early 1930s, the Malay or the Chinese drift netter caught on average 4 to 8 katties of fish a day, whereas his Japanese counterpart caught 150 katties.(5) The reasons for the former's low productivity are not hard to find. He used "either a sampan or Koleh from 18 to 25 feet long, a drift net from 60 to 220 fathom long and either sails or rows from home early in the evening for his fishing grounds which may be from two to six miles away.... Generally speaking he has no choice of fishing grounds: he simply depends on luck as to which fish came his way...."(6)

In sharp contrast with the local fishermen, the Japanese fishermen employed large power boats as well as modern fishing gear, and engaged in large-scale fishing. They used drift nets, muro ami (bream nets),(7) handlining, shell-fishing and other methods. Drift netting, used to catch Spanish mackerel, shad, pomfret, and dorab, was initially conducted by fishermen from Kagawa prefecture, and was the most important technique until about the mid-1920s.(8) The Japanese drift netter "uses a boat 38 feet long and a net from 486 to 500 fathoms long. He goes in search of good fishing grounds and he has a good many to choose from. His farthest ground may be 300 miles away."(9)

The muro ami fishing was conducted almost exclusively by Okinawan fishermen. A muro ami fleet normally consisted of two powered parent ships and four non-powered fishing boats each of which accommodated about 10 fishermen. One of the parent ships tugged the boats to the coral-reefed fishing ground where naked divers drove a shoal of fish, mainly Caesio (delah in Malay), into a large net bag, and then closed and hauled it in. Since the fishermen did not draw a large fishing net over the sea bottom, the muro ami system did not cause major damage to their nets or coral. The length of the fishermen's stay on each fishing ground ranged from a few hours to two days, depending on the quantity of fish available. …

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