Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Japanese Economic Activities in Sabah from the 1890s until 1941

Academic journal article Journal of Southeast Asian Studies

Japanese Economic Activities in Sabah from the 1890s until 1941

Article excerpt

Writings on Sabah's socio-economic development tend to focus on the roles played by the British and other Europeans but neglect the contributions of the Japanese, who have played a major part in the economic development of Sabah since the 1890s. Japan was a source of skilled and unskilled workers, and also prostitutes, in the 1890s, while the early 1900s brought growing numbers of peasant-agriculturalists, shopkeepers and small businessmen. Restrictive immigration measures introduced in the United States, Canada and the Philippines after 1900 forced the Japanese government to give serious consideration to Sabah as a potential destination for Japanese settlers. Japan sent its Consul in Batavia, Nariaki Someya, to Sandakan in 1910 to carry out a feasibility study on this issue. As a result, the number of Japanese in Sabah began to increase after 1910.(1) By the 1930s, both individual Japanese immigrants and Japanese firms were already active in economic activities, with two conglomerate giants, Kuhara (Nissan) and Kubota (Mitsubishi), as the major investors.'

So far, no comprehensive study of the Japanese economic role in Sabah has been carried out. There is a study by Yukata Shimomoto on "Japan and the Chartered Company,(2) but it is a short three and a half page account. Shimomoto has also written on "Japanese Immigrants in Tawau, British North Borneo",(3) but this piece concentrates more on the Japanese immigrants in Tawau, which is only one of the many divisions in Sabah, and does not address Japan's economic role in general. In addition, there is an article by Hara Fujio entitled "Japanese Activities in North Borneo before World War: Focus on Labour Immigrants"(4) but the scope of this article is confined to the promoters of the Japanese immigration schemes, the interests of the parties concerned, and the reasons these schemes failed.

This article will provide a comprehensive study of the economic role of the Japanese in Sabah from the 1890s to 1941. In particular, it will trace the contributions of Japanese immigrants to the following fields: agriculture, particularly the growing of rubber and manila hemp; tuna and skipjack fishing; and the canning of tuna. The article also highlights the role played by successive Japanese governments in the emigration process to Sabah, such as a secret immigration scheme that operated from 1915 to the 1930s.

The article is divided into three parts. It will begin with some background information on early Japanese involvement in Sabah. Then it will discuss the immigration schemes, and Japanese activities between 1932 and 1941. It will end with some conclusions about Japanese economic activities in Sabah.

Historical Background to Japanese Involvement

Under the rule of the British North Borneo Chartered Company (BNBCC), Sabah was unique in Southeast Asia in that it recruited not only Chinese workers but also Japanese immigrants to overcome a shortage of manpower.(5) The plan to obtain Japanese labour began as early as 1893 when Governor C.V. Creagh wrote to Japan officially after failing to secure Indian and Javanese labours. The Japanese Foreign Ministry, reacting to the efforts of the Sabah government, introduced "emigration agencies" for this purpose. In part, the Japanese response was motivated by its problems of overpopulation and unemployment.

The Japanese government thus encouraged emigration to the less populous and undeveloped countries. For this purpose, it amended its emigration law in 1894 in order to increase protection for Japanese immigrants, a move that led a large number of Japanese to go overseas. Besides migration to Sabah, Japan sent migrants to Micronesia, the Caribbean, and North and South America.

The British North Borneo Chartered Company (BNBCC), prior to these efforts, had not been successful in its early development of Sabah due to lack of funds. To obtain outside help, the BNBCC offered territorial concessions to Charles Brooke of Sarawak and other interested parties, one of which was the Japanese government. …

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