Japanese role in French Pacific outpost recognised at last

13th December 2012, Comments 0 comments

The long, little-known and painful history of the Japanese community in the French Pacific territory of New Caledonia will be officially marked for the first time at a ceremony Friday.

For what for years was a well-integrated and prosperous part of the island's population was torn apart with Japan's entry into WWII.

Tokyo's ambassador to France, Ichiro Komatsu, is to inaugurate a memorial to the community, 120 years after the first Japanese migrants arrived in pursuit of work in New Caledonia's nickel mines.

The memorial, erected in a small cemetery in the mining centre of Thio, was designed by architect Yukiyoshi Matsuda, himself the son of an immigrant miner.

It features a steel arch intended to symbolise Franco-Japanese bonds, behind which a Christian cross and a katana, or Japanese sabre, have been mounted.

For Marie-Jo Michel, Japan's Honorary Consul in the territory, the unveiling of the memorial represents the culmination of a long struggle to promote greater awareness of the role of the Japanese in New Caledonia's development and the hardships they have suffered.

The first Japanese to arrive were a group of 599 miners recruited in Hiroshima who landed in Thio on January 25, 1892, a time of rapid expansion for the nickel industry.

Chinese, Indian and Vietnamese workers were also enlisted.

"They were wretched, most of them single men who had come to earn a little money to send back to their families," said Michel, whose two grandfathers arrived here in 1914.

Between 1892 and 1919, an estimated 5,575 Japanese nationals moved to New Caledonia, most of them from the south of the country (Okinawa, Kumamoto, Fukuoka, Hiroshima).

Many of them married indigenous women and moved from the mines into trades as tailors, market gardeners and grocers.

"In Noumea, the town centre was Japanese," Michel said.

But this happy example of positive integration was shattered on December 7, 1941 with the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour.

"Overnight, the governor Henri Sautot ordered that all the Japanese be rounded up because every one of them was considered a potential spy," said Michel.

A total of 1,200 Japanese were transferred to internment camps in Australia. In certain cases, their assets were confiscated and auctioned off while children with Japanese heritage who had been allowed to stay in New Caledonia found themselves stigmatised.

At the end of the war, with hostility to Japan still acute, many members of the community opted to return to the homeland of their ancestors, losing contact forever with relatives who stayed behind.

"The situation got better in the 60s but my generation, people now in their 60s, is the first that has been able to talk about this shameful history," added Michel.

Despite the post-war exodous, many people of Japanese heritage remain: the community is currently estimated at up to 10,000 out of a total population of 250,000.

As it was when the first Japanese arrived, the nickel industry is booming. Many analysts have linked Japan's renewed interest in the descendants of its emigrants to the potential for closer economic ties with the territory as it contemplates breaking away from France.

A referendum on indepedence is due to be held between 2014 and 2018.

© 2012 AFP

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