Queensland Places – Torres Strait – Japanese in the Pearling Industry

As a national group, people of Japanese background or descent have played a major role in the history and development of the pearling industry, especially in the Torres Strait.  By way of illustration, in the period up to the beginning of the Second World War, the Japanese made up a high proportion of pearl divers, were prominent in the Thursday Island business community as well as pioneering a range of boat related industries.  As well, many Japanese were prominent in other areas of the Torres Strait.

In the early 1880s, Captain A. Miller was amongst the first to use Japanese divers in his pearling and other marine operations, and within a decade, those of Japanese descent were to become the largest national group working in the pearling industry.  To a significant extent, this was because the Japanese were highly regarded by the general and business communities as reliable and very experienced workers.

By the mid 1920s, almost one hundred percent of all divers working in pearling were Japanese with the Japanese section of Thursday Island known locally as Yokohama.  Also, in the period up until to the beginning of the Second World War, the Japanese largely controlled the Thursday Island boat building industry.  This influence was to end with the outbreak of war, with many Japanese people being interned and later sent home.  The contribution of the Japanese in the pearling industry cannot be overstated, however as a group, they paid a high personal price for their involvement.  Pearl diving was inherently dangerous and more than 700 Japanese people died in the Torres Strait between 1878 and 1941 with more than half of these being younger than 21 years old.

In acknowledgement of the important contribution made by those of Japanese descent to the pearling industry as a whole, a commemorative memorial was erected on Thursday Island in 1979.

Japanese Pearling Boat, Thursday Island, ca. 1935. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 42732

Japanese Pearling Boat, Thursday Island, ca. 1935. John Oxley Library, State Library of Queensland. Neg 42732

This photograph, dating from 1935, shows what is described as a Japanese sampan in Thursday Island harbour.  At the time this image was taken, boats such as this would have been the mainstay of the pearling industry.

Brian Randall – Specialist Librarian, State Library of Queensland