Overlapping associations, Tom Larkin

Japan and New Zealand, 150 Years
ed Roger Peren
New Zealand Centre for Japanese Studies, Massey University, in association with the Historical Branch, Department of Internal Affairs, [not for sale],
ISBN 0958350574


In 1878, Asajiro Noda, the eight-year-old son of a successful Nagasaki shipbuilder, went with his father aboard a British ship about to leave after repairs. Some hours later his father went ashore – and only when the ship was well at sea was it found that Asajiro was still aboard. He was transferred to a German ship, believed to be heading for Japan. It was not. For the next 12 years Asajiro remained, sailing the Pacific. He forgot the Japanese language and learned German and when the ship pulled into Bluff in 1890 he left it, and began life in New Zealand.

He later moved north and as a strawberry grower in the Waikato became known as “Tommy” Noda. He married a Maori woman from Ngati Mahuta of Tainui, in a ceremony hosted by the Maori King. With her he had five children. Martin, the second son, was interned in World War Two because of suspicions aroused by his efforts to trace Asajiro’s family in Japan. By the time, 50 years later, that the search was completed by others, Martin was dead. And in 1991, half of the 500 surviving descendants of Asajiro gathered to celebrate their connection with the first Japanese emigrant to New Zealand.

The story of Asajiro is but one of a number of fascinating episodes in Ken McNeil’s survey of encounters between New Zealanders and Japanese in roughly the first 100 years of the period covered by this book. He examines these encounters in five settings – New Zealanders in Japan, Japanese in New Zealand, Japanese and Maori, commercial contacts and naval visits – and emphasises their limited scope: “a trickle of trade, a trickle of people, that was about it.” He concludes, nevertheless, that despite occasional early manifestations of suspicion and growing antagonism in the 1930s, the two sides saw each other in a benign way that allowed genuine admiration and enduring personal relationships to develop.

War changed that state of affairs and, for some years after it was over, memories of the warmth of those early contacts remained suppressed. Initially, New Zealand worked hard for a punitive peace settlement with Japan and was lured away from that stance only as the Cold War developed and as we saw the effect of democratic reforms in Japan and the attractions of protection (not only against Japan) offered by the ANZUS Treaty. Within a few years of the peace settlement of 1951, Japan was returning to the international stage with growing confidence and its promise as a market for New Zealand produce was becoming manifest. Animosity and suspicion died away.

For a long time now, New Zealand has worked hard to have friendly and expanding relations with Japan. There has been a reciprocal, though less substantial, show of interest. Today, the relationship lacks depth but has abundant variety, which Malcolm McKinnon characterises as “a whole host of overlapping associations … state to state, business to business, and people to people”.

In 1994, as the result of a wide-ranging initiative by the Prime Minister of Japan, it was agreed that it would help people in both countries if a history of the relationship from its first days were available. This was to consist of contributions by New Zealand and Japanese historians and scholars together with shorter pieces covering personal reminiscences and special areas of contact and experience. Japan and New Zealand, 150 Years is the result. It has been financed by the Japanese Foreign Ministry and produced in New Zealand. It is not for sale but is distributed free to schools, universities, libraries and other institutions.

Thirty years ago, the head of Matsushita Electric said of New Zealand: “We like what we hear, but we really don’t know much about you.” At that time it would have been difficult for a book like Japan and New Zealand, 150 Years to have been contemplated, let alone successfully completed. Its publication now is an important achievement. It contains many valuable things. From the New Zealand standpoint, solid essays by some of our academics and former diplomats analyse the relationship in its three dimensions – politics, trade, and everything that is not politics or trade, the cultural or human side. Ken McNeil’s essay and Ann Trotter’s “Friend to Foe?” are particularly thorough, fluent and discerning.

Contributions from the Japanese side, often in the form of commentaries on the New Zealand essays, are uniformly brief and direct, and strike different notes about the scope and depth of the relationship. Tetsuya Hitokoto laments that beyond a few favourable impressions most Japanese are still barely aware of New Zealand. Ryuji Komatsu asserts that, for some Japanese, New Zealand, once seen as a model and ideal society, “a Utopian country”, is now praised most for its recent trends in administrative and fiscal reform. Others stress the web of association involving the two countries and predict that it is through expanding co-operation in international organisations that the best chances for a rewarding relationship reside.

The shorter pieces, comprising essays or accounts of interviews, cover diverse topics – ikebana and pottery, the dairy and meat trades, prisoners of war, the Featherston incident, Japanese naval visits, popular interests and attitudes, and so on. They are a mixed bag: some are lively and some are leaden, but within the general concept of the book they identify many of the settings in which, willingly or unwillingly, New Zealanders and Japanese have been associated.

Japan and New Zealand, 150 Years is the result of careful discussion and preparation; while critical opinions are recorded, tensions examined and wartime aberrations analysed, the general tone is guarded. There is, for instance, no place for Robert Muldoon’s crude reference to the need to “haul Japan, kicking and screaming, into the international community” (this of the nation that in all Asia, after centuries of seclusion, was the first to modernise and to set itself to emulate and outdo the West). Nor is there reference to the splenetic utterances about New Zealand and some of its leading men by the distinguished Japanese writer, Jun Eto. Such omissions are understandable, but they suggest that, had the net been cast wider, some other emphases might have been given to the essentially benevolent record that the book presents.


Tom Larkin was New Zealand Ambassador to Japan, 1972-1976.


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