In the contemporary business landscape, welcoming foreign companies to invest in and establish their presence in our country has become a commonplace occurrence. The allure of international investment has evolved into a standard practice, shaping the dynamics of our economic landscape.
However a century ago, it was something rare.
Here in Sarawak, the only Japanese trading firm that successfully broke through our local market was a company called Nissa Shokai.
According to a paper by The International Journal of East Asian Study, Japanese immigrants first arrived in Kuching in the latter part of the 1880s.
In the early days, many came voluntarily, seeking out new opportunities as they worked as petty traders and street hawkers among other professions. The more notables include Japanese professionals like Dr. Nakagawa, a dentist in Kuching whose daughters, the ‘Iwanaga sisters’ were teachers at Kuching’s St. Mary’s School.
The paper stated, “Later arrivals during the early 1900s engaged in smallholdings, para rubber cultivation and market gardening on the eastern infringes of the town. Other worked as physicians, dentists, photographers and prostitutes in the bazaar.
“Nissa Shokai, a trading firm specialising in Japanese goods, was established at the turn of the century, to cater for the needs of the then small Japanese community in Kuching and its outskirts. This firm was affiliated to a Japanese-owned Para rubber plantation in Samarahan. On this Samarahan estate, attempts were made to grow pineapples and other tropical cash crops. There were ambitious attempts to establish a Japanese rice-farming community during the late 1920s. However, the wet-rice cultivation undertaken by a small group of Japanese farming families on the Nissa Shokai property in the Upper Samarahan did not go beyond the experimental stage.”
While it was good to have foreign companies investing in the local market, apparently there were some drawbacks. In some cases, it was like bringing in a Trojan horse.
Here are five things you might not know about Nissa Shokai:
1.At one point, Nissa Shokai housed the largest concentration of Japanese in Sarawak during the Brooke-era.
Former Sarawak Attorney-General Kenelm Hubert Digby wrote briefly about Nissa Shokai in his 1980 memoir Lawyer in the Wilderness.
According to Digby, the largest concentration of Japanese in Sarawak was to be found on the Nissa Shokai estate on the banks of the Samarahan river.
Explaining further about the estate, he wrote, “This consisted of about twelve persons holding executive posts, including a resident doctor. There were also, I think a few foremen. There were a handful of wives and children. The labour employed were mostly Malay and Chinese. The estate included one hundred acres of wet paddy and a large area of pineapples but the greater part of the land was under rubber. It had its own Chinese bazaar and its own police station, kindly garrisoned by the Government with one lance-corporal and four constables presumably to keep the labourers in order.”
2.The company successfully established a good relationship with the reigning Rajah at that time.
For Nissa Shokai to be able to have all that in Sarawak was greatly contributed to their relationship with the then government run by the White Rajah.
Ooi Keat Gin in his book The Japanese Occupation of Borneo, 1941-1945 wrote, “Nissa Shokai cleverly curried favour with Rajah Vyner Brooke of Sarawak, including arrangement for his visit to Japan (1928) following discussions in London (1926) about Sarawak’s mineral resources (oil, coal, etc) during the second half of the 1920s.”
These discussions turned out successful as the Japanese company was able to secure concession for prospecting coal at the Pila and Pelagus rivers in the Upper Rejang area as well as at Sama, Murit and Pegau rivers.
It wasn’t until 1936 or 1937 that the British Colonial Office in London took notice the increased interest of Japanese in Sarawak that they immediately moved to halt ‘any concession which afforded the Japanese a pretext for penetration into Sarawak as eminently undesirable from the defence point of view’.
3.The boycott against Nissa Shokai products
Boycotting products based on its origin due to war is not something new.
When the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the local Chinese in Sarawak boycotted agricultural produce from Nissa Shokai.
There were also some cases of sabotage against the Japanese reported such as cutting off the telephone line to the Nissa Shokai estate.
The Brooke government tried their best to kill the boycott of Japanese goods out of that spirit of comradeship but all of their attempts were unsuccessful.
4.Some of the employees of Nissa Shokai were believed to be spies.
According to Ooi, in Sarawak there was an espionage network known as Yorioka Kikan named after Yorioka Shoza, the founder-proprietor of Nissa Shokai.
Ooi pointed out in his book, “Allied sources reported that the company’s manager in Sarawak and its agent in Kuching as well as employee, Kurasaki, Mori and Matsui Tomisaku respectively were all active in this espionage network.”
Digby in his memoir also shared how he found out that one of the Nissa Shokai employees turned out to be a Japanese army.
“I could not withhold my admiration from one of the Nissa Shokai executive officials, who visited Serian for a court case, and rejecting my offer of hospitality, insisted on staying in the thoroughly hostile Chinese bazaar. The next time I saw that man was on Dec 24th, 1941, the day on which the Japanese occupied Kuching. He was then in the uniform of an officer of the Japanese army.”
If there was an espionage network in Sarawak way before the war began, how much information did these spies obtain?
Apparently according to John Beville Archer in his memoir Glimpses of Sarawak between 1912 and 1946, they knew ‘a lot’.
“When I was passing through Singapore on my way back from furlough in 1939, I visited a Japanese house down the East Coast road to sup off that splendid Japanese dish know as sukiyaki. We were party of four and whilst we squatted on the floor watching the girls prepare and cook it we got talking. They spoke some Malay and some English. We asked them their names and asked them to guess our professions. Well, blast my buttons, if those girls didn’t know not only our names but our jobs and where we lived! Not much of a story but just an inkling as to what a far-reaching spy system they must have had. Again, a few days after I was captured I was called before one of the local Japanese residents who had obviously stepped into some official position at once. He called for my dossier and I could not help noticing that it was a pretty fat document already. This was confirmed when he read out extracts from it. My personal and domestic life was apparently no secret to the Japanese; I was amazed at the lot they knew about me.”
5.There are records of former Nissa Shokai employees that had assimilated into the Sarawak community.
Like many migrant workers in the present day who found love and home in their new countries where they worked, there is no surprise to find out that some Nissa Shokai employees also found the same thing in Sarawak back in the early 20th century.
In 2021, The International Journal of East Asian Studies published a paper on Japanese immigrants in Sarawak before World War II who assimilated through inter-ethnic marriages. The purpose of this paper was to posit that cemeteries involving Japanese immigrants should be promoted as tourist destinations as they reflect Sarawak’s rich multicultural heritage and history of assimilation with foreigners.
One example from the paper which was written by Md Nasruddin Md Akhir, Geetha Govindasamy and Rohayati Paidi, was the case of Seiji Kuno.
The paper stated, “Seiji Kuno, a Japanese national was believed to have arrived in Sarawak 1909 or 1910. He was reportedly a former employee of Nissa Shokai. Seiji Kuno who was known by several names – Mohd Towfek or Mohamed Towpik Kuno or Mohd Jepun, owned a shop in India Street in Kuching. Reportedly, he was an acupuncturist and herbalist. Kuno married Ejah binti Haji Rais when she was 18 years old on 12 June 1917 and had 7 children. Prior to his marriage, Kuno had already converted to Islam. Having immersed himself with the local community, he eventually became the Tua Kampung of Seniawan, located in Samarahan, for about 17 years.”
Kuno had assimilated so completely that he was seen as a defender of Islam and the local community during the Japanese occupation period.
“Prior to the war, Kuno taught religious classes in Samarahan. He even assisted the Malays by obtaining support from the Japanese authorities to fund certain activities in the mosque. Eventually the authorities began providing $900 annually for wages, grass cutting, feasting on important occasions like that of the birthday of prophet Mohammad as well as supporting expenses for entertainment during the fasting month.”
So if there is DNA ancestry test to be done, don’t be surprised to see some Sarawakians today with Japanese heritage.