On Nov 1, 1881, the British North Borneo Chartered Company (BNBCC) was formed to administer and exploit the resources of North Borneo (present-day Sabah).
The territory then became a protectorate of the British Empire in 1888.
At that time, BNBCC was lack of funds to develop the territory.
Hence, the company started to offer territorial concessions to outside parties including the second White Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Brooke and the Japanese empire.
Apart from offering North Borneo for concessions, the company also sought outside resources for manpower to develop the territory.
After failing to secure Indian and Javanese labour, the second governor of BNBCC Charles Vandeleur Creagh wrote to Japan inquiring for labours.
Sabihah Osman in his paper Japanese Economic Activities in Sabah from the 1890s until 1941 stated the Japanese Foreign Ministry responded to the request by introducing “emigration agencies” for this purpose.
He pointed out, “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 Sabah, Japan sent migrants to Micronesia, the Caribbean, and North and South America.”
For the Japanese government, sending its citizens to foreign countries was a way to solve overpopulation and unemployment. Or was there another purpose?
So why was the Japanese empire willing to send their citizens to labour in North Borneo?
According to Hara Fujio in his paper Japanese Activities in North Borneo Before World War II: Focus on Labour Immigrants, sending a labourer to a new territory was the first step to colonisation.
“The theory that in order to establish a Japanese colony, agricultural emigrants should firstly be sent, followed by commodities and merchants was shared by the Shokumin Kyokai (Colonisation Association),” Haru wrote.
Organised by Japanese former Foreign Minister Enomoto Takeaki, the CA was led by an executive council consisting of influential politicians, bureaucrats, aristocrats, nationalists and expansionists.
The Japanese Consul to the United Kingdom in 1891 wrote in a report to the Japanese government that, “If several hundred to several thousand Japanese emigrated to North Borneo for agricultural purposes, Japanese villages will surely be formed there. Once villages are established, merchants would follow one after another to form Japanese towns.”
From there, the Japanese started to send citizens to North Borneo since the 1890s. Some were peasants who did not own any land in Japan.
By 1941, the Japanese community in North Borneo numbered 1,737 with 84% of them living in Tawau working various jobs such as labourers, hairdresser, barbers, physicians and dentists.
The price of North Borneo
In the same time, the Japanese also showed some interest in buying North Borneo as a colony.
Shuzo Aoki from the Envoy Extraordinary and Minister of Plenipotentiary in Berlin sent a cable on Nov 7, 1893 to the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Munenori Mutsu.
The cable stated, “Are Imperial Government inclined to buy the Territory of the North Borneo Company for value within 500,000 pounds in order to make Japanese Colony thereof? If so, I will negotiate with British Government regarding cession of its sovereign right. Area thereof is about 1/3 of Japan. An early decision required.”
Meanwhile, Shuzo himself thought that Japan should buy the territory. He envisioned that North Borneo would be a colony to absorb the problem of overpopulation in Japan and its geographical position might contribute significantly to future Japanese commercial and military purposes and interests in the area.
In the meantime, the Japanese Consul in Shanghai, General Oogashi carried out his own feasibility study about the purchase of North Borneo.
He claimed that the BNBCC would sell North Borneo on the condition that the Japanese empire agreed to guarantee a 5% dividend per annum to the company’s shareholder or pay a lump sum of £500,000.
Despite the interest of both Shuzo Aoki and General Oogoshi, the Japanese empire declined to purchase North Borneo simply because they could not afford to.
£500,000 in the year 1893 is worth around £64,672,918.22 in 2020. That is close to 65 million pounds!
Due to financial difficulties, the deal never came through and North Borneo remained under the company until 1946 when it became a British crown colony.
As for the Japanese migrants who came to North Borneo to work, all of them were repatriated to Japan after World War II.