Acrobats and pearlers: early Japanese settlers in Australia

Out of curiosity, we were researching about Japanese immigration in Australia on a quiet, rainy Saturday morning. The information we encountered was quite fascinating.

Did you know that the first Japanese settler in Australia was an acrobat in 1873? After the laws forbidding Japanese citizens to leave the country were abolished in 1866, the government began issuing passports for trade or study. A circus troupe of 13 Japanese performers were sent to Australia, and performed around the country.

One of those performers was a man called Sakuragawa Rikinosuke, who came to Japan with his seven-year-old son. He married an Irish-born woman in Fitzroy, Melbourne, in 1875, an intercultural marriage that was something very uncommon at the time.

Unfortunately, being the olden days, his name was incorrectly recorded as ‘Sacaranawa Decenoski’, and this was the name Sakuragawa was known as until his death in 1884 (his birthplace was also incorrectly recorded as ‘Jeddo’, something one can only laugh at from 2020! This is believed to have been an error of ‘Edo’, which is now known as Tokyo). His son Ewar’s name was recorded as ‘Dicinoski’, and his family became a performing circus group called ‘the Dicinoski Troupe’. The name is still being used by the family to the present day, which is somewhat ironic as such an important part of Japanese-Australian history has been smudged to sound anything but Japanese.

If you dig deeper, there are also tales of an early pearler nicknamed ‘Tommy Japan’, who worked casually as a court interpreter on Thursday Island, was arrested for being drunk and disorderly on Christmas, and headed a ten-person Japanese syndicate who won the Tattersall’s Melbourne Cup sweepstake in 1890! They pooled their £22,500 winnings and returned to Japan with their fortunes. This incredible success story was said to have ignited an influx in Japanese immigration to Australia (particularly Thursday Island).