Colonial New Zealanders, like other Europeans, believed in the superiority of West over East. ‘Orientals’ were seen as exotic and sometimes threatening, but more often as passive and backward. For their part, the Japanese considered New Zealand to be essentially British, although some Japanese identified with Māori as an indigenous people.
Direct contact was rare. For 250 years the Tokugawa rulers of Japan had banned travel. It was not until the Meiji restoration in 1868 that Japanese people could explore Europe, the United States and Australia.
Among the first Japanese to visit New Zealand were circus performers. In 1874 a group of acrobats and wrestlers, some of them women, toured both islands.
An unusual tourist
Visiting in 1886, the scholar Shiga Shigetaka wrote of the ‘cultural and racial oppression’ in New Zealand. In a poem, he lamented:
‘Pākehā flies cruelly have driven away Māori flies.
Pākehā grass has dried out Māori grass without affection to it.’
When Wī Tako Ngātata, a Te Āti Awa leader, met Shigetaka he gave him a feather cloak, saying, ‘It is most encouraging for us to meet someone of the yellow race, such as yourself, apart from the white’. 1
In the 1880s visiting Japanese naval ships excited interest: the Japanese navy was modelled on its British counterpart, and New Zealanders saw in the visitors exemplary British qualities. One ship’s captain presented the Māori King Tāwhiao with a samurai suit of armour.
Only a handful of Japanese settled during the 19th century – the young men who did arrive, came by chance. They moved around as cooks or sailors, but one or two settled, married and raised families. The first Japanese settler, Asajiro Noda, sailed into Bluff around 1890. Another sailor, Kazuyuki Tsukigawa, jumped ship at Dunedin and became a citizen in 1907.