A mid-twentieth century Okinawan community on Thursday Island, Torres Strait, Far North Queensland
Keywords:indentured labour, North Queensland, Okinawa, pearling industry, Thursday Island, Torres Strait
The last large group of indentured Asian labourers to arrive in Australia disembarked at Thursday Island, North Queensland in 1958. They were imported from US-administered Okinawa, Japan, by master pearlers hoping to restore the fortunes of the ailing pearlshelling industry. In retrospect, the Okinawans’ arrival coincided with the end of the industry and by 1962 only a few remained. This article examines the men’s relations with the remnant Japanese families living on the island and the Indigenous (Torres Strait Islander and Aboriginal) residents of Thursday Island. Using written and oral (ethnographic and genealogical) sources, it argues that a small, short-lived but distinctive Okinawan community developed on the island between 1958 and 1962, overlapping the arrival of a small number of Japanese pearl culture technicians (1961–72). The pre-war Asian communities of Northern Australia, generally descended from labourers in its extractive industries, have greatly influenced the culture, genetics, identity, economy and politics of local Indigenous societies. Indeed, they foreshadowed the largely peaceful multicultural experiment that is contemporary Australia. This article identifies the last of North Queensland’s marinebased Asian communities and discusses the mechanisms by which social capital and social stability were created and maintained by an ethnically heterogeneous population.
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