Linked lives

A mid-twentieth century Okinawan community on Thursday Island, Torres Strait, Far North Queensland


  • Anna Shnukal Queensland Museum



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.

Author Biography

Anna Shnukal, Queensland Museum

Anna Shnukal was inspired by her multilingual father to study languages in Australia, France, the United States, Mexico, Germany, Nigeria and Russia. She has degrees from the Australian National University, Sydney University, Canberra University, Georgetown University and the University of Queensland, and has pursued several different careers, including teaching linguistics at universities in the United States, Nigeria and Australia. In 1980, she took up a post-doctoral research fellowship in sociolinguistics at the Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies and began field research into the Torres Strait creole lingua franca. She has been funded primarily through scholarships and research grants from Australia, France and the United States, among them a Harold White Fellowship from the National Library of Australia and an ARC Australian Research Fellowship. She is currently an Honorary Associate of the Queensland Museum, contributing several chapters to its Memoirs series. She has authored, co-authored or edited over 100 publications, reports and conference papers on aspects of Torres Strait language, custom and history, including descriptions of seven early ‘outsider’ communities of Torres Strait: Chinese, Filipino, ‘Malay’, Maori, Pacific Islander, Scandinavian and Sri Lankan.


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How to Cite

Shnukal, A. (2022). Linked lives: A mid-twentieth century Okinawan community on Thursday Island, Torres Strait, Far North Queensland. Queensland Review, 29(1), 1–21.