On 23rd May 1866 a public notice of the Bakufu (shogunate) declared that any Japanese who wished to go abroad for study or trade would be given a passport to do so. So after two centuries of isolation the people of Japan were free to travel and explore the rest of the world.
The Japanese Overseas Migration Museum at Shinko, Yokohama, sets out to discover the journeys these early travellers made, and show visitors, including returning descendants of emigrants, something of the life of those people who claimed a passport.
It is fitting that Yokohama hosts this museum since it was one of the main departure points for the emigrants, with ships leaving regularly, and a series of inns set up, where people stayed while they processed paper work and collected things they would need for the journey.
The small museum takes visitors chronologically through the history of Japanese overseas migration, using a sequence of tableaus, information boards and personal effects. The first migrants went to Hawaii to find work on sugar plantations. It was estimated that some 29,000 labourers left between 1885 and 1894 and of those some 60% returned to Japan.
Around the same time as people left for Hawaii, a different type of migrant was heading to the west coast of America. These were students, mostly young men, who wanted to acquire new skills and knowledge from the rapidly industrialised Americas. Whilst many of these men returned to Japan, others stayed in the United States and became influential in their new communities.
In the early twentieth century the Japanese began leaving for South America, and in particular, Brazil. Initially they worked on coffee plantations but gradually they began cultivating their own land and establishing their own settlements.
The museum also looks at how the migrants fared during the Second World War. Most of the Japanese in America were interred in camps and others in South America lost businesses and were made to move. The war disrupted the pattern of migration from Japan but when it was over, the departures began again, with groups leaving for other South American countries such as Paraguay, Argentina and Bolivia.
Besides the tableaus and information boards, the museum has monitors playing interviews with migrants who moved overseas and settled permanently in other countries. The recordings, in Japanese, have been translated into English.
After the historical information the museum gives some examples of the sort of work that Japanese migrants were involved in: cotton plantations, coffee growing in South America, pepper growing in the Amazon basin, lumber mills and salmon fishing in British Columbia and Alaska.
Although many Japanese travelled abroad as labourers, some moved into other jobs and occupations. Communities needed shops, teachers and doctors, while other migrants changed to service or manufacturing work.
The final exhibits in the museum look at lives of migrants through photographs and videos.
Besides the permanent display there is a special exhibition hall at the museum with changing exhibits. Upstairs on the third floor is the Terrace café and the outside deck has views over the Red Brick Warehouses to the sea.
Address: 2-3-1 Shinko Naka-ku, JICA Yokohama 2F, Yokohama 231-0001, Kanagawa
Phone Number: +81 45-663-3257
Closed: Mondays (When Monday is a holiday the museum will be closed Tuesday). 29th December – 3rd January.