The Immigration Restriction Act of 1899 ended the remote possibility that large numbers of Japanese would settle in New Zealand.
Until the Second World War only 10 Japanese were naturalised, some having toured with martial arts troupes. Three settled on the North Island’s East Coast, becoming well respected by Māori and Europeans.
By 1920 there were 14 male residents (Japanese wives of New Zealanders were recorded as British nationals). Businessmen were allowed residence from the 1920s.
Some Japanese visitors saw New Zealand as a socialist utopia, and goodwill visits and trade increased in the 1920s and 1930s. Banno Brothers, who had been importing in the Pacific, became the first Japanese company to register in New Zealand.
The fear of invasion
Although only 55 Japanese came to New Zealand between 1915 and 1919, the minister of internal affairs voiced his concerns about the so-called ‘influx of asiatics’:
‘My opinion is that if there were any danger of immigration on a large scale from Japan into this country which might materially affect the principle of ‘a White New Zealand’, it might become necessary for Parliament to consider the hardening up of the limitations which now exist’. 1
But New Zealand anxiety about Japanese expansion into the Pacific grew after Japan invaded China in 1937. It increased when Japan exploited Germany’s victories in Europe in mid-1940, to move into French Indochina. When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941 and attacked British possessions, apprehension hardened into outright hostility. Along with some 40 compatriots from the Pacific Islands, five Japanese residents were interned on Somes Island, in Wellington Harbour, as enemy aliens. Hundreds of Japanese prisoners of war were detained in a camp at Featherston, near Wellington. During a sit-down strike at the camp, guards shot and instantly killed 31 of these men; 17 died later.