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by  Tessa Copland

Japan and New Zealand: two island nations in the Pacific, both with dramatic scenery and prone to earthquakes. Yet in the 19th century they were worlds apart. For decades, Japanese visitors to New Zealand were a rarity, and the Second World War destroyed friendly contact. But new links were established after the war, and today, thousands of Japanese New Zealanders and visitors live, work or study here. And Kiwi culture has been enriched by Japanese influences, from pottery and garden design, to karaoke and martial arts.

East and West: early days

Worlds apart

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.

19th-century arrivals

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.

  1. Masako Gavin, ‘The forgotten enlightener: Shiga Shigetaka (1863–1927).’ PhD thesis (translated), Victoria University of Wellington, 1997, p. 115. (Published as Shiga Shigetaka, 1863–1927: the forgotten enlightener. Richmond, Surrey: Curzon, 2001.) › Back

Contact 1900–1945


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.

East–West relations

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.

  1. New Zealand Herald, 29 March 1919. › Back

Post-war changes

New links

After the Second World War, political, economic and cultural exchanges were re-established. From the 1960s Japan became a principal trading partner. The 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games and New Zealand’s Expo 70 in Osaka fostered friendship. Touring exhibits of pottery, martial arts and ikebana (flower arrangement) prompted some New Zealanders to practise these aspects of Japanese culture.

Language courses started in schools and universities from the 1960s. During the next two decades an increasing number of Japanese businesses, cars, televisions and tourists appeared. Other connections were established, including 14 New Zealand–Japan societies, 32 sister cities, and numerous cultural and sporting exchanges.

Visitors numbered 66,404 in 1987; in 1997 this had almost tripled to 162,736, but has subsequently been either static or falling. The relationship which had developed rapidly over 20 years became more stable.


Some New Zealand servicemen stationed in Japan between 1946 and 1956 married Japanese women, who were initially denied residency. Numbering around 50, they faced disapproval from their families and difficulties in New Zealand, including a lack of local communities, and pressure to assimilate.

Immigration criteria changed after 1986, placing increased importance on job skills. It was common for employees of Japanese companies to work in Auckland for a few years. The bilateral working-holiday scheme of 1986 encouraged younger Japanese to visit, and at one time a number of young women came on an au pair programme.

Following the change in immigration policy there was a big surge in arrivals. By 1996 there were 7,461 Japanese living in New Zealand; 10 years later the number had reached 11,910, and by 2013 it was 14,118.

Immigrant families enjoyed the space and freedom that was lacking in Japan’s crowded cities. As one boy commented: ‘There is a lot of green grass and trees and room to play here. All around our place in Tokyo there was lots and lots of concrete’. 1


In 1965 Massey University became the first university to teach Japanese at degree level, and in 1987 the Centre for Japanese Studies was opened there. By this time, secondary schools were teaching Japanese to a growing number of students.

Like samurai

At a reception for New Zealand teachers in Yamaguchi City, Japan, in 1980, Kenji Inoue made this comment:

‘In my youth Japan was defeated. The United States’ Red Arrows were stationed here and they were active and outgoing. Some New Zealand soldiers were also stationed in Yamaguchi City. They were more shy and reserved; well-mannered and polite – like samurai.

So I said to myself, “New Zealand is a gentleman’s country.”’ 2

An influx of Asian students began in the 1990s. Japanese were the largest group (54%) attending language schools in 1998–99. Although this proportion dropped, by 2001 there were 11,634 fee-paying Japanese students at English-language schools.

Students were a familiar sight on campus and about town, especially in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch. Many lived with New Zealand families, making cross-cultural experiences more relaxed and personal.

    • New Zealand Herald, 24 June 1986. › Back
    • Quote 37 in John Daley, ed., Good as gold: being a New Zealander. Auckland: Godwit, 2002. › Back

Community and culture

The community today

There were 14,118 Japanese residents in New Zealand in 2013. Most came to work, to join relatives, to marry, or to receive an education. The Japanese community contributes job skills, financial investment and cultural activities, including popular ‘Japan days’. Martial arts clubs abound. Karaoke bars first appeared in the late 1980s, followed by a variety of outlets selling Japanese food and merchandise.


In 2013 the largest group lived in the Auckland region (6,720), which had a thriving network that included a businessmen’s association, a Christian church, a women’s choir, and a supplementary school. Many Japanese were relatively affluent and lived in the eastern suburbs. Short-term residents – often company representatives or those associated with tourism – tended to group together, retaining their customs and language. They faced the problems of a different language, food and habits, and the racism that is sometimes directed against Asian immigrants.

Settling in

Atsuko Takada, a New Zealand resident and student counsellor, said in 2003 that some aspects of western and eastern cultures were no longer so different:

‘Even though Japan is in Asia, it’s got so many influences from the United States that the culture here isn’t that difficult to get used to.’ 1

Longer-term residents, mainly professionals, have integrated more actively. In many ways their outlook mirrors that of their American and European counterparts. But some also maintain cultural practices such as the tea ceremony. In the 2000s a typical family would shop for shiitake mushrooms, seaweed and other authentic ingredients, for a diet that was about half Japanese.

Other communities

In 2013 there was a sizeable group in Canterbury (2,568), with 1,164 in Wellington. For many years Wellington’s Japan Seamen’s Hall, unique outside Japan, offered squid fishermen and sailors mah jong, traditional baths and sake (rice wine).

    • From Hannah Brown, ‘An Asian at my table.’ North and South (May 2003): 50. › Back

Facts and figures

Country of birth

The New Zealand census figures listed here show the number of residents born in Japan.

  • 1921 census: 40
  • 1951 census: 47
  • 1976 census: 1,173
  • 2001 census: 8,622
  • 2006 census: 9,573
  • 2013 census: 10,269

Ethnic identity

In the 2006 and 2013 censuses, people were asked to indicate the ethnic group or groups with which they identified. The numbers include those who indicated more than one group.

  • Japanese: 11,910 (2006); 14,118 (2013)

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Tessa Copland, 'Japanese', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 19 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Tessa Copland, i tāngia i te 8 o Pēpuere 2005, updated 1 o Māehe 2015