01 January 2004

The Era of Big Business in Micronesia

The cash economies of small Pacific Island states these days are generally based on MIRAB, that is, a combination of Migration, Remittances (from those migrants), Aid (from donor nations), and Bureaucracy (salaries funded by that aid). However, this was not always so. A photo essay added in December 2003 to the Micronesian Seminar's splendid website provides a glimpse of The Era of Big Business, when the government of Micronesia was self-supporting.
It may be hard to believe, but there was a time when the islands had a favorable trade balance and turned a sizeable profit. In the 1930s, under Japanese administration, Micronesia was doing a booming business. There was the giant sugar industry and phosphate mines, but its exports also included katsuobushi [dried bonito flakes], starch, pineapples, and marine products like shell and pearls. This was a period when island exports paid the cost of running the colonial government. Thousands of Japanese immigrants provided the bulk of the labor, while islanders watched the marvels worked on their islands.
There was a high price to pay, however. Micronesians ended up Strangers in Their Own Land. Most of the immigrants to Micronesia came not from the main islands of Japan, but from the Ryukyus (Okinawa).
After 1925, the Okinawans came to constitute not merely the largest bloc within the Japanese colonial population, but an absolute majority of Japanese settlers, whose growth outran even the ballooning rate of overall Japanese immigration into Micronesia.
Most of the Okinawans worked in the sugar industry on Saipan and Tinian in the Marianas, where by 1940 they constituted about 90% of the population of nearly 50,000. Immigrants also accounted for about two-thirds of the population of Palau, where the phosphate mines were. By 1940, the population of Micronesia was less than 50% of Micronesian origin. As war approached, large numbers of Koreans also arrived in labor battalions to fortify the islands against attack.

SOURCES: [above] Mark R. Peattie, Nan'yo: The Rise and Fall of the Japanese Empire in Micronesia, 1885-1945 (University of Hawai‘i Press, 1988). [below] Lin Poyer, Suzanne Falgout, Laurence Marshall Carrucci, The Typhoon of War: Micronesian Experiences of the Pacific War (University of Hawai‘i Press, 2001).

EPILOGUE: Some Palauans "credit their reputation as hard-working entrepreneurs to what they learned from watching Japanese business success" (p. 345), but on a larger scale a whole generation of Micronesian leaders educated under the Japanese was sidelined.
Those who came of age in 1940 looked forward to participating in a thriving economy and a global network as part of the Japanese empire. By 1945 ... many discovered they were too old to participate in the new order: too old to learn English in the new schools, too old to be selected for the programs the U.S. Navy set up to train leaders who would identify with American interests and turn to American culture as a guide to how they wanted to live. It was a difficult time for these mature and ambitious men and women who were approaching the peak of their productive years. [p. 326]

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