Statista notes that as of October 2021, there are more than 1, 100 Japanese nationals residing in South Africa. Additionally, the online data platform points out that this figure does not include the nikkeijin, descendants of Japanese emigrants, who no longer have Japanese citizenship. Overall, Asians comprise less than 3% of the population in South Africa, with the Indian, Chinese, and Vietnamese populations accounting for the majority of that percentage. The Japanese population is modest and concentrated mostly in the areas of Johannesburg and Cape Town.
The number of Japanese in South Africa may be far smaller than in other countries, with Japanese nationals in the country likewise being fewer in number than their Asian counterparts. But, it is a robust presence and partnership that has its beginnings in the late 1800s.
Statista notes that as of October 2021, there are more than 1, 100 Japanese nationals residing in South Africa.
The days of small beginnings
The earliest economic links between Japan and what was to become the Union of South Africa date to 1643, when Jan van Riebeeck — together with Jan van Elseracq, the Dutch East Indies Company’s agent in Japan — arrived at Dejima in Nagasaki port for matters of trade. Seven years later, in 1650, the hides of South African wild animals were exported to Japan; trade between the two countries commenced, mostly centered on natural resources.
With trade relations in place, migration, and cultural exchange followed decades later. Two of the earliest-known Japanese immigrants to South Africa were Furuya Komahei and Iwasaki Kanzō. In 1898, Furuya Komahei set up a shop in South Africa. He was the first Japanese merchant to do so, running a store in Cape Town, the Mikado Shōten or Emperor Bookshop, which remained open until 1942 when war-time tensions prompted the South African government to seize the bookshop’s contents. Meanwhile, in 1904, Iwasaki Kanzō established small businesses in Durban, with the assistance of the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture and Commerce.
In 1910, the Japanese government appointed Mr Julius Otto Jeppe — a British national of German ancestry, who was living in Cape Town at the time — as the honorary consul of Japan in South Africa. The nomination was made to protect Japan’s and Japanese people’s rights in South Africa, as well as to boost commerce with the country. More Japanese migrants arrived at Cape Town in 1916, and, in 1918, amidst growing bilateral relations, Japan ultimately established a consulate in Cape Town. A regular ship exchange was started between Kobe and Durban in 1926.
A flourishing relationship, despite early odds
Despite the strains and struggles brought about by the Second World War and by apartheid in the 1940s, trade between Japan and South Africa remained steady and strong. As the years rolled by, Japanese investment in South Africa grew, specifically in the areas of precious metals (gold, in particular), the automotive sector, and manufacturing. It has been said that at one point, in the early 1970s, Japanese businessmen, their briefcases in hand, were “a common sight” in the lobbies of South Africa’s posh hotels. To service the growing Nikkei community,
The Nippon Club of South Africa was founded in 1961. The Johannesburg-based organization was established to assist Japanese companies operating in Johannesburg, as well as to strengthen and enhance the unity of the Japanese-South African community, through business and cultural activities. In 1966, the Nippon Club sponsored the opening of South Africa’s first and only Nihonjin gakkō, or Japanese School, the Japanese School of Johannesburg.
As of 2019, there were over 160 Japanese companies operating in South Africa, creating approximately 150,000 jobs in the country, with indicators pointing towards even greater growth in the coming years.