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Shotaro Noda’s Visit to Colombo from Japan in 1890

| by Laksiri Fernando 

( September 8, 2014, Sydney, Sri Lanka Guardian) Japan undoubtedly is a country that Sri Lanka could always learn from; learn critically and constructively. Japan has a special favour for Sri Lanka for several reasons and it is not clear whether Sri Lanka has always reciprocated this goodwill in equal measure in its diplomatic and international relations. A particular reason for this goodwill in political sphere is JR Jayewardene’s speech at the San Francisco Conference (1945) where he strongly urged that Japan should not be punished unreasonably. Both countries are predominantly Buddhist, and it is also believed that Hinduism also influenced Japan to an extent in its Shinto religion or at least there are parallel beliefs and rituals between the two. 

As a modern nation since late 19th century, Japan perhaps gave more importance to Sri Lankan or then Ceylon as a maritime nation with strategic importance particularly in sea lanes. This is something that the visiting Prime Minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, has emphasized addressing the business community in Colombo yesterday. Some areas that he has emphasised are: maritime law enforcement, search and rescue operations, disaster risk reduction and environment protection in the context of increased trade and commerce in the region and beyond. 

Japan has gone through various phases that any country could emulate or not emulate depending on the merits or demerits of those phases. There cannot be any doubt that Sri Lanka or any country should not mimic the military valour or adventure that Japan indulged in during 1930 and early 1940s which led to the disastrous results by the end of the World War II. By the same token, Sri Lanka should not putrefy under a ruthless ‘Shogunate’ like in various periods of the Tokugawa reign before 1868. 

In contrast, the modernization efforts under the Meiji reforms (1868-1912) and the economic and social resurgence since 1950s are clear examples that Sri Lanka could learn lessons from. In these reform efforts, Japan carried deliberate study, research, borrowing and adaptation from various countries particularly in the West. It is in this move towards and travel to the West that Japan came across Ceylon and its people in modern times as many of the travellers had to stopover in Galle or later Colombo. 

What I relate here is a visit to Colombo by Shotaro Noda, a reputed journalist, in 1890, taken the information from an original source of Jiji Shinpo, a popular Japanese newspaper, which was translated by Dr Michael Penn for his studies and who was kind enough to make available the relevant sections on Ceylon for my use. A previous article on a similar topic was published in the Asian Tribune in March 2006 and the present is an adaptation of that initial article. 

Background to the Visit 

Noda was travelling to Turkey or more precisely to ‘Constantinople,’ by the name Japan or the world commonly knew Istanbul at that time. He was in a mission in relation to the tragedy of Ertugrul, a Turkish ship that sunk in the Japanese waters in September 1890. When the Japanese navy rescued 73 survivors from the sinking ship and the surrounding sea, most of them were being naval officers, the Emperor ordered to send them back to Turkey with full military honors in two Japanese warships, Hiei and Kongo. Noda was traveling in Hiei, reporting back to his newspaper Jiji Shinpo, all the news on his way to Constantinople. Ceylon and Colombo became major focus of his reporting when he landed in the Island for several emotional reasons that he explained later in his narrative. A major reason was his interest in knowing the status of Buddhism in the country.

So far known contacts between Japan and Ceylon or Sri Lanka during the period have been recorded in “The Distant Neighbours: Fifty Years of Japan Sri Lanka Relations” edited by WD Lakshman, which reports the ‘stop-over of a Japanese diplomat, Tadasu Hayashi, on his way back from London, somewhere in early 1880s, which eventually led to the arrival of two Buddhist monks Shaku Konen in 1886 and Shaku Soen in 1887 and many more religious contacts including the visit of Colonel Olcott and Anagakrika Dharmapala to Japan in 1889.’

President J. R. Jayewardene standing in front of his statue in Tokyo, Japan, which was erected in his honour after his speech at the 1951 San Francisco Peace Conference

Noda’s Chronicle indubitably indicates the possibility of many more Japanese visits to the Island, at least on their way to and from Europe during this important period of Japanese history when Japan reached out to the outside world, particularly to the West in a globalizing mood. In the early 1880s, Galle was the main stop over place for merchant ships; therefore early Japanese visitors, including perhaps Tadasu Hayashi, saw Galle and its surroundings. But “Colombo soon replaced Galle as the country’s chief port and became a major refueling and supply center for merchant ships on the East-West route.” I am quoting from a navigation chronicle, and the British used to call Colombo the ‘Clapham junction of the World,’ where so many ocean routes converged.

The Japanese mission to Turkey, Noda as a central character, had another historical importance. This was the first known humanitarian mission that Japan had undertaken after she came out of her ‘political hibernation’ for over two and a half centuries, but now reaching out to the outside world with considerable ambition as well as generosity during the Meiji Ishin, to mean Meiji Restoration, since 1868.

The newspaper Jiji Shinpo, with the help of several other organizations and commercial companies, in fact collected 4,248,976 yen through public campaigning to be donated to the victims of the Ertugrul tragedy, both the survivors and the families of the disappeared. Noda was in fact taking a bank draft in his hands for this purpose in French francs (18,907 francs) to be handed over to the right authorities in Turkey. The amount was quite a sum those days, or even today. This was also the first known foreign donation of Japan collected through the public.

Arriving in Colombo

The night they were approaching Ceylon, 15 November 1890, was turbulent. “The area around Ceylon is noted for its particularly intense thunderstorms and, indeed there were terrible roars of thunder, brilliant flashes of lightening, and a pelting rain,” he wrote. Noda and others seemed to have enjoyed the monsoon weather of November when they were approaching Ceylon.

“Everyone went up onto the deck totally naked and in the darkness of the night we couldn’t even see each other. In the cool rain of nature we bathed with the beating sound of rain all around us. I too occupied a corner and was cleansed from head to toe by the pure waters of the heavens. All dirt and grime of faraway Japan was washed into the Indian Ocean. On the evening, the fish swimming in the sea beneath the ship must have been surprised to suddenly catch the scent of Japan!” he exclaimed.

Noda arrived in Colombo Port on 16 November 1890 at 8.30 am. “Soon after we arrived” he reported “a small boat appeared carrying four Japanese. These were Captain Shogo Iguchi, an Army artillery officer, a certain Mr. Hori, a Bachelor of Science; and two Bachelors of Medicine, Aisaburo Suzuki and Masano Koike.” What have they been doing in Colombo? Noda says, “These men have come from Europe and are on their way to Japan. While traveling aboard the German mail ship Saxon, which is now in this port, they were pleasantly surprised to see two ships flying the Japanese flag and came out to confirm their discovery.”

About Colombo, Noda reported the following. “In Colombo there is Buddhism and Islam and Christianity. There are various races among Colombo’s population about 110,000 people.” He didn’t see much of a difference among the locals though, and simply said “all of them are blacks.” “Upon arriving here” he added, “I went together with the six Turkish officers from the Hiei and Kongo to visit the Turkish Consulate in Colombo. Since the Consul himself had just died only two or three days earlier, the mood inside the building was rather gloomy.” Then he gave a description of some local Muslims with his impressions attached.

“Soon after, Muslims began to arrive in all directions and they gathered there. These Muslims mixed with the Turkish officers and asked them about what had happened to the Ertugrul. They offered their sympathies and cried bitterly for some time.” It is quite possible in my view that it was a Friday, and the Muslims came after the prayer at the Mosque on Friday afternoon. Otherwise, ‘so many people flocking in all directions at the same time,’ as Noda related cannot happen on a normal day.

Noda’s description gives the impression that the Muslim community in Colombo at that time was sizable; and they were an important community. He also gives a brief description of what was given to them to eat at the Consulate, noting that the Consul had been an Arab and not a Turk. “We were then shown to seats in the dining room where a great Arabian style feast was prepared. All kinds of delicacies were offered but I didn’t care for any of them.” What he ate were local fruits after all.

“Finally, some fruit was brought in including sugared coconut and pineapple dipped in a kind of sweet alcohol. I don’t know their names, but about twenty different kinds of fruit were offered in succession. Among these there was nothing that I didn’t like and I eventually became rather tipsy.”

Noda had also visited Kollupitiya, to Arabi Pasha’s residence, but doesn’t give any description, except the mentioning.

About Ceylon 

About Ceylon in general, his description was much more elaborate and focused more on the commercial side. “The land size of Ceylon is 25,742 square miles. Despite this great size,” he reported that “the cultivated part of the island doesn’t exceed twenty percent.” Noda had been in Colombo for only three and a half days, and it is amazing how he mastered the minute details within that short period, with correct names of people and places. But his description of the ‘natives’ were not very elegant. He used the Japanese word Domin, which gives the meaning of ‘lazy natives.’ He said the following about these Domins.

"Without great labor they can collect coconuts and bananas to eat. If someone engages in farming, they can collect two harvests a year. Where the climate never changes, it is not so difficult to earn a livelihood. Consequently, most of the natives' just watch the world go by and spend themselves in wasteful pleasures."

It is on the above premise that he suggested that the Japanese should migrate to Ceylon and secure its natural wealth! He in fact reported, whether it is factually correct or not, that "on this account, several years ago the British government suggested that Japanese might immigrate to this place." Then he reported the following to his readers back home.

"If some Japanese have this intention now, they could probably receive a considerable amount of protection in this endeavor. Considering the low price of renting land here, brave and heroic Japanese who might come to this fertile territory would probably gain a profit that would compare quite favorably to that of Hawaii." The reason for the mentioning of Hawaii was that it was one place that heavy Japanese migration took place during this time for both labor and enterprise.

It doesn’t appear, however, that Noda was suggesting labor migration to Ceylon. What he was proposing was a kind of colonization or land settlement for farming, plantation or other enterprise. Certain remarks in his Chronicle appear that he was suggesting something with the approval of the British when he said the following.

"If the conditions of pawned land are investigated and migration is possible, and if the protection of the government is forthcoming, and if perhaps even a Ceylon Colonization Company is established, upon the consent of the British government, how about coming to Ceylon and securing its natural wealth?" he asked (with my emphasis).

Replacing British?

But there were several other remarks that indicate, he in fact was hinting at replacing the British. He argued:

"This is particularly the case because the natives of this place are sick of domination by the Christian English. Indeed, they must long for that Special Empire of the East, Buddhist Japan. They want Japanese to visit here. The reputation of Japanese is better here than in Singapore, and so everything would be easier." The above highlighted two sentences are important.

Noda wrote four short letters from Colombo. The above was written perhaps after discussions with some enlightened Domins, or on the information that he received from the seven Japanese Buddhist monks who were studying in Colombo at that time. Nevertheless, he was intelligent enough to remark: "Of course, there are many impractical theories in the world like this of mine. Tow or thee days in Ceylon are not sufficient to make a serious investigation, so I leave it to the authorities to decide whether or not my ideas are really sound."

Noda also paid a visit to the Vidyodaya Pirivena at Maligakanda and met Venerable Hikkaduwe Sri Sumangala Nayake Thero and I will relate that part of the story separately later. 

End note:
 I wish to thank Dr. Michael Penn for his generosity and assistance.

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