Japanese migration to Thailand
|Regions with significant populations|
|Bangkok, Chonburi, Chiang Mai|
Japanese migration to Thailand has a long history, and in recent years has grown to a large extent. Bangkok, the home of two-thirds of all the registered Japanese residents in Thailand, has the fourth-largest Japanese expatriate population of any city in the world and outside of Japan, only behind Los Angeles, New York City, and Shanghai. Japanese residents themselves suspect that their actual population number may be several times more than the official figures, because many transient residents, especially those on long-term tourist visas, fail to register with their local Japanese consulates.
16th and 17th century
From the 1580s to the 1630s, a Japanese community of traders, mercenaries, and Catholic exiles thrived in the Ayutthaya Kingdom's capital Ayutthaya. They arrived primarily on the red seal ships which controlled trade between Japan and Siam. By 1620, the Japanese district in the city's southeast, on the east bank of the Chao Phraya River, numbered between 1,000 and 1,500 inhabitants, making it the second-largest Japanese community abroad, behind that in Manila. One of its members, Yamada Nagamasa, rose to prominence as a military advisor to King Songtham, attaining the rank opra. However, in 1630 Sri Voravong (later known as King Prasat Thong) sent him to put down a rebellion at Ligor (today Nakhon Si Thammarat); he was wounded in the battle, and then poisoned by an emissary sent by Prasat Thong. After Yamada's death, Prasat Thong attacked the Japanese settlement at Ayutthaya and drove out its inhabitants. Most were killed, while some, along with the survivors of Yamada's army at Ligor, fled to Cambodia. Upon hearing the news, Tokugawa Iemitsu, then shogun of Japan, cut off relations with Siam.
A few of the Japanese were able to return to their homeland, but with the hardening of Japan's sakoku policy most found themselves in permanent exile. Prasat Thong tried to re-establish trade with Japan, and invited some Japanese to return to Ayutthaya; by 1637 there were perhaps 300 living there. However, Japan continued to refuse all Ayutthaya ships permission to call at port, reserving this privilege for Chinese and Dutch ships. The Japanese immigrants do not appear to have brought any women or children with them (though some scholars suspect that the Catholics among them may have brought families); in any case, most seem to have intermarried with local women, and over the generations their descendants melted into the society.
19th and early 20th centuries
After the Declaration of Amity and Commerce between Japan and Siam in 1887, Japanese people slowly began coming to Siam again. In 1894, it was reported that the governments of Japan and Siam were negotiating the possible settlement in Siam of migrants from Japan who would work on developing virgin land for agriculture. However, such plans saw little success. By 1896 there were perhaps between 30 and 50 Japanese living at Bangkok, and none in the provinces. Up until 1897, the Japanese were under French protection, but that year, a Japanese legation was established at Bangkok, with Inagaki Manjiro as its minister. Japan and Siam signed a treaty in 1898, whereby Japanese in Siam were granted extraterritoriality, but only until the passage of a Siamese criminal code. By 1913, there were 219 Japanese in Siam (157 males, 62 females) who had registered with the consulate. By 1902, observers had noted a trend of increasing Japanese employment as advisors in the government of Siam. These included experts in fields such as law, education, and sericulture. The men of the community tended to be educated and skilled, not mere labourers; however, the women comprised mostly prostitutes or ex-prostitutes. Among the Japanese subjects in Siam were a few Koreans and Taiwanese. There was some confusion over the nationality of the latter, whether they should be treated as overseas Chinese like the other Thai Chinese, or be entitled to receive consular protection as Japanese nationals.
After the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War in 1937, the Chinese merchant community engaged in a surprisingly violent boycott of Japanese goods. As relations between Japan and the United Kingdom deteriorated, Japanese expatriates in Singapore and other British territories resettled in Siam to avoid potential internment. The 1941 Japanese invasion and occupation of Thailand brought many more Japanese to the country. After the war ended, the British military authorities repatriated them all to Japan, including the civilians, unless they could prove that they had been long-term residents of the country. Repatriation efforts were held up by war crimes prosecutions; by September 1946, still about 1/6 of the Japanese who had been in Southeast Asia at the war's end remained there, including about 9,500 Japanese in Siam.
Business and employment
After the establishment of relations between Japan and Siam in 1898, the Siamese government invited 15 Japanese sericulture experts to aid in the development of the country's silk exports. They were assigned to the Isan region in the country's northeast. Though it was a success in building up relations between Japan and Siam, leading to the establishment of Kasetsart University, it failed to actually increase silk production. Beginning in 1909, official support from both sides for the project began to wane, and in 1913, after outbreaks of silkworm diseases, funding was cut off.
In the 1980s, most Japanese in Thailand were sent there as expatriates by large Japanese corporations or government organizations. Only a small proportion were individual businesspeople or entrepreneurs. Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs survey in 1989 showed that out of 2,392 Japanese work-permit holders in Thailand, 1,046 were managers, 444 were engineers, 292 were other kinds of specialists, 184 were production inspectors, and 139 were commercial managers. In total, the Japanese government statistics showed 10,579 Japanese people staying in Thailand, of which 9,525 were in Bangkok. They occupied the upper end of the economic spectrum in their adopted home, earning salaries ranging from six to twelve times as high as the average Thai corporate workers.
In a more recent trend, an increasing number of Japanese expatriates in Thailand consist of young people working in Japanese contact centres and other business process outsourcing firms providing Japanese-language services, such as Transcosmos and Masterpiece. Though their pay is less than half what they might earn in Japan, by living in Thailand they can take advantage of the country's low living costs; they also avoid many of the social pressures associated with corporate employment in Japan. The employers, for their part, prefer to hire Japanese workers rather than locals to avoid cultural misunderstandings, and because they believe their clients in Japan would not accept dealing with Thai people who speak Japanese as a second language.
A 2001 study of 4,315 Japanese patients at Ram Hospital in Chiang Mai found that the most common health complaints (classified according to ICD-10 coding) involved respiratory diseases (739 cases), digestive tract diseases, and infectious diseases. However, the authors noted that adult Japanese tended only to visit hospitals in case of acute diseases. The authors offered health consultations to Japanese expatriates living in the city, and found many suffering from chronic diseases; they urged them to present themselves at hospitals for management of their condition.
A 2005 study of Japanese patients at Bangkok Hospital (11,200 patients, about one-eight of all non-Thai patients at the hospital that year) found that most patients were men in their 30s, 40s, and 50s; women and patients in their 20s were notably fewer. Focusing just on the patients who were actually resident in Thailand, as opposed to travellers, their health complaints showed a number of dissimilarities with local Thai patients. Again according to ICD-10 coding, "certain infectious and parasitic diseases" were uncommon among Japanese patients and common among Thai patients, while "diseases of the musculoskeletal system and connective tissue" showed the reverse trend. Comparing Japanese expatriate patients in Thailand to patients in Japan found that "endocrine, nutritional, and metabolic diseases" and "mental and behavioral disorders" were diagnosed less frequently among the former group, while "diseases of the respiratory system" and "certain infectious and parasitic diseases" were more frequent among the former group.
One of the most widely read Japanese expatriate publications in Thailand is Daco magazine. It was started in 1998 by Mikio Numadate, an Aomori native and resident of Thailand since 1986. It is distributed for free, often in ramen shops along Sukhumvit Road which attract a primarily Japanese clientele. He also started a Thai-language version of Daco in 2003 to introduce Japanese culture to people in Thailand. J-Channel FM 93.75, a 24-hour Bangkok-based radio station, also broadcasts in Japanese roughly 30% of the time since 2004. They have many bilingual DJs of mixed Thai and Japanese ethnicity, and much of the Japanese content, especially J-pop, also finds listeners among local Thai people.
A number of Japanese and Thai books and films contain portrayals of Thailand's Japanese community across the years. Thommayanti's novel Khu Kam depicts a Thai woman's relationship with an Imperial Japanese Army officer during the Japanese occupation of Thailand. It was adapted numerous times for television and film, including in 1996 as Sunset at Chaophraya.  A more recent one is Hitonari Tsuji's novel Sayonara Itsuka, the story of an affair of a Japanese women in Thailand and a married Japanese salaryman, which was also adapted for film in 2010. Ayutthaya's Japanese community was portrayed in the 2010 Thai film Yamada: The Samurai of Ayothaya, starring Seigi Ozeki and Buakaw Por. Pramuk.
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- Daco Magazine
- Bangkok Keizai Shinbun (Bangkok Economic News)
- Bangkok Shūhō (Bangkok Weekly)
- J-Channel FM 93.75
- Japanese Association of Thailand
- Japanese Chamber of Commerce, Bangkok