Japanese expatriates in Singapore

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Japanese expatriates in Singapore
Total population
35,982 (October 2014)[1]
Japanese; some study English or Mandarin Chinese as second languages[2]
Buddhism, Tenrikyo
Related ethnic groups
Japanese diaspora

There is a large community of Japanese expatriates in Singapore, consisting mostly of corporate employees and their families.[3] The first Japanese person to settle in Singapore was Yamamoto Otokichi, who arrived in 1862.[4] Larger-scale migration from Japan to Singapore is believed to have begun in the early 1870s, shortly after the Meiji Restoration.[5]

Migration history[edit]

Colonial era[edit]

The tombstone of Otokichi, the first Japanese resident of Singapore

Singapore's first resident of Japanese origin is believed to be Yamamoto Otokichi, from Mihama, Aichi. In 1832, he was working as a crewman on a Japanese boat which was caught in a storm and drifted across the Pacific Ocean; after a failed attempt to return home, he began to work for the British government as an interpreter. After earning British citizenship, he settled in Singapore in 1862. He died five years later and was buried there.[6]

However, most early Japanese residents of Singapore consisted largely of prostitutes, who would later become known by the collective name of "karayuki-san". The earliest Japanese prostitutes are believed to have arrived 1870 or 1871; by 1889, there were 134 of them.[7] From 1895 to 1918, Japanese authorities turned a blind eye to the emigration of Japanese women to work in brothels in Southeast Asia.[8] According to the Japanese consul in Singapore, almost all of the 450 to 600 Japanese residents of Singapore in 1895 were prostitutes and their pimps, or concubines; fewer than 20 were engaged in "respectable trades".[9] In 1895, there were no Japanese schools or public organisations, and the Japanese consulate maintained only minimal influence over their nationals; brothel owners were the dominating force in the community. Along with victory in the Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese state's increasing assertiveness brought changes to the official status of Japanese nationals overseas; they attained formal legal equality with Europeans.[10] That year, the Japanese community was also given official permission by the government to create their own cemetery, on twelve acres of land in Serangoon outside of the urbanised area; in reality, the site had already been used as a burial ground for Japanese as early as 1888.[11]

However, even with these changes in their official status, the community itself remained prostitution-based.[12] Prostitutes were the vanguard of what one pair of scholars describes as the "karayuki-led economic advance into Southeast Asia".[13] It was specifically seen by the authorities as a way to develop a Japanese economic base in the region; profits extracted from the prostitution trade were used to accumulate capital and diversify Japanese economic interests.[14] The prostitutes served as both creditors and customers to other Japanese: they loaned out their earnings to other Japanese residents trying to start businesses, and patronised Japanese tailors, doctors, and grocery stores.[15] By the time of the Russo-Japanese War, the number of Japanese prostitutes in Singapore may have been as large as 700.[16] They were concentrated around Malay Street (now Middle Road).[17] However, with Southeast Asia cut off from European imports due to World War I, Japanese products began making inroads as replacements, triggering the shift towards retailing and trade as the economic basis of the Japanese community.[18]

Singapore abolished licensed Japanese prostitution in 1921.[19] This was part of a larger governmental plan to entirely end legalised prostitution throughout the Malay Peninsula.[20] In spite of the ban, many attempted to continue their profession clandestinely; however, both the Singaporean and Japanese governments made efforts to clamp down on the trade.[21] By 1927, there remained roughly 126 independent Japanese prostitutes.[22] Most eventually left Singapore or moved on to other trades. Their departure coincided with a significant shift in the composition of the Japanese population there: the businesses they patronised, such as tailors and hairdresses, run largely by Japanese men, also shut their doors, and their proprietors left as well, to be replaced by salaried employees working in Japanese trading firms. Only 14 Japanese men worked in such professions in 1914, but by 1921 there were 1,478.[23] The shift would continue in the following decade: in 1919, 38.5% of Japanese in Singapore were commodity merchants and 28.0% company and bank employees, but by 1927, these proportions had shifted sharply, to 9.7% merchants and 62.9% employees.[24]

The Japanese population would peak in 1929 and then decline until 1933, as a result of the world-wide Great Depression. However, it would recover somewhat after that, aided by devaluation of the yen and the consequent increase in competitiveness of Japanese products in Southeast Asian markets.[25] Even as other Japanese businesses suffered declines, the number of fishermen grew, from a small base of about 200 individuals in 1920 to a peak of 1,752 in 1936, accounting for between one-quarter and one-third of the resident Japanese population throughout the 1930s.[26]

World War II and aftermath[edit]

The Japanese cemetery in Singapore also houses the tombstone of Field Marshal Count Terauchi Hisaichi, Commander of the Japanese Southern Forces during the World War II

All Japanese, whether civilian or military, were repatriated to Japan in 1947. Without anyone to maintain it, the Japanese cemetery fell into disrepair.[27] Graves were damaged due to the tropical climate as well as mistreatment by squatters and vandals.[28] Japanese people returned to Singapore only slowly after the war. A few Japanese were issued landing permits in 1948 and 1949, but until 1953, the only Japanese permitted to reside in the country were diplomats and their families. Other Japanese could only be issued landing permits of a maximum validity of two months.[29] However, in the latter half of the 1950s, the restrictions on the entry of Japanese nationals were relaxed, and Japanese trading firms again set up offices in Singapore.[30] The first post-war Japanese residents association, the Japanese Club, was founded in 1957 specifically with the aim of restoring the Japanese cemetery.[31]

Independence era[edit]

The Japanese community began to show significant growth again in the early 1970s, as Japanese businesses shifted manufacturing activities out of Japan into Southeast Asia.[32] Since the mid-1980s, the vast majority of Japanese expatriates come to Singapore as families, with the father employed as a manager or engineer, while the wife stays at home with the children. A few men come without their families (a practise referred to in Japanese as tanshin funin).[33] Within the Japanese community, single women tend to be "doubly marginised": both at the office by Japanese businessmen's restrictive views of the role of women in the workplace, and in social life by the wives of those same businessmen.[34] Single Japanese women generally try to minimise their contacts with married Japanese women, even when the two live in the same neighbourhoods.[35]

Singapore and Japan celebrated 50 years of diplomatic relations in 2016 dubbed SJ50.[36]


The Japanese community of Singapore are served by a number of Japanese-medium educational institutions, including a 400-student kindergarten, a 1,900-student primary school, a 700-student junior high school, and a 500-student senior high school, as well as twelve juku (cram schools) to prepare them for university entrance exams.[37] The schools are situated near Japanese neighbourhoods, and all of the student body and staff are Japanese nationals. Only a small minority of Japanese families send their children to non-Japanese international schools.[38]

The Japanese School Singapore serves elementary and junior high students and the Waseda Shibuya Senior High School in Singapore (formerly Shibuya Makuhari Singapore School) serves high school students. Both schools hold annual festivals open to members of the public who are interested in Japanese culture.

The Japanese Supplementary School Singapore (JSS; シンガポール日本語補習授業校 Shingapōru Nihongo Hoshū Jugyō Kō), a supplementary programme, also operates in Singapore.[39][40]


A Tenrikyo church was established by Japanese expatriates in Singapore in 1922.[41] Their social volunteer work, especially with the handicapped, has been credited with helping to restore Japanese people's reputation in the eyes of Chinese Singaporeans, badly damaged by atrocities during the Japanese occupation of Singapore.[42] However, Tenrikyo remains largely a religion of Japanese expatriates, not of average Singaporeans.[43] Its association with Shinto has proven a disadvantage in attempts to spread it beyond the Japanese community.[44]

Tenrikyo's main "rival" in Singapore is the Buddhist organisation Sōka Gakkai. Originally, its following was also restricted to the Japanese expatriate community.[45] However, it has had more success in outreach to local people, especially the ethnic Chinese community.[46]


As with Japanese in other countries, golf is a popular leisure activity among Japanese businesspeople in Singapore. As the Japanese community in Singapore grew in the 1970s, they applied political pressure to promote upgrading of existing golf courses and development of new ones. Though other expatriates, as well as members of the local upper-middle class, also spoke out in support of the improvement of golfing facilities in Singapore, generally the Japanese were described as making the most forceful demands.[47] Japanese membership in golf associations grew so quickly that many established quotas on the number of foreign members with the express purpose of preventing their "inundation" with Japanese expatriates and tourists, and also established a two-track pricing system, with higher prices for foreigners than locals.[48] Due to the expense of playing golf in Singapore, lower-level Japanese personnel tend to head across the border into Johor Bahru, Malaysia in search of cheaper green fees.[49]

Other popular leisure pursuits include tennis, swimming, Mandarin and English language training, and cooking classes.[50]


  1. ^ "MOFA Japan". Retrieved 2 November 2015. 
  2. ^ Ben-Ari 2003, p. 127
  3. ^ Ben-Ari 2003, pp. 116–117
  4. ^ Tan 2008
  5. ^ Shimizu & Hirakawa 1999, p. 25
  6. ^ Tan 2008
  7. ^ Shimizu & Hirakawa 1999, p. 25
  8. ^ Warren 2003, p. 35
  9. ^ Shimizu & Hirakawa 1999, p. 26
  10. ^ Shiraishi & Shiraishi 1993, p. 8
  11. ^ Tsu 2002, p. 96
  12. ^ Shiraishi & Shiraishi 1993, p. 9
  13. ^ Shimizu & Hirakawa 1999, p. 21
  14. ^ Warren 2003, p. 35
  15. ^ Shimizu & Hirakawa 1999, p. 21
  16. ^ Warren 2003, p. 35
  17. ^ Warren 2003, p. 41
  18. ^ Shiraishi & Shiraishi 1993, p. 9
  19. ^ Warren 2003, p. 42, 87
  20. ^ Shimizu 1993, p. 66
  21. ^ Shimizu 1993, p. 67
  22. ^ Shimizu 1993, p. 68
  23. ^ Shimizu 1993, p. 69
  24. ^ Shimizu 1993, p. 75
  25. ^ Shimizu 1993, p. 63
  26. ^ Shimizu & Hirakawa 1999, p. 94
  27. ^ Tsu 2002, p. 96
  28. ^ Tsu 2002, p. 97
  29. ^ Shimizu & Hirakawa 1999, p. 160
  30. ^ Shimizu & Hirakawa 1999, p. 166
  31. ^ Tsu 2002, p. 96
  32. ^ Ben-Ari 2003, p. 117
  33. ^ Ben-Ari & Yong 2000, p. 84
  34. ^ Ben-Ari & Yong 2000, p. 82
  35. ^ Ben-Ari & Yong 2000, p. 103
  36. ^ https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/singapore/singapore-japan-celebrate-50-years-of-friendship-at-sj50-gala-di-7746440
  37. ^ Ben-Ari & Yong 2000, p. 84
  38. ^ Ben-Ari 2003, p. 124
  39. ^ "アジアの補習授業校一覧(平成25年4月15日現在)" (). Ministry of Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology. Retrieved on February 13, 2015.
  40. ^ "お問合せページ." The Japanese Supplementary School Singapore. Retrieved on February 14, 2015.
  41. ^ Hamrin 2000, p. 196
  42. ^ Hamrin 2000, p. 211
  43. ^ Hamrin 2000, p. 213
  44. ^ Hamrin 2000, p. 214
  45. ^ Hamrin 2000, p. 214
  46. ^ Clammer 2000, p. 177
  47. ^ Ben-Ari 1998, p. 141
  48. ^ Ben-Ari 1998, p. 142
  49. ^ Ben-Ari 1998, p. 146
  50. ^ Ben-Ari 2003, p. 127


  • Shiraishi, Saya; Shiraishi, Takashi, eds. (1993), The Japanese in colonial Southeast Asia, Southeast Asian Publications, 3, Cornell University, ISBN 978-0-87727-402-5 . Chapters cited:
    • Shiraishi, Saya; Shiraishi, Takashi (1993), "The Japanese in Colonial Southeast Asia: An Overview", pp. 1–20  Missing or empty |title= (help)
    • Shimizu, Hajime (1993), "The Pattern of Economic Penetration of Prewar Singapore and Malaysia", pp. 63–86  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  • Ben-Ari, Eyal (1998), "Golf, Organization, and 'Body Projects': Japanese Business Executives in Singapore", in Linhart, Sepp; Frühstück, Sabine, The culture of Japan as seen through its leisure, Japan in Transition, State University of New York Press, pp. 139–164, ISBN 978-0-7914-3791-9 
  • Shimizu, Hiroshi; Hirakawa, Hitoshi (1999), Japan and Singapore in the world economy: Japan's economic advance into Singapore, 1870–1965, Studies in the modern history of Asia, 5, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-415-19236-1 
  • Ben-Ari, Eyal; Clammer, J. R., eds. (2000), Japan in Singapore: cultural occurrences and cultural flows, Routledge, ISBN 978-0-7007-1245-8 . Chapters cited:
    • Ben-Ari, Eyal; Yong, Yin Fong Vanessa (2000), "Twice Marginalized: Single Japanese Female Expatriates in Singapore", pp. 82–111  Missing or empty |title= (help)
    • Clammer, John (2000), "The Happiness-Making Machine: Soka Gakkai and Japanese Cultural Presence in Singapore", pp. 175–193  Missing or empty |title= (help)
    • Hamrin, Tina (2000), "Tenrikyo in Singapore: Rerepresenting the Japanese presence", pp. 194–215  Missing or empty |title= (help)
  • Tsu, Yun-hui Timothy (2002), "Post-mortem identity and burial obligation: on blood relations, place relations, and associational relations in the Japanese community of Singapore", in Nakamaki, Hirochika, The culture of association and associations in contemporary Japanese society (PDF), Senri Ethnological Studies, 62, Osaka, Japan: National Museum of Ethnology, pp. 93–114, OCLC 128864303, archived from the original (PDF) on 22 July 2011 
  • Ben-Ari, Eyal (2003), "The Japanese in Singapore: The Dynamics of an Expatriate Community", in Goodman, Roger, Global Japan: the experience of Japan's new immigrant and overseas communities, Routledge, pp. 116–146, ISBN 978-0-415-29741-7 
  • Warren, James Francis (2003), Ah ku and karayuki-san: prostitution in Singapore, 1870–1940, Singapore: studies in society & history, National University of Singapore Press, ISBN 978-9971-69-267-4 
  • Tan, Bonny (2008), "Yamamoto Otokichi", Singapore Infopedia, Singapore: National Library Board, archived from the original on 27 July 2009 
  • "シンガポール共和国基礎データ", 各国・地域情勢, Japan: Ministry of Foreign Affairs, May 2009, retrieved 19 October 2009 

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]