The Surprising Story of an Early Japanese Entrepreneur in Africa

The Surprising Story of a Japanese Entrepreneur in Africa
Yomiuri Shimbun: 日本とアフリカ、意外な交流史
Kenji Nakanishi, Johannesburg Branch, August 23, 2010

Denzaburō Akazaki
Denzaburō Akazaki made his fortune in Madagascar.  (Photo contributed by Kōichi Akazaki)

I imagine many people first took an interest in Africa after South Africa hosted the World Cup last year. To be honest with you, even though I’m a journalist, I didn’t know much about the region either until I was dispatched here a year and a half ago. So I was surprised when an acquaintance told me there were Japanese in Africa a hundred years ago. I wondered what they were like and wanted to trace their footsteps.

Denzaburō Akazaki (1871-1946) hailed from Kumamoto. At the end of the Meiji era, he moved 11,000 kilometers away to Madagascar, an island off the southeastern coast of Africa, and made a fortune as a hotelier.

Diego-Suarez, Madagascar
Main Street of Diego-Suarez, where Mr. Akazaki ran a movie theater (Kenji Nakanishi)

I rode a small craft to Diego-Suarez, a port city on that country’s northern coast facing the Indian Ocean. During the French colonial period, this was a bustling naval town of 100,000. There are clear skies and sparkling beaches. I began searching for clues on a Main Street lined with European-style buildings.

According to the archives, Akazaki lived here for 25 years starting in 1904. After a mess hall he opened across from the barracks prospered, he expanded his business. Considering the popularity of his ventures, everyone must have known his name.

But as hard as I looked, I couldn’t find anyone in town now who did. Olivier, a living local encyclopedia 86 years of age, told me, “Haven’t heard of him.” The places his Hôtel du Japon and Cinema Colbert would have been now hosted a cement store and a cafeteria. Mr. Akazaki departed about 80 years ago. The French military was also long gone. Had the dwindling town lost its memories of Akazaki, as well?

Cinema Colbert
Mr. Akazaki’s Cinema Colbert (photo contributed by Kōichi Akazaki)

I had dropped into an information office, ready to give up, when a ray of light shone on me. A monochrome photo of Cinema Colbert was on a tourist postcard. The card had been manufactured by the local historical society. I immediately asked a member about it. Honorary Representative Kassam Ali (80) told me, “Akazaki was definitely here. Before he returned to his country, he hosted a magnificent farewell party.” After carefully digging through weathered historical documents, I discovered that there had even been a popular song about Mr. Akazaki. He had put down roots here.

His grandson, Kōichi (55), a resident of Kumamoto himself, told me over the phone that after the bankruptcy of the family business, Denzaburō decided to borrow a large sum of money and leave the country. At the beginning of the Shōwa Period, he came back home with a bulging purse. He managed a travelers’ hotel again and also devoted himself to philanthropy.

I found that at the beginning of the 20th century, there were also Japanese entrepreneurs in places like South Africa and Tanzania. They paved the way for the companies and manufacturers who would later come to this resource-rich continent.

Japan and Africa. There was an unexpected history of exchange. After returning from my journey, I felt closer to my new home.

ヨハネスブルク支局 中西賢司









(2010年8月23日  読売新聞)

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