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.

日本とアフリカ、意外な交流史
ヨハネスブルク支局 中西賢司
マダガスカルで財を成した赤崎伝三郎氏(赤崎功一さん提供)

南アフリカで行われたサッカーW杯で、初めてアフリカに関心を持ったという人は少なくないだろう。記者も1年半前に南アに赴任するまで、正直、あまり意識したことはなかった。だからだろうか。「百年前にアフリカに渡った日本人がいた」と知人から聞いて驚いた。どんな人なのか。その足跡をたどりたくなった。

熊本県出身の赤崎伝三郎氏(1871~1946年)。明治末期、日本から1万1000キロ以上離れたアフリカ南東沖の島国マダガスカルに移住し、ホテル事業で財を成した人物だ。

小型機を乗り継ぎ、インド洋に面した同国北部の港町ディエゴスアレスに入った。フランス植民地時代、海軍基地として栄えた人口10万の町だ。からっとした天気。ビーチがまばゆい。欧風の建物が並ぶ目抜き通りで取材を始めた。
赤崎氏が経営していた映画館があったディエゴスアレスの目抜き通り(3月25日、中西賢司撮影)

資料によると、ここで赤崎氏は1904年から25年間暮らした。兵営前で開いた食堂が繁盛し、事業を拡大。きっての富豪と言われ、その名を知らぬ人はいない――はずだった。

だが、聞き込みをしても、首をかしげる人ばかり。町の生き字引オリヴィエさん(86)も「聞いたことがない」。赤崎氏が経営したホテル「オテル・デュ・ジャポン」や映画館「シネマ・コルベール」があるはずの場所はセメント販売店や食堂になっていた。赤崎氏が町を去って約80年。駐留仏軍はとうの昔に撤退し、町の衰退と共に赤崎氏も忘れ去られてしまったのか。
赤崎氏が経営した映画館「シネマ・コルベール」(赤崎功一さん提供)

あきらめかけて立ち寄った案内所で、光が差した。シネマ・コルベールのモノクロ写真が観光はがきになっていたのだ。作製者は、郷土史家グループ、とある。すぐにメンバーを訪ねた。カサム・アリ名誉代表(80)は「アカサキは確かにこの町にいた。帰国前に盛大なパーティーが開かれたほどさ」と教えてくれた。歴史の風化を懸念して資料を掘り起こすうちに赤崎氏に行き当り、赤崎氏にまつまる歌が流行していたことも突き止めた。氏はこの地に根付いていたのだ。

熊本県在住の孫、功一さん(55)に電話してみた。赤崎氏は家業の破産で多額の借金を抱えて移住を決意。昭和初期、大金を懐に帰郷した後は、地元で旅館業を続ける一方、慈善活動にも尽力したという。

調べてみると、20世紀初頭は南アやタンザニアなどにも日本人実業家がいた。そして今、資源豊富な大陸には、商社やメーカーなど日本企業の進出が加速する。

日本とアフリカ。意外な交流の歴史があった。旅から戻ると、アフリカがより身近な存在に思えた。
(2010年8月23日  読売新聞)

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