It has been a century since the Japanese government established a mission in South Africa, in the form of the Japanese Consulate in Cape Town.
This is Japan’s oldest mission on the African continent.
The Office of the Japanese Consul was set up in 1918 in Adderley Street and today it is based just down the street in Hertzog Boulevard.
In the waiting room of the office is a striking picture of Nelson Mandela, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela and the consul general, Yasushi Naito, with another representative of the Japanese Embassy.
“That picture was taken in 1990, after Nelson Mandela was released from Victor Verster prison. Madiba almost never wore formal attire – he liked wearing the Madiba shirt – but he dressed up for this occasion as it was the first diplomatic function.”
Mr Naito has been serving in the office for 30 years and has been the consul for 18 of them – making him the longest-serving member in the office.
The Office of the Consul, which forms part of the Japanese Embassy in Pretoria, takes care of the safety and security of Japanese residents and tourists in South Africa.
They issue visas to people who want to visit Japan and build bilateral relationships between South Africa and Japan.
“We have 37 consulates in South Africa, but the branch in Cape Town is the longest-standing and the smallest,” said Mr Naito.
He said there are about 200 Japanese people living in Cape Town, and about 1 200 in South Africa. And although there is such a small community, he said there was a long-standing history between Cape Town and Japan. “We share ancestors – our roots are intertwined.”
There were many footprints in Cape Town where the Japanese were present and influential, he said.
One of these footprints dates back to 1662. The first Japanese person who came to Cape Town was a slave called Anthony van Japan, who served Zacharias Wagenaer, Jan van Riebeeck’s successor as commander of the Cape Colony.
While his Japanese name is unknown, it was said that he assisted with the construction of the Castle of Good Hope.
“Jan van Riebeeck was also a captain in Japan, and Japan traded with countries such as Portugal, China and Spain. Cape Town was the scramble junction and Japan was no different.
“This unknown Japanese person became part of a revolution. It’s still not known in Japan, but it is very inspirational because we are part of Cape Town’s history.” In Vergelegen Estate out in Stellenbosch, Mr Naiko told of six camphor trees, brought to Cape Town from Japan by Simon van der Stel in the 1700s. There are also hydrangeas which are originally from Japan.
“The trees cannot speak but they have seen this history, the slaves, and the suffering.”
Tomoko Watanabe, co-founder of Green Legacy Hiroshima, an organisation which safeguards and spreads worldwide the seeds and saplings of Hiroshima’s atomic bomb survivor trees, recently visited Cape Town and planted survivor trees at the Cape Town Holocaust Centre, the Ardene Gardens in Claremont, Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens and Vergelegen Estate.
The trees form part of an initiative to spread the seeds to places throughout the world to promote a spirit of peace, hope and resilience, after it was said that nothing would grow following the dropping of the atomic bombs by America on Japan in 1945.
Another connection to Japan is the plaque in Shortmarket Street, where the office of Julius Otto Jeppe used to be. Mr Jeppe, a citizen of Cape Town, was appointed honorary consul of Japan in Cape Town in 1910, and was the first representative of the Japanese government in Africa.
He is known for pioneering the exports of wool and wine to Japan. A few years later, the first of many ships to transport Japanese immigrants to Brazil stopped in Cape Town, where they were allowed to disembark for several days. The Japanese government then presented the then City of Cape Town with a stone lantern to thank them for their hospitality. The lantern still stands in the Company’s Garden today, marked with a plaque which tells its story.
Mr Naito also told of Yokohama, a historical house in Muizenberg built in 1906 out of paper mache imported from Japan. “The house was here for over 100 years and it withstood the Cape Storms, which is amazing. As one of our centenary projects, we want to get some signage at the house, and possibly turn it into a museum. We are not yet sure why the house is named Yokohama, but we suspect it was the place the materials came from.”
During apartheid, Mr Naito worked as a political officer. He said that although there was a small number of Japanese residents in Cape Town, he still had to attend rallies and make the voices of the Japanese community heard.
He said Japan was a developing country at the time and they had modernised, learnt from the west and the economy boosted. “We worked towards having one of the strongest economies in the world, and we wanted to share our expertise with other developing countries as part of our diplomacy, and because of apartheid, we couldn’t bring fully fledged technology into South Africa.”
He said when Mr Mandela was released in 1994, they had interacted with the then government and were able to bring their technological advances to South Africa. “We are now engaging with the South African government to take this to the next level.”
He said during the year, they will have many events to celebrate 100 years in South Africa with Japanese artists performing in South Africa, the Cape Town International Animation Festival, and an anniversary ceremony in August.
They also want to strengthen the teacher exchange programme, where South Africans teach English in Japan
The 25th Japanese Film Festival will also take place in October this year, and a Nelson Mandela event is in the pipeline.
Mr Naito said another common interest South Africa and Japan share is rugby. “Next year, Japan is hosting the Rugby World Cup. We are very excited. Our 100th birthday celebrations will be leading up to the World Cup too.”