Sunday, January 22, 2006

Marriage Alliance: The Union of Two Imperiums, Japan and Ethiopia?

Paper Presented to The Annual Meeting of the Florida Conference of Historians
Fort Myers, FL
April 15-17, 1999
Jacksonville University

Kuroda Masako

This paper is based on secondary literature in English, Italian, and Japanese plus press accounts. It also draws upon archival material from Rome, Tokyo, and College Park.

In the first half of the 1930s, the nations of Japan and Ethiopia drew closer together to the acute concern of all of Africa's colonial powers, most especially Italy. Much came to trouble Rome about Japanese activities including their economic and political encroachments into Northeast Africa. Rumors exaggerated the extent of the threat. Particularly vexing were reports of increasing Japanese military influence in Ethiopia. The threat of Japanese political, commercial, and military intrusions into Ethiopia to statesmen in London, Paris, Moscow, and elsewhere seemed sufficient to justify Italy's military preparations against Ethiopia from 1934 on.

One issue for many came to symbolize Japan's expanding influence in Ethiopia, that is, the proposed marriage between Araya Abeba of Ethiopia and Kuroda Masako of Japan. Many mistakenly believed that this was to be a royal wedding. The genesis of the proposed marriage lay in Ethiopia's desire to model its modernization after Japan, and Japan's romantic vision of Ethiopia. While this might sufficiently explain the motives of Araya and Kuroda, other individuals were also involved. Most important were several Pan-Asian, nationalist Japanese who were promoting the marriage to leverage a prominent role for themselves in commercial exchanges between Japan and Ethiopia. Interestingly, neither government in Tokyo or Addis Ababa promoted the marriage idea; neither lamented when the proposal died sometime in 1934; and both suffered international complications because of it.

Luke Roberts of the University of California at Santa Barbara tells a story. While in Japan, an old Japanese historian was driving him to an archive in Aki city in Kochi Prefecture. On the way, around Tei village, they saw a store advertising "Ethiopia Manjuu"—a shiny, brown, sweet, steamed dumpling stuffed with azuki bean paste. Told that Americans would consider such a name racist, the historian simply explained, "Oh, this local product was first developed in the 1930s, and the name was to show solidarity with the Ethiopian people."(1) How do we explain this seemingly odd connection between Japan in East Asia and Ethiopia in East Africa?

Italy, ruled by Benito Mussolini and his fascists, attacked Ethiopia on October 2, 1935, and in seven months conquered the country to create the Italian Empire. Italy's military preparations preceding the attack had gone on in earnest for more than a year and resembled America's military buildup before the Gulf War of 1991—especially for the sustained press coverage and intense, if not always earnest, multilateral diplomacy aimed at averting war. More earnestly the two antagonists sought to find allies and undermine hostile coalitions.(2)

Of the many reasons that led Italy to decide for war, one stands out for its importance to contemporaries and for the oblivion to which it has been consigned by later commentators. Japan's real and perceived economic, political, and even military intrusions into its spheres of influence, including Ethiopia, upset Italy.(3) In early 1934, the Italie Marinara, the official publication of the Italian Navy League, put the matter plainly:
Italy is watching with great interest developments in the Far East and, due to Japan's recent energetic invasion of Italian markets not only in Italy itself but in the Colonies and in the smaller countries bordering the Mediterranean, her attitude is not what might be called pro-Japanese.(4)

The Japanese reacted. The Yomuiri newspaper in January 1934, for example, complained that Mussolini seemed obsessed with the old "Yellow Peril" theory because of Italy's defeat in African markets at Japanese hands.(5)

Romantic Japanese views concerning Ethiopia,(6) and presumed plans for cotton and opium cultivation in the Ethiopian highlands by thousands of Japanese colonists excited observers the world over. Germany's press in December 1934 echoed that this economic threat also jeopardized white racial supremacy and symbolized the West's progressive decline. Yellow dolls of Japanese manufacture, Germans lamented, were replacing white dolls in the hands of "Negro" children in Asia and Africa. The ultimate psychological effect would be enormous.(7)

What we might expect from Nazi Germany, Communist Russia surprisingly underscored. Rejecting its class-based rationalism for passionate nationalism, the Moscow Daily News on January 11, 1935, described Italy's imperialism and sympathetically editorialized that Italy had sought Ethiopia's peaceful economic, but,
The reversion of Italian policy in Abyssinia to the old methods of direct seizure is bound up to a considerable degree with the intensification of Japanese economic and political influence in Abyssinia.(8)


One issue, minor in itself, for many in Italy and elsewhere came to symbolize Japanese encroachments; that is, the proposed marriage between an Ethiopian "prince" and a Japanese "princess." The many articles in newspapers and magazines, especially those appealing to women, showed that the proposed marriage had stirred popular excitement.(9) The emotions generated were genuine and have remained etched in memories to this day. For example, my wife's grandmother, born in western Japan, grew quite excited upon hearing about my work:
There was a nationwide atmosphere of friendship toward Ethiopia in the 1930s, and I, then a girl's middle school student, also have a strong impression on the matter. There was a rumor of a marriage between the Ethiopian royal family and the Japanese nobility. I imagined that Ethiopia must have been a wonderful country. The Japanese prewar-generation people still feel closeness to Ethiopia even today. In the 1970s, Japanese people expressed their support for Abeba, an Olympic marathon runner, because he was from Ethiopia.(10)

And in the Spring of 1999, a popular quiz show on Japanese television asked a questions about the marriage.(11)


One year after signing a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce with Tokyo in 1930, Ethiopia's foreign minister, Blaten Geta Herui, made a grand tour of Japan. The visit dramatized the potentialities of future Ethio-Japanese cooperation in the political, diplomatic, and economic arenas.(12)

One Lij Araya Abeba had accompanied Herui's embassy. Impressed with Japan, Araya, seemingly a prince and nephew of the Emperor Haile Selassie, expressed his desire to marry: "It has been my long-cherished ambition," he explained to a Japanese reporter in February 1934, "to marry a Japanese lady. Of all first-class nations, Japan has the strongest appeal."(13) The initiative was his and a personal decision.(14)

Sumioka [Kadooka] Tomoyoshi,(15) a Tokyo lawyer, philo-Ethiopian nationalist, and Pan-Asian activist, stage-managed much of the marriage affair. Herui had visited him during his 1931 trip to Japan. Sumioka now wished to facilitate Japanese trade and investment in Ethiopia.

At the home of Mr. Sumioka. Front row, right to left: Lij Araya Abeba, His Excellency Heruy, Lij Tafari, and the interpreter, Daba Birru. On the back row are Mr. and Mrs. Sumioka. Picture taken from Heruy’s Dai Nihon.

Meanwhile, in 1932, two young men went to Addis Ababa.(16) One of them, Shoji Yunosuke, had played an important role in Herui's reception in 1931. He preached racial unity uniting Ethiopians and Japanese, and approvingly cited a professor who had written:
It is obvious that some superior races moved from West Asia to the Nile basin a long time ago. . . . [I]t is uncontroversial that the Ethiopian people a very long time ago had racial connections to some extent with the Japanese people.(17)
Upon his return to Japan he explained his relationship with Sumioka:
When I left Ethiopia, the Ethiopian Emperor, who greatly favored Japan, especially permitted his meeting and granted a picture, rhino's horn, musk, etc., to me. At that time he entrusted his recent picture as a gift to Mr. Sumioka Tomoyoshi to me, and I handed it to Mr. Sumioka after my return, which was my first acquaintance with him. Since then, I have been deeply impressed with his excellent understanding and right belief concerning racial issues and world statecraft. I gained an opportunity to be consulted about the Ethiopian marriage issue, as it has progressed, because I fortunately have a close friendship with Prince Araya.(18)

The proposed wedding was to be held according to Christian rites in April or May 1934 in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia's capital. Presumably, Araya instructed Sumioka to advertise for applicants and from them select suitable candidates. The announcement that Araya was seeking a Japanese bride went out in May 1933. According to press accounts, the twenty-three-year-old Araya was reassuringly light-skinned, monogamous, and Christian. Hence, "[s]cores of adventurous girls who were willing to be a Princess of Ethiopia answered. . . ," apparently at least twenty in all.(19)

From those Araya reportedly made two preliminary choices and was to make his final decision in March upon his arrival in Japan on an important economic and political mission. The second choice was Kabata Shigeko [Chiiko], the twenty-two-year-old, third daughter of Tabata Kametaro, a millionaire businessman of Moji. On the morning of January 21, Sumioka announced as Araya's first choice, a young woman who had been among the first applicants.(20)

Kuroda Masako, the first choice, was the twenty-three-year-old, second daughter of Viscount Kuroda Hiroyuki of the forestry bureau of the Imperial Household. Viscount Kuroda was descended from the former Lord of Kazusa, a feudal lord in Chiba. She had presented her picture and other credentials to Sumioka without her parents' knowledge. Despite initial objections, soon her father prepared to visit Ethiopia. The Kuroda family lived in a tiny suburban house, and she was graduated from the Kanto Gakuin Higher Girl's School in Yodobashi-ku. She spoke English fluently, having been one of the first Japanese girls to take part in an English oratorical contest and to win a prize. At five feet, three inches, she was taller than average. After her enrollment as a candidate for the "prince's bride," she studied the habits and customs of Ethiopia through books and conversations with those familiar with conditions there.(21)

In school Kuroda had been a keen athlete who enjoyed swimming, basketball, volleyball, and tennis. In an interview in February 1934, she enthusiastically remarked:
I understand that the people of Ethiopia are extremely interested in sports, and I believe that I shall be able to indulge my taste for athletics when I go there. Unfortunately I did not have the opportunity of meeting Prince Abeba when he visited Japan a few years ago, but I have firmly decided to go to his country and I am willing to put up with whatever circumstances come along.(22)

She believed that with its ever-increasing population Japan would have to found colonies abroad. She desired to increase the ties of friendship uniting Japan and Ethiopia, and she saw herself as the first of many who would emigrate to Ethiopia. Such statements sparked alarm among those, especially in Italy, who feared Japanese competition in the East African country.(23)

In truth, many in Japan saw in the proposed marriage the opportunity to cut into interests of the colonial powers in Ethiopia. Japanese newspapers and nationalists further argued the necessity of uniting the colored races against whites. The marriage would personify this solidarity.(24) On the other side of the coin, a faction of Ethiopia's intelligentsia known as the Japanizers were advocating intermarriage between upper class Ethiopians and Japanese. These intellectuals for several decades had been imploring Ethiopia to model its modernization along Japanese lines.(25)

Commercial and economic negotiations were the tangible consequences of such talk. One Japanese business enterprise became particularly entwined in international diplomacy to the detriment of both Japan and Ethiopia. Popularly known as Nikkei-Sha, the Nagasaki Echiopia Keizai Chosa-kai Nikkei-Sha [Nagasaki Association for Economic Investigation of Ethiopia] had been founded in 1932 in Nagasaki to conduct import/export operations with Ethiopia. Its director, Kitagawa Takashi, went to Ethiopia that same year. In September 1933, he received permission to negotiate a deal with Ethiopia. A glib-talking and unscrupulous fixer, he negotiated with Herui for authorization concerning: the rights to use 500,000 hectares of land in Ethiopia; a permit to grow cotton, tobacco, tea, green tea, rice, wheat, fruit trees, and vegetables; a permit to grow medicinal plants; a grant of fifteen hectares of land for each immigrant Japanese family; and 1,000 hectares of land next to Addis Ababa for a Japanese investigation mission to examine what plants could be grown in Ethiopia. Kitagawa managed little but to earn Ethiopia and Japan international suspicion. His activities certainly provoked Great Britain, France, the USSR, and, especially, Italy.(26)

On January 18, 1934, Juo Hyoron [Free Critics] published an article tying the marriage to the international discord. Entitled, "Warning to Ambitions in Ethiopia: 500,000 Yen Spent for the Engagement!", in part it read:
Although we do not have any ambitions in Ethiopia, the countries such as Italy, France, and England which possess close and unalienable interests in Ethiopia, will most certainly understand the royal engagement as a part of Japan's African ambitions, including colonization. Though England and France are unworthy of any trust in a crisis, Italy as well as Germany are still somewhat the allies of an isolated Japan. It would be capricious of Japan to undertake an adventure that could damage Italy's feelings.
We should firmly eliminate any ambitions toward Ethiopia and warn against rumors for the sake of the integrity of the Japanese lady who is to be sacrificed for concessions worth only 500,000 yen. . . .(27)

The Japanese government agreed. Tokyo could not allow a free hand to ambitious pan-Asiatic adventurers such as Kitagawa who were going to Ethiopia. Matters reached the point when Japan's Gaimusho [foreign ministry] in February 1934 decided to send a high ranking officer to investigate conditions in Ethiopia. The Second Division of the Trade Section explained why:
It was reported that the Ethiopian government intends to approve a wide land lease to Japanese people, and that Ethiopian royal family wishes to arrange a marriage with a Japanese noble family. Ethiopia recently has shown a pro-Japanese attitude. . . . When the Japanese people extend their business to Ethiopia, we need to understand the domestic conditions of this country and carefully consider its very delicate international position. Otherwise, our plans will fail, or we will unnecessarily invite the envy and misunderstanding of other major countries. Such a result will negatively influence future relations between our two countries. . . .(28)

Tsuchida Yutaka arrived in Ethiopia just in time.(29) The Ethiopians no longer trusted the Japanese as they had before. They complained that Japan's press had written too much on the Nikkei-Sha affair and on the marriage between Araya and Kuroda. An irresponsible press and the Anti-Opium Bureau of the League of Nations had treated the first as if Ethiopia had signed a concession of land for cultivating opium. The second had been presented as if it were the heir to the throne who wanted to marry. The latter had even led to a complaint from Mussolini to Haile Selassie.(30)

Difficulties rose to the point where Kuroda at the end of February 1934 defensively asserted:
I will go to Ethiopia even in the capacity of a private citizen, if the Imperial Household authorities should disapprove of my trip.(31)
At that time, her mother acknowledged that the Imperial Household Department had not yet sanctioned her daughter's betrothal or proposed trip to Ethiopia. She added that Araya,
was scheduled to visit Japan in May of this year, but his trip has been indefinitely postponed. No direct word has been received from the Royal Family of Ethiopia, but Mr. Sumioka, a lawyer, is negotiating the matter.(32)

The American embassy in Tokyo agreed, reporting in February 1934 that the Japanese government had provided little information regarding the marriage and disparaged its political significance.(33) The next month, the embassy reported that the marriage was about to fall through because of official Japanese opposition.(34)

Haniyu Chotaro, a businessman from Kamakura, had spent five months in Ethiopia at the Gaimusho's request. Upon his return in April 1934, he publicly discussed the commercial opportunities available in that country. He then declared that the marriage was receiving little attention in Ethiopia while in Japan it had created a sensation. His comments were hardly encouraging:
This matter is very delicate from a viewpoint of the international situation, and I do not like to make any comment on it until I have submitted a report to the Foreign Office.
Prince Ababa [Araya] is called a Prince only in Japan. In Ethiopia, he is called Lij Ababa, and the word Lij means "lord" in English. There are only three Princes of the Blood in Ethiopia. The Japanese Foreign Office has nothing to do with this marriage. Some time ago, an Italian newspaper sarcastically remarked that Japan intends to invade Africa with "kisses between the dark and the black by having a daughter of a Japanese peer married to an Ethiopian." The Ethiopian press from the outset has been taciturn on the matter. If Miss Kuroda really wants to marry Ababa, she had better, I think, personally inspect the actual conditions of Ethiopia.(35)
Sound comments and sound advice.

The Italian embassy at Tokyo on October 6, 1934 denied the rumor that Italy had in any way ever been interested in the question of the proposed marriage. Yet the projected marriage between the "wealthy" Japanese girl and the Ethiopian "prince" was quashed, many thought by Italy's diplomatic pressure.(36) So charged Kato Kanju, president of the National Council of Trade Unions of Japan, the largest group of workers in the country. While visiting the United States in July 1935, he claimed that Mussolini had blocked the marriage.(37) While official quarters did not confirm that Italy had anything to do with the ultimate cancellation of the "picture bride," the New York Times did not regard the idea as illogical.(38) Some believed that Emperor Hirohito was bitter with Italians because their protests had broken off the proposed marriage between Araya and Kuroda.(39)

Demonstrating the resonance of Japanese competition in East Africa, Japan's enemies continued to raise the issue of the marriage proposal long after it was dead. In December 1934, meeting with the new Japanese ambassador, Sugimura Yotaro, Mussolini linked the marriage to a number of contentious issues: "Japan is actively supplying weapons and ammunition to Ethiopia, sending a princess, and a newspaper in Tokyo is vigorously maneuvering Japanese-Ethiopian friendship."(40)

Sugimura, who had represented his government at Geneva at the time of Japan's withdrawal from the League of Nations, soon thereafter spoke with La Tribuna of Rome. The ambassador endeavored to dispel suspicions of conflicting Italo-Japanese interests in Asia and Africa. Sugimura emphatically denied that the Japanese Army had sent instructors to Ethiopia as had been charged. Regarding economic penetration of Ethiopia by Japan, Sugimura explained that "certain middlemen--mostly Jewish" had purchased goods at Kobe which were finding their way into Ethiopia "by means of these same middlemen and not by direct importation." Sugimura also denied that there was any foundation for the rumor of a projected marriage between a Japanese princess and an Ethiopian prince. Concerning the Far East, Sugimura said that he was convinced that Italy could pursue its interests in that field without fear of Japanese opposition. There was an immense Chinese market to exploit, the Japanese ambassador pointed out. He opined that Japan and Italy might well come to a reciprocal agreement for the exchange of goods which would be advantageous to both. For instance, he suggested, why should not Japan import Italian wine? Finally, after expressing admiration for the Duce and Italian institutions, Sugimura said that he favored an exchange of students and teachers between his country and Italy.(41)

In truth, beyond Japanese exports to Ethiopia, there was little by way of direct contact between the two nations. In 1932 fifteen Japanese had settled in Ethiopia, and in 1933 seven more arrived. In 1934, four more. Most, however, did not stay long, leaving after their enterprises had failed. Tsuchida Yutaka noted that not many Japanese visited Ethiopia and that in the summer of 1934 there were only four including himself. In 1935 there were only three Japanese in Ethiopia. Ultimately, although Nikkei-Sha did manage to obtain agricultural concessions from the Ethiopian government, failing to find the necessary capital, it could not exploit them and went out of business after six months. In August 1935, no Japanese shipping company included Djibouti in its list of ports.(42)

The New York Times on July 11, 1935, summed up the situation nicely: Japan's economic interests in Ethiopia were new and still small; Japan still had no legation in Addis Ababa and Ethiopia was not represented in Tokyo; the number of Japanese residents in Ethiopia was small; reports of Japanese capitalists having obtained concessions for cotton growing in Ethiopia were unfounded; and stories that an Ethiopian prince had been seeking to marry a Japanese princess were groundless.(43)

The principals, Kuroda, Araya, Shoji, and Sumioka moved off center stage. Mistaken for a communist, Kuroda was taken to the Ueno police station in Tokyo on the night of July 24, 1935. The problem began when a policeman, Tajima Yukio, noted a suspicious-looking woman in black afternoon dress walking up and down the street near Ueno Park for two hours until about 8:00 p.m. The policeman disguised himself as a worker and arrested her. As it turned out, she had earlier reported to him that she had lost her purse containing about ¥5. She had borrowed 20 sen from him but had given a false name--therefore the trouble. Even after she had given her real name and had explained that she had been waiting for a friend, the policeman was still suspicious and took her in. She was, however, shortly released.(44)

In August, the Osaka Mainichi and Shoji sponsored a round table discussion in Addis Ababa, and invited prominent Ethiopians including Herui.(45) The next month as war was ready to break out, Araya suggested that Japan obtain concessions in Ethiopia, according to the Nichi Nichi correspondent at Addis Ababa. He said that Ethiopia would gladly grant concessions to Japan for industrial development. The Emperor was ready to approve such grants and Araya offered his services as an intermediary.(46) Later, in 1943, Araya attended a New York city meeting of the Ethiopian World Federation, and thereafter became involved in its internal politics.(47)

The Japan Advertiser of March 28, 1936, reported that Sumioka had been awarded the Commander Class of the Order of Menelik II by Emperor Haile Selassie. In his letter of thanks, Sumioka praised the good will of the Japanese people toward Ethiopia and his own conviction that Ethiopia's brave army would defeat Italy.(48) A month later, Haile Selassie fled his country.

In the meanwhile, only two months after the marriage affair had been put to bed, a military mission headed by Marshal Pietro Badoglio, chief of Italy's General Staff, visited Eritrea to begin planning for Italy's conquest of Ethiopia.(49)

The summer of 1935 had plumbed the depths of Italo-Japanese relations, especially during the so-called Sugimura Affair of July. The contretemps was born of the Gaimusho's inept attempts to "clarify" Ambassador Sugimura's assiduous efforts to reassure Mussolini regarding Japan's interests in Ethiopia. In smoothing over the ruffled feathers, Rome and Tokyo began building in August the foundation for their alliance that ultimately went to war in 1941.(50) As part of that process and to recognize Italy's control over Ethiopia, Japan's government transformed its newly created Legation in Addis Ababa into a Consulate General. In return, Italy's foreign minister, Galeazzo Ciano, promised to protect Japanese interests there. As if to emphasize that suspicions lingered, he simultaneously referred to the proposed marriage and the Negus' desire to draw closer to Japan. In the end, Rome broke its promises but no matter. Japan had accepted its exclusion from Ethiopia. Japan had left Ethiopia at the marriage altar.(51)

-- PROMO --

A scene from the film "Memoirs of a Geisha."

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