Culture and History

A Japanese Trading Station on Ailinglaplap

There were several Japanese trading stations in the Marshall Islands. Let uslook at one of them, located on Bouj, Ailinglaplap, to see what these stationstypically looked like.


The commercial exploitation of what was to become the major export commodity ofthe Marshall Islands, copra, began in 1860, when the German company Hoffschläger & Stapenhorst, operating out of Honolulu, set up a copramill on Ebon and began the export of coconut oil. In the 1870 further trading stations were set up on Ebon (Godeffroy) and on Jaluit (Hernsheim). Prior to the establishment of a German Colony, the German Company Godeffroy & Co. established a factory and trading station on Jaluit in 1873. After the financial collapse of the Godeffroy empire, the station was taken over by the German Trade and Plantation Company of the South Sea Islands (Deutsche Handels-und Plantagen-Gesellschaft der Südsee Inseln; DHPG) with seat in Hamburg which had stations on a number of islands, among them Ailinglaplap. Later, the German trading companies DHPG, Hernsheim of Hamburg and Capelle from Likiep formed the Jaluit Gesellschaft, which combined almost all trading interests in the Marshall Islands, except for those of the Australian Trading Company Burns Philp & Co., the Pacific Islands Company and the Pacific Phosphate Company. However, the Jaluit Gesellschaft with trading stations on 18 of the 33 atolls and islands dominated the trade. By 1902 most of the other companies, except for Burns Philp had sold out to the Jaluit Gesellschaft.

After the outbreak of World War I, five Japanese warships appeared end of September in Jaluit lagoon, landed troops and took control over the Marshall Islands. The Japanese flag was hoisted on Jaluit on October 3, 1914. After Jaluit had been taken peacefully, Japanese warships went through the atolls, announced that the Marshall Islands were now under Japanese control, removed German government officials, if present, and informed the resident European traders.

After the beginning of World War I, all German property was confiscated and all business was taken over by the Japanese, mainly by the Nan-yõBõeki Kaisha (South Seas Trading Co.; NBK). All trade with the outside world virtually ceased with the begin of hostilities following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 8, 1941 (Marshallese date).

Items Traded

Goods sold to the Marshallese during the period of the German Colony were are detailed by the German Franz Hager: machines for the processing of copra, machines for processing coconut fibres, tools, plant seeds, iron products,timber for construction and other construction materials, weapons (guns), ammunition, coals, haberdashery and other niceties, cotton cloths, food, drinks(alcoholic and otherwise), chemicals and drugs, tobacco and cigars, livestock, ships proviant, ships equipment, &c., most if which come from German, theU.K and the U.S.A.

Later on, the trade of weapons and alcohol had largely been prohibited by the German government.

During the Japanese period, the variety of items traded increased considerably, and included items such as beche-de-mêr and pearl-shell. Trade inbeche-de-mêr has a long history in the Marshall Islands, since the Japanese operated a trading station on Ujae in the 1880s to collect trepang for the Japanese and Chinese markets. While the Germans introduced and administered the incipient copra-production, the Japanese were able to utilise these resources to the fullest. In the budget of the entire South Seas mandate, copra was the fourth largest money-spinner after sugar, dried bonito and phosphate. With the exception of dried fish, copra was the only major export product of the Marshall Islands. Japan also left its mark on aspects of secondary production, such as the manufacture of handicraft, thus bringing the cash economy to the wider population of the outer islands, such as Ailinglaplap.

On Ailinglaplap the Japanese had begun a sponge mariculture, which was still operational after the war, as the Marshallese had continued to tend the beds, containing some 6000 sponges.

Trading Stations on Ailinglaplap

We are not well informed about the history and exact locations of the numerous trading stations on Ailinglaplap.

According to a German map published in 1879 Ailinglaplap Atoll had a trading station with at least one resident European trader in 1878. A.Crawford &Co. operated a station on Ailinglaplap in 1888, which, it appears, was built onland leased by Crawford & Co. Unfortunately, the records do not state where the station was located. The station, it can be surmised, was subsequently taken over by the Jaluit Gesellschaft. Since it was leased it does not show up in the property register of the possessions of land in the hand of foreigners in 1913. During the Japanese period trading stations were erected on Ailinglaplap Atoll, one of which was on Bouj.

The Japanese Trading Station on Bouj, Ailinglaplap

What little there could be ascertained about the Japanese history of the station on Bouj can be summarised as follows: (i) the trading station was erected some time in the 1930s by the NBK. A trader by the name of "Kaneko" operated the station before the war. He and his Japanese wife left Ailinglaplap before the war broke out (i.e. before the U.S. landings). A Japanese trader by the name of "Nota" took over the store. He was married to a Marshallese woman. Their daughter was the first wife of Kabua Kabua.

The Location

The trading station of Bouj is located directly on the South Pass. This pass, which is only 250m wide, has a depth of 9.25 fathoms. The lagoonal side of the pass is narrowed by a series of patch reefs which protrude for 2kms into the lagoon, leaving a narrow channel which can be used by boats. The early trading stations on the atolls of the Marshall Islands were usually erected as close as possible to the main passes into the atolls. If this could not be achieved, the locations chosen would be small uninhabited islands closer to the pass than the then main populated centres. This was for a variety of reasons: (i) it allowed vessels to hove to outside the lagoon without risking the passage to the pass; and (ii) the islands were commonly not densely occupied by locals and thus allowed a certain measure of security for the traders. Examples for this can befound on a number of atolls besides Ailinglaplap, such as Ebon (Meidj and Juridj Is.), Mile (Tokowa I.) and Majuro (Ejit and Anil Is.).

Description of the remains

A survey conducted by the Historic Preservation Office identified the remains of a Japanese trading station, which comprises of the following certain features: (i) trading station complex; (ii) trader's residence complex; (iii)The trader's bath complex; (iv) The old road and the following features known to have existed but

Top:German priod trading stations of Capelle & Co, and Hernsheim &Co. at Ebon Passage, Ebon Atoll as an example of the commanding position passes had for trade. Bottom: The Japanese trading station on Bouj, Ailinglaplap. View of thetTrade store from the west.

The main trade store of the Japanese Trading Station.

The bath area of the Japanese Trading Station on Bouj.

The trader's living house Japanese Trading Station.

not located with exactitude during the survey: (i) the Pier; (ii) the Shrine. In addition, there is a shallow, circular depression, whih can be interpreted as a filled-in well or similar feature.

The Trading Station Complex

The trading station, or main store complex is located about 30m from the shore of the pass area. The complex the consists of a store building, a water cistern and the foundation of the successor store. All three features are set in a traditional coral gravel spread.

The main store building consists of a concrete platform of about 7.5 by 11.2metres dimensions. The platform had been built on a foundation with the floor area cast at a later point in time; the separation of the concrete is clearly visible. A number of the low upright wall stubs have been demolished in the meantime, possibly in order to obtain construction material. At the time of the survey the foundation was clear from major vegetation, thus permitting the mesurement of numerous dimensions, but covered in fine sand and low grass o rherbs, which made the recognition of the demolished wall stubs somewhat problematic. Due to the stringent time constraints under which the survey had to be conducted, the foundation could not be cleared of the dirt.

The water cistern , which is has a rim of 0.6m above the surounding coral gravel, has a modern wooden superstructure and a tin roof on it. The cistern was completed on 4 June 1939 as is evidenced by the Marshallese and the Japanese inscription. The cistern is still in use. Since the internal depth ofthe tank was not ascertained, no calculations of its volume can be made.

On the northern side of the the cistern are the remains of a concrete foundation of a trade store which had belonged to the Marshalls Import and Export Company(MIECO). This store had been erected after the war. The greater part of the foundations are now covered by a modern dwelling house.

Trader's Residence Complex

The residential complex of the trading station consists of a residential building, a water cistern and the foundation of a probable store building. The living house foundation consists of a quadrangular building measuring approximately 6x6 metres. The foundation has a poured concrete floor throughout. because of the heavy overgrowth with creepers and ground covering plants only parts of the the internal partitioning of the building could be discerned.

The rectangular, concrete water cistern measures 3.25 by 8 metres in outer dimesnsions and its rim is 0.56 m above the surrounding ground level. The total depth of the tank is 1.60m. Subtracting the wall thickness of 0.25m, the tank has a volume of 33 m2 or 33,000 litres (9400 U.S. gals). We have to imagine that during the time of operations the cistern would have had a wooden superstructure and a roof, being fed by the guttered roof space of both the residential and the store building.

Today the area is overgrown and some Pandanus trees are growing next and in the water tank. At the time of the survey the water tank was empty suggesting that the bottom of the tank has cracked.

The foundations of a store building were noticed the the east of the water catchment. In view of the heavy overgrowth on parts of the foundation its total dimensions could not be ascertained during the survey without a major exercise in vegetation clearing. The building is at least 8.5 m long and over 5m wide.It is oriented east-west (N255deg.E) with the main doors opening to the west. The foundation shows a small and low, protruding ramp allowing access of wheeled vehicles to the buidling.

The Trader's Bath Complex

The bath complex of the trading station consists of a bath room and a water cistern.

The water cistern, which is to the weat of the bathroom measures 1.8 by 2.9 metres in outer dimensions and 0.65m in height above the surrounding terrain(photograph 7). The internal depth of the cistern is 1.60, giving a total volume of 5m2 or 5,000 litres (1430 U.S. gals.). Protruding from the western wall of the tank is a concrete slab foundation of 1.2 metres width. The purpose of this concrete slab is unclear, as the access to the tank is on the south. The cistern had a wooden superstructure with an one metre wide access door to the south. This had been planned at the time the concrete had been castas can be told by the cavities left behind by the 9 x 6 cm thick support beams.

The bath area consisted of a concrete slab foundation of 2.1 by 2.6m dimensions. The wall stubs are generally 0.36m high. The access door was it the southern side on the left corner of the building, right next to the cistern. Inside the room there is no evidence for a sink nor evidence for a bath tub, both requisites for a "proper" Japanese bath. In the northwestern corner there is a 1.3 m long and 0.24 m wide step of 0.22 m height. On the outer, northern wall of the building is a low concrete wall which is 1.10m long, 0.38m wide and 0.30 m high (above surrounding terrain). The purpose of this wall is unclear.

Evidence from Japanese bath houses of the Japanese militray bases in the Marshall islands shows that while most bath tubs are made of concrete, there were also tubs made of other materials, presumably wood and/or metal. It is likely that the wall stub outside the building, as well a second, nowadays missing stub (?) may have supported the bathtub, which could be heated from the outside and from underneath.

To the east of the structures, but on the coral gravel platform, several piecesof blue bottle glass were found, which belong to a Japanese sake bottle.

The old Road

The present access road to the site runs in the oceanward section of the island, close to the burial ground of the irooj laplap. Before World War II, and as long as people seem to be able to remember, the main road run close to the lagoonal shore. There is evidence of the landward side of the road being lined/demarcated with coral slabs set in an upright position. The area south ofthe slabs is paved with coral gravel.

The Pier

According to oral information the trading station had at one point had a wooden pier, set on foundations of concrete pillars or pillar bases. According to aneye-witness account, remains of the pier existed in the 1960s. In view of the shortage of time during the survey, the remains of the pier were briefly searched for from the shoreline, but no submerged resources survey was conducted.

The Well (?)

North east of the trader's bath area is a circular depression in the coral gravel, which is partially lined with coral boulders. The depression is about 0.3 m deep and about 1 to 1.5m in diametre. In view of other examples from Mile and Arno, this depression could represent a filled-in well accessing the groundwater lens. Alternatively it could represent the latrine pit belonging to the bath complex. This can only be ascertained by excavating part of the structure. The top of the feature is covered with coral gravel, but this may have been a secondary dispersal of the gravel.

The Shrine

A Japanese shrine is reported to exist in a shrub area between the trader's residence and the bath area. The shrine was briefly searched for, but unless shrub clearing had occurred little can be done. The shrine is said to have aconcrete(?) post standing at it, possibly with Japanese inscriptions.

Bibliographic citation for this document

Spennemann, Dirk H.R. (1999). Albury:

Dirk H.R. Spennemann, Institute of Land, Water and Society, Charles Sturt University, P.O.Box 789, Albury NSW 2640, Australia.

select from the following...
World War II

Digital Micronesia-An Electronic Library & Archive is provided free of charge as an advertising-free information service for the world community. It is being maintained by Dirk HR Spennemann, Associate Professor in Cultural Heritage Management, Institute of Land, Water and Society and School of Environmental & Information Sciences, Charles Sturt University, Albury, Australia. The server space and technical support are provided by Charles Sturt University as part of its commitment to regional engagement. Environmental SciencesInformation Sciences

© Dirk Spennemann 1999– 2005
Marshall Islands Kosrae CNMI Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands Guam Wake Pohnpei FSM Federated States of Micronesia Yap Chuuk Marshall Islands politics public health environment culture WWII history literature XXX Cultural Heritage Management Micronesian Journal of the Humanities and Social Sciences CNMI German Colonial Sources Mariana Islands Historic Preservation Spennemann Dirk Spennemann Dirk HR Spennemann Murray Time Louis Becke Jane Downing Downing