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Tanabe, Shunsuke (1897–1984)

by Pam Oliver

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

Shunsuke Tanabe (1897-1984), businessman, was born in Japan in 1897, son of Shunichiro Tanabe, a medical practitioner. Early in his career Shunsuke worked for the Japanese general merchants Mitsui Bussan Kaisha, in London. On 23 April 1924 at the register office, Edmonton, Middlesex, he married Rosemary Iris Dowsing. They had a daughter, Patricia Yuki. He and his family came to Australia for business purposes in 1929; as a merchant he was able to enter for one year with extensions of stay for up to three years at a time.

In Sydney Tanabe worked for Mitsui, which had been established there in 1901, exporting and importing between Australia and Japan from 1907. It was one of fifty-four Japanese-run or owned companies to open in Sydney before 1941. Mitsui was enormously successful due to the efforts of competent executives like Tanabe, with an annual turnover by the 1930s of £1-2 million. The second most successful firm in Australia-Japan trade (after Mitsubishi Shoji Kaisha), Mitsui was one of the zaibatsu firms—large multinational family-based concerns with operations in diverse enterprises including general importing and exporting, minerals, manufacturing and banking.

Tanabe became the founding (1933) honorary secretary of the Japanese Chamber of Commerce in Sydney, an influential body that assisted in the organisation of Australia-Japan trade. He gave evidence before the Tariff Board inquiry into trade with Japan, following allegations that Japan was dumping cheap towels on the Australian market. He saw the role of the JCC as being to satisfy the public and the Japanese government about the details of the trade. The chamber later helped to resolve the 1936 trade diversion dispute with Japan.

In June 1940 the Tanabe family returned to England, where he was acting chief of the London branch of Mitsui. In August he was arrested and placed in Brixton Prison under the aliens order of the national security regulations. This followed the arrest of ten leading British businessmen in Japan on suspicion of espionage. Although sympathetic to Britain Tanabe was head of one of the two largest Japanese companies there. He served forty days in Brixton, which he described as more like a hotel because he was permitted unlimited visits and gifts from friends. His imprisonment ended when the Japanese government repatriated its citizens from Britain. The family spent the rest of World War II in Japan.

When Japan surrendered in 1945, Tanabe was appointed a rear admiral and interpreter for the Japanese navy because he spoke faultless English with an Oxford accent. One of his tasks was to arrange the sinking of his country’s ships as part of its disarmament. He was then appointed a liaison officer with the anti-trust division in the office of the supreme commander, Allied Powers, to help reorganise zaibatsu, including Mitsui, which were considered by the Allies to be too influential in their existing form for Japan’s new democracy.

Tanabe returned to Australia in 1956, working for the newly restructured Mitsui & Co. (Aust.) Pty Ltd. He became president of the reconstituted JCC in 1958. Next year the Japan Trade Fair, mounted by the Japan Export Trade Promotion Agency, showcased that country’s products in Sydney. Tanabe hailed the success of the 1957 treaty of commerce, stating that in 1957-58 Japan was Australia’s best customer for wool and, overall, bought three to four times more from Australia than it sold. The Japan Industry Floating Fair followed in 1960 aboard the Aki Maru. It berthed at major Australian ports, exhibiting the latest manufactured goods as a testament to Japan’s economic miracle.

In 1964, as chairman of Mitsui in Australia, Tanabe was involved in the construction in Queensland of a railway from the Moura open-cut coalfield to Gladstone and the expansion of the city’s port. He opened a Mitsui office in Perth to take advantage of the Western Australian iron-ore industry and in 1969 was involved in the Mount Newman project. A good-natured, jocular man with a sense of fair play, he was enthusiastic about cricket. He died on 9 January 1984 in Tokyo.

Select Bibliography

  • P. Oliver, ‘Japanese Immigrant Merchants and the Japanese Trading Company Network in Sydney, 1880s to 1941’, in P. Jones and P. Oliver (eds), Changing Histories (2001)
  • P. Oliver, ‘Japanese Relationships in White Australia’, History Aust, vol 4, no 1, 2007, p 5.1
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 23 Sept 1933, p 16, 5 Aug 1940, p 9, 6 Aug 1940, p 9, 19 Jan 1959, p 9
  • Sun-Herald (Sydney), 17 May 1964, p 72
  • miscellaneous records of Mitsui, SP1098/4 (National Archives of Australia).

Citation details

Pam Oliver, 'Tanabe, Shunsuke (1897–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/tanabe-shunsuke-15685/text26881, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 21 September 2019.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (MUP), 2012

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