Between the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century, the Japanese Empire experienced outflows of its people to both its own colonies and foreign countries that were mainly located in the Asia-Pacific region. In their destinations, a majority of these migrants were engaged in physical labor in agricultural, construction, and lumbering industries. Coffee production also became a significant economic activity for many Japanese migrants in Brazil as well as some in Hawai‘i (the US territory, 1898–1959), Taiwan (the Japanese colony, 1895–1945), and Saipan (part of Nan’yō, the Japanese mandate, 1920–1945). Previously, historical studies of the Japanese migration have been focused on one-directional and one-site migrations, that is, migrations from Japan to a single destination. This is partly due to a lack of comprehensive statistical data that could enable researches to trace individual multiple-directional trajectories, and partly due to the scholastic divide of studying Japanese migrations according to destinations—whether they moved to the Japanese territories as colonial settlers or non-territories as immigrants.
This article utilizes coffee, which has a long history of being connected to global-scale movements, as an analytical lens to highlight more dynamic and multi-directional migrations of Japanese people, including those who moved from Japan, to Hawai‘i, to Saipan, and to Taiwan by being involved in coffee farming or businesses. Furthermore, this article argues that coffee functioned as an agency to connect the metropole of the Japanese Empire, which consumed coffee, and the newly established coffee farms and plantations in Japan’s Taiwan and Saipan. While the project of sending Japanese immigrants to Brazil contributed to the popularization of coffee-drinking culture in urban areas of Japan, Japanese coffee farmers in Hawai‘i played a key role in establishing coffee farms and plantations in Taiwan and Saipan from the 1920s to the 1930s. In this way, part of coffee’s trans-pacific movement was supported by the Japanese diasporic network that linked coffee-producing areas in the Asia-Pacific, where, at the same time, included the areas that absorbed a significant number of Japanese people migrants. These dynamic and trans-pacific interactions between coffee and Japanese diasporic communities indicate that migrations of Japanese people can be considered in the context of the global history of coffee and possibly, other crops and materials.