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Japanese Textiles in East Africa  

Hideaki Suzuki

Between the 1920s and 1980s, East African consumers were strongly attracted to Japanese textiles, especially cotton, and Japanese manufacturers paid careful attention to that market. The relationship between the both east and west ends of the historical Indian Ocean developed when Japan was in the industrialization phase, which was led by its textile industry at a time during the postabolition period when East Africans were developing a keen interest in the new fashions, which contributed to their keenness to create a new self-identification. Nonetheless, the situation cannot be understood simply by looking at the general relationship between Japan and East Africa. In fact, from the mid-1910s onward, there were many occasions when the Chinese market—the largest for all Japanese products, including textiles—boycotted Japanese products. Then came the Great Depression, when the creation of bloc economies and the raising of tariffs negatively affected Japan’s textile exports to its existing major markets such as the United States, India, and China. On the other hand, there was a space for Japanese textiles to enter the East African market under the free trade principle of the Congo Basin Treaties, which Japan ratified in 1919. Japanese textile exports to East Africa eventually peaked in 1935 but then declined until they ceased altogether during the 1940s as a consequence of World War II and the devastation of Japan immediately postwar. However, beginning in the 1950s, the trade revived and went on to again occupy a large market share, which it maintained until the early 1980s. The history of Japanese textiles in East Africa is more than simply one part of the history of Japan’s relationship with Africa; rather, it is a topic which embeds conjunctions and entanglements of local, regional, and global contexts as well as interaction between consumer and producer—and not forgetting the middlemen.