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Gonzalo San Emeterio Cabañes

Ph. D. Candidate,

The University of Zurich 


Assistant and PhD student at the Chair of Global History, Department of History at the University of Zurich since 2015. He studied East Asian Studies at the Autonomous University of Madrid (Spain) and Osaka University (Japan). His research combines an interest in the overlap of empires and the history of the Pacific archipelagos with methods from global history. He currently works on a dissertation that attempts to provide a new understanding about presence and lives of the Japanese traders and emigrants to the Micronesian area of the Pacific Ocean during the late 19th century and the early 20th century, giving particular emphasis to their networks and interactions across the Spanish, German and U.S. empires.

“De-mythicizing Mori Koben: The Other Story of the First Japanese Traders and Migrants to Micronesia, Their Mobility and Their Networks”

If there is one figure in the popular perception that epitomizes the Japanese ethos in the Southern Pacific during the 19th century, that figure is Mori Koben (1869-1945). Mori was a young political activist who in 1891 moved to one of the archipelagos of Micronesia in the Southern Pacific in search of new opportunities. Attracted to the life on the islands and its risks, Mori rose to be the leader of a group of Native Islanders, married a Native Islander princess, and amassed a power similar to that of a local king. With such a fascinating life-story, scholars have created around Mori a halo of mythical masculinity, endowed with an extraordinary individuality. Emphasizing the exceptional nature of this historical player, however, many have missed the fact that he was not alone in his quest in the Southern Pacific. This paper looks to the life of other Japanese men who migrated and worked in the Micronesian archipelagos in the last decade of the 19th century. Following Clare Anderson’s call to use life history as a critical perspective to explore the practices and processes associated with imperial expansion and the ways in which individuals lived them, the objective of this work is to draw attention to the lives of other Japanese explorers, traders and workers and their interactions with representatives of other empires in a highly contested area during the 19th century. Bringing actors such as Spanish colonial agents, American missionaries and German traders among others it is possible to present not only a different picture of the Japanese expansion into the area beyond the one depicted in Mori’s stories, but also a different picture of the archipelagos of the Southern Pacific during those times. A picture that speaks not so much of survival and adventure, as was the case of Mori’s, but of networks across empires and cross-cultural interactions.

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