By Andrew Laurence
Other than Haiti’s successful fight for independence from France in 1804, the only other non-European nation to successfully repulse European colonial intentions, before Japan’s use of full scale modern weapons against Russia in 1905, was Ethiopia’s defense against Italy in the 1896 Battle of Adwa. While the rest of the world was being dominated by European interests, it was Ethiopia and Japan whose resistance stood out as African and Asian stalwarts. The 126th ruler of the Solomonic Dynasy Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, and the 124th monarch of the Jimu Dynasty Emperor Hirohito of Japan, represented longstanding cultures led by royal nobility. So when it was heavily reported that Lij Araya Abebe, a nephew of the Emperor, was looking for marriage from a young noble lady from Japan it caused great trepidation among the European powers.
Ethiopia and Japan had been communicating for some time concerning their economic and political interests. While accompanying the Minister of Foreign Affairs, Blattengetta Hiruy Wolde Selassie, on a trip to Japan in 1930 to sign a Treaty of Friendship and Commerce, Lij Araya apparently became enamoured with the people of Japan as did others who were impressed with their rapid industrial development and wanted to take the relationship one step further. When it was reported that the “prince” of Ethiopia was interested in marriage with a Japanese woman aristocrat, Mr. Sumioka Tomoyoshi, and other businessmen, saw an opportunity to increase relations between the two countries.
A number of trade missions were arranged to Ethiopia where the Japanese farming interests sought to secure some 500,000 hectares of land for cotton and other products, and land for immigrant families to settle. Emperor Selassie had recently signed a new constitution largely based on the Japanese model. Some young Ethiopian progressive intellectuals called “Japanizers” had been arguing that Japan was a good model for modern development and supported marriage between the upper classes of the two countries. Many Japanese nationalists thought it was necessary to unite the colored races against the white.
Mr. Sumioka impressed Lij Araya and quickly set up arrangements for a wife to be found. Advertisements for select woman in Japan were circulated. Many young ladies were attracted to proposition of marrying this handsome, royal, single Christian and about sixty applications were received. The first choice fell to Ms. Kuroda Masako who was the daughter of Viscount Kuroda Hiroyuki, a descendant from the former Lord of Kazusa. Trained in the English language and athletic, she immediately took up studies in Ethiopian culture and believed herself to be the first of many to immigrate to Ethiopia.
Unfortunately for the couple, as word spread of the impending marriage, alarm bells were going off all over Europe. Ethiopia’s envoy Daba Birru, who served as an interpreter for Wolde Selassie, continued negotiations in principle for arms, and engendered the goodwill and some needed supplies from Japan. Italy was jealous of Japan’s potential alliance with Ethiopia. Russia tried to convince other European countries of the threat of an African-Asiatic force. Italy implicated Japan in sending weapons and military training to Ethiopia. England and France became concerned that their stakes in the region would be threatened. As business negotiations began to increase, both the Japanese and Ethiopian governments became concerned about the negative publicity. Already, rumors circulated at the League of Nations about opium farming in Ethiopia.
Due to Japan’s increased trade with African countries, European media reported Japan as the “Yellow Peril” and a threat to their economic interests. Japan tried to cut its losses and attempted to find common ground with Italy on business dealings in China. Japan promised not to interfere with Italian interests in East Asia. It also encouraged importation of Italian wine and an exchange of students and teachers between them. Ultimately,
very little business did come about between Ethiopia and Japan due to a lack of investors and government precaution.
Alas, the “fairy-tale” marriage between the “African prince” and “Asian princess” was not to be. The symbolic threat of this union was too much too ignore. Who knows what might have become of such an alliance. As it turned out, Japan’s joining with the Axis Powers of Germany and Italy in WWII turned out to be a losing hand to say the least. Ethiopia could certainly have used the support of Japan in its fight against Italy’s attempt at colonization. On the other hand, would race prove to be a strong enough factor to prevent the European interests in Asia and Africa?
Mr. Sumioka, instrumental in arranging the whole affair, was reported to have received a Commander Class of the Order of Menelik II by Emperor Haile Selassie I, and predicted an Ethiopian victory over Italy. Not much was ever heard again of Ms. Kuroda who insisted her marriage should go on as planned. Blattengetta Hiruy Wolde Selassie, often referred to as the father of Amharic literature, and extraordinary diplomat, was a great supporter of the alliance with Japan and went into exile in England with the Emperor during the Italian occupation of Ethiopia. He eventually died there in 1938. Daba Birru gave himself over to the Italian side.
Lij Araya Abebe would go to the United States and work with Dr. Melaku Bayen in fundraising for the Italian war effort in the African American community and with the Ethiopian World Federation. He served as ambassador to Greece and Minister of Public Works among other positions in the Imperial government. He eventually married Woizero Mulumebet Abebe, sister of Crown Princess (later Empress-in-Exile) Medferiashwork Abebe, and had a son, Lij Amde Araya. He passed quietly in a Virginia suburb of Washington, DC in 2002.
(Primary source: Dai Nihon, Tokyo by Hiruy Wolde Selassie, 1934. Secondary source: Alliance of the Colored Peoples: Ethiopia and Japan Before World War II by Joseph Calvitt Clarke III, Professor Emeritus of History, Jacksonville University, Florida.)
Andrew Laurence is president of the Ethiopian American Cultural Association.