By Amanda O’Connor
My grandfather is Hajime Fujimoto, though he appears as ‘Hajima’ on some documents. He was born in Kumamoto Prefecture in the late 1800s. The date of birth on his Certificate of Alien Registration is 17 March 1881, however the date of entry to the Commonwealth was recorded as May 1889. This makes me curious…
For over 12 years, I have been researching my family history for Hajime. Up until 12 years ago, my grandfather’s history had never been discussed within the extended family. That’s where my passion to uncover his story comes from. The date of his death is recorded as 15 September 1932.
The information below reflects oral histories taken from my mother and her sisters (Cassie – Kesuko, Uka – Oyuka, and Claire). My mother Cassie, is the eldest remaining child of Hajime. At the age of 95, she still lives by herself on the Gold Coast in Queensland, drives, and has amazing health and cognitive ability.
Fujimoto Family Tree
Catherine Maud Gibson
Amanda Oates (O’Connor)
History of Hajime Fujimoto
The following is based on conversations held in 2008 and 2009 between the author and Hajime’s children Cassie, Oyuka and Claire.
Hajime Fujimoto came to Australia during the period of the gold rush and pearl diving (see Certificate of Alien Registration). It was believed that Hajime’s mother was not happy that he left to go to Australia, as she considered him to be too young.
In Japan, Hajime’s family lived on a farm and due to the number of boys in the family, it was hard for the family to support, feed, and clothe all of them. So, Hajime came to Australia, and another brother went to America. My Aunt Oyuka remembers a photo of the Fujimoto family – father, mother, and at least two brothers, but does not remember any girls in the photo. I have never seen this photo.
When Hajime initially arrived in Australia, he was involved in pearl diving on Thursday Island. However, he had to stop this activity as he suffered from ‘the bends’. It was also thought that Hajime was a heavy smoker, which also didn’t help with recovering from pearl diving.
Hajime then moved to Port Douglas, Queensland. He got a job with Summer House and was employed as a cook and a caretaker. He also played billiards using pure ivory balls. Cassie still has an ivory billiards ball from this period. Unfortunately, the company went broke and therefore Hajime had to seek employment elsewhere. It was believed that Hajime also worked for the Queensland Club on little Edward Street (an ‘all male’ club) in Brisbane as a butler or porter, as well as for Queensland Ambulance Service.
Hajime eventually moved to Toowoomba. There was a large Japanese community there, and it was a very multicultural area with Chinese, Irish, and Lebanese communities. The Chinese community came to Toowoomba from the Mt Morgan gold mine. In the early 1900s, the head of the Grammar School required a housekeeper, so he went to work for the principal, who he met through his previous employer. During this time, Hajime saved enough money to buy a laundry business.
Catherine and her family came out on a boat called the SS Osterley from London in 1911, and were paid 10 pounds to work. The boat trip took about six weeks. They caught the Cobb & Co to Inglewood, and Catherine nearly fell out of the carriage. Her father caught her by hanging on to her belt. Catherine originally went to Texas to a tobacco farm, but moved to Toowoomba when the tobacco farm went broke. Her father had worked for the Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) in England. However in Toowoomba, he worked for the wheat board as a miller. The family home was at 8 Anzac Avenue, and was bought with winnings from a Melbourne Cup win – Artilleryman in 1919). Catherine was involved in political rallies, and was a suffragette for women’s rights. She sang in vaudeville halls, as well as at Cassie’s wedding, where she sang I’ll Walk With You. Cassie remembers that Catherine wanted to be like Dame Nellie Melba as they shared the love of singing.
Hajime and Catherine
Hajime employed Catherine in the dry cleaning business, and after one year, they were married. In the 1920s, the only way to clean clothes was through a boiler. Therefore, for suits and formal wear, a dry cleaner was the only option. Dry cleaners were also used for dyeing clothes. Hajime and Catherine were thought to be married in St James Church, however the marriage certificate states that they were married at the residence of Hajime Fujimoto, Ruthven Street, Toowoomba, according to the rites of the Church of Christ. Catherine’s parents initially opposed the marriage and forbid her from marrying until she turned 21.
The Queensland Post Office Directory records ‘H Fujimoto’ in their records for ‘laundries’ for the years 1919 to 1933 (see attached images). The dry cleaning business was opposite St Lukes (near Hannas) in Toowoomba. The family lived at the business premises and had an English Shepherd dog called ‘Carlo’, who was buried at the back of the shop after he died. The dry cleaning business had many ads in the front window (but did not have a ‘business name’) including ‘Invite your spots to our Coming Out Party’.
The laundry business was very successful. In fact, they were one of only a few to have a car – a Studebaker imported from USA. Hajime decided to put the car in the taxi rank to help to pay the business debt. Catherine’s family are unsure why they had bought the car as neither Catherine or Hajime could drive. Soon after, the family moved further down Ruthven Street opposite the Town Hall. They employed a child minder who looked after her children. She became friendly with the man who was employed as the driver of the Studebaker. One morning her father came looking for her, and they discovered that the two of them had taken off in the car. Neither they nor the car were never seen again.
There was a cornfield across from the laundry business, and Ken used to collect the corn, which they cooked on an old stove at the back of the laundry. In the backyard, there were plum trees, fruit trees and a bunya nut tree. Oyuka remembers Claire being born at home, and that Catherine’s mother was also present at the birth. Oyuka used to take Claire in the pram to the bank and back for a walk.
Oyuka remembers the Day family that lived in Little Street. The family had a market garden and worked at the local hotel. Oyuka also remembers the Dower family that owned the Exchange Hotel. They felt sorry for Catherine when Hajime died and used to bring leftover stews for the family to eat. The Qld PO Directory of 1930 lists a newsagent as being on one side of the laundry and a second hand dealer as being on the other side. Oyuka delivered dry cleaning clothes to families in Toowoomba.
When I met with Oyuka, she was in her late 80s and she provided many details in her oral history. In fact, her recollection was so detailed, I was worried that I was placing too much trust in her knowledge. So…. I checked the Qld Post Office Directories and it confirmed the names of businesses close to the laundry. I was impressed!
During the depression years between 1927 – 1930, the dry cleaning business went down. Hajime fell ill in 1932 during winter and was sick for a few months before passing away. At hospital, Catherine took Cassie and Claire to hospital to visit their father, and Oyuka went by bus. It is not clear whether Hajime died from lung cancer or double pneumonia. After Hajime died, the family was unable to pay rent for the dry cleaning business and therefore the business closed. Catherine received a widow’s pension, approximately 8 guineas a month, which was not much.
Ken and Claire never had shoes while at primary school. Oyuka went to Glennie Prep school for 5 years in Toowoomba but had to attend South State School when her father passed away as it was too expensive to go to a private school. Ken (Kenzo) went to South State Boys. Oyuka’s head teacher was Andrew Deakin’s sister (the Prime Minister of Australia at that time). Catherine was extravagant in some ways though. Sometimes she would buy cream biscuits.
In 1933, the family left Toowoomba. During this time, Catherine was very sick due to malnutrition. The family left for Coolangatta (via Brisbane) on what’s known as the ‘Midnight Terror’ train (because it left at 12am – arrived at Brisbane 8am, then went to Coolangatta). The train ride took a long time because it was a goods-train and stopped to deliver milk and cheese along the way. It was very scary going to the station late at night and listening to the ‘whistle’. It is thought that the family were trying to do a ‘moonlight flit’ as they owed rent for the dry cleaning business.
At Coolangatta, Catherine worked in another laundry called Suzuki’s. She met a Japanese man who was a ‘friend of family’ and had a laundry business. May was born in Coolangatta in 1934. Oyuka helped Catherine with raising May. Catherine and her children lived in a house called Byng Box. Cassie, Oyuka, and Claire used to put on ‘shows’ for the family sometimes for another family across the road. It was believed that Catherine’s family in England was involved in the entertainment industry. The family had about four house moves during this period. At the house in Tweed Street Coolangatta, Catherine hit her head on rafters underneath the house. This was reported in the Tweed Daily of 7 July 1937.
During this period, the family survived on rations – a quarter pound of butter per week; half a dozen eggs, rice, tomato sauce. The ration vouchers were only available from the police station. Claire remembers looking for wood for the fire. They were so desperate for wood that Ken used a tomahawk and took part of the drain. Claire remembers Catherine saying we were always ‘robbed’, as the milkman used to water down the milk. After that time, Cassie used to collect their own milk. The family sometimes were able to get free fish. While at school the children used to watch mullet jumping and sometimes would bring fish home. They were given a Christmas cake by neighbours that was full of green and red cherries. Catherine picked out green cherries because she thought they had gone bad.
Both Ken and Oyuka worked to help supplement the family finances. While at Coolangatta, Oyuka went to work at a fruit shop. She was paid about one pound per week, and dinner was free. Ken also worked in Coolangatta, for a beach photographer. Catherine did home domestic work, washing and cleaning to support her children. The family left Coolangatta in 1939 and moved to Brisbane.
Ken went to war while the family was at Twine Street, and came home suffering from malaria. He was only 18 when he went to war. The family moved to 28 Hamilton Place, Bowen Hills, although Ken never lived at this house as he was away for thee or four years. It is interesting that Ken used his birth name – Kenzo Fujimoto – when he registered for the Army.
Claire remembers Catherine destroying photos or anything that resembled her husband and also anything Japanese. Catherine buried a Japanese sword at 28 Hamilton Place, Bowen Hills. The day that Darwin was bombed, Clair was on a bus reading the paper. At that time, the streets at night were very dark due to the threat of bombing.
Just before the war any Japanese person that had a business had to move to a ‘camp’ (internment).
In respect of the surname ‘Fujimoto’, it is agreed that Cassie and Claire still used the surname ‘Fujimoto’ while at school but in around 1946 they changed their name to ‘Gibson’. Claire and Cassie cannot remember having a difficult time at school because of their surname. In fact, their friends were very protective of them.
However, Claire can remember an Anglican instructor at State Commercial High spoke to Claire during the war, and said ‘your name is Fujimoto’, and ‘that is Japanese’. The instructor made a point of saying this in front of the class.
I have been to Japan a number of times, including a trip to Kumamoto with a Japanese language interpreter and visited the city adminsitration to see if we could find a koseki for Hajime. In the recent years, I asked my mother whether she would do a DNA sample for genetic testing service 23andme and Ancestry. There is a close relative on 23andme and I have attempted to make contact with them. Initially, the contact said she would ask her relatives in Japan (as they still live near Tamana) but I have not heard anything further. I can understand their hesitancy. Who knows what happened back then!
My grandmother passed away in 1998 and we did not discuss my grandfather. Catherine was very independent and had strong opinions about a number of things. Having lived through her own suffering, such as being estanged from the family for marrying a Japanese person, surviving the Great Depression, and being a single mother, she kept her feelings and emotions locked away inside.
I regularly look on the Ancestry website, archives, and other sources for any new records – I am determined to find out more about my grandfather before my mother passes, which I believe will not be for a long time!
I have some primary source documents, but majority is through recorded oral histories, National Archives of Australia (Certificate of Alien Registration). As was probably common at the time, the spelling of Japanese names has caused frustration, for example, his parents’ names on the Marriage Certificate. I have attempted to obtain primary source evidence to support hi sworking at the Grammar School, but this has been unsuccessful. My Aunt Oyuka spoke confidently of this so at this stage I believe her understanding of Hajime’s movements in Queensland. I also have a ‘filigree type’ print of a Mt Fuji scene with a river, which has some mother of pearl. This belonged to my grandfather, Hajime.
My grandfather is buried at the Toowoomba and Drayton Cemetery. Up until now, he was buried in an unmarked grave. I have organised a plaque and am awaiting its completion. My mother and my immediate family will travel to Toowoomba where we will see Hajime finally rest peacefully.
My family regularly travel to Japan. It is a country where I feel strongly connected to, even though I do not know of any relatives.
Mandy O’Connor is a third-generation Nikkei Australian and the granddaughter of Hajime Fujimoto. Mandy’s Japanese ancestry was the inspiration for learning the Japanese language and she has visited Japan with her family a number of times to most areas of Japan including Hokkaido and Kyushu. These days, Mandy lives in Brisbane and continues to undertake research of her family ancestry.
All photos supplied by author.