By Steve Dawson

It is a privilege to be able to write about my family’s ancestral Japanese roots, especially given the significance of Sakuragawa Rikinosuke, who is recorded as the first Japanese to settle in Australia. Technically, this pioneer was my great- great-grandfather, but the bloodline actually begins with his son, Ewar Dicinoski (Togawa Iwakichi), who was seven when they arrived in Australia in 1873.

We are stil unsure whether Ewar was Sakuragawa’s biological or adopted son, or his protégé. Nevertheless, they were ‘father and son’. Sakuragawa also brought his 10-year-old daughter, Makichi Sakuragawa Ume, but she returned to Japan in 1875. Sakuragawa Rikinosuke is reported to have been born in Edo (former name for Tokyo ) in 1848, and Togawa Iwakichi was born in Edo in December 1865.

Sakuragawa Rikinosuke and Togawa Iwakichi (on the ladder) after arrival in Australia in 1873

Japan had barely begun to engage the West under the Meiji Restoration, following the overthrow of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled during the Edo Period. At this time, there was a policy known as sakoku, which controlled international travel and trade by Japanese.  However, this was repealed in 1866, and passports were issued for purposes of study and trade. Interestingly, under a loophole in Japan’s strict rules on the issuing of passports, foreign entrepreneurs were able to endorse and support passport applications for numerous Japanese acrobats to travel and perform abroad. 

Research shows passports were issued by Yokohama prefectural authorities on 7 October 1872 to Sakuragawa Rikinosuke and Togawa Iwakichi.  The next day, 8 October 1872, they departed Yokohama on aboard P & O’s Avoca (headed for London via Kolkata, formerly Calcutta, India), and appear to have been in the employment of French entrepreneur C. Pasquale.  Subsequently, they departed Calcutta under the employment of Thomas King, and arrived in Sydney aboard the R.M.S. Baroda on 29 July 1873. They were part of a group of 13 Japanese performers, and were accompanied by King.  Actually, the R.M.S. Baroda manifest for that day lists ‘Mr and Mrs King with 18 Siamese troupe’. 

After performing across Australia and New Zealand, Sakuragawa married Jane Kerr in 1876 in Fitzroy, Melbourne, one of few Japanese immigrants to marry an Australian. For the next few years, Sakuragawa raised a family and continued to work as a circus performer and travelled around Australia from town to town. In 1882, he decided to settle and take up farming in Herberton, Queensland, and applied to be naturalised in order to secure a homestead on Crown land – this marked his entry into the history books as the first Japanese settler in Australia. The farming venture did not work out, so Sakuragawa went back to being an acrobat. Unfortunately, he died in June 1884 from tuberculosis and was buried at Rookwood Cemetery in Sydney. 

Circus flyers and newspaper-reviews of Sakuragawa Decenoski’s circus troupe performances (circa 1881, 1883)

Upon arriving in Australia, the name Rikinosuke was phonetically recorded as ‘Decenoski’, which became the name used thereafter by Sakuragawa until his death. In fact, he was recorded as using ‘Sacarnawa Decenoski’ for most circus performances, and he also adopted ‘Reginald’ as an English first name. His son, Ewar, also used ‘Decenoski’, but after Sakuragawa’s death, changed this to ‘Dicinoski’, which was recorded officially upon his marriage on 20 February 1892, at the age of 26. Ewar married Susan Bowtell, who was 16 years old in Warracknabeal, and they went on to have 11 children, though sadly, two died quite young. One of them, Ewar junior, was my grandfather, who was affectionately known as ‘Hughie’ (another variation of Ewar, whose origins lie in ‘Iwakichi’). 

Having joined numerous circus troupes, including Ashton and St Leon, Ewar senior eventually established the ‘Dicinoski Troupe’ in 1900, which consisted of his growing family. They travelled to all states of Australia.  The unique surname ‘Dicinoski’ – only found in this bloodline from Sakuragawa Rikinosuke and Togawa Iwakichi – remains to this day, and was my mother’s maiden name. 

Ewar Dicinoski and wife Susan Bowtell (circa 1892)

For many reasons, the Japanese lineage has been a curious question in recent years in my family. It was once investigated by one of my aunties, but in a non-globalised and non-digital world.  Things seemed to come to a halt also with the untimely passing of a key ANU researcher, Dr David Sissons, who was a skilled proponent of knowledge about the Japan–Australia relationship, and was fascinated with our family connections as they related to the commencement of culturally significant bilateral relations. Most of the records that I have are testimony to the excellent research efforts made by David Sissons. 

I would like to say that interest in our Japanese lineage has always been strong in our family, but this is not the case.  In fact, I do not recall this ever being a topic of conversation while I was growing up and well into my young adult life. The truth is, my mother and her sisters were quite proud to be from northern Queensland (Delulu, Mount Morgan, Rockampton) and to be ‘simple country’ people, and they did not speak of their Japanese origins, for they were simply not aware of them. 

The growing Dicinoski family: Ewar, Susan and children Amelia, Ewar Junior, Goldie, Pearlie, Joey, Billy and Norman.

My grandfather, Ewar ‘Hughie’ Dicinoski, after being raised as a circus performer with the Dicinoski Troupe to about age 20, worked as a stockman, jockey, and horse breaker for most of his adult life. I wondered if at some point, there was a conscious or unconscious decision, or perhaps just a natural transition, to overlook or suppress our ancestral Japanese roots, and I felt compelled to question my mother about it. She responded that they never asked about their father or mother’s family history, as it ‘was just not done; it was a different age back then. You certainly did not ask such questions of your parents.’ I asked if they, or others in the community, were ever curious about their father’s obvious Asian appearance, as he was half Japanese, but none were. I queried why did they think their father never told them about the family’s Japanese history, and they gave the same response: ‘It was just not done.’

In fact, according to my mother, the first that any family member knew of our Japanese ancestry was when one of their uncles, Reginald – Ewar and Susan’s first child – was contacted in the 1970s in relation to official records. For me, this is astounding, and somewhat saddening at the same time. And I lament the loss of historical family information that could have been passed on and shared. The key to the family’s lack of knowledge about ancestral Japanese roots lay with Ewar Dicinoski. 

Noting the realities of historical events and the White Australia policy, I wondered if the ‘Japanese-ness’ was suppressed intentionally by great-grandfather Ewar Dicinoski, so that he and his large family could simply be ‘Australians’. My mother believes this could be a distinct possibility, but common sense provides another explanation. Ewar was only seven years old when he arrived in Australia, so he essentially grew up in Australia like any other Australian child. Linguistically, he could have been bilingual if he had maintained his Japanese language, but this seems not to be the case. His relationship with his adopted father, Sakuragawa Rikinosuke, remains a mystery. For all intents and purposes, Ewar was a country person with a country accent, but looked Asian. However, my research revealed that a time came when Ewar faced his Japanese heritage and felt the need to take action. 

Japan entered World War I in August 1914 on the side of the Entente Allies, and quickly took control of German territories in the Pacific and mainland China. But it had already aroused European/Western interest and suspicion after decisively defeating Russia in the Russo-Japanese War between 1904 to 05, the first such victory by an Asian nation.

Interestingly, my search of records at the National Archives of Australia reveal that Ewar Dicinoski applied to External Affairs in September 1914 to become naturalised under the Naturalisation Act 1903. He was rejected on these grounds: ‘you are an Aboriginal native of Asia and you are not eligible to become naturalised under the Commonwealth.’  Perhaps the trigger for this application was the commencement of WWI in June 1914, and possibly the influence of stricter immigration policies up to that time, which began with the White Australia policy 1901 (with the Immigration Restriction Act 1901 as a foundation) that sought to reduce the numbers of immigrants,Asians in particular. 

At that time, Ewar was 48 years old, had eight children, and his profession was ‘travelling acrobat’. Certainly, he had no fixed address and acknowledged that he did not know his exact birth date or the details of his arrival in Australia. He was subsequently registered as a ‘Japanese alien’ in 1917 under War Precautions (Alien Registration) Regulations 1916. We know from the written description on these documents that he was five feet one inch, had black hair and brown eyes, a scar on his right temple, and was of ‘strong, nuggety build’. 

Of course, with the advent of Japan’s expansionist policies in the Pacific and the outbreak of World War II, the Dicinoski family may well have been concerned about their well-being. But Ewar actually died in September 1938, and Ewar’s children were adults by then, and may still have been unaware of their true roots, or continued their father’s wish to suppress knowledge of these roots, including their Japanese acrobatic lives. It appears that even when addressing the reality of his Japanese status in 1914 at the age of 48, Ewar may have chosen at that time to not communicate his heritage to his children. We may never know the reason for this, and can only surmise it was because, essentially, he did not ‘feel’ Japanese, and did not want his family to be alienated, as he may have felt by the denial from External Affairs, and simply wanted to continue living without discrimination.  

It appears that Dicinoski family members’ knowledge of the significance of Japanese roots did not become apparent until they were researched deeply by Dr Sissons. Despite not being discussed openly, the Japanese genes are strong, I think, and are apparent in Dicinoski’s descendants. My mother, like her three sisters, all had black hair in their youth, dark brown eyes, and olive skin. My older brother has the same features. We are somewhat  ‘height challenged’. I am the tallest in our nuclear family at 168 cm, and I recall my grandfather was 15 cm and his twin sisters – Pearlie and Goldie – were abuot the same height.

Aunty Goldie and Aunty Pearlie when they were younger, with Grandpa Hughie behind them.

As children in Ewar senior’s (Togawa Iwakichi) circus, they were acrobats and contortionists, among other roles. One of Ewar’s apparently unique acts was performed on an invisible slackwire using a piano wire! Throughout my life, I have had an inexplicable affinity for all things Asian: my wife is Filipina by birth, I am a very good linguist – Chinese, Indonesian, though sadly, not Japanese – and I have lived and worked in Asian countries. A passion in my current life is helping non-native speakers learn English professionally and informally. Oddly, my mother and brother do not share this affinity with Asia and Asian cultures, despite having more ‘Asian’ physical features. Even though we’re related, my brother and I do not look alike. Remarkably, my interest may also be strongly influenced by my father, who has an Anglo-Saxon heritage and was an academic who taught Chinese and Vietnamese at Griffith University in Queensland. 

Aunties Pearlie and Goldie, taken in the early 1980s

As a teenager and young man, I recall from time to time visiting great Aunties Goldie and Pearlie in Brisbane. They lived practically their entire lives together, except for a few years when Goldie was married. In a word, they were ‘cute’, and quite inseparable. As they aged, Pearlie lost her eyesight, and Goldie lost her hearing, and they continued to function as one pair, complementing each other. Although not identical twins, I was mesmerised at how they knew each other’s thoughts, and always began and ended sentences in harmony. 

In hindsight, had I been aware of the family’s roots, I would have been inclined to delve deeper and ask many questions, but I was blinded by their quietness, selflessness, and aversion to talking about themselves.  It seems obvious, now, that they may not have known very much about their Japanese father’s story either, but the most recent family-sourced information suggests all of Ewar’s children were aware of their Japanese heritage, but upheld the lifelong agreement to conceal these roots. 

Steve with Aunties Goldie and Pearlie, taken in the mid 1980s

I remember only seeing my grandfather, Ewar (‘Hughie’) Dicinoski a few times, as he lived a sedentary life and I, like my father and brother, was in the military and moved around quite a bit. The last time I saw him was in the early 1980s. Grandpa Ewar Junior’s demeanour and personality was exactly like his sisters’ Pearlie and Goldie. He was quietly spoken, with a Queensland country accent and manner. He smiled warmly and easily, and his eyes always smiled too. He looked cute and Yoda-like with grey wisps of hair on his balding head. Despite not knowing me well, I felt that Grandpa was equally proud of me as he was of his other three grandchildren, but I sensed that my world was far removed from his and clearly generations apart. 

Grandpa was tough. I recall that he had tolerated a headache for a couple of days, which he put down to another redback spider bite on the outside ‘throne’! I will always remember the sight of this diminutive man as an 80 plus year old horse whisperer of sorts, breaking in a wild horse. His skin was tanned and leathery from years working under the Queensland sun, but I once walked in on him while he was changing his shirt and was astonished to see pale white skin on the torso of a fit man 60 years his junior. 

Sadly, after a long, healthy life in the country, independent of medicines that most people take regularly and for granted, Grandpa Ewar had a mild heart attack, entered Rockampton Hospital and passed away in 1985, perhaps prematurely, at the age of 87. 

Steve with Grandpa ‘Hughie’ (Ewar) Dicinoski, taken in Delulu, QLD, in the early 1980s
Ewar Dicinoski Junior’s (Grandpa Hughie) four daughters and his sister, Pearlie, my mother, Vivienne, is standing at the rear, taken in 1986

All photos courtesy of Dawson Family archives unless otherwise stated. This includes historical photographs donated to the family by the late D. C. S. Sissons.

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