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Japan and the U.S. Cotton Trade in the 1930s

The history of New Orleans, like the rest of the American South, is fundamentally intertwined with the cotton trade. Even in the 20th century, long after the antebellum era of “King Cotton,” New Orleans reigned as the nation’s largest cotton market. During this time, trade shifted to a new center: Japan.

Through the first half of the 20th century raw cotton represented the bulk of US exports to Japan, helping fuel Japan's industrial revolution. The commerce expanded most heavily after the end of World War I, as Japan experienced a postwar boom in textile production. By 1933, Japan produced 41 percent of the world’s cotton goods, making it the largest producer. While the portion of American cotton among Japan’s total cotton imports fluctuated during the mid 1920s, the rise of direct exports through the Panama Canal meant that New Orleans and its sister Gulf Coast ports dominated America’s cotton trade with Japan.

This dramatic expansion was made possible almost entirely by Japanese managerial and transportation expertise. Curiously, no American shipping lines thought it worthwhile to open routes from New Orleans to Asia during the 1920s. Instead, Japanese shipping companies took up the slack, operating in creative fashion.

Since it was not profitable for steamers to sail empty through the Panama Canal, Japanese planners designed routes that allowed the ships to stop in South America, take on cargo there, and then sail to New Orleans to sell those goods and pick up cotton (at least some of this trade was comprised of coffee produced by Japanese immigrant plantation owners in Brazil, and shipped through the port of Santos). After passing through the Canal, the ships would stop briefly on the Pacific Coast before heading back to Japan.

In the depths of the Great Depression, Japan further developed its cotton transportation infrastructure by introducing new ships with a top speed of 35 knots, thereby cutting sharply the time needed for transpacific passage. In 1934, the Kokusai Kisen Kaisha line inaugurated service from New Orleans to the Far East, using the faster ships. By 1937 Osaka Shosen Kaisha, Nippon Yisen Kaisha, Kawasaki Risen Kaisga, Rokusai Kisen Kaisha, Mitsui Bussan Kaisha, among others, all furnished service to New Orleans.

Meanwhile, New Orleans’s share of the cotton trade with Japan exploded. In the face of British tariffs of up to 75% on Japanese cotton goods, Japanese firms launched a boycott of raw cotton from India during 1932-1933. To fuel their expanding needs, the Japanese increased their purchases of American cotton, reaching a high of 2,294,00 bales of cotton in 1932, 71.6 percent of their total importation. 

As one economic historian has noted, by 1934, raw cotton represented in all 53% of ALL Japan’s imports from the United States, even as sales to Japan represented 31.8% of America’s total foreign sales of raw cotton—the largest single item in America’s export trade. The trade levelled off slightly in the next years, Japan remained a vital customer for Louisiana.

Because of its powerful trade relations with Japan, New Orleans became a center of Japanese life in the American South during this period. In 1922, Japan opened up a consulate in the city. Six years later, the New Orleans Japan Society was founded by a group of local businessmen. A number of Japanese American students and merchants came to live in Louisiana. Japanese sopranos such as Tamaki Miura and Hizi Koyke were hailed by local opera lovers for their performances in Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly.

Japanese in Louisiana, 1941

Still, after the mid 1930s, the city’s lucrative cotton trade was imperilled by great power rivalries in the Pacific, and growing tensions between Japan and the United States. While the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931, followed by Tokyo’s establishment of the puppet state of Manchukuo, did not greatly affect the cotton trade, Tokyo’s military occupation of China in 1937 sparked action by progressive groups such as the American Friends of the Chinese People, who called for boycotts of Japan and organized protest rallies in port cities such as San Francisco.

The American Committee for Non-Participation in Japanese Aggression, a moderate umbrella group, organized chapters nationwide—including the South, where they drew on support from Christian groups.

Ironically, America’s cotton trade actually increased at first as a result of the 1937 invasion. In order to continue providing aid to China, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt refused to invoke the Neutrality Act, which barred sales of arms and strategic materials to any belligerents, in the case of the Japanese invasion. This meant that America’s far larger trade with Japan remained unrestricted, and the Japanese war machine, which required large amounts of cotton for uniforms and for explosives, could obtain it from American sellers.

In 1938, Japan represented New Orleans’s third best cotton customer, buying 712,190 bales. In 1939 Japan returned to first place with 904,280 bales, a prewar high (compared with Germany at 504,952 bales and the United Kingdom, whose total dropped to 485,800 bales.) However, after that, the level of trade declined sharply.

Hisashi Nomasa was a student at Loyola University who was hired by the Japan Society to give Japanese language classes.

Cotton producers reacted to the international situation by organizing efforts, using their Southern identity as a tool, to maintain good relations between Japan and the United States, with the goal of encouraging Japanese to buy American cotton.

As early as September 1937, immediately following Japan’s invasion of China, Francis G. Hickman, editor of the Cotton Trade Journal, began working together with Yuki Sato, Japanese consul in New Orleans, to put together a publicity campaign for Japan. Hickman recruited James E. Edmonds to tour Japan and write favorable articles about the Japanese for the Cotton Trade Journal in order to improve Japan’s image among the American people. In 1940, Hickman himself visited Japan, and spent several weeks in Kobe. During his trip, he urged the Japanese to continue to buy American cotton.

Meanwhile, in 1937/1938 a shadowy group that called itself the “Southern Association of Japanese Students” put out a propaganda pamphlet entitled, “Salient Facts About Far East: Japan Biggest Single Market for United States Cotton.” It presented the case that Japan was the largest market for American cotton, so white Southerners should support Japan against China. Another (undated) pamphlet, “New State of Manchukuo,” was put out around the same time by a group that called itself “Japanese Student Association of the South.”

Now, these two pamphlets were both published in New Orleans, and both adhered to the official Tokyo position on Far East questions. Both groups behind the publication listed themselves as based in New Orleans, but neither pamphlet provided any information on individual authorship or group membership, and they had no public activities other than the production of pamphlets in support of Tokyo’s foreign policy. It is thus plausible that both were backed, if not actually created, by the New Orleans consulate.

Japanese authorities also used different types of soft power diplomacy to attract supporters. In late 1939 Kenzo Ito, Sato’s successor as Japanese consul in New Orleans, organized the Lafcadio Hearn Society of New Orleans, in tribute to the famed writer. As honorary president of the Society, Ito joined forces with Tamon Mayeda, the director of the Tokyo-financed Japan Institute in New York to put together financing for a Lafcadio Hearn memorial.

With financial aid from the Japanese government, they arranged for the construction of a Lafcadio Hearn memorial room at Tulane University’s newly-built Howard-Tilton Memorial library. The new room featured editions of Hearn’s works and correspondence in both English and Japanese, plus pamphlets and letters written by Hearn to friends and students. Japanese donors from the Kokusai Bunka Shinkokai [Society for International Cultural Relations of Tokyo] shipped seventy volumes of Hearn’s published works from Japan for its collections.

The room was dedicated in March 1941, when there was a ceremony attended by some two hundred people. The Lafcadio Hearn Society of New Orleans published a special commemorative volume of the inauguration ceremony, with the texts of speeches presented at the event.

As Hearn Room was dedicated. Left to right: Mr. Robert J. Usher, Librarian; Mr. Tamon Mayeda, Director of the Japanese Institute, New York; Dean Roger P. McCutcheon; Mr. Kenzo Ito, Consul of Japan; and Dr. Rudolph Matas.

Despite its visibility, the positive campaign was largely ineffective. In July 1939, the administration of President Franklin Roosevelt gave notice that the United States would be terminating the 1911 Japanese-American Treaty of Commerce and Navigation after six months. The expiration of the treaty in January 1940 triggered official limits on trade and banking credits for Japan.

In response, Ben J. Williams of New Orleans, Vice President of the American Cotton Shippers Association, stated that whatever the nature of the political conflicts between the United States and Japan, the Cotton South needed Japanese markets for their product. He urged his readers to contact “Representatives of the South in the nation’s Capitol (sic)” to urge them to work for renewal of the trade treaty.

In mid-1940, Williams complained that the abrogation of the treaty had cost cotton growers 1,700,00 bales per year in Japanese purchases. In May 1940, at a convention in New Orleans, the American Cotton Shippers Association voted a resolution urging the federal government to take the initiative to preserve the South’s trade with Japan.

By summer 1941, cotton had declined by $3.75 per bale on the open market. In summer 1941, on the pretext of repairs to the Panama Canal, the United States government denied Japanese ships access to the waterway, even though American ships were still allowed to pass through it. As a result, the last Japanese commercial vessels in the Atlantic in mid-1941were forced to sail around Cape Horn to return home.

The meteoric rise, and the steady decline of America’s cotton exports to Japan sheds light on the unheralded economic dimension of transpacific relations, as well as Southern U.S. history. At the same time, the pro-Japanese campaign demonstrated the vulnerability of US-Japan trade in the face of international politics. The attempts of the propagandists to invoke the specificity of Southern identity in support of the trade marks a curious episode in the history of regionalism in the United States.


*This article is excerpt form “Japan and the New Orleans Cotton Trade in the Early Twentieth Century” in Louisiana History (Vol. 64, no. 4, Fall 2023, pp.395-426), which won the President's Memorial Award from the Louisiana Historical Association.


© 2024 Greg Robinson

1930s business cotton economics Japan Louisiana management New Orleans United States
About the Author

Greg Robinson, a native New Yorker, is Professor of History at l'Université du Québec À Montréal, a French-language institution in Montreal, Canada. He is the author of the books By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans (Harvard University Press, 2001), A Tragedy of Democracy; Japanese Confinement in North America (Columbia University Press, 2009), After Camp: Portraits in Postwar Japanese Life and Politics (University of California Press, 2012), Pacific Citizens: Larry and Guyo Tajiri and Japanese American Journalism in the World War II Era (University of Illinois Press, 2012), and The Great Unknown: Japanese American Sketches (University Press of Colorado, 2016), as well as coeditor of the anthology Miné Okubo: Following Her Own Road (University of Washington Press, 2008). Robinson is also coeditor of the volume John Okada - The Life & Rediscovered Work of the Author of No-No Boy (University of Washington Press, 2018).

His historical column “The Great Unknown and the Unknown Great,” is a well-known feature of the Nichi Bei Weekly newspaper. Robinson’s latest book is an anthology of his Nichi Bei columns and stories published on Discover Nikkei, The Unsung Great: Portraits of Extraordinary Japanese Americans (University of Washington Press, 2020). It was recognized with an Association for Asian American Studies Book Award for Outstanding Achievement in History Honorable Mention in 2022. He can be reached at

Updated March 2022

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