An Historical Portrait of Haruji Matsue

During World War I, the price of sugar in Japan and throughout the world was very high. Because of this, and because the islands of the Northern Marianas appeared suitable for agricultural production, two Japanese companies attempted to harvest sugar cane on the island of Saipan. Thus began the sugar cane industry in the Northern Mariana Islands. However, when the war ended in 1918, the price of sugar fell and Saipan’s infant sugar industry collapsed. In 1920, an industrious Japanese man with an American college education named Haruji Matsue had an idea that changed the face of the Northern Marianas.

After studying agriculture at Louisiana State University in the United States, Mr. Matsue found success within the sugarcane industry of Taiwan (known as Formosa at that time). He had heard about the failed sugar business on Saipan and became curious, so he decided to examine the situation for himself. A visit to Saipan and a short, preliminary analysis convinced him that sugarcane would grow quite well on the island, and Mr. Matsue returned to Japan to seek financial backing for his project.

Because the Japanese government had found economic success in the sugarcane fields of Formosa, and because they were eager to see the Northern Marianas become a source of revenue, Matsue was given free use of all the land he needed on Saipan. With a government-issued lease and 3 million yen in capital, "The Sugar King," as he would come to be known, started Nanyo Kohatsu Kaisha (South Seas Development Company) or NKK, but it wasn’t to be easy for Matsue at the beginning.

He first bought up the assets of the two failed companies. Then he paid the back wages of the immigrant sugarcane farmers who had been left behind by the failed companies, and hired them to clear the necessary lands. Next, he brought additional farmers from the impoverished Japanese island of Okinawa. All these initial costs put a strain on NKK’s money, and then Matsue embarked on the costliest phase of his business: the development of a Sugar Train.

In order to transport sugarcane from the fields to the processing plant centrally located in the village of Chalan Kanoa, Mr. Matsue built a narrow-gauge railroad line. Matsue realized that the narrow-gauge lines were well suited for Saipan, as the small cars and narrow tracks were able to handle sharp curvatures, and were advantageous for their clearance ability. But the building of the rail line was very expensive, and with no orders of sugar yet filled, Matsue’s available capital was further squeezed.

There were other challenges. Tropical pests, for example, began to destroy the sugarcane fields. Again, Matsue turned to his resourcefulness and contacted the University of Hawaii to find a natural cure. He solved his pest control problem by introducing to Saipan a little creature called the "Tachinit Fly."

Finally, in 1923, Mr. Matsue sent his first triumphant shipment of sugar to Japan, to the city of Yokohama. But prosperity would not come yet, as Japan suffered a devastating earthquake in September of that year. The 8.3 magnitude quake, and the resulting fires, laid waste to the industrial centers of Tokyo, Yokohama, and NKK’s first order of sugar as it sat in a warehouse. NKK was in danger of experiencing a fate similar to that of the previous companies that had tried to develop a sugarcane industry in the Marianas. Mr. Matsue’s perseverance, however, eventually paid off. NKK brought in additional workers, and in 1924 sent another shipment of sugar to Japan. With this successful sale, the sugar industry in the Marianas finally got a foothold, and then took off.

Sugarcane became the economic backbone of the islands throughout the 1930’s. NKK expanded and began harvesting sugarcane on the near-by islands of Tinian and Rota. Tinian was particularly successful and would eventually produce twice as much sugar as Saipan. Mr. Matsue’s growing company branched out. By-products of the refining process allowed NKK to produce molasses and alcohol. The sugarcane business on Saipan boomed. By 1936, 13 million yen worth of sugar was being exported annually. Another one million yen worth of alcohol was also being produced.

As the 1940’s began, the Japanese people living on Saipan were forced to turn their attention to a more important issue looming on the horizon — the threat of World War II and global war. The famous Sugar King and most of NKK’s employees returned home to Japan to make way for a new political administration of the Northern Marianas. Unfortunately, the old Sugar Mill on Saipan became a popular target in the fighting of June 1944 between the Americans and the Japanese, and was totally destroyed.

But the Sugar King and his entrepreneurship has not been forgotten. Today the Northern Marianas are a Commonwealth of the United States, having been captured from the Japanese Administration in 1944. A peaceful island that is a favorite vacation spot for Japanese tourists, today visitors can enjoy beautiful resorts on the island, as well as see a statue of Mr. Matsue in Sugar King Park. The engine of the famous Sugar Train stands proudly in the park on the island of Saipan. These historic sites are maintained by the Marianas Visitors Authority, along with another of NKK’s Sugar Train engines on the island of Rota, where one can also see the smoke stack from the original factory.

The Commonwealth Museum of History and Culture — across the street from Sugar King Park in Garapan, Saipan also contains artifacts from the historic era of the peacetime Japanese administration of the Northern Marianas. The Sugar King Foundation encourages everyone to enjoy these historic sites and appreciate the memory of the late Mr. Matsue whose historic efforts of the past make him a valuable role model, even as we enter a new millennium. For more information about the museum and a special exhibit under development on the Japanese Era, please click here.





Information provided by:

1. "History of the Northern Mariana Islands" (1991) by Don Farrell

2. "Railroads," from the Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2000 by Richard C. Overton, M.A., Ph.D.

3. "A Brief Economic History of Micronesia." In Past Achievements and Future Possibilities, ed. by Micronesian Seminar (Majuro, July 1984), 11-62.