While scuba diving is enjoyed worldwide today, few enthusiasts may be aware that the origins of their hobby can be traced to a pioneering Japanese immigrant in prewar Australia.
Yasukichi Murakami (1880-1944) is credited with single-handedly developing advanced models of diving gear that substantially expanded the scope of the activity before the introduction of scuba.
Hailing from Wakayama Prefecture, Murakami obtained patents on valves and apparatuses for the diving gear while introducing pearl farming to Australia. He died after being sent to an internment camp when the war between Japan and the United States broke out.
He was not forgotten, however, and in recent years, his achievement has been re-evaluated.
Murakami was born in Tanami (present-day Kushimoto) in Wakayama Prefecture. He moved to Australia in 1897 and became a storekeeper in Broome in the northwest of the country. He also became a pillar of the Japanese immigrant community.
In the 1910s, Murakami started pearl fishing, which was thriving back in those days, in partnership with an Australian businessman.
Pearl farming was developed by Kokichi Mikimoto in Japan but had not yet been introduced to Australia, and so many of the immigrants were collecting natural pearls as divers.
Using an old model of a diving suit developed in 1836, many divers were harmed physically from the bends, also known as decompression sickness, which is caused by the formation of gas bubbles in the blood that occur with a sudden change of pressure during diving.
In 1913, 28 divers died of the bends there. Murakami decided to improve the swimming suit.
After a great deal of trial and error, Murakami finally invented an advanced model of diving gear by the mid-1920s.
Unlike the conventional diving gear that sent air into a large-size helmet, Murakami’s improved model had a system that enabled divers to easily draw a breath and dramatically expand the range of their activities under the sea by using a mouthpiece and valves that made air flow in one direction.
OUTBREAK OF WAR
After years of developing his advanced models, Murakami obtained patents for his “improved diving dress” in Australia and the United States by 1928.
He further developed a more advanced model equipped with an auxiliary compressed air supply on the user’s back.
However, Murakami’s diving suit did not gain a foothold within the immigrant community at that time.
Murakami introduced farming of perfectly spherical pearls to Australia around the same time, but his venture failed because people in the business worried about the sharp decline in pearl prices and staged boycotts.
In 1936, Murakami moved to Darwin with his family and opened a photo studio.
Murakami was not permitted to be naturalized due to the “White Australia” policy and was transferred to the Tatura camp in an inland area of the country after the outbreak of the Pacific War in December 1941.
He acted as leader in the Australian internment camp in an unfamiliar environment in the desert.
In Murakami’s absence while he was in the camp, Jacques-Yves Cousteau, a French naval officer and ocean explorer, and Emile Gagnan, a French engineer, developed and obtained a patent in 1943 for the Aqua-Lung, the self-contained underwater breathing apparatus.
Modern-day scuba diving designs are based on that patent.
Murakami died of heart disease at the age of 63 on June 26, 1944.
PEARL FARMING PIONEER
John Lamb, the Australian historian, described in his book “Silent Pearls” that “Although Murakami’s system did not have the automatic breathing regulator at the core of the patents of Gagnan and Cousteau, it was arguably a forerunner of all modern SCUBA.”
Today there is a street named in his honor called “Murakami Road” in Broome honoring Murakami’s achievement.
About 400 photographs sent by Murakami from Australia survive in Murakami’s parents’ house in Wakayama Prefecture.
Mutsumi Tsuda, professor of Seian University of Art and Design, and other staff members researched the photographs.
“Using inhalation and elimination of air, and compressed air, the fundamental structure of the diving gear that Murakami developed is much the same as the scuba,” said Tsuda.
“Although his invention was important even from a military point of view, he was sent to an internment camp during the war just because he was Japanese. Therefore he never received official credit for his patent during his lifetime.”
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