At the Runway Café, Mr Masuda sits beside Cauline, one of his eight children. He glances around, surveying the modern surrounds, his eyes twinkling with reminiscence of Broome’s bygone era. He recalls when this café was once a Chinese owned bakery, and he lived next door in a dormitory style camp, the Japanese Tender House.
Aged 83-years-old, Mr Masuda is the eldest surviving Japanese hard hat pearl diver in Broome. He arrived in Broome in 1955, aged 21-years-old. He left a job in an Osaka copper and brass factory, and emigrated alongside members of now prominent Japanese pearling families: the Hamaguchis, the Maedas.
Many of Broome’s Japanese pearl divers hailed from the city of Taiji, in the Wakayama prefecture. The Japanese were well-regarded by white pearling masters for their experience and aptitude underwater, and like many of his fellow countrymen, Mr Masuda was a traditional sea-faring person who spent much of his youth fishing and diving for abalone.
Upon arrival in Broome, Mr Masuda found work with the Streeter and Male Ltd., one of six pearling companies operating in the Broome area. The divers worked from April to December, scouring depths of up to 50m in a bulky canvas suit, lead boots and copper helmet. The equipment weighed around 130kg, and vital oxygen was supplied via a lifeline dangling from above.
Pearl diving in the sixties was dangerous and largely unregulated, and Broome’s cemeteries serve as a reminder of the perilous nature of the work. Mr Masuda says on average, around 30 men per year perished from diver’s sickness while diving for pearls. Mr Masuda contracted the disease at least three times, but each time was treated early enough to survive.
Mr Masuda would often spend four weeks out at sea with up to ten other men. The crew was a medley of ethnicities – mostly Japanese and Malay, but also Aboriginal people, Filipino and Chinese – and few spoke English. Instead, they adopted the communicative language of Malay for its simplicity.
Shortly after he arrived in 1955, Mr Masuda met Evelyn, his future wife, and a local woman of Filipino, Aboriginal, and Scottish heritage. Eight children ensued, including Cauline, who recalls old Broome as a vastly different place to the tourist mecca of today.
“Broome was very small at that time. The population was around 2,000, 3,000 people. We had no technology, no television. It was a very close community. A lot of families, we lived amongst each other. There was a bit of segregation, between black and white and coloured, Asian people.
“It just didn’t worry us really. We had each other. All the families were all mixed. None of us had anything really, we just got on with our lives and tried to make ends meet and that.”
At the time, pay and conditions for many of those working on the luggers were poor. Of the salary Mr Masuda earned, he had to feed a family of ten, and sent money back to Japan to help finance his sister’s University education.
However, the divers were paid a commission wage based on the annual tonnage of shell collected each year, and Mr Masuda was regarded by many as one of the most skilled divers at the time. For two years running, he held a 30 ton record for the most shell collected; around ten ton than the other most proficient pearl divers.
Mr Masuda retired from diving after ten years underwater. He was a valued employee of Street and Male for over 30 years, helping demolish the old jetty at Mangrove Point and build the new wharf. Mr Masuda is now retired, and remains a legend in the local Broome community. He still lives in a home he built for himself 50 years ago, and continues to drink at the Roebuck Hotel, Broome’s oldest pub.