Although there were reported cases of Japanese fishermen shipwrecked along the coast of British Columbia, the first known Japanese to settle in Canada was Manzo Nagano who put down roots in Victoria in 1877. A mountain was named in his honour to commemorate his adventurous spirit a century later in 1977.
Victoria became home to Canada’s first Japanese community and by the turn of the 20th century it numbered around 300. Most were employed in logging and lumbering, mining, fishing, and agriculture, though some established businesses.
A large influx of Japanese immigrants in 1907 sparked anti-Asian sentiment within the European community. In 1907 the Takata Gardens. Yoshitaro Kishida, a partner in the gardens, brought his father Isaburo Kishida to Victoria from Yokohama, Japan to design gardens that included a sampan tea room afloat on The Gorge. Kishida also designed the Japanese Gardens at Hatley Park and Butchart Gardens.
By 1908 the number of Japanese men who could immigrate to Canada annually was limited to 400. It wasn’t until 1931 that Japanese World War I veterans received the right to vote – the only Japanese allowed the privilege until 1948.
In 1937 the Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society donated the prize money from its award-winning City of Victoria’s 75th Anniversary Parade float to purchase the 1,013 plum and cherry trees that continue to announce the coming of spring along a number of Victoria’s Farifield streets today.
During the early 20th century Japanese fishers had to deal with racist government policies and the discriminatory attitudes of their fellow fishers. They were not only dependent on companies for loans, but also for licenses. Other fishers received their licenses from the federal government, but the Japanese relied on the canneries to issue their licenses. Japanese fishers had to deliver to the canning company that controlled their license no matter how low the company’s prices were. This prevented Japanese fishers from joining the early fishing co-ops… if they allowed Japanese membership, many did not. In 1939 and 1941 two groups of Japanese fishers on the west coast of Vancouver Island formed their own fishing co-ops. Unfortunately, these co-ops were disbanded with Japanese internment in 1942.
Confiscation and Internment
In 1942, the Canadian government used the War Measures Act to brand Victoria’s 300 Japanese Canadians citizens enemy aliens. They were placed, along with 20,881 other Japanese Canadians, in internment camps. The Japanese Gardens on The Gorge were destroyed by anti-Japanese fervor in 1941.
The federal government arrested Japanese-Canadian community leaders, confiscated Japanese-owned homes, fishing boats, vehicles, businesses, and family heirlooms. The government authorized a Custodian of Enemy Property to hold all land and property in trust. These assets, however, were sold for a pittance to local Caucasians, and the proceeds used to fund the Japanese internment program. Our government confiscated 1,800 Japanese fishing boats. The internment of Japanese-Canadians deprived Consolidated Whaling Co. of its most skilled station hands. Whaling continued until 1943 when the boats were docked for the last time.
Victoria’s Japanese thought the internment would be for a short time. They put their possessions in storage, said their goodbyes, believing all the while they’d be back soon. They never did return. Even after the final wartime restrictions were lifted in 1949, none had the energy to return to Victoria. One can barely discern evidence of Victoria’s once-thriving pre-war community of Japanese farmers, fishermen, domestics, carpenters and boat builders in the city today.
In 1988, the National Association of Japanese Canadians succeeded in negotiating reparations with the Canadian government. The settlement included $21,000 for each of almost 18,000 survivors of the 20,881 originally affected Canadians. The settlement also established a community endowment fund to assist in community rebuilding administered by the National Association of Japanese Canadians, and the establishment of the Race Relations Foundation. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney offered a formal apology in the House of Commons, and a certificate of acknowledgement of Canada’s injustices was issued to each Japanese Canadian whose rights had been stripped, and who had been incarcerated, dispossessed and forcibly displaced.
The Township of Esquimalt is working towards recreating the original Kishida/Takata Gardens, North America’s oldest Japanese Garden.
Globe and Mail cherry blossoms
Vancouver Maritime Museum Whaling
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