Japanese Canadian History: Revealing the Hidden Efforts of the Community to Bridge the Cultural Gap

Posted by Mizuki Goda & filed under Current Affairs, Identity.

Source: CBC
Source: CBC

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Since 2001, May has been Asian Heritage Month. The month serves as a reminder of the importance of learning about the rich history of Asian cultures in Canada. Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to explore the Asian cultures in Vancouver by participating in a walking tour by Lorene Oikawa, president of Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens Association and Vancouver City Councillor Geoff Meggs on the history of Japanese Canadians and the Labour Movement. The walk taught me a great deal, particularly regarding Japanese Canadians’ resistance to discrimination by promoting equality.

Brief background of the Japanese Canadian Community prior to WWI

Manzo Nagano is known to be the first man to arrive to the shores of British Columbia in 1877; however, there has been reports of shipwrecked Japanese sailors earlier since 1834. After Nagano’s arrival for the next 20 years, groups of immigrants (mostly single men) arrived to work in mining and fisheries. Japanese Canadians were expected to work for short terms with low wage. One of the key figures who led a strike against these low wages in 1900 was Yasushi Yamazaki, who later became the editor of one of the few Japanese Newspapers available at the time, Tairikiku Nippo, also known as Continental Times.

In 1907, anti-Asian riots broke out. Protestors planned in City Hall, marched through the streets of Chinatown and continued their riots to the area Japanese Canadians lived, destroying buildings, in the name of “keep[ing] Canada ‘pure’.” Japanese Canadians were able to prepare to defend their families and properties while the protestors attacked Chinatown first (Chinatown was next to City Hall). Thus, there was less damage to the area Japanese Canadian lived around Powell Street than it was in Chinatown. As Japanese Canadians did not have voting rights at the time, they had limited civil rights and the community was at disadvantage to fight back racial discrimination.

Individuals such as Yasushi Yamasaki promoted equality, to add more diversity to a European centric definition of what it means to be a ‘Canadian’. Japanese Canadians were not against any cultures. They wanted room to practice their own culture peacefully. They were not allowed to access certain areas because of racial discrimination, so they began to gather into a community, what they called Poweru Gai, to create their own institutions and services that met their needs. This is definitely not an easy task, especially because the community faced discrimination from the whites calling the area “Jap Town”. “Jap” is a racial slur referring to Japanese people.

Traces of Japantown

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After WWI, Japanese Canadians were still fighting for voting rights. In 1931, only veterans who had fought for Canada were allowed to vote. 5 years later in 1936, a member of Japanese Canadian Citizens League was allowed to speak to the Special Committee on Elections and Franchise Acts. However, members of parliament still denied the right for Japanese Canadians to vote. Nevertheless the area flourished with the community’s effort. Ms. Oikawa taught us that although it was predominately single Japanese men arriving in BC, the number of families in the area soon began to increase. This increase in families created a supply and demand for a variety of occupations such as banking, renting services, and more, which allowed the Japanese Canadian community to flourish.

When the walk began at Chapel Arts, a location in between Chinatown and the area that used to be Japantown, I wondered what it would have been like if Japantown existed today. I believe it would have allowed me to further identify how the Japanese community lived in the area and discover both similarities and differences between the Japanese community and others, such as Chinatown.

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I found out that many of the locations we passed by did not indicate its ties to the Japanese Canadian community because the Canadian government’s attempted to erase all traces of the culture during and after World War II. But even still, traces of Japantown are quietly present in the area. The stories I heard throughout the walk, as told by Ms. Oikawa, taught me the tremendous courage that it took the Japanese Canadian community to live and develop in the area.

Promoting Equality

Japanese Canadians also strived to bridge the gap between the West and the community in a variety of ways. For example:

Globalised Fishing Industry

In addition to Ms. Oikawa, Councillor Greg Meggs of the City of Vancouver assisted in leading the walk. Meggs has done profound research on the history of Japanese Canadians’ input to the fishing industry in British Columbia and as we walked near the ports, he described the challenges and discrimination that the Japanese Canadians faced. He also introduced us to a man named Buck Suzuki, president of United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union, who was a remarkable environmentalist with extensive knowledge of environmentally friendly fishing. Mr. Suzuki, who is also Ms. Oikawa’s uncle, created a moment to appreciate the fishing industry in Canada and to share knowledge of the same interest with diverse cultures.

Asahi Baseball Team

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The Vancouver Asahi is known to have been very skillful in their games. Since white men were more physically built than many members of the Asahi team, they altered their style of playing to one that used their smaller physique to their advantage. They gradually gained fans outside of the Japanese Canadian community and recruitment increased, as well as interactions with the white teams which also increased job opportunities available for the community.

There is much more to the walk and Japanese Canadian history in general than this brief overview, but I believe it is best to experience the walk to discover the traces of Japantown and the deep history behind it. I highly recommend that you attend this walk next year during Asian Heritage Month not only to learn about Japanese Canadian History, but also to meet the wonderful individuals whose own personal experiences and stories make the walking tour unique

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