Whenever you hear of Mio, a poor, small fishing village south-east of Osaka in Wakayama-ken, the name ‘Amerika Mura’ comes to mind. To the villagers, Amerika was Canada and U.S. Gihei Kuno’s name became synonymous with Mio-Steveston connection. He was a master carpenter who was trying to raise fund to build a breaker in Mio. By coincidence, he met up with a friend in Kobe who encouraged him to go to Canada. Mr. Kuno arrived in Steveston in 1888 and he was pleasantly surprised by the abundance of salmon along the Fraser River and beyond. He returned home to Mio to tell the good news to many of his friends and relatives. They followed Mr. Kuno. Whether these fishermen were desperate or adventurous, many more villagers emigrated.
Mio’s population was decimated. There were only 2000 left. Yet, in a way, the village prospered. With the money the fishermen made in Steveston and elsewhere, there were western styled homes built in Mio, and the money sent by the fishermen enabled their families to live comfortably by village standards. Thus, Steveston and Mio went hand in hand. With the arrival of ‘picture brides’, Japanese community in Steveston became stable to form a closely-knit kenjin-kai.
By the 1930s, about 75% of the shops and businesses were owned or run by Japanese Canadians. There were pool halls, barber shops, grocery stores, Buddhist Hall, Fishermen’s Hospital, and fishing related shops. Since Steveston was a community of former Mio residents, ‘Kishu’ dialect was prominent.
In present day Steveston, there are traces of Mio contribution around the town. For one, there is the Kuno Garden at Garry Point Park. The Fishermen Memorial Monument with the giant net-mending needle has names of Nikkei fishermen inscribed around the circular wall. These fishermen lost their lives at sea. As you walk along the river towards Steveston, the Gulf of Georgia Cannery Museum and the Cannery Workers sculpture give a glimpse of Nikkei presence. The former Japanese Fishermen’s Hospital Administration building is located behind or beside the local museum. Britannia Shipyard and Murakami House are reminders of the old fishing community.
Former Mio-Steveston descendants Mr. Hisakazu Nishihama and Mr. Yoshiya Tabata, who became educators, created a Japanese Canadian Museum in Mio Mura at Hinomisaki. A lighthouse sits on top of the hill. Many of the Steveston fishing and Nikkei artifacts are displayed.
Over hundred years have passed and Kishu dialect could still be heard, especially when you attend any of the Steveston Buddhist function or when you visit elderly people formerly of Mio. Kishu dialect is sometimes called Fishermen or Steveston dialect. This unique dialect could be compared to the old Kagoshima ‘secret’ language.
Kagoshima dialect evolved so that governing ruling officials could not comprehend. In Canada, Newfoundland or Newfie vocabulary is unique to other provinces. Also, my brother Kaz told me that people from Shimane Prefecture is believed to have migrated to Mio. Possibly, there could be a connection.
When Steveston fishermen worked hard at a hectic pace when salmon was running, they had no time to be diplomatic. They couldn’t communicate to each other by saying (in Japanese), “Would you please help me with the net.” It was, “Get the net!”
In Steveston during pre-war days, conversation around the dock might have sounded like this:
Gontaro: Onshara asano asappachikara doko-e ikun yo? Wai-fu ni ‘kisu’suru tai-mu mo nakkata no. LOL! (Where are you guys going so early in the morning? You never had a chance to kiss your wife.) Everyone laughs.
Daigoro: Nani- yu-ten na! Waita kuchi hatte oka ni ‘kisu shi-ta yo! (Sarcastically mimicks kissing his wife) LOL! Oi, aho-no koto yu-wan-toh, mo ikan shora yo! Ee ajiro torareru doh. Hayo, hayo! (What do you mean? I had my mouth wide open to kiss her! LOL! Hey, don’t say stupid things and let’s get going or else the best fishing spot will be taken. Hurry, hurry!)
Gontaro: Tekira gaina kakutaete aru-no! Waita nimo ajiro osete ku-re yo! (Hey, you guys are sure in a rush. Show me a good fishing spot.)
Daigoro: Konaida, ee ajiro mitsu-keta yo. (The other day I spotted a good fishing area.)
At the Fishing Area:
Gontaro: Gaina ame (ah meh) yo furusaka shotsukoi no. Gaina, kogaina ka-deh toshini fui-teru kaga doga su-rai. (Geez, it’s raining so badly it’s uncomfortable. If the wind keeps blowing like this, what are we to do?)
Dalgoro: Nanto akan no. Kokotai, keburai keya nai-yo. (Not so good. There’s hardly any fish around here.)
Gontaro: Pachi pachi gicchigichi kakatte aru-no! Shamo-nai-mon bakkari kakatte kunnoni antekira shigiyoi ami yaruno. (Lots of seaweed caught on your net. Nothing but awful junk, you guys sure have a mess on your hands.)
Daigoro: Gotta helu, eh? Kappa bakkashi kuro-teh tatte kuruno. (Go to hell, eh? Sure gets tiresome when you don’t have luck.)
Gontaro: Kontekya gaina dongu-sai-kara no! LOL! (This guy is sure lousy fisherman.)
Dalgoro: Nan-se, onsha jikkini shamo-nai-koto yu-kara no! Aga mi-teh mi! Mata kappa kuroto-nai! LOL! (You quickly say unflattering things. Take a look at yourself. You’re skunked again!)
Gontaro: Oi, mo inora yo! (Ah, let’s go home)
Dalgoro: Ya, mo koi-de eekai? (Ya, is this good enough?)
Gontaro: Sakana bechi, eh? Sha-keh yo toran kara fuwa-wari yo. (SOB, eh? Sure embarrassing not catching any fish.)
Daigoro: Oi, mo yogan-sura yo. (Hey, that’s enough today)
Gontaro: Oka toh kodomo, mata shio-mon toh okai-san ya no. (Wife and kids will have to eat salted fish and rice broth again.)
Dalgoro: Agara tsuremo-te ikora yo. (Let’s all go home together.)
1. Omokaji – port side
2. Torikaji – starboard side
3. Kikando – machine doesn’t start
4. Ajiro – good fishing spot
5. Gisshiri to-te koi na – Get lots of fish
6. Keya nai-wa – hardly any (fish)
7. Sunekki – hit a snag
8. Go stan – Go astern
9. Iccho Korai – ‘hai kalla’ or fancy dresser
10. Patena – partner or deckhand
11. Majomi no ami – Twilight set (night fishing)
12. Kurosaiki – duffle bag or clothes sack
13. Ii-cha garu or kia garu – get excited
14. Uwa! Uba! Umbare! – What! (in a surprised tone)
15. Gaina – Wow! Man!
16. Ko-re shinjo-ra or Kore shinzu ra – I will give this to you.
There are probably a thousand and one stories on fishing anecdotes. Chat with fishermen from Steveston in a beer parlour and I’m sure you will find many very interesting incidents that occurred in their occupation. They were tough, hardy men. There’s one incident that still makes me chuckle.
After fishing there were two fishermen taking a break and smoking roll-your-own (dobu) down by the beach at dusk.
Ichimonsuke: (looking at the bay) A-reh, tori ka? (Is that a bird?)
Torazaemon: (Mr. Know-it all) Nooooo! A-reh ishi yo! (No way, it’s a rock)
Ichi: (after a while) Ah, a-reh tori yo!
Tora: (abruptly) No, ISHI YO! (No rock)
Ichi: Ah, a reh tonda ro! (Hey, it flew away!)
Tora: Tonde mo ishi yo! (Even if it flew away. It’s a rock!)
I would like to thank Mr. Toshio Murao and Kaz Tasaka for the Mio dialect translation. God bless the fishermen!
*This article was originally published by The Bulletin: a journal of Japanese Canadian community, history + culture, January 2017 issue.