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Nisei: Immigration To Canada

Courtesy of Francis Nakagawa

Manzo Nagano is credited for being the first Japanese settler in Canada in 1877, though he was not the first to come to B.C. Japanese sailors were rescued from a shipwrecked whaling boat as early as 1834. In Ann-Lee and Gordon Switzer’s books Gateway to Promise and Sakura in Stone, they mentioned that the first recorded visit by a Japanese national to Victoria was in 1858. By 1860, goods from Japan arrived in Victoria. Charles Gabriel employed a number of Japanese clerks in his store selling Oriental goods. Kisuke Mikuni was one of them. Manzo was known to have owned a couple of stores in Victoria before returning to Japan. He died in 1924.

Victoria became the first city to have a small Japanese settlement of over two hundred. Rooming houses, barber shop, clothing and food stores opened up. It was located on the edge of Chinatown near the junction of Store and Herald Street.

In the early 1900s, entrepreneurial businessmen, Yoshijiro (Joe) Kishida and Harry Takata, opened a Japanese Tea Garden at the Gorge Waterway. Joe sent for his father, Isaburo, to create a Japanese garden. When the Tea Garden opened in 1907, it was a huge success since the tea house was located at the terminal of the trolley line. They didn’t serve Japanese cuisine, instead it was more in line of an English High Tea. Isaburo didn’t stay long in Victoria but he left a lasting legacy as he created a Japanese garden for the Butchart family and at Royal Roads’ Hatley Castle for James Dunsmuir.

Immigrant workers, 1900s. Photos courtesy of Francis Nakagawa.

A decade later, Powell Street in Vancouver became the hub of Japan Town. Hastings Mill down at the foot of Dunlevy Street hired about 200 Japanese labourers. The enforcement of Chinese Head Tax may have attracted companies to hire Japanese labourers. The workers needed rooming houses and other amenities, therefore Powell Street boomed.

In Steveston, Gihei Kuno brought his relatives and villagers to Canada because of the abundance of salmon on the Fraser in the late 1800s. In a short time, Steveston’s Nikkei population was about two thousand. Most Japanese worked in the fishing industry. Women labored part-time in canneries and men fished for a company like the B.C. Packers.

Immigrant men in Canada. Photo courtesy of Francis Nakagawa.

There are many stories as to the reason why these adventurous Japanese left their homeland for a better life. When Emperor Meiji took over Japan in 1867, the peasants were taxed heavily, young men were conscripted in the army, and a move for industrialization began. However, poverty was probably the main reason why many Japanese emigrated. In the old custom, the eldest son took over the estate or the farm. Therefore, other sons faced a slim chance of upward mobility if they stayed in their village. 60-70 yen was a huge amount for poor peasants, so it took a long time to earn that kind of money for a ticket to Canada. I heard that one wife, in order to join her husband in Canada, had to move to Osaka and take a menial job like cooking rice for a rich merchant. This lady worked for five years to earn 70 yen. This same lady travelled to Kobe to board a Russian freighter bound for Canada. While waiting for the ship, she met a friend who had lived in Canada. She was dressed in western clothing while the poor lady was wearing an old yukata. The police saw them together and became suspicious. Was she a Madame recruiting a poor young lady to a brothel? The police asked for the lady’s identification and luckily she had her passport to Canada. She arrived in Canada around 1909.

Those who were lucky enough journeyed to Canada or the United States with their passports in hand. Wealthier families took the regular passenger ship. Others had to become stowaways or stay below deck in the boiler room of a Russian freighter. Many ladies who were to become “picture brides” told stories that they slept on a straw bedding while watching the sailors shovel coal in the furnace. They would exchange stories after they docked in Canada of their arduous journey across the Pacific. These ladies would compare notes whether they came on a one or two funnel ship. My eldest brother Kaz who is Kibei or Kika Nisei told me these stories.

Ichitaro Miki who was born in 1895 in the fishing hamlet of Hii, Wakayama Prefecture, followed his father and siblings to Canada aboard the Sado Maru in 1910. During the two-week journey across the Pacific, he witnessed the spectacular display of the Halley’s Comet as it blazed its way nightly across the dark, open horizon. Late Ichio Miki wrote his family memoir in the book, My Hometown, My Furusato.

There was a story of a young man who couldn’t stand the life under the dominance of his eldest brother and the demands of his brother’s wife, so he ran away and he was never to be seen again. Both parents passed away when he was a teenager. This young man joined the Japanese army and after the Russo-Japan War, he met a man who encouraged him to go to “Amerika”. This man ended up in Canada because he didn’t want to go back to his home village.

Most women left Japan as “picture brides”. Men emigrated to seek “fortune” and return home with enough wealth to buy a farm or business. Those who did earn good money also returned to Japan to seek wives and return to Canada.

Immigrant women in Canada. Photos courtesy of Francis Nakagawa.

Some of the stories told by immigrants coming to a new and strange country like Canada were quite humorous. Most were simple villagers who lived the life like in Akira Kurosawa’s movie, Seven Samurai.

When the earlier immigrants came to Victoria or Vancouver, they didn’t have any savvy of using modern conveniences. They were taken to their hotel rooms. One man decided to take a bath. He washed his face in the flush toilet to clean up. Then, he ran the bath water. Like in Japan, he thought he had to wash himself outside the tub. The man proceeded to follow his usual routine. As he was washing himself, the excess water started to seep down between the wooden shiplap flooring to the room below him. The manager came rushing into the man’s suite in a panic! One could just imagine the embarrassment of the naïve guest.

Once settled in the city, new immigrants had to shop for food. With limited English, a man tried to buy a dozen eggs. He walked into the store and goes, “I wan-teh one dah zun kokikkoko!” The man was mimicking a hen laying an egg as he squatted and gestured with his fist pumping up and down below his rectum. In Canada, a rooster goes “cuckodoodledoo”. In Japan, it goes “kokikkoko”. In desperation, it didn’t matter if he made a rooster sound!

Another time, a man wanted syrup. I guess the only brand was Roger’s Golden Syrup in B.C. The man hollered, “I wan teh ro-jazu god-dem shaddup!” The clerk was shocked that a customer would swear at him for no reason!

Another embarrassing moment without the command of English was when a man went to the store to buy flour. Ko-nah is Japanese for flour. He walked into the store to buy flour. He asked, “I wan teh ko-nah.” The clerk was puzzled after several tries, so he took this Japanese customer outside and pointed to the corner of the curb!

The complete opposite was when a Caucasian became friends with a Nikkei. He asked his friend how to pronounce monosodium glutamate in Japanese. The Nisei pal pronounced the brand name very slowly, “Ah-jee-no moe-toe”. His friend went home to practice his pronunciation. Next day, he walked into the store and slowly pronounced “Ajinomoto”. The Nikkei store clerk replied, “Oh, you want monosodium glutamate?”

There was this cocky younger man who thought he was fluent in English. Many of the Issei in Nanaimo on Vancouver Island didn’t know how to say in English, “How far is it to Chemainus?” As the worried Issei looked at each other to see who could ask a Caucasian on the street this question. The young man bragged that he knew how to speak English, “Oi, waita eigo shitteru kara, kiku yo.” So, he approached this stranger and asked, “Koko kara Che-ma-nesu nan mai-ru?” The stranger didn’t have a clue! Why the group found it so hilarious was because the young man was bragging about his fluency in English, but not a word was in English!

Working up in the woods logging or digging ditches, Japanese Issei worked alongside Caucasians. Since Japan lost the war to the U.S., the word for fist punch was “American”. This Caucasian asked this younger Issei if he wanted “American”? Japanese don’t like to say “no”, so this Issei said, “Yeeesss.” Pow! He got hit! “You want another American?” The man repeated, “Yeesss.” He got hit again! The way my mother explained it in Pidgin English, “You wan-teh Meriken?” From then on, the immigrants knew that “Meriken” meant to punch or get punched as in “Meriken kuro ta.”

One lady was being taunted by a group of people in the city. She fought back and said, “You 5 sen, Me 5 sen, olu-sei-mu 5 sen I don’t keya!” What she meant was, “You’re 5 cents, I’m 5 cents, we’re all 5 cents so I don’t care!” In this day and age, I guess one can’t use the same expression, “I’m a Loonie, you’re a Loonie….”

The growing pains suffered by the Issei just trying to survive in a strange new country was a journey. Survive they did without being fluent in English. I guess hard work offset their deficiencies. In the end, the Issei reminisced with their children and they could laugh about it.



Lei-zi-mon—Lazy bastard




*This article was originally published in the Bulletin in March 2017.


© 2017 Chuck Tasaka

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