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A Book Review: “Finding Japan: Early Canadian Encounters with Asia”

When it comes to learning more about Japan and, in particular, our JC [Japanese Canadian] connection to it, it is sometimes more from a “gaijin” outsider’s point of view that we gain the deepest insight.

It was, therefore, with some interest that I read Finding Japan by Anne Park Shannon, who headed the economic, trade policy, and financial business of the Canadian Embassy during the 1980s. Shannon now lives in Victoria, BC where she is an associate at the Centre for Asia Pacific Initiatives (CAPI) at the University of Victoria.

The narrative begins in 1848 with the arrival in Japan of the first known Canadian, Ranald MacDonald (1824-1894), a decidedly Asian-looking fellow (his mother was Chinook Indian), born in an area that would later become the state of Oregon and growing up at his father’s forts in Kamloops, BC. Ranald was the harbinger of what would be a steady flow of Canadian educators, missionaries, businessmen, and politicians to Japan over the next 100 years. (He is buried at Toroda, Washington, close to Grand Forks, B.C.) As Canadians, our impact on Japan is a significant one.

Even before US Commodore Perry and his famous “black ships” forced the opening of Japan to the western world in 1853, there has been a high degree of mutual respect and admiration of each other. This accelerated during the Meiji era (1868-1912) led by visionary “internationalists” like Yukichi Fukuzawa, translator and founder of Keio-Gijuku University, whose portrait now adorns the 10,000 yen bill; Kaishu Katsu, the late 19th century prime minister; Umeko Tsuda, pioneer educator who was educated in the United States and later founded Tsuda College; Inazo Nitobe, author of the influential book, Bushido; industrialist Baron Sumitomo; among many others.

These forward thinking business and political leaders embraced western ideals, some attending US universities like Harvard, and even sending their children to be educated in the west.

In the 1850s, our nascent relationship involved a Canada immersed in Victorian mores and ideals that were juxtaposed with Buddhist/Shinto values and a culture whose customary dress (e.g. yukata and kimono), mixed nude bathing, and eating raw fish with chopsticks was effectively and sometimes humorously demonstrated through the use of historical material.

On the Canadian side of the Pacific, reality of life for the immigrant Issei was not so rosy. Racism and bigotry against “Oriental” was unbridled. In 1907, there was the infamous Vancouver Powell Street Riot when racists rampaged through Powell Street and Chinatown. This provided a stark counterpoint to the love affair that some Occidentals had with an exotic Japan captured by Italian composer Giacomo Puccini in his opera Madame Butterfly which, sadly, still informs Japanese stereotypes to this day.

William Lyon Mackenzie King was a young deputy minister responsible for investigating the Powell Street Riot. He would later visit Japan in 1909 on a trip to China to investigate the opium trade there.

On September 1, 1923, there was a massive earthquake that ripped through the Kanto Plain, devastating Yokohama and Tokyo: killing 143,000, injuring another 100,000, and leaving two million homeless. Canadians like Samuel Robinson, captain of the Canadian Pacific Empress of Australia, were there to help.

In 1928, King announced that Canada would open legations in Washington, Paris, and Japan. Hugh Keenleyside opened one in Tokyo on July 1, 1929. At this time, Canada had been playing with all sorts of ideas on how to exploit the Japanese market, even entertaining the naive idea to replace rice as a staple with bread.

It was under King’s leadership as prime minister that British Columbia’s Japanese Canadians living within the 100 mile zone were interned in concentration camps under the authority of the War Measures Act.

Canadian Educators Making a Difference

Throughout this relationship, Canadian educators and social reformers have continued to have a significant impact on Japanese society. Notably, there was the University of Toronto feminist educator, Caroline Macdonald. She went to Japan in 1904 and was highly influential in the early feminist, education, and social reform (most notably prison reform) movements there.

The last chapter of this book is devoted to Canadian diplomat E. Herbert Norman. His father, Daniel, was a Methodist missionary in Japan. Herbert was born in Karuizawa and educated at the Canadian Academy in Kobe. He went on to study at Harvard where his doctoral thesis, “Japan’s Emergence as a Modern State” offered some guidance in the post-WW2 rebuilding effort, working closely with US General MacArthur.

Norman, who had little patience for generalizations about “the Japanese character,” once remarked, “that foreign observers should guard against viewing the Japanese as a mysterious and inscrutable people whose behaviour and institutions are immune to rational analysis and understanding.”

The picture of Japan that emerges from Shannon’s book is one of the vision and hope of many enlightened “internationalist” leaders on both sides of the Pacific whose desire was to guide our countries on a path towards common purposes.

Of all of the remarkable stories that Shannon includes in her book, the one about Lieutenant Robert Hampton Gray, a University of British Columbia medical student from Nelson, BC is the most stirring one as it exemplifies the warmth and spirit of mutual respect that has evolved in the post-WW2 era.

Lt. “Hammy” Gray died in an August 1945 attack on Onagawa Bay, an area of Tohoku region that was devastated in the March 2011 tsunami. He had served with the British Pacific Fleet aboard the aircraft carrier HMS Formidable and was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross. Gray died when his plane crashed after attacking and sinking the Amakusa.

When Canadians proposed the idea of erecting a monument to Gray in Japan, a subsequent discussion with Japanese veterans of that same battle ensued. In a remarkable act of reconciliation, friendship, and forgiveness, local opposition dissipated and they agreed to erect a monument to Gray on a site overlooking Onagawa Bay in 1989, close to one honouring 157 members of the Onagawa Defence Squadron who were also victims of that battle.

Needless to say, our 170-year-plus relationship has been fraught with dark periods. However, as it persevered and matured through even the very worst of times, the resulting friendship that we share today is one that will surely continue to grow and deepen for many, many more generations to come.


Finding Japan: Early Canadian Encounters with Asia
by Anne Park Shannon
ISBN: 978-1-927051-55-9
Publisher: Heritage House Publishing Company Ltd., 2012
240 pages, $22.95 (CDN)


© 2013 Norm Ibuki

Amakusa Anne Park Shannon book book reviews Canadians Canadians in Japan Finding Japan issei Japan Lt. Hammy Gray Onagawa Defense Squadron Powell Street Riot Ranald MacDonald stereotype