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Rights + Justice

The Resilient Japanese Canadian

A powerful new book traces how war, fear and racism nearly devastated a deep-rooted BC fishing community.

By Geoff Meggs 20 May 2009 |

Geoff Meggs is a Vancouver city councilor.

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Masako Fukawa, Stanley Fukawa and the Nikkei Fishermen's History Book Committee
  • Spirit of the Nikkei Fleet: BC's Japanese Canadian Fishermen
  • Masako Fukawa with Stanley Fukawa and the Nikkei Fishermen's History Book Committee
  • Harbour Publishing (2009)

The 1942 expulsion of Japanese Canadians from British Columbia is modern Canada's most extreme experiment in ethnic cleansing, mercifully conducted without genocide, but otherwise complete with brutal family separations, expropriation of all personal property and mass transfers to concentration camps.

Vancouver's Japantown, a bustling commercial and residential centre of many thousands, with its own churches, unions, department stores, daily papers and baseball teams, was rendered a ghost town between Pearl Harbour, on Dec. 7, 1941, and the end of the expulsions in September 1942. More than 500 farms were seized and sold, countless businesses destroyed and thousands of homes looted as the Japanese Canadians were herded first to the stalls of the Pacific National Exhibition, with nothing more than they could carry, and then deported to camps across Western Canada.

But it was the destruction of the Japanese-Canadian fishing fleet, its boats anchored by the hundreds in Steveston within weeks of Pearl Harbour, that provided both the organizational focus and the ideological rationale for the expulsion.

An excuse to steal

The claim that Japanese-Canadian fishermen posed a security threat provided a perfect cover for their elimination from the fishery, a long-time objective of their enemies in the industry and elected office. Yet as early as 1944, Canadian authorities acknowledged there had never been a single instance or even allegation of treachery by Japanese Canadians before or after Pearl Harbour.

Masako Fukawa's Spirit of the Nikkei Fleet: BC's Japanese Canadian Fishermen is an extraordinary new account of that terrible period in Canada's history, profusely illustrated, and drawing for the first time on Japanese language sources. The result is a deeply-textured history of the rise of the Japanese-Canadian fishing community that illuminates the contradictions between Canada's declarations on human rights and its adherence to them in practice.

By 1900, several thousand Japanese-Canadian fishermen were working in the Fraser River salmon fishery, pooling their resources to create a hospital, a school and Gyosha Dantai, the Steveston Japanese Fishermen's Association that became a central institution of Japanese Canadian life.

A special hatred

Punjabi Sikh and Chinese immigrants bore the brunt of much institutional racism in B.C., but special hatred was reserved for the Japanese Canadians. Why? Fukawa surmises that innate racism in the Caucasian community was fanned by Japan's resounding military victory in 1903 over Russia, a European power, at a time when colonialism and imperialism were in full flower.

B.C.'s young Japanese-Canadian community had also achieved a social and political cohesion the Sikh and Chinese communities had not. Dantai had proved capable of negotiating both with salmon canners and the emerging unions of white and native fishers. In 1907, when anti-Oriental mobs sacked Vancouver's Chinatown and then advanced on Japantown, they were confronted by fishermen who rushed from Steveston, armed themselves with axe handles, and saved most of the community from attack.

By the 1920s, despite the conspicuous valour of Japanese-Canadian volunteers at Vimy Ridge, Japanese-Canadian fishers found themselves facing annual reductions in their fishing licences, driven by a federal fisheries department bent on preserving the industry for whites. The 1942 seizures were the logical culmination of this long war of attrition, conducted against Canadian citizens solely because of their race.

A community rebuilt

Despite their dispersal across Canada, the Japanese Canadians were anxious to return. Although thousands took Canada's offer of "repatriation" to Japan, a country most had never seen, thousands more longed to return to the place of their birth.

The story of how the Japanese-Canadian community was rebuilt -- and the fleet returned to sea -- is told here for the first time with an appropriate focus on the remarkable role of Tatsuro "Buck" Suzuki, who in 1938, at the age of 22, had already become an acknowledged leader of the Japanese Canadian fishermen. Unlike veteran community leaders like Rintaro Hayashi, who had learned by bitter experience that Canadian citizenship meant nothing if the citizen was of Japanese descent, Suzuki was seeking to unite Japanese-Canadian and white fishermen when Pearl Harbour destroyed everything.

Suzuki was deported to Kaslo, then moved to Brandon, Ont., and was working in a garage when the RCMP contacted him on behalf of the British Army. Would he volunteer for intelligence work in Southeast Asia? Suzuki, ineligible to serve in the Canadian Armed Forces, signed up. For a Japanese Canadian to serve the Allies against Japan, when his own country had treated him with such contempt, caused turmoil in his own community, but was indicative of Suzuki’s vision and determination to assert his full equality.

Engaging with communists

After service in India and Singapore, where he helped investigate war crimes, Suzuki returned to Canada. By 1947, he had slipped back to B.C. to sound out the prospects for return with Homer Stevens, the secretary-treasurer of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union. The two forged a partnership with an astonishing trade-off: the union would support the return of the Japanese-Canadian fishermen provided they joined the union on the basis of full equality.

But before he could conclude the deal with Stevens, Suzuki had to confront Hayashi, who was outraged at the thought that his right to fish was linked to membership in a communist-led union, many of whose members had demanded expulsion of the Japanese Canadians for decades. Suzuki countered that the Nikkei had only one option if they wished to resume fishing: join the union and "assert their rights from inside it."

The two met in an all-night confrontation in Hayashi's home that ended only at dawn. Suzuki, believing the meeting had been in vain, stood to leave, bowed deeply, and said "Rintaro-san, you know, I want you to believe me. I am not a communist."

Hayashi, overwhelmed, "excused myself, and scrambled to the washroom. There I wept, crying soundless cries. I realized that, even if he were a communist, that I should trust him on the basis of his character alone."

From Issei to Nissei

Hayashi's support for Suzuki's plan marked a new era, as Fukawa points out, between the "'old samurai' and the young upstart soldier, from the Issei to the Nissei generation, and from racial strife to co-operation in the fishing industry."

But Suzuki was also riding deeper currents. Since 1945, non-Japanese Canadians had organized to oppose the repatriation policy, which bore a disturbing resemblance to the policies of the Nazi forces Canadian troops had just defeated in Europe. The deportation policy finally collapsed in 1947 as Canadian diplomats pushed for ratification of a United Nations Declaration on Human Rights that stood in stark contrast to Canada’s treatment of its own citizens. Japanese Canadians did not get the vote until 1949, when they were also allowed to return to B.C.

Today only two descendants of the Japanese Canadian fishermen remain active in an industry that has been all but destroyed by a host of global factors. This book remains. It is a testament to a community's vitality, resistance and resilience in the face of intolerance.


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