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Finding Japan: Early Canadian Encounters with Asia

By Anne Shannon

Review By Yukari Takai

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 182 Summer 2014  | p. 238-240

Finding Japan: Early Canadian Encounters with Asia depicts stories of Canadians who went to Japan, or whose lives, dreams, achievements, and failures were intimately connected to Japan. In contrast to the far more familiar experiences of Japanese who moved across the Pacific in the other direction, this collection of stories of Canadian men and women highlights how central their encounter with Japan was to their personal lives. More importantly, it sheds light on how important their interactions with Japanese men and women were in shaping a history of modern Japan as well as a history of Canada.

Finding Japan chronicles intriguing, surprising, and at times sombre stories of Canadians and their Japanese contemporaries over a century from about 1850 to 1950. This was the very time when Japan transformed from a self-secluded feudal society to an emerging power in Asia, the Pacific, and the world. Canada, for its part, also went through significant change as it solidified its identity (or its many identities) from a British colony, to a Dominion, and to a rising middle power in international politics and in the world economy.

Anne Shannon claims that Canada has long been a Pacific as well as an Atlantic and North American country. Fascinating narratives of colourful and extraordinary characters support her argument beautifully. Some well-known, others less or little so, they include a half-aboriginal son of a Hudson’s Bay Company trader, who smuggled himself into Japan; missionary educators, social workers, prisoners of war during the Second World War, railway baron and Japanese art collector William Van Horne, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and scholar-diplomat E. Herbert Norman. Of particular interest is Shannon’s attention to Canadian women, including Martha Cartmell, Margaret Elizabeth Armstrong, and Deaconess Archer, who poured into Japan from the 1880s onward. Largely from the prosperous middle-classes of small-town Ontario and Atlantic Canada, they were educated, independent, and often unmarried. It is hardly surprising that these Canadian contemporaries of Isabella Bird were critical of the position of Japanese women in a society where, Canadians and other foreigners generally believed, a vision of women oscillated between a beautiful yet mystified image of geisha on the one hand and its polar opposite of the “good wife and wise mother” on the other. However, Meiji Japan was undergoing rapid transformation to westernization under the full swing of a government-led policy. Female education was one of the sites where political, economic, social, and ideological reforms took on a new prestige. Seizing the moment, Cartmell founded a private school in a sought-after neighbourhood of Azabu, offering an education similar to an Ontario boarding school, to daughters of prominent Japanese businessmen and politicians (62-63).

The book is written without an academic apparatus. Footnotes are absent, but the references at the end of the book provide additional information for readers interested in knowing more about the portraits of the captivating characters. This is by no means to downplay the significance of this book. On the contrary, written with wit, personal flare, and acute observation of human behaviour, Finding Japan engages an educated general public as well as students and scholars interested in the intersection of the modern histories of Japan and Canada. Further, a remarkable collection of photos and images enhances the delight of reading. Ultimately, the book offers a new and pleasant way to assess the historical roots of Canada’s links and connections to Japan and the Pacific World. 

Finding Japan: Early Canadian Encounters with Asia
By Anne Shannon 
Victoria: Heritage House, 2012. 256 pp. $19.95 paper