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Nikkei Fishermen on the BC Coast: Their Biographies and Photographs

By Masako Fukawa

Review By Michiko Ayukawa

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 158 Summer 2008  | p. 130-1

The term “Nikkei” has become prevalent in the last decade or two. Its broad definition is “people of Japanese descent and their descendants,” and includes those of mixed heritage. It assumes they have an interest in Japan (3). It is often a highly debated term. 

In 1888, Kuno Gihei, often referred to as “the Father of Canadian Emigrants” by the people of Wakayama prefecture in Japan, came to Canada, where he is said to have seen the Fraser River “teeming with salmon” and encouraged his fellow villagers to try their fortunes. By the early 1900s, due to the numbers who had emigrated and sent their earnings back to their relatives, Kuno’s home village, Mio, was called Amerikamura. For centuries the inhabitants of Mio-mura had depended on fishing for their livelihood since there was little or no arable land. To survive, they had had to go further and further afield, even as far as Korea. 

When first in Canada, they “commuted” between their home village and the Steveston area of British Columbia. Later, they brought their immediate families and the women worked in the canneries. They soon ventured into the more remote areas of British Columbia, living and fishing along the north coast and Vancouver Island. The Nikkei were at the mercy of the canneries, and discriminated against by white and native Wshers. However, they persevered, knowing no other method of making a living, but more because of their love of the sea.

Events following the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese were heartbreaking. The Nikkei’s fishing and collector boats were rounded up and sold for a fraction of their value and they were moved far inland, away from the ocean. After April 1949 when Japanese Canadians were permitted to return to coastal British Columbia, the majority remained where they had already settled in their new lives. They preferred the less racist environment in eastern Canada. Many fishers, however, returned to coastal British Columbia. In the post-war years, they were able to break down the racial barriers that had stood in their way earlier.

This attractive book is the culmination of a number of years of great effort by a committee of dedicated people who strongly believed that there should be a record of their lives, their years of struggle, their method of fishing, and the part they had played in west coast fisheries. The editorial committee was led by Masako Fukawa, a retired teacher and principal who spearheaded production of the Resource Guide for Social Studies 11 Teachers, “Internment and Redress: The Japanese Canadian Experience. Her husband, Stan, a certified translator, used his expertise in the linguistic explanations. The book has been carefully edited, has photographs and short biographies, and shows where the subjects fished. 

I have a problem with the use of “fishermen” in this day when one is careful to use words that are not gender-specific. Undoubtedly the men called themselves “fishermen” and may have insisted on using that term. However, there is one woman, Nadene Inouye (56), among the thirty-six hundred names – is she a “fisherman”? 

The main part of this book will likely be of little interest to people other than those closely connected to the individuals listed. However, the maps of the fishing areas, the introduction, and the appendices are excellent and thus the book is well worth adding to one’s library. The “translation” of the Fishermen’s Language (Mio-ben; i.e., the patois of Mio-village) and the Japanese pronunciation of English words are excellent. As a child I puzzled over the language spoken by young and old in Steveston and once had the temerity to ask some children there what language they were speaking. Later in the internment camps along Lemon Creek in the Slocan Valley, the Mio expressions became our uniquely Japanese Canadian teenage version of “jabberwocky and jive.”

A committee member recently men-tioned that they were now writing Volume 2, the history of these immigrants to British Columbia who loved the challenges of the sea. I, for one, am impatiently awaiting the book. It is certain to be a fascinating saga of their homeland, their perseverance, and bravery. It took three-quarters of a century before others accepted these fishers as equals. However, now it appears that nature, overfishing, and global warming will defeat them.