We acknowledge that we live and work on unceded Indigenous territories and we thank the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh Nations for their hospitality.


Sakura in the Land of the Maple Leaf: Japanese Cultural Traditions in Canada

By Ban Seng Hoe

November 4, 2013

Review By Michiko Ayukawa

This book, edited by the curator of Asian studies at the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Quebec, is a worthy publication. It is a compilation of three research projects conducted in 1976-77 for the Asian and Middle Eastern Program of the National Museum of Man (the present Canadian Museum of Civilization). The late Carlo Caldarola (1928-81), Mitsuru Shimpo, and K. Victor Ujimoto were assigned southern Alberta, Greater Vancouver (primarily the fishing community of Steveston), and Metro Toronto, respectively. The general subject was the retention and transmission of Japanese culture in these regions. It is difficult to surmise what directions researchers were given, but they were clearly not as strictly laid out as they were by Paul Robert Margosi in the Encyclopedia of Canada’s Peoples (University of Toronto Press, 1999), in which I participated. Although the editor states in his introduction that he condensed researchers’ works to avoid repetition, the problem lies in the differences rather than the similarities. Caldarola discusses Buddhism at great length, while Shimpo writes extensively about the language, behaviour, and lifestyle of the Steveston fishers. Ujimoto, on the other hand, gives even coverage to the many aspects of culture transmission. Caldarola provides a short but excellent background for the two groups of Japanese who lived in Alberta – the original settlers who arrived in the early 1900s and the 1942 relocatees from British Columbia.

Calderola may already have been familiar with and also attended a number of Japanese community events in southern Alberta. He closely observed the transmission of Japanese culture through Buddhist rites, Japanese gardens (in particular the Lethbridge Nikka Yuko Garden [Japan- Canada Friendship Garden] created to commemorate Canada’s centennial in 1967), Japanese arts, fortune gods, folk tales, poetry, medicine, proverbs, music, and musical instruments. He gives a number of examples of children’s folk tales that are especially complete (unlike the abbreviated versions being transmitted in Toronto, as noted by Ujimoto).

What is regretful is that some quite obvious errors have not been corrected, such as Caldarola’s statement that jcca stands for Japanese Canadian Community Association (9). At the time of his research, the JCCA was the Japanese Canadian Citizens Association, which was the precursor of the NAJC, the National Association of Japanese Canadians, which was organized in the struggle for redress. The JCCA was a national organization with branches in many communities across Canada, but its influence and the extent of its community participation varied. Another error is Caldarola’s translation of fuki as “Japanese green beans” (54). Fuki may be a vegetable unique to Japanese cuisine. It is said to be coltsfoot or bog rhubarb. Indeed, the plant resembles rhubarb and, like that plant, comes up every year once it is well established. It tends to spread. In fact, there is to this day an extensive bed in the former Japanese relocation centre of Popoff. It ranges from the Slocan River to the old highway to Slocan City.

Caldarola’s discussion of the Buddhist churches in Alberta was especially interesting. He brings to light an inner struggle rarely publicly discussed. He is, however, inconsistent. He says that “the first Japanese minister, Buddhist or Christian did not come to Alberta until the time of relocation in 1942”(7). Later he states that the first Buddhist congregation was formed in Raymond in 1929 and that Reverend Shinzo Nagatomi was sent out the following year from “the sect’s headquarters at the Nishihonganji Temple in Kyoto” (11). Another minister, Reverend Yutatsu Kawamura, arrived in 1934.

Mitsuru Shimpo, author of the second part of the book, which deals with the Greater Vancouver area, is a Japanese sociologist who carried out extensive research in the 1960s and 1970s on Japanese society in that region. Although he had difficulty understanding the Japanese-Canadian spoken language and at times mocked the “uneducated writings” of the pioneers, he did record important data at a time when few others were interested in the past experiences of Japanese Canadians. He was preceded in the 1950s by a number of other scholars from Japan who studied the postwar Japanese-Canadian inhabitants around Steveston.

Steveston had been populated for decades by Japanese fishers and their families. Most were from Wakayama prefecture, in particular, Mio village. They spoke a dialect that was almost incomprehensible to other Japanese. Unlike other relocatees, who, by April 1949, when the Japanese were allowed back to the west coast, were well settled in the eastern provinces and chose to remain there, 65 percent of the fishers were lured back to their former occupation by their love of the sea. The canneries to which they had been under contract before the Second World War offered to rent them boats and to give them good monetary returns. These returnees no longer lived in the squalid company houses of the prewar era but, rather, in the general area. The Issei (the immigrant generation) remained in close contact with each other, retained their language and old customs, and transmitted them to their children and grandchildren. Shimpo discusses the dialect, folklore, and degree of retention of the old customs.

It is unfortunate, however, that there are a number of errors both in Japanese spelling and in English, and in information. Some examples: in discussing the writings of Yasutaro Yamaga and his reference to the pta, Shimpo calls it the Physical Training Association (102). There is no question that Yamaga was referring to the Parent Teacher Association. Shimpo also refers to Hastings Park in 1942 as the “Man- Pool Centre.” Forrest E. La Violette (The Canadian Japanese and World War II, University of Toronto Press, 1948) called it the Manning Pool, as we all did. The dimensions of the “shacks” that were built for the families in the BC interior are also incorrect. Rather disturbing language is used in reference to the four thousand “repatriates” who left Canada in 1946. Many Japanese Canadians will be appalled at this section of the report. These errors could have all been avoided by having a Nisei (second generation, i.e. Canadian-born children of the immigrants) read over Shimpo’s work.

His description of “shingle” cutting also shows that he understood neither the process nor the Japanese-Canadian pronunciation of English terms. Many of his anecdotes are from material stored in the University of British Columbia Library’s Special Collections. In particular, he draws extensively from the memoirs of a Japanese pioneer woman. But he has clearly misunderstood or misrepresented some passages as what he has written does not agree with what she wrote. It is difficult to understand why Shimpo states that a fellow Japanese man was responsible for causing the addiction of the woman’s husband to Chinese gambling (illegal games of chance involving guessing letters, number of objects, bingo, and so on run by Chinese) (123) or to know where he read that the female boarding house owner had expected her to give sexual favours to the white roomers (107).

Victor Ujimoto’s contribution to this project avoids the disturbing errors contained in the other two sections. Ujimoto is an active and knowledgeable member of the Japanese-Canadian community. His general observation is that, since the Japanese community in Metro Toronto consisted of people who had been displaced and scattered throughout the area, there is a lack of oral tradition. The former communities in company towns and on Powell Street in Vancouver, where Japanese people were in daily contact with each other, no longer exist. In the Toronto area, those who wished to participate in social and cultural activities went to the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre and the Toronto Buddhist Church. Classes in Japanese martial arts, poetry writing, storytelling, flower arranging, the tea ceremony, Japanese dancing, doll making, and brush painting, as well as many community celebrations, were offered at these two centres. Ujimoto reproduces a fine collection of Japanese traditional poetry as well as Westernstyle poetry that was written by their members. He also retells a few folk tales he heard there, deploring the fact Book Reviews 159 that they had been abbreviated and thus lacked many interesting details. I found the art of Japanese brush painting as explained by Ruth Yamada, a Nisei who studied in Japan and passed on her knowledge in classes at the JCCC, especially interesting.

Despite the number of misprints and errors, and the unevenness of the three parts that comprise this volume, as Ban Seng Hoe states, it is a “snapshot in time” and describes a society in transition. We must appreciate the effort that was made to record this now lost period in the history of Japanese immigrants and their descendants. However, it is unfortunate that it was not edited more carefully, both for English usage and for factual information.