Spirit of the Nikkei Fleet: BC’s Japanese Canadian Fishermen
November 4, 2013
Review By Patricia Roy
As I was reading this book in the late summer of 2009, I was struck by the sharp difference between the heyday of British Columbia’s fishing industry as portrayed in Spirit of the Nikkei Fleet and today’s concerns over the decline of the resource. Although focusing on the Nikkei (people of Japanese descent), this well researched book is a good introduction to the history of the industry. It clearly explains, for example, different fishing techniques (such as purse-seining and gill-netting), the various kinds of boats, and the complicated and controversial licensing policies. The fishing industry, of course, also employed shore workers, boat builders, and labour contractors, and their stories are here, too.
The word “Spirit,” as used in the title, is well chosen: the theme of triumph over adversity is clear. Accounts of the “traumatic events” after Pearl Harbor occupy about a quarter of the pages, and the brief biographies of many individuals include their prewar occupations, their wartime locations, and their return or non-return to the industry. Interviews with individuals provide poignant first-hand accounts of how fishers were given no time to prepare and were ordered to take their boats under naval escort from all along the coast. Because of December storms, the journey from upcoast points took many days and the fishers had little food and inadequate clothing. When they were allowed to return to the coast and to re-enter the industry in 1949, many fishers secured boats and gear from the canners and gained the cooperation of the leadership of the United Fishermen and Allied Workers Union; however, they faced intimidation from some Caucasian fishers. The fishers never forgot their wartime experiences, but they often chose not to share them with their children. Yet, as was true throughout the Japanese Canadian community, it was often the younger generation that campaigned for redress, while their elders feared a backlash and wanted to forget the past.
Nevertheless, Spirit is upbeat. A striking feature of the Nikkei was their initiative, innovativeness, and adaptability. They, for example, developed the salt herring and salmon industry, perfected the use of the spoon as a lure, improved the design of boats, and imported nylon nets from Japan that were more efficient fish catchers than were linen nets. They formed a variety of groups to arrange health care, negotiate fish prices, protest prewar efforts to drive them out of the industry, and market their catches.
Fishing was often a family occupation. Women worked in the processing plants and mended nets, some served as crew, and a few operated their own boats. Teenagers often served as deckhands. Some loved the industry and made it their career; others hated it but fished seasonally to finance their education. As a result of depleted runs and government policies of buying back boats and licences and of giving precedence to the Aboriginal food fishery, by 2008 only forty-four Japanese Canadians remained in the industry. The two youngest, then in their early thirties, came from fishing families and, reflecting the assimilation of Japanese Canadians, both are hapa (half), or mixed-race – children of a Japanese and a Caucasian parent.
The large format, glossy paper, and many excellent photographs suggest that this is a coffee-table book. It may be that, but it is also a fine history of the Nikkei and of the coastal fishing industry. And it is a superb tribute to the Japanese Canadian fishers who, for so long, were an important part of that industry.