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Sutebusuton: A Japanese Village on the British Columbia Coast

By Mitsuo Yesaki

Review By Ann Dore

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 141 Spring 2004  | p. 133-4

MITSUO YESAKI was born in Steveston, known to its early Japanese-Canadian residents as Sutebusuton. He spent his early childhood there until the expulsion of Japanese Canadians from the West Coast in 1942. He is a descendant of three generations of Fraser River fishers and has fished the river himself. His chronological study not only features the history of Japanese Canadians in Steveston and their involvement in the Fraser River salmon industry, but also traces their contributions to the development of the fisheries across British Columbia. While this study is not constructed around a strong, central argument, it stands as a critique of the social and political climate in which Japanese immigrants struggled to build new lives. The book is well researched and documented and it is responsive to the three objectives stated by the author at the outset. 

Yesaki’s first objective centres on compiling statistical records of Japanese-Canadian involvement in the fishing industry. He reports the quantitative estimates of the catch, earnings and expenses of fishers from the 1880s to the Second World War. Further, he provides community demographics, employment figures, and fishing licensing statistics. His background in science and fisheries is demonstrated in his attention to recording his findings within the text and numerous tables throughout the book. Factors like annual profit margins, ratios of Japanese, white, and Native fishers that changed with the whims of lawmakers, and dramatic fluctuations in fish stocks from one year to the next are incorporated into the text and an effort is made to explain their impact on the lives of fishers and their families. It is hard to imagine that Yesaki left any page unturned in the fisheries-related ledgers of government, business, and labour. 

Second, Yesaki explores Japanese-Canadian involvement in the commercial fishing and processing industries beyond the salmon fisheries of the Fraser River and within the support industries that dotted the British Columbia coast. Boat-building was an occupation undertaken by numerous Japanese Canadians in the offseason. Many utilized specialized tools and techniques from Japan. Yesaki also offers a detailed look at charcoal-making, an industry that provided essential fuel to the canneries. Japanese Canadians excelled at constructing the kilns, supplying the cordwood, and perfecting the process. Yesaki’s descriptions of secondary fisheries such as salt chum salmon, salt herring, and troll fishing include villages beyond Sutebusuton. For example, the growth of Torino and Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island and the Skeena River fisheries in the north partially reflected the expansion and diversification of Japanese-Canadian involvement in the fishing industry over several decades. 

That this movement within the industry was often the result of political and economic pressure is an important aspect of Yesaki’s third objective: to incorporate the changing political climate and its impact on those in the fisheries. Yesaki demonstrates that although Japanese-Canadian involvement in the fisheries was sometimes allowed to flourish, it was more often subjected to legally sanctioned restrictions that promoted prejudice and discrimination. He examines both changes and challenges to immigration, the franchise, and licensing laws as well as shifts in the social climate and public attitude that spawned many injustices and culminated in the 1942 expulsion. 

Yesaki links the political and social atmosphere to the physical and geographic setting through a fine collection of photographs dating as far back as 1882. Photos of Japanese Canadians at work, at public gatherings, and among family and friends offer rare glimpses into their lives and communities. However, unlike Yesaki s previous book, co-authored with Harold and Kathy Steves, Steveston Cannery Row: An Illustrated History (Richmond: Lulu Island Printing, 1998), Sutebusuton has no maps to help the reader pinpoint buildings, villages, and waterways. Rather, Yesaki supplements his descriptive narrative and photos with census figures, municipal records, and commercial data. Although Yesaki maintains a substantially quantitative approach to Steveston’s history, there is, nonetheless, a significant amount of individual voice and agency present in these pages. 

From the early immigration of men and their wives, most of whom arrived later as picture brides, to the establishment of families and community, Yesaki highlights both individual and group experience and accomplishments. Organizations such as the Fishermen’s Association play a prominent role in this study along with educational, religious, and financial institutions engaged in activities that built and strengthened community in Sutebusuton and many smaller fishing villages. Japanese culture, as it was expressed within the fishing community, enriches every chapter of this book. Yesaki portrays the complexity and diversity of the fishing industry while keeping a finger on the pulse of the Japanese-Canadian fishing community as it struggled within a constantly shifting social, economic, and political climate.