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Watara- Dori (Birds of Passage)

By Mitsuo Yesaki

Review By Michiko Ayukawa

November 4, 2013

BC Studies no. 146 Summer 2005  | p. 120-1

WATARA-DORI (Birds of Passage) is a biographical fiction of a half-year period (24 June 1915 to 1 January 1916) in the life of a Japanese-Canadian fisher. Mitsuo Yesaki has a thorough knowledge of the Pacific coast fisheries, in particular those in the Steveston area. He is aware of the canneries, the disagreements and strikes, and the racially based legislation that was passed in order to decrease the number of Japanese fishers. Yesaki is the author of Sutebusuton: A Japanese Village on the British Columbia Coast (2003); with Harold and Kathy Steves he co-authored Steveston, Cannery Row: An Illustrated History (1998); and with Sakuya Nishimura he co-authored Salmon Canning on the Fraser River in the 1890s (2000). Yesaki also travelled to his ancestral village in Wakayama prefecture, Japan, where he learned how, for centuries, the inhabitants had fished for sardines, seals, and other marine life. However, by the beginning of the 1900s these inhabitants were finding it difficult to survive. In this latest book Yesaki incorporates this information as he tells the story of what is likely a period in his father’s life. 

Jinshiro Ezaki, whose surname was registered as “Yesaki” by an immigration officer in Victoria, emigrated to British Columbia in 1900 shortly after the birth of his son, Miyakichi. He had visited his family just once, when Miyakichi was six years old. Jinshiro was the eldest son in an extended family and thus, according to custom, was responsible for caring for his parents, his unmarried siblings, and his wife and son. With what he earned in Canada he was able to provide his family in Japan with a big house. Jinshiro’s dream was that his son would be a good, earnest student and, after completing the compulsory six years of elementary school, would go on to middle school and beyond. Jinshiro would have gladly worked hard and sent back money for this purpose. However, Miyakichi was not interested in higher learning and preferred to accompany his grandfather on his fishing boat. In 1915 Jinshiro finally accepted the fact that his son would only be happy as a fisher, and he sent for his wife and son. 

In this novel Yesaki tells the story of his ancestral village and of many of its inhabitants, who had emigrated to Canada. He describes the arrival of Miyakichi and his mother to Victoria, their trip to Vancouver, and their travel by tram to Steveston, where Miyakichi immediately becomes a boat-puller (assistant) for his father. It is a difficult learning experience, but soon he begins to fish on his own. Watara-Dori contains a detailed map of the Fraser River delta area, showing the channels, the locations of the canneries, and the tidal zones. Through it, one can readily follow Miyakichi’s movements. Miyakichi is daring and independent. By reading the tides, using his compass, and observing points on the shoreline, he is able to fish in foggy weather, when more prudent fishers remain on shore. One of his happiest days occurs when he opens his own bank account; but he is most proud when he is able to give $200 to his grandfather for the family’s New Year festivities. 

Through the story of Miyakichi’s first year in Canada, Yesaki portrays the daily life of the fishers: how they fished, lived on board their boats, and attended to their gear. The cost and effort required to mend and weave new nets becomes evident. He describes the company houses, the outhouses, the Japanese-style bathhouses, the way salvaged logs were sawed and chopped into firewood, the food that was eaten, and the New Year celebrations, when special foods were prepared and the men made the rounds of their friends and neighbours. The women have their work too: in the canneries, on nearby farms, and helping with the nets. These details are all woven into the broader history of Japanese immigration in Canada, and they speak of the gradual change from a sojourner society to a family settlement. 

It is unfortunate that Yesaki self-published this book. A number of printing errors and unsatisfactory choices of words and phrases have slipped through. The glossary of Japanese words is particularly disappointing. There are a number of errors that would likely have been corrected by a competent bilingual person. 

In spite of these drawbacks, Watara-Dori is a valuable addition to a rather scant supply of books on the history of the Japanese in Canada. I hope that Yesaki will write sequels to this story and thus provide us with a much-needed account of later developments in the Steveston area fisheries and in the lives of Japanese Canadians.