Salt Spring’s Japanese Canadian Community
A chapter from “Salt Spring: The Story of an Island” by Charles Kahn (Harbour Publishing, 1998)
If you look around Salt Spring today, you’ll see few people of Japanese ancestry, and those you do see are likely to be tourists. However, in 1939, on the eve of World War II, there were seventy-seven Japanese Canadians living on Salt Spring. And if you want to learn more about these people, you’ll find it just about impossible. One reason for this is that the Canadian government, fearing an attack from Japan and possible collaboration between Japan and Japanese Canadians, forced these people to move to internment camps in the interior of BC and other Canadian provinces.
Their wartime experience was extremely painful to Japanese Canadians.
Few ever returned to the BC coast. One reason for this was that the Canadian government forbade them to return. But they had nothing to return to anyway, since in 1943 their houses and all their belongings had been seized and sold off without their consent by government agents, acting on orders-in-council made under the provisions of the War Measures Act. The lack of support from many former friends and neighbours, some of whom profited from their losses, added to the sorrow of Japanese Canadians. Only one Salt Spring family, “the Murakamis” returned to the island and stayed, and it is mainly from matriarch Kimiko Murakami and her daughter Mary that the following information is derived.
The First Arrivals
The first Japanese known to come to Canada settled in Victoria in 1877. Others, mostly single men, began arriving in BC in the 1890s. Like Chinese immigrants, they experienced much prejudice in Canada. When the Japanese tried to vote, they were not allowed to, and, in 1895, British Columbia passed an amendment to the Provincial Elections Act that denied the vote to all Asians. (This right was not returned until 1949.)
In 1907, the Canadian government convinced Japan to limit the number of males emigrating to Canada to 400 per year, decreasing this to 150 in 1928. The Japanese were not allowed to buy Crown land, although they were allowed to purchase land from private individuals. Because they were denied the franchise, they were not permitted to teach or to work in any of the professions or the civil service. Almost the only jobs available to them were labouring jobs as servants or in primary industries, such as fishing, logging, farming,and mining, for which the Japanese received much less pay than non-Japanese doing the same work.
The 1891 census does not list anybody of Japanese ancestry on Salt Spring. However, four years later, in his promotional booklet Salt Spring Island, Rev. E. F. Wilson wrote that there were ten. Wilson also referred to Japanese residents in his news sheet, Salt Spring Island Parish and Home. For example, in August 1896, he wrote:
“Several of the white residents and a large number of the Japs [sic] are off to the salmon fishing on the Fraser.” (August 1896)
“Our Japanese friend, Mr. Kinso, is busy these days converting our Douglas firs into props for Mexican mines, and piles for wharves and bridges in China. There will be a succession of ships coming in to load, and quite a large number of hands, both white men and Japs are at work in the camp.”
The 1901 census lists fifty-nine Japanese living on Salt Spring, often listing their occupations as fisherman, labourer, cook, or farm hand. Many of the Japanese on Salt Spring earned a living doing “day work” on the farms and homesteads of white settlers, since the Japanese had a reputation as excellent and inexpensive workers. The following comment by Leonard Tolson, who came to Salt Spring in 1889, is a typical appraisal of the quality and loyalty of Japanese workers:
“I employed Jap labour and learned to admire the Japs for their efficiency and faithfulness to their employers. (One of them, Yama, spent the night on the roof with a bucket of water because there was a forest fire nearby. We were away.)”
Rev. E. F. Wilson reported a similar incident in 1898 in which a Japanese passing by saved the life of Jonathan Chivers, who had been crushed by a log on his isolated home on Long Island (now Wallace Island) northeast of Salt Spring in Trincomali Channel.
Despite the fact that both Japanese and Chinese workers were an important source of labour in the home, field, forest, and mill, many islanders did not welcome them into the community, as the following item from a 1914 Cowichan Leader suggests:
“Another influx of Orientals occurred this week. Twelve Chinamen are now located at Ganges and it is understood that another laundry will shortly be started. Bearing the future prosperity of the community in mind, it is doubtful if these are desirable acquisitions.”
Most of the Japanese lived and worked in the north end of Salt Spring, but there were some exceptions. Kyrle Symons, who taught at Beaver Point School in 1910, recalled in his book The Amazine Institution that J. H. Monk employed Japanese workers and that Symons himself exchanged lessons for labour:
“They used to come to me at night, to learn to read from an infant’s Reader; in return they used to cut and stack a fine lot of fire-wood for us every Sunday. They were deeply interested in the baby. I have snapshots of all these people and things, and very precious they are.”
There was a Japanese settlement near Musgrave Landing. In a reminiscence, Musgrave resident Walmus Newman located it just south of the Crown land greenbelt near the government float:
“In 1929, there was a Japanese settlement with 60 loggers. There is a fig tree on the site, presumably resulting from mouldy figs being discarded by the cookhouse of the Jap camp.”
A map indicates a “JAP CAMP” just south of the Crown land greenbelt near Musgrave Landing. There is also evidence of itinerant Japanese workers employed by settlers in the southern part of the island, such as those who cleared land for the McLennan family in 1882.
Salt Spring’s best known Japanese family is the Murakami family. Kimiko Murakami’s parents, Kumanosuke and Riyo Okano, came to Canada in 1896, settling first in Steveston, a fishing port on the Fraser River that is now part of Richmond. The Okanos, both husband and wife, earned their living by fishing, eventually owning a fleet of five fishing boats. In 1904, when Kimiko was born, the Okanos made regular visits to Salt Spring beaches to cut driftwood for firewood. Kimiko remembered living in Duck Bay (then called Dock Bay), north of Vesuvius, in about 1909. She recounted how, at the age of five, she regularly piloted the family’s boat across the Strait of Georgia, through Porlier Pass, to the family’s home on Salt Spring. (All family members, including the children, were important contributors to the family’s enterprise.)
At this time there were five small houses in Duck Bay, all owned by families of Japanese ancestry. The Okanos, their two daughters, and a roomer named Mr. Negoro lived in one of them for a couple of years. The Okanos then moved to Nanaimo where Riyo Okano ran a candy store, and the family lived on a house barge. In 1910, Kimiko’s two-year-old sister drowned after falling off one of the fishing boats. Then a year or two later the family’s house barge burned. To take their minds off these unhappy occurrences, the Okanos decided to take a trip to Japan.
Kumanosuke Okano returned to Canada after six months, but Riyo wasn’t able to because she was due to give birth to her third child. After the baby was born, Riyo and the new baby returned to Canada, leaving Kimiko and her sister with their grandmother. The two girls were distraught at being abandoned by their parents in this way. (In her nineties Kimiko had still not forgiven her mother for leaving her in Japan.) Finally, in March 1919, Kimiko and her sister rejoined their parents in Canada. The family spent some time in Crofton before moving again to Salt Spring the next year.
In December 1919, the Okanos sold three of their fishing boats to finance the purchase of their first 50 acres (20 ha) of Salt Spring land.
In time, the Okanos bought a total of 200 acres (80 ha), stretching from the end of Booth Bay east to Sharp Road and past Rainbow Road. Now they began to do more farming than fishing, giving up fishing completely in about 1924. They grew tomatoes in an immense greenhouse, as Japanese farmers did on other Gulf Islands. The Okano greenhouse eventually expanded to 180′ x 300′. A second plant house was 98′ x 150′. The Okanos sold their raspberries, strawberries, and vegetables to A. P. Slades, produce distributors in Victoria. At first, the Okanos were the first residents on Sharp Road, but in time, they had several neighbours.
Kimiko had a difficult time in school, having to learn English all over again after her stay in Japan. She went to Central School and remembered having Mary Gyves (later Mary Brenton) as her teacher. She also remembered being the first woman driver on Salt Spring in 1923, delivering eggs to Mouat’s store in her parents’ Model T truck and terrorizing everyone else on the road.
In 1925, Kimiko returned to Japan to celebrate her grandmother’s eighty-eighth birthday. There she was introduced to Katsuyori Murakami, and relatives soon arranged their marriage. The couple then moved to Canada, which Katsuyori entered as an “indentured immigrant” sponsored by Kimiko’s parents, for whom he was to work for a five-year period.
In 1932, the Murakamis bought 17 acres (7 ha) at the end of Sharp Road, adjacent to the Okanos land. Katsuyori and Kimiko planted three acres in asparagus and another three acres in strawberries. Their produce was of such high quality that they often supplied the Empress Hotel in Victoria. They also kept 5,000 chickens, selling the eggs to Mouat’s store in Ganges, which then sold them to Victoria.
The 1930s were difficult years for everyone. As a result of the depression no one had any money. Kimiko remembers that many people came to beg food from the Okanos, who would give chickens and eggs to hungry neighbours. The Okanos were also generous in other ways. When an extension was required to build the Salt Spring Consolidated School in Ganges in about 1940, both the Okanos and the Murakamis donated money, while other less-affluent Japanese Canadians each donated a week of labour. Manson Toynbee remembered the Salt Spring Japanese as “community-minded people.”
Other Japanese-Canadian families, like the Okanos, lived mainly in the north end of Salt Spring where they had a wide variety of occupations. Several were on the island before the Okanos bought land in 1919. A few, including Junichi Izumi and his two sons, lived and worked on Harry Bullock’s estate. (Kimiko Murakami remembered Bullock as a very kind man who befriended people of Japanese ancestry.) Nakazo and Hatsu Ito, who lived on North End Road near Fernwood, kept 1000 chickens to produce the eggs that they sold to Mouat’s. The Shimojis lived in Vesuvius as early as 1912.
The Tasakas fished in Steveston in the summer and, in the winter, returned to their Seaview Avenue property where Mr. Tasaka worked as a carpenter. (In summertime sixty years later, you could still see the Japanese vegetable called fuki, bog rhubarb, growing where the Tasakas first planted it.) The Tasakas had 25 children, of whom 18 survived. Eventually, they returned to Japan with their three youngest children, where Mrs. Tasaka died at 92.
Of those who came after the Murakamis, several had the same name (Murakami is as common a name in Japanese as Smith is in English), but none were related to Katsuyori. For example, Morihei Murakami, an expert boatbuilder, came in about 1921. He married Sukino Okano, Kimiko’s half sister, and had a tomato greenhouse on his property between Sharp and Canal Roads. Still another Murakami, Tsunetaro Murakami, lived on 25 acres (10 ha) around what is now Wildwood Crescent, where he made tofu.
The Nakamuras, who lived on Bittancourt Road, ran a laundry business from their home before moving to Victoria in 1937. Torazo Iwasaki had a fishing boat and grew crops such as snow peas for the Japanese market in Vancouver. He lived with his wife, Fuku, and five children on 640 acres (259 ha), which he bought in the late 1930s, including three miles (5 km) of waterfront along what is now Sunset Drive, extending from just north of Vesuvius to about Simson Road.
Members of the Mikado family still return to Salt Spring from time to time to visit with old friends. Masukichi Mikado was only seventeen in 1902 when he left Hiroshima, Japan, to work in the sugar-cane fields of Hawaii. Three years later he moved to Chemainus, BC In 1914, Masukichi returned to Japan to marry Tsutayo Okada. The couple returned to Chemainus the same year and then moved to Salt Spring, where Masukichi worked on Harry Bullock’s farm. In 1936, the Mikados purchased their first Salt Spring land on Norton Road, where they built their home, ran a laundry business, and raised seven children. Bob Rush remembered being raised by Mary Mikado, who worked for Bob’s parents. In 1942, the Canadian government relocated the Mikado family to Alberta, where several sons were still living in the late-nineties.
Into the Depths of Hell and Out Again
Life for Japanese-Canadians disintegrated after Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Almost immediately after the bombing, the federal government declared war on Japan and seized some twelve hundred fishing boats owned by people of Japanese-Canadian ancestry. At that time, people worried that Japanese-Canadian fishermen would somehow convert their fishing fleet into a navy and take over BC.
A fearful British Columbia population demanded the evacuation of Japanese residents from the BC coast, and the governmentresponded swiftly. On February 26, 1942, under the sweeping powers of the War Measures Act, the government began to expel “all persons of the Japanese racial origin” from a “protected area” within one hundred miles (160 km) of the coast. In the Gulf Islands, as elsewhere, all people of Japanese ancestry were deprived of their land, their homes, and their personal possessions and were interned to camps in the interior of BC or to other parts of Canada. This description of the evacuation was written by some of those interned:
Japanese Canadians from along the coast were herded like cattle to a sorting compound at the Hastings Park livestock buildings in Vancouver where conditions were barbaric and degrading. Many families were separated as men were sent to work camps in the Rocky Mountains. Women and children were left to cope with these inhuman conditions and uncertainties. Men who opposed being separated from their families were sent to prisoner-of-war camps in Ontario. Internment centres were hurriedly created in the interior of BC. Hundreds of poorly built shacks became home to thousands of internees.
The Japanese were only allowed to take with them what they could carry. They left their houses, vehicles, and other possessions behind. Many of these were ransacked from the empty houses. The rest was quickly auctioned off by the government for a small fraction of its worth. The Okanos and Murakamis suffered the same fate. They lost everything!
Many people on Salt Spring felt unease and pain at the treatment their Japanese neighbours received. Here’s how Manson Toynbee remembered the period:
“Something that really touched me was after the entry of the Japanese into the war. First of all, there had been concerns that there could be damage done on the coast of BC And there had been the shelling of Vancouver Island. We had blackouts of course. There was the formation of the airplane spotters the ARP. The Red Cross became active. We had the Pacific Coast Militia Rangers.”
“Then came the part that really did upset me the expulsion, or I think it was called the “rehabilitation” or some such word, of the Japanese residents of the island. This bothered me for a number of reasons. For one thing, they had been hard-working, honest people. They supported island projects the building of the new school, the building of St. George’s Church. They were community-minded people.…”
“And the thing that really hurt me most was that there weren’t many islanders on hand to see them off when they went. I remember my father and I standing around the wharf in Ganges, and there wasn’t much of a crowd. And I think really it was that a lot of people just were torn by this. Maybe they were afraid they’d break down, some of them if they were present.”
“But they were sent away, and this did upset me.”
A Real Though Unwarranted Fear
Anyone living in British Columbia during the 1920s to the 1940s can testify to the fact that many people feared and resented Asians, especially the Japanese who had prospered in Canada. With a birth rate that was double the provincial average, the number of Japanese Canadians had also grown dramatically. On Mayne Island, for example, one-third of the population was Japanese. Japanese prosperity was especially resented during the Depression when jobs were scarce.
The resentment and fear of Japanese-Canadians was heightened by the news media and by the irresponsible statements of politicians, such as the following made by Alan Webster Neil, MP for Comox-Alberni, in the House of Commons in 1922:
“Is it better to fight now when Japan controls only one-half of British Columbia or to leave the fighting until ten years hence when she will, by peaceful conquest, have absorbed the whole of British Columbia and have thousands of her trained troops scattered throughout British Columbia and the other provinces beyond the Rocky Mountains?”
Even respected journalists like American Walter Lippmann, writing in the New York Herald Tribune in 1942, expressed similar feelings:
“The Pacific Coast is in immediate danger of a combined attack from within and without…. Since the outbreak of the Japanese war there has been no important sabotage on the Pacific Coast…. This is not, as some have liked to think, a sign that there is nothing to be feared. It is a sign that the blow is well organized and it is held back until it can be struck with maximum effect.”
The Japanese shelling of the lighthouse at Estevan on June 20, 1942 a few months after the evacuation of Japanese Canadians from the BC coast began seemed to confirm the government’s fear of a Japanese invasion of the Pacific coast. Nevertheless, it was not repeated, and the only other hostile incident during the war was Japan’s 1945 launching of incendiary balloons, some of which reached the BC coast. There never was any evidence of Japanese-Canadian collusion with Japan during the war, despite the widespread public fear. No Japanese -Canadian, including all the fishermen, was ever even charged with treason.
Even after the war, Japanese Canadians were not allowed to return to the coast until April 1949. The government gave them an ultimatum: either move to other parts of Canada east of the Rockies or be deported to Japan. There were a few exceptions, however,. The government permitted Victor and Evelyn Okano, Kimiko Murakami’s brother and sister-in-law, , to return to Salt Spring with their two children for medical reasons. The senior Okanos, the Mikados, and Katsuyori Murakami’s family were assigned to sugar-beet farms in Alberta. In 1949, the Okanos opened a restaurant in Cardston, Alberta, but Katsuyori Murakami wanted to return to Salt Spring to tend the grave and memory of a son who had died at the age of only six months. Katsuyori also hoped to regain his property and, with it, the dream that he’d had years before. The Murakamis saved their money, and, over Kimiko’s objections, in 1954 they returned to Salt Spring and bought the property the family continues to occupy on Rainbow Road. Their arrival coincided almost directly with the departure from Salt Spring of Kimiko’s brother’s family who had decided to move to Victoria.
Other Japanese-Canadians interned from Salt Spring in 1942 included Etsujiro Takebe, a bachelor, who returned to the island in about 1950 but died about a year and a half later in Lady Minto Hospital. The Numajiris, Hiranos, and Nakamuras ended up in Toronto. The Inouye and Mikado families were moved to Alberta. Morihei Murakami’s family settled in Alberta and Saskatchewan. Tsunetaro Murakami returned to Japan, as did members of the Ohara family, although all but one Ohara son eventually returned to the Vancouver area. Torazo Iwasaki refused to accept his fate: he sued the government for the loss of his Salt Spring property. The court decided that he deserved more money, but Iwasaki did not agree with their valuation of his property and died a bitter man.
The Japanese were not welcomed back to the Gulf Islands, as Mayne Island’s Marie Elliott reported (in More Tales From the Outer Gulf Islands, p. 182):
“Many of the Mayne Island Japanese wished to regain their land or purchase from other owners. (The Soldier Settlement Board had bought Japanese properties and sold them to returning veterans.) But by that time a curious reluctance to allow the Japanese back had taken hold. No one wanted to be first to sell to them. “
When the Murakami family returned to Salt Spring in 1954, they were dismayed to find that the government had sold all their property and personal possessions. This was bad enough, but they also felt that discrimination against Japanese Canadians still existed on the island. Mary (Murakami) Kitagawa, reported that her sister Rose, one of the top graduates from Vancouver General Hospital, was told that she was not qualified to nurse at Lady Minto Hospital. Rose left the island, earned master’s degrees from McGill and Boston Universities, and eventually became vice-president of nursing at the UBC Health Science Hospitals.
Mary herself, with an education degree from the University of Toronto, reported that she was told that Japanese teachers were not wanted in the local schools. She too left the island and taught at Kitsilano Secondary School in Vancouver. The Murakamis’ oldest daughter, Alice Tanaka, moved to California with her husband, Ted, and the youngest Murakami, Bruce, lived in Vancouver where he eventually opened two electronics stores. His brother, Richard, returned to Salt Spring in 1971, joining his mother and sister Violet on the family’s new property on Rainbow Road. Richard felt that his now-successful autobody shop had been a struggle to establish, partly because of the residual prejudice on the island. Nevertheless, the Murakamis became successful, well-regarded members of the community.
There is a cemetery behind Central Hall with a Japanese-Canadian section. When the Murakamis returned to Salt Spring, this Japanese section was overrun with brambles and strewn with garbage, and all the grave markers had been destroyed or removed. Katsuyori Murakami began a labour of love, reconstructing the markers and positioning them beside the graves as he remembered them. The markers are unadorned, simply bearing the name of each person’s name n surname first in the Japanese fashion. They commemorate a time when a small community of Japanese Canadians made their homes on Salt Spring Island.
When Kimiko Murakami died in July 1997, her passing was marked by a community celebration. More than 250 islanders filled Ganges United Church to overflowing to participate in the passing of a remarkable woman, whose life reflected the Japanese experience on Salt Spring. Kimiko had been part of the fishing and farming community, had transcended the horrors of the internment period, and had once again become a central part of the community in which she spent most of her life. A wide cross-section of Salt Spring society sang “We’ll Sing in the Sunshine,” one of Kimiko’s favourite songs, and the reception afterward became an oldtimers’ reunion signalling the end of an unhappy period in island history.
April, May, June
Wednesday to Friday
July & August
Wednesday to Sunday
September & October
Wednesday to Friday
Anyone wishing to visit the museum outside of the regular hours can do so by emailing John Fulker at firstname.lastname@example.org