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Stolen livelihoods

January 11, 2011

Japanese fishing families feel the sting of racial discrimination

Masako Fukawa, with Stanley Fukawa, and the Nikkei Fishermen’s History Book Committee
Spirit of the Nikkei Fleet: B.C.’s Japanese Canadian Fishermen (Madeira Park, B.C.: Harbour Publishing, 2009. 256 pp. Illustrations, notes, bibliography, index. $39.95)

The shameful story of how Japanese fishing families were treated on the North American West Coast is well-known among historians, but Spirit of the Nikkei Fleet brings that story to life through oral history accounts from the very people who experienced that systematic racism. Recalling tales of love and loss, racial rivalry, financial hardship, personal tragedy, political resistance, and the humiliation of being made official pariahs, the seldom-heard voices that speak through Spirit of the Nikkei Fleet show how those families endured and eventually flourished.

Relying on oral history interviews, along with archival documentation, author Masako Fukawa also provides a detailed account of the technical aspects of fishing, boat-building, net-mending, filleting and other tasks associated with the industry. But it is the personal recollections of fish workers that provide an insider’s look at the drudgery and sacrifices fishing families faced.

Stanley Fukawa researched the Japanese sources and translated interviews and documents while members of the Nikkei Fishermen’s History Book Committee assisted with personal memories and encouraged others to tell their stories.

Historians will find these stories of value in their study of immigration, fisheries and oceans policy, anti-Asian racism, and resistance to it. From the late 19th century, when Japanese fishing boats began appearing, to the human rights abuses during and after the Second World War, Spirit of the Nikkei Fleet offers often painful accounts of how British Columbia’s white society shunned Issei (Japanese-born) and Nisei (native-born) fishermen and their families.

Note that this is the second such book sponsored by the committee. Harbour also published the first in 2007.

Many secondary sources help document the challenges that Japanese immigrants faced when white British Columbians began ridding the province of the “yellow race” (p. 20). The sources describe the rigorous anti-Japanese campaigns that were mounted by various factions in British Columbia that first culminated in the 1907 anti-Asian riot in Vancouver and continued through numerous attempts to restrict Japanese immigration. In the aftermath of the Second World War, in which several Japanese Canadians fought, the postwar movement began to seek redress in earnest. As Spirit of the Nikkei Fleet damningly notes,

“Racist policies to keep Canada white and discriminatory attitudes and practices were so deeply embedded in the fabric of the country, the churches, the political parties (with the exception of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation), the labour unions, the education system and government administration systems that they were not even viewed as unchristian. (p. 162)”

Interestingly, the First Nations fishing community also turned on Japanese fishermen at times, siding with white fishermen to push the Japanese out of the industry. Members of the First Nations fishing community also benefited when the government sold them Japanese fishing vessels seized as part of the relentless crackdown on Japanese during the Second World War. As former Fisherman editor Geoff Meggs noted in his book Salmon – The Decline of the B.C. Fishery, it “is a tragic fact that the catastrophe of Pearl Harbor achieved for Native people a partial redress of the losses they had suffered as a result of the industry’s institutionalized racism” (p. 128).

Also important to historians, the book solidly documents a rich associational life symbolized most vividly by the Dantai which was first formed in 1897 to advance the interests of Japanese fishermen. Trade union activism also took its place in the Japanese fishing community initially as a reaction to white unions refusing to allow Japanese to join but eventually as part of the mainstream labour movement.

Some of the strongest sections in the book are those in which the author describes the work of activists such as the human rights advocate and trade union leader Tatsuro “Buck” Suzuki, who fought to include Japanese fishermen in the United Fishermen and Allied Workers’ Union Other prominent activists described by the author include Suzuki’s fellow union leader Hideo Onotera, first Dantai president Tomekichi Homma, and Tommy Shoyama, an editor of the English Japanese newspaper New Canadian and later a well-known politician.

Women, many of them mail-order—or “picture”—brides, also played a significant role as wives, mothers, cannery workers, and fishers. As this coffee-table-style book shows, “Collectively, the Issei women brought stability to the communities, shared in their struggles and organized the fujin-kai or women’s associations to make a better life for their Canadian-born children.” (p. 23). They were also vocal activists in the Nisei Mass Evacuation Women’s Group, fighting for human rights during incarceration in wartime camps. Quotations from taped interviews with elderly Japanese and their children yield horrifying accounts of this forced relocation to internment camps in interior regions of British Columbia.

Spirit of the Nikkei Fleet is a relatively non-academic addition to the historical literature on immigrant and Canadian-born Japanese and the challenges they encountered in a hostile “white man’s province” (p. 55). The book filters that history through the lens not only of social class but also of race and gender, providing us with some enlightening examples of what to avoid as the world’s workers continue to migrate in search of a livelihood.

This article first appeared in the Pacific Northwest Quarterly in summer 2010.

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2 Responses to Stolen livelihoods

  1. Ron Verzuh on April 1, 2011 at 9:16 pm

    My apologies but I can’t approve it if I can’t read it. Can you send a rough English or French translation? RV

  2. Free Website Articles Directory on April 4, 2011 at 5:56 pm

    Free Website Articles Directory
    you have covered all the bases. Fantastic stuff.

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