Fishing for a Living: New Nikkei Fishermen’s Book Delves into Westcoast History
When the book Spirit of the Nikkei Fleet: BC’s Japanese Canadian Fishermen is launched on April 5th and 8th at the Steveston Community Centre and National Nikkei Museum and Heritage Centre, respectively, it will mark the final chapter in an almost ten-year project to honour the pioneering Nikkei fishermen of the BC coast.
The Nikkei Fishermen’s Reunion Committee was formed at the turn of the new millennium by three sons of fishermen who had recently lost their fathers to Alzheimer’s and death. Realizing that the way of life that their fathers and grandfathers had experienced was fast disappearing, they resolved that the sacrifices and hardships that they had endured must be acknowledged and commemorated. The committee came up with a series of goals.
First up was a reunion dinner for the older fishermen, which was held on November 3, 2001. Retired fishermen gathered from all over Canada and reminisced as they pored over their photos. Some had not seen each other since their forced dispersal from the BC coast in 1942. In the second stage, a bronze statue of a Nikkei fisherman, commissioned to sculptor Junichiro Iwase, was unveiled on September 20, 2002 overlooking the Fraser River on the Steveston waterfront. Two years later, on June 4, 2004, Her Imperial Highness, Princess Takamado of Japan, rededicated the statue on her visit to Canada to commemorate 75 years of diplomatic ties between Canada and Japan.
The final stage was the publication of two books. The first, Nikkei Fishermen of the BC Coast, containing biographies and photographs of Nikkei fishermen, was published in 2007 by Harbour Publishing. The second book, also published by Harbour Publishing is a history of the Nikkei fleet written by Mas Fukawa with Stan Fukawa and the Nikkei Fishermen’s History Book Committee. The book, an exhaustive yet intimate look at the 130-year history of Nikkei fishermen on the BC coast, begins with the arrival of Manzo Nagano in 1877 and traces the evolution of the Nikkei fleet from its humble beginnings, through to its dominance in the pre-war years, its forced dispersal following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, the gradual return to the coast once restrictions were lifted in 1949 and up to the present day, when only a handful of Nikkei fishermen ply the BC waters.
The book focuses on the history of the Nikkei fishermen and their families, yet in reading through the various chapters, one can see it as a microcosm of the Canadian Nikkei community as a whole. While the details may differ, the story is the same: perseverance in the face of great hardships, a determination to create a better future for the next generations, and a gradual integration into the broader society.
In her Own Words | MAS FUKAWA
It’s difficult to believe, but it’s been almost ten years since the Nikkei Fishermen project was conceived and initiated. This new book is a fitting culmination to everything that went before it. How did you get involved in the project?
Mr. Murao phoned me one morning in 2003 and asked if I would come and meet with the Nikkei Fishermen Reunion Committee because they wanted to compile a biography of fishermen and wanted me to help them. I knew Mr. Murao because he was a neighbour of ours when I lived in Steveston. He arrived from Japan where he was “repatriated” and we had moved from Greenwood the year before in 1951. The Reunion Committee morphed into the Nikkei Fishermen Book Committee.
The Reunion Committee had completed two of the three projects that they embarked upon. The third was the book. They knew that I had just finished writing two resource books on the internment and redress for the Ministry of Education with a team of teachers and members of the Japanese Canadian community. The timing was good for me.
The first book, Nikkei Fishermen on the BC Coast, Their Biographies and Photographs was published by Harbour in 2007. It received honourable mention by the BC Historical Society. I think the fishermen and their families are very pleased with the book.
How did you approach the new book?
The second book is the collective history of Japanese Canadian fishermen. I tried to include as many voices as possible since no one person can represent “a typical Nikkei fisherman.” Unlike many occupations, fishing is a family commitment and I included as many stories of women as space allowed. Most people are aware that many Nikkei women worked in canneries but perhaps less known is the role they had as partners on their husband’s fishing boat. They were also cooks and “bottle washers” at fishing and herring camps and it is said that the reputation of the husband as “boss” rested on the cooking skills of the wife or woman in the camp kitchen. And of course, there’s Nadene Inouye who is the one woman who became a bonafide commercial fisherman.
I imagine there were many challenges along the way in researching and writing this book.
The scope and size of the project presented challenges. The history covers 130 years from the first immigrant who became the first Nikkei fisherman to the present. Geographically, it involved the whole coast of BC from the Nass and Skeena area, Vancouver Island, the Gulf of Georgia and the Fraser River. During the internment years, the area became larger as fishermen were scattered across Canada and were exiled to Japan.
They also fought on many fronts for equal rights: on the water, on foreign soil in two world wars and in the courts all the way to the Privy Council in London, England.
Since I wanted to present a multi perspective to fishing for a living, access to Japanese sources was essential. Fortunately, Stan did the research, translation and interpreting of those sources so that I could analyze and select what was appropriate in telling the story. The personal experiences of the members of the History Book Committee were invaluable. They also encouraged others to tell their stories and thus enriched the telling of their history.
In taking on the task of compiling the history of the Nikkei fishermen and distilling it into the two books, you’ve been able to look at it from the bigger picture. At the same time, you have a personal stake in the history. What is your connection to the Nikkei fishing story?
My maternal grandfather, Yokichi Ishida, arrived in BC about 1904 and after three years as a puller (deck hand) was able to become a British subject and therefore eligible for a fishing licence. He went into cod fishing. When we were living at Pipers Lagoon in Nanaimo, he visited us and pointed to where he used to fish near Hammond Bay. He mentioned that Hammond Bay was called kujira (whale) bay because there was a whaling station there. He then pointed to Shack Island in the Bay and said that they were built by Japanese fishermen who traveled up and down the coast or fished in the area. They are now used by the locals as summer cottages.
My father, Yoshiharu Shinde, became a fisherman after he was called home to Steveston from Osaka where he was studying to go into business. His father’s sawmill on Gabriola burnt down and he could no longer send him money to continue his education.
Both their boats were confiscated and sold in 1942. My father returned to fishing but my grandfather was too old to do so. My brother Doug was the third generation in fishing but the fishermen of his generation cannot make a living in the fisheries.
I know from my own forays into research that one of side benefits is learning about things one may have never come into contact with. I imagine that was true for you.
I gained a deep appreciation of their spirit in enduring hardships, fighting injustices and for their love for fishing. They left future generations a proud legacy. I marvel at their strength in times of crises. Knowing how much their boats mean to them, I can’t imagine how they managed to endure the pain of having their boats confiscated and then sold. Now I understand why my grandfather used to mutter “those ****!” as he watered his vegetable garden in Greenwood.
You got to hear a lot of stories while compiling the book. Was there one that stuck out for you?
Everyone I interviewed had a wonderful a story to tell and I wish I could have included them all. There are still more stories that I would like to hear and record before “seniors’ moments” become all too frequent and they are lost to us forever.
One story I did want to tell was that of Buck Suzuki. I just hope I did justice to the contributions he made to the fishing industry. It was very largely thanks to him that Nikkei were able to re-enter the fishing industry 60 years ago. He was also one of the first, if not the first, to raise awareness of the need to protect salmon habitat in the Fraser River.
In the final chapter of the book you include a section called The Last Nikkei Fishermen in which you actually pinpoint two fellows, Justin and Troy, who are most likely the last of the Nikkei fishermen to fish the west coast. It’s somehow sad that after 130 years it’s come down to this. How did you arrive at these two as being the last of their kind?
At the turn of the 20th century there were about 4,000 Japanese fishing in BC waters. The new millennium began with 44 and now there are even fewer. Justin is the second generation to fish. He also works as a chartered account. Troy’s fishing lineage goes back five generations. He fishes year round. There have been no new entries into BC fishery since they started fishing for a living in the 1990s.
Editor’s Note: proceeds from the sale of the book will be towards a fishermen’s exhibit at the Japanese Canadian National Museum.