Ryoshi: Nikkei Fishermen of the BC Coast
The history of the Japanese in Canada is inextricably linked to fishing. Likewise, any discussion of the fishing industry in British Columbia would be incomplete without a mention of the Japanese Canadian contribution to what was for many years a major economic driver in the province. From the moment Gihei Kuno, a fisherman from Mio-mura in Wakayama-ken, wrote home to his village in 1887 with tales of fish jumping into his boat, a steady stream of Japanese immigrants made the long journey from Japan in search of a better life for them and their families. Many went into the fishing industry, settling in Steveston and making it the second largest Japanese Canadian settlement before World War II, after Powell Street. Mio, which came to be known as America-mura, became one of the largest single sources of Japanese emigrants to Canada.
A major new exhibit at the Nikkei National Museum takes a comprehensive look at the important role Japanese Canadians have played in the fishing industry, from the earliest days up to about 1960. Using historical photographs, paintings, artifacts, maps and interviews with the men and women who followed the fish up and down the west coast, the exhibit paints a vivid portrait of a way of life that is now all but gone. It should be noted that while it was a male-dominated industry (one woman, Nadene Inouye, did become a commercial fisherman), once the men began bringing wives from Japan, the women became an integral part of the Nikkei fishing community, something that the exhibit stresses.
I talked to co-curators Beth Carter and Raymond Nakamura about the new exhibit, which is on display at the Museum until May 19, 2013, at which point it will move to the Gulf of Georgia Cannery.
You’ve chosen to break the exhibit down into four sections, all starting with the letter C.
Beth: The first is Contributions. Nikkei contributions to the fishing industry were not just about catching sockeye or working in canneries, but opening new markets and building boats, which grew out of their experiences in Japan. Boat building by Nikkei was so important and wide-spread that it could have been a display in itself.
Then we look at Cooperation. Helping each other was central to the success of Nikkei, rooted in village life back in Japan. They sought out other Japanese but were also forced into ethnic groupings by Canadian society. By working together, through social groups or formal associations such as the Fishermen’s Benevolent Society or Fishing Co-operatives, this close-knit community helped everyone achieve success.
Raymond: It really came down to Community. Within these communities all up and down the BC Coast, women played central roles as the men were away during the fishing season. They maintained the home, worked in the cannery, tended gardens, and made clothes and home preserves. And while their parents were working, the children struggled to straddle the worlds of Canadian schools and Japanese society.
Lastly, there’s Comeback. During World War II, the confiscation of hundreds of fishing boats belonging to Japanese Canadians following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor may be one of the most dramatic scenes in Nikkei history. However, rather than an isolated event, this was a culmination of years of discrimination. The exhibit focuses on the remarkable return to the coast by the Nikkei, beginning in 1949. We explore the involvement of canneries and the union until the 1960s, when Nikkei became more assimilated.
What has the response been to the exhibit?
Beth: it’s been really, really great. People have been really interested and then the recent Harvest Festival brought in lots and lots of people. So far we’ve had, I’d guess, over 1,000 people come through already.
Four special things about the history of Nikkei fishing in BC!
By Beth Carter and Raymond Nakamura
Nikkei worked hard and moved up and down the coast as needed
“With fishing, if you work hard, you’re on your own, so you get your share. You’re your own boss.” — Terry Sakai
Steveston was the largest commercial fishing and cannery centre in Canada. The Phoenix Cannery opened in 1882, and by 1895 there were 12 canneries operating on the Steveston waterfront. The canneries needed hundreds of workers, and they relied on Japanese, Chinese and First Nations labour. Wherever there was a cannery, you were sure to find a Japanese Canadian community.
Nikkei fishermen first came from Japanese coastal villages in the 1880s and initially found work gillnetting Sockeye for canneries on the Fraser or Skeena over the summer. In the early days, only men came, just for the work. They lived in cannery bunkhouses for a cut of the fish fee, and might be at sea for days, weeks, or months. When wives arrived, they rented little cannery houses. The women kept house, raised the children, and often worked in the canneries to help keep families afloat.
Gas-powered boats and overcrowding on the Fraser led Nikkei to begin trolling off the west coast of Vancouver Island. They moved to Tofino and Ucluelet in the early 1920s, when the Department of Fisheries required trollers to be residents of the area where they fished.
“…there was always this sort of feeling that they (Nikkei fishermen) were, to some degree cheating because they worked too hard . . . A “high boat” meant that a fisherman . . . caught a large number of salmon . . . they were always Japanese fishermen that got a high boat.”
— Henry Shimizu
“My husband went to Skeena to fish and I (age 19) went with him (about 1928). I didn’t like the atmosphere. Gambling. Drinking. It was different from what I was used to in Japan…”
— Tamako Miki
“After grade seven, I went to work at Wadham’s cannery in Rivers Inlet during the salmon season. My aunt cooked for her husband and some fishermen there. I lived next door with five other girls who worked at the cannery. When the packer boat comes in, then you go to work. We worked long hours, seven days a week.”
— Kanako Kariya
Nikkei Excelled at Wooden Boat Building
“Traditional Japanese wood working tools are radically different from European tools in that Japanese saws and planes cut on the pull thrust whereas European tools cut on the push thrust. Japanese saws give finer and more accurate cuts.” — Moe Yesaki
Salmon canneries required large fleets of vessels to catch the fish, as well as fishpackers to pick up and deliver the catch. Before 1960, every cannery had wooden boat repair shops, and Japanese Canadians were known as some of the best boat builders. In the early days, the boat at the front towed wooden double-ended sailboats with gillnets to and from fishing grounds not far from the canneries. In the 1930s, Nikkei builders helped develop systems for running the gillnet winding drum off the boat’s gasoline engine. On the Skeena River, Japanese were prevented from using motorized boats until 1929 when Jun Kisawa fought the law and won.
“Every Japanese fishermen I knew was able to do their own work. They could do a bit on the engine, a bit of carpentry, a bit of net repair obviously. They weren’t all boat specialists but they were very handy.” — Dan Nomura
Nikkei were continually looking for ways to improve their catch
“It’s amazing what my Dad did. He made all those nets himself — seine net for seining herring, the trawl net to trawl the sole in the Indian Arm, the gill net for catching perch. All that’s hand labour.” — Aki Horii
Gillnets were the most popular form for salmon fishing. A long rectangular net hangs like a curtain in the water, with cedar cork floats along the top and weighted leadlines along the bottom. Nets were their most expensive possession, and to save money, many Nikkei fishermen made their own nets, especially ones with larger meshes (and fewer knots) to catch spring salmon. Drying, cleaning, and mending nets was an ongoing chore for fishermen. Nets were constantly repaired using handmade net needles. Many Nikkei fishermen carved their own wooden corks and coated them with tar. They also melted lead bars to form the small weights for the bottom edge of the net. Nylon nets, which were lighter, easier to maintain, and more effective, replaced linen in the 1950s.
“For the longest time, just Japanese could catch sockeye. It wasn’t magic; it was just testing and trying things. Trolling slower, putting a different pitch on your flashers, and the length of the leader. Just little tweaks that spread amongst the Japanese fishermen from the late sixties.” — Paul Kariya
Trolling with hook and line is a slower method of fishing, and the catch is usually sent to the fresh fish market. Nikkei introduced many new types of equipment, especially for trolling:
• Spoons After watching a First Nations fisherman, Umetaro Morishita developed the wobbling metal “spoon” lure in the 1930s, which he shared with his Nikkei salmon trolling friends.
• Hoochies Colourful plastic hoochies were invented in Japan in the late 1930s.The tentacles of the squid-like lure flap in the water and attract the fish. The code is the catalogue number for the Japanese company that made it.
• Plugs Fish-shaped plugs were originally hand-carved, but are now commercially produced. Trollers kept drawers of different kinds of lures to use instead of bait.
• Flashers These hand-cut metal flashers spin as they are pulled through the water. For many years, only Nikkei trollers knew the combination of flasher shape, hoochie form and troll speed to catch sockeye when non-Nikkei could not.
• Snap pins Umetaro Morishita handmade quick-change snap-pins using a heavy-gauge stainless steel wire. With a single action, this small device could be snapped onto the weighted trolling wire, or quickly removed.
Women working in the canneries also looked for ways to improve their work. They adapted tools and knives to make sliming and scaling the fish more efficient.
Nikkei Opened New Markets
“(From Clayoquot) Mrs. Okada shipped the boxes of kamaboko (Japanese fish product)… to a distributor in Kelowna. Her kamaboko (made from cod her husband caught) was extremely popular with the Japanese farmers in the Okanagan Valley. Mrs. Okada’s income from her kamaboko business equaled that of her husband’s from fishing.”— Larry Maekawa
Canada cut down how many fishing licenses went to Nikkei on the Fraser River in the 1920s. So they spread out to Vancouver Island and up North to catch other fish in other ways. They also saw an opportunity to start new fisheries to sell to Japan, like salted salmon roe (fish eggs), herring, halibut, anchovies, dogfish (for their livers), shrimp, lingcod, and rock cod.
At first, the canneries only wanted sockeye, so that’s what they caught. Eventually, Nikkei fished for the five main species of Pacific salmon.
1. Sockeye salmon were what Nikkei mainly caught for canneries until the Hell’s Gate landslide in 1913 led to their dramatic decline.
2. Chum or Dog salmon were dried and salted by Nikkei for export, and used at home to make a fish broth called ankake.
3. Pink salmon are also known as humpbacks, or hanbaiki in Japlish.
4. Coho salmon were the main catch of Nikkei when they began trolling on the west coast of Vancouver Island.
5. Chinook or Spring salmon are bigger than sockeye so Nikkei made gillnets with larger mesh sizes to catch them.
“I got a job at Knight’s Inlet (near River’s Inlet) packing suzuko (salted salmon eggs) for a Japanese company. It was collected in September, October. We sent it to Japan. I had to carry hundred pound boxes of suzuko.” — Kanako Kariya
“Having an early Spring was quite a delicacy, because it had a lot of oil content, they call it hanaburo. Everyone was looking for these. No one ever sold their first fish, they just brought it home. It was viewed as quite a precious catch.” — Richard Nomura
Thank you to our great team!
We were fortunate to have a dedicated and knowledgeable committee able to vouch for the authenticity of the content. Over the last decade, a group of fishermen and descendants of fishermen have been working to preserve the legacy of Nikkei fishing in BC. They organized a fishermen’s reunion dinner in 2000, commissioned commemorative statue, and successfully published two books dealing with the history of Nikkei fishing and biographies of fishermen. An oral history project is also being developed.
For the exhibit, co-curators Beth Carter and Raymond Nakamura had the support of Leslie Megumi Budden, Frank Kanno, Paul Kariya, Dan Nomura, Richard Nomura, Jim Tanaka, Bud Sakamoto, Richard Omori, Jim Kojima, Ken Takahashi, and Floyd Yamamoto. We worked with W3 Design Group to create an immersive experience to frame the content. Several great carpenters from the community volunteered their time to help construct some of the exhibits: Hap Hirata, Isao Kuramoto, Art Nishi. All of the staff at the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre were an essential part of the project, especially Miko Hoffman, Naomi Horii, Alexis Jensen, Nichola Ogiwara, and Linda Kawamoto Reid. Finally, this wonderful project would not be possible without the generous support of our sponsors: Nikkei Fishermen’s Reunion Project, BC Arts Council, G&F Financial Group, the Gulf of Georgia Cannery Society and Canfisco.
“The success of how the BC fishing industry progressed was made possible by the contributions of the Japanese, without a doubt.”
— Dan Nomura