Victoria: Gateway to Promise
Ann-Lee + Gordon Switzer explore Canada’s first Japanese community
When long-time Victoria resident Kiyoshi Kay Shimizu left for Ottawa a number of years ago she presented Ann-Lee and Gordon Switzer with a cardboard box of documents related to the history of the pre-war Japanese Canadian community in Victoria. The box contained, among other things, cemetery records Shimizu and the Kakehashi committee (a group dedicated to honouring the Japanese pioneers interred in the Ross Bay Cemetery) had compiled, researching the Japanese buried at Ross Bay Cemetery, with the goal of recognizing them all.
Little did the couple know that this would mark the beginning of an odyssey that would stretch over many years—one that would culminate in the newly-released book Gateway to Promise: Canada’s First Japanese Community, published by Ti-Jean Press.
As new members of the Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society—having relocated there only in 2001—Ann-Lee and Gordon Switzer, with their history backgrounds, developed a keen interest in exploring the history of the Japanese community in Victoria. When they were asked by the Old Cemeteries Society to compile a booklet about the people of Japanese descent who are buried in Victoria’s historic Ross Bay Cemetery, they wanted to include a short section on the history of Japanese Canadians in Victoria. To their dismay they discovered that there had been very little written about the pre-war community. After finishing the small booklet they realized there was more to be discovered. So the Switzers set out to document that history.
The resulting book, just shy of 400 pages, takes a long-overdue look at a little-known chapter in Canadian Nikkei history, and one that has been mostly ignored up to now.
The Ross Bay Cemetery—the final resting place of many notable Canadians including Sir James Douglas, Sir Matthew Baillie Begbie, Billy Barker and Emily Carr—provides a good jumping-off point for the history of the early Japanese community in Victoria. Approximately 150 people of Japanese descent are buried there. In fact, the cemetery is the only existing connection to the pre-war community that was erased soon after Japanese attack on Hong Kong and the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The removal of all Japanese Canadians from the coast in 1942 included the 300 or so who lived in Greater Victoria, ending the existence of the settlement, as none returned to live in their former home city.
If the headstones at the cemetery provide a small glimpse into the pre-war Victoria community, the book provides a vivid and comprehensive portrait of it. It covers the very first visits by Japanese shipwrecked sailors in the mid 1850s, the arrival of the first settlers, and the steady growth into a small community that, although eventually dwarfed by the Nikkei communities in Vancouver’s Powell Street and Steveston, had its own character and dynamic.
Gateway to Promise: Canada’s First Japanese Community is divided into three sections: History; Public Space, looking at the Japanese influence on Victoria; and Private Space, a section given over to stories of some of the families that once called Victoria home. While the book as a whole is fascinating, it is in this third section that one gets a real insight into the various individuals and families who lived there.
The book is recommended reading for anyone interested in the history of the Japanese in Canada.
The Switzers talked to The Bulletin by e-mail from their home in Victoria.
Interview: Ann-Lee + Gordon Switzer
You both have a wide-ranging interest in all things Victoria, perhaps because neither of you are native to the city. How did you come to settle there?
Ann-Lee: We lived for 30 years “in the bush”—the rural area outside of Powell River, where we were teachers. We loved the natural surroundings there, but needed our “culture fix” too, so we would head to Vancouver or Victoria, the nearest cities, both 5 hours away including the ferries. Time for a change came 11 years ago, and we chose smaller-scale Victoria—partly because I was researching Emily Carr’s writings. Eventually that work was published as This and That: the Lost Stories of Emily Carr. We found so many people here were curious and knowledgeable about history, and that was great, and we joined all sorts of societies in the arts and history fields.
How did you get involved in the Japanese Canadian community?
Gordon: To begin with I was raised in Japan from the age of three. I attended International schools in Japan, where English was used, then spent three terms at the International Christian University In Tokyo before returning to North America. So while my parents were not Japanese, all my early years were spent growing up in Japan. I spent my earliest years in Kamakura and still consider it to be my hometown although my family moved to other places around the Kanto area. After Kamakura I lived in Yokohama, Totsuka, and in several areas of Tokyo. I grew up considering myself Japanese, so when I visited North America as a teen-ager one summer everything and the people, especially the old ladies, looked so strange. Once back in Japan it was a relief to feel at home.
When I first arrived in Vancouver it was almost New Years and I did not know anyone yet but one of the first things I did was search out where I could get mochi. I was directed to the Buddhist Church off Powell Street. And just naturally since that time I have been involved with the Japanese community. In Vancouver years ago we used to go to Japanese movies shown at a theatre on upper Hastings Street. We shopped at Shimizu Shoten on Powell Street before they moved to Hastings a few blocks away. And other Japanese grocery stores along Powell Street and the Evergreen Shop. When we moved to Victoria we naturally hunted down the place we could get mochi for New Years and found the VNCS.
Ann-Lee: I have always had an affinity for Japanese culture, perhaps through its relation to modern art and design, being raised surrounded by that in NYC. It probably helped that my birthday fell on Boys’ Day; for my ninth birthday I made my friends dress up Japanese-style, and we had osembe peanuts and yokan and Japanese music. Because Gordon was so inclined, we often eat Japanese food and just about always use hashi not cutlery at the table. My involvement in the local Japanese Canadian organization, the VNCS, stemmed both from an interest in the culture and an interest in the history. Eventually I joined the Board and helped with the organization of events such as the Cultural Fair, Morioka sister-city fundraising for a Japanese Garden at the hospital, and going out to gather nori.
Your new book, Gateway to Promise, is a thick and comprehensive look at the pre-war history of the Japanese Canadian community in Victoria. How did you come to write the book?
Gordon: Originally we were asked by Kiyoshi Shimizu a member of the Old Cemeteries Society, to put together a booklet about the 150 Japanese buried in Ross Bay Cemetery here in Victoria. It was the final resting place of the early Japanese pioneers who died in Victoria before the community was uprooted in 1942 during the war. The oldest gravesite is from 1887. We were to produce a booklet with a map and tour of some of the Japanese graves and research the stories of some of those buried. As part of the project we thought we would add a short history of the community in Victoria from the beginnings.
We assumed this would be a easy task. First, we only had less than ten pages for the history. We would just consult some of the books on the history of the Japanese Canadians such as Toyo Takata’s Nikkei Legacy. Unfortunately and surprising to us there was practically nothing. Even Toyo who had grown up in Victoria had only a few pages in his book on Victoria. Eventually we were able to piece together a short history for the booklet after some effort, but nether of us felt satisfied. We had looked at all the published sources available at the University and talked with professors and really there was nothing, just bits here and there. Both of us have a history background and so we decided that since we now lived in Victoria and had become interested in the history of the Japanese pioneer community we would have to write the book. That started a five year odyssey.
Was the VNCS (Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society) supportive of the book?
Ann-Lee: Yes the VNCS was very supportive of our “Japanese Pioneers of Victoria” project from the beginning. They even applied to the NAJC for a grant to research and publish the book, only to be turned down because they said “the project was too broad.” Nonetheless, the VNCS decided to support it anyway. They gave us direction and advice, as well as financial help. Many members were very helpful in aspects of the book, such as translation and proofreading.
Was there anything that surprised you in your research?
Ann-Lee: What surprised me? So many things! One is the Japanese Church, first that there was one in the first place and the role it played in the community: as a kind of community gathering place for all, not just Christians; there was no Buddhist church. Another is that Japanese culture was taught to the nisei, with Japanese dance, poetry, even tea ceremony. Japanese dance was performed for the general public on the Showboat in the Inner Harbour, in front of the Parliament Buildings. Also I knew about the city’s 75th anniversary parade in 1937 where the Japanese community float won first prize, contributing to the planting of sakura on the boulevards, but I did not know that there were actually two parades,—one at night—and two prizes. No wonder they were able to give the city 1013 trees. The best surprise was finding so many former Victorians who were willing to share their stories, and photos, with us. We are deeply grateful to them.
Gordon: For me the most surprising finding was that Victoria was the first place Japanese had visited and settled after the colony of British Columbia was set up. The first Japanese to stop in Victoria came in 1858, a group of shipwrecked sailors on their way back to Japan after being rescued on the high seas by an English captain. Even before that, in 1834, two Japanese visited Fort Langley on the Fraser River. I guess I am just fascinated by beginnings.
What was your favourite story (or stories) from the book?
Gordon: My favourite is the story of Sally Kuwata Smith’s family. She was the only Japanese allowed to stay in Victoria after all the rest were evacuated in 1942, because she was married to a Caucasian. She married Wallace Smith in 1938 against her mother’s wishes. Her mother only came around after a son was born the next year, although her father was all for the marriage. After all, Sally had two older sisters married to Chinese. Later her younger sister married a French Canadian and her brother married a South African woman. I remember her telling us in an interview in her home that her father used to say, “You can’t hate anyone because of their race or you will be hating a relative.” In the 1950s she was the only person of Japanese ancestry in Victoria. She told us that when Japanese naval ships visited Esquimalt she would be asked to act as translator. She and Wallace moved to Surrey in the late 1980s. When we met her she was living with her daughter Christine. Today she is still lively in her 90s.
Ann-Lee: I’ve grown fond of so many of the histories and stories, and so happy to share them now. I really liked piecing together the mikan puzzle: when and how the Japanese oranges first came over to Canada, and the interesting way they were marketed and the afterlife of mikan boxes!. The Sports Illustrated section still amazes me because it highlights what an active and fun-loving group the Victoria nisei were. Then, I find myself re-reading many of the family stories with pleasure: about the diverse Okamoto clan out in Saanich, the Shimizus down in Chinatown, the Takatas over in Esquimalt.
I imagine that you have a unique window into the Japanese Canadian community now. What is your sense of the community – both in Victoria and outside it?
Gordon: The present Japanese community here in Victoria came about in a different way, certainly different from Toronto and even from Vancouver. In Vancouver, many former residents returned, but none came back to Victoria. It was not until the early 1960s that Japanese Canadians began to move to Victoria. One of the first was Michiko Warkentyne. She has told us that at that time most of the Japanese moving to Victoria were married to non-Japanese or new immigrants direct from Japan. Shortly after that, second and third generation Japanese Canadians began to move to Victoria, from Toronto, Winnipeg, places in Alberta. Today there are three groups of ethnic Japanese living in Victoria.
The first group would be Japanese Canadian descendants of those who moved to Canada before World War Two. They speak English as a first language and here the VNCS is the organization that represents them.
The second group are new immigrants to Canada born in Japan, and their children. They have their own organization, the Japanese Friendship Society. They receive direct grants from the Japanese Consulate every year and while they have made their home in Canada, for the most part they think of themselves as Japanese and want to keep their customs and language alive. Even those who become Canadian citizens still tend to consider themselves inwardly “Japanese” first and Canadian second. The first group are very much “Canadian” and most do not even speak Japanese. The two groups do hold a few joint events throughout the year, such as Mochi-tsuki-kai at New Years, but for the most part their activities are separate.
The third group are the young people coming from Japan on student or work visas to study English or just to experience a different culture and seek adventure. In Victoria they make up a sizeable number. Some help out at Japanese Friendship Society and VNCS-sponsored events but most just hang out with their friends.
What Victoria lacks is a physical building where the whole community can meet. There is no community centre, no space for a museum, library, or place to hold events or offer classes. That does not keep events from taking place. Halls are rented. Ikebana classes are held, Chanoyu or traditional tea lessons are conducted. The Uminari Taiko drummers rent space to practice. But all of these activities are scattered. It is hard for newcomers today to find their way to a place that promotes a Japanese connection.
Before the War the pioneer Japanese community had the Church Hall as a centre. Hopefully in the future all the groups in Victoria can find a way to work together to acquire a physical centre to pull the community together.