When I first started working here at the museum in 2008, I was interested in learning about the history of the Japanese immigrants that settled on the Sunshine Coast before WWII. My grandparents immigrated to Vancouver from Japan in the early 30’s and I had been learning about my family history so I was curious to hear some of the local stories of the Japanese experience. To my surprise, I discovered that very little existed in our museum records. We had references to the early Japanese logging crews that came and worked in temporary camps, farmers that grew and sold produce, and unnamed Japanese faces in class photos, but nothing in the way of primary sources. Aside from a few passing mentions in the local history books and oral history interviews, very little exists in the official records that tells the stories of these immigrant families and what their lives were like.
Although local history is scant, there has been much research done over the years on the history of the Japanese Canadian experience as a whole and the traumatizing events that happened during WWII. The first known immigrant to come to Canada from Japan was Manzo Nagano in 1877. By 1939, there were about 23,000 Japanese in Canada - 75 per cent of them Canadian citizens and the majority of whom lived on the west coast. From early on, there had been a strident anti-Asian element in BC society and these prejudices were institutionalized into law, immigration and economic policies. With the onset of the war in 1939, the Canadian government declared all Japanese Canadian peoples as enemy aliens. Their rights as citizens were stripped, they were uprooted from their homes, and scattered across the county. Their evacuation from the Pacific coast in the early months of 1942 was the greatest mass movement in the history of Canada. Able-bodied men were sent to work in camps in Ontario and the Prairie Provinces, while wives and children were kept under guard in shack towns in the interior of BC. Families were torn apart, businesses were destroyed, homes were sold for next to nothing, and personal belongings that were left behind were pillaged and stolen.
While researching for regionally specific information I came across a chart in Masako and Stanley Fukawa’s book, Spirit of the Nikkei Fleet, which lists the dates of evacuation notices and numbers of evacuees at settlements along the northwest coast. I discovered that on March 15th, 1942, 129 Japanese Canadians living on the Sunshine Coast received evacuation notices. They had 24 hours to pack what they could carry. Adults were restricted to 150 pounds of belongings and children were allowed 75 pounds each. Records show that there were 51 Japanese living in the Powel River district, 6 living in Egmont, 10 in Pender Harbour, 8 in Sechelt, 44 in Wilson Creek, 9 in Gibsons Landing, and 1 in Port Mellon. For some of these small towns, these numbers represent a noticeable percentage of the population.
Who were these people? What did they do here? What were their lives like? According to the research, there were families scattered along the Sunshine Coast. Did they ever gather and participate in Japanese New Year (oshogatsu) or the Obon festival? Did they integrate with the larger community? Were they accepted by their neighbors, co-workers, and classmates? What was the reaction from the community when they were sent away? In an oral history interview with Pender Harbour resident Lewella Duncan, she describes the scene on the day they were removed from the coast:
“…the Harbour loved the Ikedas. They were just cod fishermen. And that big government thing of towing the boats away. Everybody in the Harbour went over to the steam boat when they took the Ikedas away and everybody was crying, it was terrible. They claimed their boats, I think they took them up to Steveston …I know they went to the camp in the interior and my friend Bessie Ikeda, she lost a baby there…and this affected them terribly…It was a terrible blow for the Pender Harbour people”
Another interviewee expressed a more complacent response when asked to describe the evacuation: “I don’t know. It was just something that happened. Not too much you could do about it. The orders came and I think they went willingly.” Gladys McNutt, in her history of Egmont, describes a much uglier scene in which the white caretakers assigned to run the Japanese stores, took advantage of the situation and helped themselves to new undershirts off the store shelves as they prepared to take a Japanese steam bath in a newly confiscated house.
The history of the Konishi family is probably the most in depth that we have on record. Hanayo (Hana) Enomoto and Jiro (Jim) Konishi were married in Victoria in November 1912. They came to West Porpoise Bay soon after their marriage and began farming. They were one of the first non-native settler families in Sechelt. Over the years, they built up a working farm and supported their family of five children supplying vegetables and milk to residents of Sechelt. Their business prospered through the 1930’s and eventually Mr. Konishi established the Settler’s Supply Store, in Selma Park. Despite the Konishi’s ties to the community and connections to ‘respected white settlers’, they were sent to the stockyards at the Hastings Park Exhibition Grounds in Vancouver, along with thousands of others, and later moved to an internment camp in the B.C. Interior. The farm they had tended for 30 years was confiscated, sold, and eventually left to ruin. The proceeds of the sale were kept by the Custodian of Enemy Alien Property. Families were expected to use the money from the sale of their possessions to help pay for their expenses while in internment. The Konishis never returned.
As curator at the Sunshine Coast Museum & Archives, it’s my job to keep an accurate record and to seek out these hidden histories and untold stories. Over the years, I have had the pleasure of learning about this place through stories - the Squamish Origin Legend as told by Chief Ian Campbell in our Kwekwinmut exhibit; stories of the European settlers as recounted in the local history books; stories of some of the community elders as recorded in our oral history interviews. At the same time, I have identified gaps in our historical understanding - the story of the Japanese immigrant is one of those gaps.
In asking the question about the Japanese immigrants that once lived here, the words of local historian Helen Dawe resonate: “…there are things to be learned from how this community developed. But insight can only be gained if an accurate record is kept, based not on myth or rumor but on fact”. If we aren’t shíshálh or Sḵwx̱wú7mesh, we have all come to the Sunshine Coast from somewhere else. Immigration is so much a part of the Canadian experience. How is this reflected here on the Sunshine Coast? Where do we all come from? How did we come to live here? How do these diverse histories affect the culture of this place today? I invite you all to share your story with us and participate in filling in the gaps and enriching the historical understanding of this place we call home - the beautiful and culturally diverse Sunshine Coast.
- Kimiko Hawkes