“Early Japanese Migrants to Canada: 1877-1941 Reactions, Impacts, and Contributions to Japan and British Columbia” Essay by Michael Nguyen

Manzo Nagano was the first Japanese immigrant to Canada, settling in Victoria, British Columbia in 1877[1]. A decade after, a surge of more Japanese immigrants would arrive, forming Japanese Canadian community in Steveson[2]. The early Japanese immigrants who arrived in Canada all had varying degrees of what they thought of their new opportunities, their reasons for their emigration from Japan, and contributions made to both their homeland and to where they now lived. At first glance, Japanese emigration seems to be a small number, averaging in 1940 to about only 1.03 percent of the total Japanese population[3]. Regardless, the study of the history Japanese immigrants to British Columbia is one of great importance. Through the accounts and works revolving around her study Hiroshima Immigrants in Canada 1891-1941, Michiko Midge Ayukawa provides many perspectives and interpretations. By utilizing Hiroshima Immigrants and other resources about the Japanese Canadian settlements and communities situated around British Columbia, we can bear more fruition on the topics at hand. We will delve through these discourses of Japanese emigration, and ask: why was there a significant flow of emigration from Japan? How did the early Japanese communities operate and function in British Columbia? What effects did overseas Japanese developments have back home in Japan, and in British Columbia?

One important question that needs to be answered is why the Japanese, between the late 19th and early 20th  century, decided to emigrate. Japan around the late 1800s was undergoing what was called the “Meiji Restoration”, a period of rapid westernization and industrialization.[4]. This situation brought about new opportunities and ventures, such as the Kobe Emigration Company, a private enterprise with aims to provide transport and work overseas for Japanese who were interested[5]. Since these private transport businesses could only generate profit based on how many people were interested, there was an incentive to coerce people into going overseas. Such private businesses formed the foundations for emigration, but there are still many facets as to why one would emigrate out of Japan.

In 1868, the Meiji Land Reform Act was passed, forcing the long established aristocracies to lose the rights of the fiefs, and causing the abolishment of the Tokugawa hereditary social class system and the right for individuals to now own land[6]. However, as Audrey Kobayashi would point out, while agriculture for Japanese farmers was now a means of profit rather than sustenance, “the concentration of land in the hand of those who controlled capital brought about an increase in class division, rather than the egalitarian society…”[7]. Thus, much like the case of the industrial revolution in Britain, many poor farmers would have barely enough land to survive off of, or worked as tenant farmers under rich landowners. However, the idea of economic liberalism and individualism that emerged out of the Meiji Era gave a new opportunity for poor farmers. No longer were farmers tied to the land of the aristocracy, and they were able to reach the economic standing of such formal aristocratic bodies[8]. Many poor Japanese farmers in the village of Kaideima set out to British Columbia to engage in labour in order to hopefully improve their standards of living[9].

There were also factors outside of Japan that further persuaded the Japanese to emigrate. Due to the Anglo-Japan Treaty of 1906, the Japanese were not restricted when immigrating to Canada compared to other Asiatics such as the Chinese, who, at the time, had to pay the Head Tax due to the Chinese Immigration Act[10]. Japanese foreign relations with the British Empire had helped alleviate the racist judgment against Japanese people in most of British Columbia’s whites, but unfortunately that would soon change in 1941, when Japanese Canadians would start to be displaced  and put in internment camps due to Japan’s participation into WW2[11].

Over time, opportunities for work in British Columbia would increase gradually due to the growth of Japanese job contractors. While there is debate over whether or not labour wages were much more profitable in British Columbia than back at home in Japan, most Japanese workers managed to make ends meet. Many villagers from Kaideima were able make enough money through seasonal work in the Vancouver sawmills to upgrade their dwellings and standard of living back in Japan[12]. Nevertheless, these job contractors, who started as labourers themselves, were placed in a position that allowed them to manage the hiring of cheap labour overseas[13]. This growth of Asiatic job contractors was also the result of the preference of private businesses in British Columbia for cheap labour. Much like the Dunsmuir’s coal mining operations, many owners of private businesses were eager to hire both Chinese and Japanese labourers due to their willingness to accept lower wages than white labourers[14]. Aside from job contractors, some early immigrants offered increased immigration through patronage and mutual obligation. Kobayashi writes that for the village of Kaideima, “once access to employment was established by a few of the village’s emigrant pioneers, the network expanded. It was maintained by the ability of those already in Vancouver to circumvent the restrictions of Canadian immigration policy in order to allow as many as possible access to the country and to its lucrative employment.”[15].

While the Meiji Era is known for its economical developments in Japan, it was also a period of military reform, the more important issue being military conscription. Since Japan, upon westernization, could not field and maintain a significant standing army due to economic limitations, the system of utilizing a conscript system for the Japanese army was developed with the help of German and French advice[16]. Since military training was mandatory with the exception of those with physical and mental illnesses[17], Japanese citizens who were against conscription either underwent the process or avoided it by emigrating. Ayukawa mentions men who avoided returning to Japan for marriage, due to fear of being inducted into the military, and mentions that it was that “possibility that induced them to emigrate in the first place”[18].

The early first arrivals and experiences of Japanese immigrants to Canada met difficulty and frustration in a mostly hostile environment. In 1891, the Kobe Emigration Company, alongside the Union Colliery, worked together to send around one hundred Japanese miners to work on Vancouver Island for three years[19]. The Kobe Emigration Company had made promises to take care of and guide the workers heading overseas for awhile. However, such promises were not kept[20]. During this time the Japanese government had a department for emigrants in 1891, but it was only until 1894 and 1896 that emigrant protection laws were passed[21]. Therefore, the Japanese miners sent in 1891 were offered little protection from either the company or the government.

At the coal mines, the work was extremely volatile for both the Chinese and Japanese. The lack of English speakers among the Japanese miners at the Union Colliery made training and communication difficult[22]. The situation got worse when Dunsmuir closed the coal mining operation due to the San Francisco market slump in 1892 of June, resulting in all of the Japanese workers being out of a job with nowhere to go[23]. The Japanese consul in Vancouver had to offer aid and support for the time being, until the mines were reopened in December[24]. The Japanese who remained around the coal mines were working once again, but many, having felt cheated by both the Kobe Emigration Company and the Colliery, had already broken their contracts and “ventured onto the mainland, to the Cariboo, the fishing villages, and the embryonic Japanese community along Powell Street in Vancouver.”[25].

While the emergence of labour contractors resulted in more employment opportunities, most of these contractors themselves were fuelled by profits. Much like most labour contractors, the Japanese ones too, made false promises of good pay with decent meals and bunk beds to prospective labourers[26]. Even then, these contractors were seen as a necessary evil that not only provided work, no matter how low the wage was, but that had also enabled and promoted the growth of the Japanese Canadian residency in Canada[27].

Initially most of the early arrivals were sojourners, hoping to make enough to be able to go back home to Japan and improve their standard of living there[28]. Kobayashi’s study of the Kaideima village and its emigrant labour wages shows that some Japanese emigrants had indeed been able to improve their lives back home. Even though the village population was predominantly farmers, most improved their lives through industrial wage labour in British Columbia, rather than through agricultural means[29]. Kobayashi describes that the village of Kaideima had “become what appeared to be an entire village of wealthy landowners”[30]. Before emigration in 1890, only fifty percent of Kaideima’s residents owned their homes, and eighty percent did not own sufficient land to support their households as farmers[31]. By the end of World War II, around ninety-three percent of the houses (most now lavish and upgraded) were owner-occupied[32].

The village of Kaideima seems to have had significant improvements due to emigration, but their story is only one of many others. Some Japanese migrants were not so fortunate as those from Kaideima, and even so, some emigrants of Kaideima themselves either could not, or chose not to, return back home. Kobayashi notes that thirty families had decided to stay and reside in Canada. Of those thirty families, only seven where headed by successors who did not yet own no property back home in Japan. The rest were non-successors who did not have a place within the Kaideima community anyway[33]. The early sojourners were mostly comprised of men and in general, had a high mobility within the West Coast, thus, they were able to move from job to job and place to place, helping them maintain a steady income[34]. Many were unable to return home, but they still sent their income abroad to families back home, and with the help of the numerous cheap Japanese-run board houses along Powell Street, costs for shelter and accommodation were low[35]. Nevertheless, most sojourners–due to either the inability to afford their return, or favourable prospects overseas–would decide to reside in British Columbia in a permanent settlement. Before 1909, only 22.8 percent of Japanese labourers in British Columbia had sent money back to Japan[36], implying that the rest had already decided to settle down, with family or with prospects of a wife, which caused the emergence of the so-called picture brides.

Japanese settlements in British Columbia encompassed a wide variety of niches, from fishing villages, pulp mills, to Japanese berry farming settlements along the Fraser Valley. Ayukawa goes to great depths concerning the difficult beginnings of the Japanese Fraser Valley farmers and their successes. By using this, along with other works, we can examine how these now Japanese residents were able to adapt and function in an environment where they were a disciriminated minority.  Those who decided to settle and were able to buy land could live rent-free by building their own homes. Most did this almost immediately[37]. Most of the Japanese farmers had bought cheap, rough, land that were filled with stumps that needed to be removed. Anne Dore mentions that the difference between the Japanese farmers and the whites in British Columbia was that “the Issei farmers in the Fraser Valley initially sought land that no one else wanted”[38]. Nakashima Teizo in December 1910 bought around twenty acres of rough land that needed to be cleared, and Inouye Zennosuke, after serving for Canada in World War I, bought eighty acres of land in Surrey for $3,200[39]. Many Japanese farmers cooperated with each other, helping to finish up on land clearing and house and well building, even having special events for themselves in the Fraser Valley[40]. While it took time for the Japanese berry farms to bear fruition, it would soon pay off: by 1934, nearly 85 percent of berry produce grown was by Japanese Canadian farmers[41].

While the growth of Japanese berry farms was good for both Japanese Canadians and the economy of British Columbia, it increased anti-Japanese sentiment among white farmers, causing further separations within interracial relations in British Columbia. Initial concerns were of the Japanese working on Sundays, which was considered a day of rest for Christians, and a day of hard work Japanese women and children in the fields[42]. At first, through the perspective of the whites, this was seen on a positive level of admiration and respect for Japanese work ethic[43]. However, as Dore describes, as the Japanese Canadians started to pose a threat to whites in the market, the whites’ “interpretations of that work scene was racialized”[44]. The situation became more serious when in 1925, some white farmers in the province demanded an alien land law that would have barred Japanese Canadians from owning land[45]. Prominent Japanese farmer and activist Yasutaro Yamaga was one of many Japanese at the forefront of forging friendly relations between the white and Japanese farmers in the early 1900s[46]. Having dealt with previous issues such as the Sunday laws by encouraging Japanese families to do alternative activities[47], Yamaga was prepared to try to stop the growing anti-Japanese sentiments. After consulting with many of the Japanese farmers over the consequences of the legislation of the alien land law, the farmers formed the Ichigo Seisansha Rengo Kumai (Union of Berry Producers Association)[48]. Kobayashi notes that Yamaga was assigned by the union to address the meeting at the 1925 BC Fruit Growers Association in Kelowna, writing that “[Yamaga] stated that Japanese farmers realized that through ignorance of the marketplace they had caused monetary losses to themselves and others…the Japanese farmers were at this moment creating a cooperative and hoping to unite with farmers of all backgrounds in the interest of mutual aid and regulation of the marketplace”[49]. This resulted in the board motioning to dissolve the “anti-Japanese resolution committee that passed unanimously”[50]. The strong racial discrimination that the Japanese farmers had faced was combated not through negative means against the whites, but instead was resolved through cooperation and the dynamics of leadership within the Japanese farming community. At the same time, Japanese people as a ethnic group also became more intertwined with not only within their own communities, but also with their lives in British Columbia.

The Japanese people who emigrated each had their own reasons for why the decision was made. At most times, these reasons, in general, were out of necessity. Poor farmers at home did not have much of a social ladder to climb up to at home due to the lack of available land. Some were entrepreneurs hoping to make a successful business overseas, while some left to avoid possible military conscription. As with most migrants, most left their homeland out of that necessity to survive and be happy. Unfortunately, many had also hoped that they would return home, but that was not the case for many. Only a few were able to come home and live an increased standard of living, many were stuck in British Columbia with only option of permanently settling down. However, we should not give the sojourners who could not return home an entirely negative connotation. Japanese Canadian settlements, such as those in the Fraser Valley, were able to build a stable life despite racial discrimination against Asiatics from whites in British Columbia. The Japanese Canadian settlements did not have it easy, and indeed, they had to struggle to adapt with an entirely new environment. The early pioneers of Japanese migration to Canada contributed to the development of British Columbia, and also portrayed the tenacity of these migrants to, rather than giving up, make ends meet in Canada and to create a strong community that still persists today.


Works Cited


Ayukawa, Michiko Midge. 2008. Hiroshima Immigrants in Canada, 1891-1941. UBC Press.

Dore, Anne. 2002. “Transnational Communities: Japanese Canadians of the Fraser Valley, 1904-1942.” BC Studies, no. 134 (Summer): 35–70.

“Japanese Canadian Timeline | Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre.” Accessed

February 26 , 2015. http://centre.nikkeiplace.org/japanese-canadian-timeline/.

Kobayashi, Audrey. 1984. “Emigration to Canada and Development of the Residential

Landscape in a Japanese Village: The Paradox of the Sojourner.” Canadian Ethnic

Studies/Etudes Ethniques Au Canada 16 (3): 111–31.

Roy, Patricia E. 1990. A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese

and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914. UBC Press.

Takata, Yasuma. Conscription System in Japan,. New York [etc.], 1921.


Wilson, Ian W. 2006. “Immigration to British Columbia: SHAPING A PROVINCE,

DEFINING A COUNTRY.” Canadian Issues, 31–33.






[1]     “Japanese Canadian Timeline | Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre,” accessed February 26, 2015, http://centre.nikkeiplace.org/japanese-canadian-timeline/.

[2]     Ibid.

[3]     Michiko Midge Ayukawa, Hiroshima Immigrants in Canada, 1891-1941 (UBC Press, 2008). 10.

[4]     Anne Dore, “Transnational Communities: Japanese Canadians of the Fraser Valley, 1904-1942,” BC Studies, no. 134 (Summer 2002): 35–70. Under chapter History and Culture. The journal article that I used did not reveal page numbers, but only a full text, I apologize for the inconvenience.

[5]                  Ayukawa, 11.

[6]     Audrey Kobayashi, “Emigration to Canada and Development of the Residential Landscape in a Japanese Village: The Paradox of the Sojourner,” Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes Ethniques Au Canada 16, no. 3 (1984): 111–31. 120.

[7]     Ibid.

[8]     Kobayashi, 121.

[9]     Kobayashi, 121-123.

[10]   Ian W. Wilson, “Immigration to British Columbia: SHAPING A PROVINCE, DEFINING A COUNTRY,” Canadian Issues, Fall 2006, 31–33. and Patricia E. Roy, A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914 (UBC Press, 1990). see Chapter 5.

[11]   Anne Dore. Under chapter Destruction of The Transnational Communities.

[12]   Kobayashi, 121.

[13]   Ayukawa, 29-31.

[14]   Kobayashi, 121. and Ayukawa, 14-15.

[15]   Kobayashi, 124.

[16]   Yasuma Takata, Conscription System in Japan, (New York [etc.], 1921), http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015030971223. 3.

[17]   Ayukawa, 40.

[18]   Ayukawa, 39.

[19]   Ayukawa, 15.

[20]   Ayukawa, 16.

[21]   Ibid.

[22]   Ayukawa, 17.

[23]   Ibid.

[24]   Ibid.

[25]   Ayukawa, 18.

[26]   Ayukawa, 29-31.

[27]   Ayukawa 32.

[28]   Kobayashi, 121.

[29]   Kobayashi, 124.

[30]    Kobayashi, 124.

[31]   Kobayashi, 120.

[32]   Kobayashi, 122.

[33]   Kobayashi, 126.

[34]   Ayukawa, 26.

[35]   Ayukawa, 27-28.

[36]   Ayukawa, 34.

[37]   Ayukawa, 59.

[38]   Dore. Under chapter Growth of Farms, Families, and Communities.

[39]   Ayukawa, 62-63.

[40]   Dore. Under chapter Growth of Farms, Families, and Communities. and Ayukawa, 60-61.

[41]   Dore. Ibid.

[42]   Ayukawa, 71. and Dore. Under chapter Growth of Farms, Families, and Communities.

[43]   Dore. Ibid.

[44]   Dore. Ibid. and Roy, 23.

[45]   Ayukawa, 72.

[46]   Dore. Ibid.

[47]   Dore. Ibid.

[48]   Ayukawa, 72.

[49]   Ibid.

[50]   Ayukawa, 73.


Works Cited

Ayukawa, Michiko Midge. 2008. Hiroshima Immigrants in Canada, 1891-1941. UBC Press.

Dore, Anne. 2002. “Transnational Communities: Japanese Canadians of the Fraser Valley, 1904-1942.” BC Studies, no. 134 (Summer): 35–70.

“Japanese Canadian Timeline | Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre.” Accessed February 26 , 2015. http://centre.nikkeiplace.org/japanese-canadian-timeline/.

Kobayashi, Audrey. 1984. “Emigration to Canada and Development of the Residential Landscape in a Japanese Village: The Paradox of the Sojourner.” Canadian Ethnic Studies/Etudes Ethniques Au Canada 16 (3): 111–31.

Roy, Patricia E. 1990. A White Man’s Province: British Columbia Politicians and Chinese and Japanese Immigrants, 1858-1914. UBC Press.

Takata, Yasuma. Conscription System in Japan,. New York [etc.], 1921. http://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015030971223.

Wilson, Ian W. 2006. “Immigration to British Columbia: SHAPING A PROVINCE, DEFINING A COUNTRY.” Canadian Issues, 31–33.



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