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The Early Years

Manzo Nagano, the first known immigrant from Japan, arrived in Canada in 1877. Like other minorities, Japanese Canadians since that time struggled against prejudice and won a respected place in the Canadian mosaic through hard work and perseverance. Most of the issei (first generation or immigrants) arrived during the first decade of the 20th century. They came from fishing villages and farms in Japan and settled in Vancouver, Victoria and in the surrounding towns. Others settled on farms in the Fraser Valley and in the fishing villages, mining, sawmill and pulp mill towns scattered along the Pacific coast. The first migrants were single males but were soon joined by young women and families were started.

Taishodo Jewelry Store, Vancouver, c.1927 Courtesy Van. Public Lib., 11804During this era racism was a widely-accepted response to the unfamiliar which justified the relegation of minorities to a lower status based on a purported moral inferiority. A strident anti-Asian element in BC society did its best to force the issei to leave Canada. In 1907 a white mob rampaged through the Chinese and Japanese sections of Vancouver to protest the presence of Asian workers who threatened their livelihood. They lobbied the federal government to stop immigration from Asia. The prejudices were also institutionalized into law. Asians were denied the vote; were excluded from most professions, the civil service and teaching; and were paid much less than their white counterparts. During the next four decades BC politicians with the exception of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) catered to the white supremacists of the province and fueled the flames of racism to win elections.

To counteract the negative impacts of prejudice and their limited English ability the Japanese, like many immigrants, concentrated in ghettos (the two main ones were Powell Street in Vancouver and the fishing village of Steveston) and developed their own institutions — schools, hospitals, temples, churches, unions, cooperatives and self-help groups. The issei's contact with white society was primarily economic but the nisei (second generation) were Canadian born and were more attuned to life in the wider Canadian community. They were fluent in English, well-educated and ready to participate as equals but were faced with the same prejudices experienced by their parents. Their demand in 1936 for the franchise as Canadian-born people was denied because of opposition from politicians in British Columbia. They had to wait for another thirteen years before they were given the right to vote.