Reviews of Gateway to Promise - Canada's First Japanese Community
BOOK REVIEW - Early Japanese immigrants helped shape Victoria
By Dave Obee - Times Colonist, Sunday July 15, 2012
GATEWAY TO PROMISE: CANADA'S FIRST JAPANESE COMMUNITY
By Ann-Lee and Gordon Switzer
Ti-Jean Press, 396 pp., $29.95
For Canadians of Japanese descent, Victoria is really where it all began. Our city was the first in the country to welcome new arrivals from Japan, and they quickly became a respected part of our community.
Even after these Japanese Canadians were forced out in April 1942, a few months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, their influence remained. And today, more than 60 years after they were allowed to return, our Japanese connection has been examined in Gateway to Promise.
Ann-Lee and Gordon Switzer - both historians, writers and editors - spent about five years working on this book, and it shows. This is a well-researched and well-written account that opens the door to a vital part of our history.
And yes, it matters, even to those of us who are not of Japanese descent. A community is a sum of its parts; to ignore some of the groups that helped shape Victoria would mean that we miss the full story.
Not much is missed in this comprehensive book. The Switzers start their story earlier than one might expect, telling of crippled Japanese ships drifting to our shores.
It's not just idle speculation; there have been several documented cases of this happening. In 1834, for example, three survivors from a Japanese boat made it to shore and were captured by the local First Nations. A boat with two survivors made it to Washington state in 1927.
So with these recent examples, it's not hard to imagine that there might have been earlier incidents as well. That might help explain why some coastal First Nations languages have words similar to Japanese words.
By the 1860s, Japanese items such as paper and household goods were being imported to Victoria. By the 1880s, Japanese men were reported to be working for Charles Gabriel's store here.
By 1890, the city directory included Japanese people for the first time. The next year, the federal census listed Japanese men in Victoria.
In researching the earliest arrivals, the authors had to cope with a shortage of hard facts. Passenger lists for ship arrivals in Quebec started in 1865, but arrivals in Victoria and Vancouver were not recorded until 1905. That delay means additional challenges for anyone digging for stories about people who came from any country on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.
The Switzers devote a chapter to Manzo Nagano, who has been identified over the years as the first Japanese immigrant to Canada. They uncovered a lot of information about the man, and the chapter is a good example of the way they sought out every possible source in their quest for the truth.
In the end, they did not find conclusive proof that Nagano was indeed the first - but the story of his life is interesting nonetheless.
And there is still a mountain bearing his name, in recognition of his not-quiteproven achievement, so it might be too late to turn back now.
The first phase of Japanese history in Victoria came to an end at about noon on April 22, 1942, when 273 people aged seven months to 70 years were loaded onto the Princess Joan and taken to the mainland. With the outbreak of the Pacific war, they could no longer live within 100 miles of the coast.
"They shook hands, kissed their Canadian friends," the Victoria Daily Times reported that day. "A few broke down and with tears in their eyes were escorted aboard ship."
Seven years later, they were allowed to return, but few did. Their possessions had been sold and they had new lives elsewhere, so what was the point?
The people were gone, but Victoria was left with a living reminder: The flowering trees that line our streets.
Gateway to Promise includes 10 chapters on the various Japanese influences in Victoria, a section filled with family stories, about 200 photographs, and much more.
This is a definitive, important work that provides a long-overdue insight into Victoria's history
The reviewer is the author of The Library Book: A History of Service to British Columbia.
© Copyright (c) The Victoria Times Colonist. Reprinted here by permission.
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