Land of Broken Promises
The homes taken from Japanese Canadians stood on land earlier taken from Indigenous peoples. British law promised to protect Indigenous lands until treaties were signed. In British Columbia, this promise was ignored, and Indigenous people were dispossessed. The struggle against this injustice continues today.
This website shares the research of Landscapes of Injustice, a community-engaged research collective that investigated the history of the dispossession of Japanese Canadians in the 1940s.
Landscapes of Injustice is based at the University of Victoria, on land that has long been home to the Lekwungen peoples. The historical relationship of the Songhees, Esquimalt, and WSÁNEĆ peoples to this land continues today. Our partners are based across many other territories within what is now known as Canada.
We recognize that colonization and associated attitudes, policies, and institutions have significantly changed Indigenous peoples’ relationships with this land. We also recognize the role of the historical discipline in the erasure of Indigenous relations to the land.
Further, we recognize that as we share histories of the dispossession of Japanese Canadians we have an opportunity to impact the understanding of dispossession in Canadian history more broadly.
Along with the University of Victoria, we see a number of ways that a respectful and meaningful territory acknowledgement can contribute to decolonization. It can (1) inspire people to think about how they have come to be here, including the impacts of colonialism. It can foster a (2) sense of responsibility to learn more about the people whose lands we live on, wherever we came from. It can (3) offer an opportunity to reflect on what we will do differently based on what we have learned.
Our collective has debated and learned from this wider context. These discussions focused our attention on technologies – maps, markets, and bureaucratic approaches – used in both of these dispossessions. They attuned us to the importance of government promises, to the impacts of their betrayal, and to the uneven place of law in injustice. They drew our attention to both the racial ideologies that motivated dispossession and the material implications of the loss of home. The working paper, "Settler Colonialism and Japanese Canadian History" by Laura Ishiguro, Nicole Yakashiro, and Will Archibald emerged from these concerns.
At the same time, recognition of this context requires that we acknowledge the differences between the Japanese Canadian case and that of Indigenous people. The dispossession of the lands of Indigenous people was intended to destroy their political sovereignty and Indigenous systems of ownership. Japanese Canadians, by contrast, made their lives within the state and laws that would betray them in the 1940s.
In earlier versions of this site, we attempted to provide Indigenous place-names for key sites of Japanese Canadian settlement and dispossession. We soon realized, however, the complexity of this task. There is no shortcut to reconciliation with our colonial context. Deep, new relationships must first be formed. In the meantime, and in support of that ambition, we seek to present the dispossession of Japanese Canadians as precisely as possible, so that it can be understood and studied alongside such related and yet distinct historical injustices.
Migration and Settlement
The first known Japanese migrant to Canada, Manzo Nagano, stayed ashore in New Westminster in 1877 when the ship on which he had arrived departed for Japan. Nagano was likely the first Japanese fisher in the Fraser River, and thousands of migrants would follow in his footsteps in the half - century that followed. By the mid - 1880s, a steady stream of migrants from Japan arrived every year to Canada’s colonial settlements on the west coast. Many were young men who found employment in the fishing, mining, lumber, and construction industries. Most probably envisioned only a temporary stay in North America, as the wages they earned in British Columbia allowed them to return home to Japan with funds to purchase land and pursue dreams that would otherwise have been impossible.
Thousands, however, settled in British Columbia. In time, centres of an immigrant community took shape. In 1887, Shinkichi Tamura opened a toy shop at the corner of Cordova and Carrall in Vancouver’s East End, helping to lay the foundati on for a Japanese Canadian neighbourhood that would become the largest in the country. Part of a bustling and diverse immigrant section of the city, the Powell Street neighbourhood soon housed hundreds of Japanese Canadian businesses, lodging rooms, and re sidences
By the 1930s, Japanese Canadians cultivated fruit from the Fraser Valley to the Okanagan, fished the west coast of Vancouver Island and the northern stretches of the mainland coast, and owned (and worked in) lumberyards in the Comox Valley. The y laboured in mines, cooked meals, ran groceries, gardened, cut hair, and owned small businesses in locales throughout coastal British Columbia. In 1935, after a survey of the Japanese Canadian population, UBC student Rigenda Sumida (a visiting student fro m Japan) noted the diversity of Japanese Canadian lives. Their average standard of living was lower than the population as a whole, but they had nonetheless achieved considerable stability. Countering racist caricatures, Sumida reflected, “they are human beings ... as intelligent and progressive as any race on earth, and they are not content to simply exist, but ... desire the comforts of fine homes, automobiles, radios, and all the other articles or services which Western civilization provides.
Joining a settlement founded on the displacement of indigenous people and intended by its leaders as white and British, Japanese Canadians were never immune to racism. As one immigrant to Vancouver’s Powell Street neighbourhood later reflected, “ever since the Japanese arrived in BC, they have had to endure persistent [racist] campaigns” in which “absurd rumours” coloured public sentiment and motivated exclusionary law at every level of government. Along with Chinese, South Asians, and Indigenous peoples, Japanese Canadians were barred from voting or holding public office. BC laws forbade jobs in industry, public works, law, and pharmacy. They were excluded from desirable neighbourhoods.
The arrival of the SS Kumeric to British Columbia in July 1907 was a pivotal momen t in this history. “Hundreds of Mikado’s Subjects Reached Vancouver,” ran a headline in the Vancouver Province on the day the ship anchored in Burrard Inlet. “The decks of the steamer,” reported the paper, “literally swarmed with the little brown men.” The paper warned that the passengers (whose number included more than 1,100 Japanese migrants) represented “the advance guard of a host soon to locate British Columbia.” A racist organization, the Asiatic Exclusion League, spent the next month preparing a maj or demonstration to protest the Pacific arrivals. When it occurred, on September 7, 1907, the demonstration escalated into rioting, with exclusionists ransacking Chinese and Japanese Canadian businesses and homes in the East End of the city, causing thousands of dollars of damage and sparking international controversy
The internment and dispossession are part of a much longer history.
Internment and Dispossession
Canada declared war after Japan attacked British and American bases on December 7, 1941.
To the RCMP and Canadian generals, Japanese Canadians posed no threat. But politicians still decided to uproot all “persons of the Japanese race” from coastal British Columbia
Between March and October 1942, thousands of Japanese Canadians were forced i nto camps in BC’s interior. Others were pushed into roadwork, farm labour, and prisoner - of - war camps across Canada.
Winter came early in 1942. Temperatures fell to record lows. Japanese Canadians shivered in tents, makeshift shacks, and abandoned building s. For the seven years that followed, they were barred from returning to coastal British Columbia. Living in hundreds of sites of internment, they struggled through years in which their basic rights were denied.
The end of the war with Japan did not bring a close to the ordeal. Instead, in 1946 government officials exiled almost 4,000 Japanese Canadians to Japan. Those who refused to go were told to move east of the Rockies, to places many of them had never been. On April 1, 1949, Japanese Canadians were g ranted full rights as citizens, but they never got back the homes, belongings, or opportunities stolen during the long years of internment.
Glossary of Terms
In the 1940s, government officials used misleading language to disguise the real intent and impacts of their actions. This was part of the harm directed against Japanese Canadians. These euphemisms have sometimes persisted in discussion of these eve nts.
The team that created this website worked with advisors, including Japanese Canadians who lived through these policies, to develop recommendations for the use of language in discussion of this history. We recommend that the following terms be avoided :
“Evacuation” (and “Evacuees”) Used by government officials to describe the forced uprooting and internment of Japanese Canadians, this term falsely implies that these processes protected Japanese Canadians.
“Japanese,” when referring to Japanese Canadians , Canadians of Japanese ancestry , or Nikkei , should not be confused with the country of Japan or its residents. At the time of their uprooting from the coastal area of British Columbia, 75% of Nikkei were Canadian - born or naturalized Canadians.
“Repatriation” Sometimes used to refer to the exile of Japanese Canadians to Japan in 1946, this term falsely implies that the exiles originated in Japan.
Our project is also committed to clarity of language with respect to the losses of property suffered by Japanese Canadians during the 1940s. We therefore recommend the following terms:
Dispossession: referring to the processes that led to the loss of property, including theft, vandalism, neglect, and forced sales.
Forced sales: referring to the government policy of selling the property of Japanese Canadians without their consent.
- Roy Miki, Redress: Inside the Japanese Canadian Call for Justice (Vancouver: Raincoast Books, 2004), especially Chapter 2.
- Roger Daniels, “Words do Matter: A note on Inappropriate Terminology and the Incarceration of Japanese Americans” in Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans & Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2005).