The Japanese-Canadian Community of Salt Spring Island
A key member of the Japanese Garden Society is Rose Murakami who has written a book about her family’s experiences on Salt Spring and during World War II when they were forced to re-locate to the interior of BC, leaving behind all their property. The following displays the cover of her book. If you would like to obtain a copy of her book, click on the “Store” tab at the top of this web page.
A First-hand View of Japanese-Canadian History on Salt Spring Island
To read Rose’s speech, given at the Groundbreaking Ceremony (September 2007), please click on the link below:
Rose’s speech (pdf: 253Kb)
To hear a 30-minute radio interview with Rose Murakami on CFSI-FM on 20 October 2010.
Download it in mp3 format here. (29.8 Mb)
An extensive historical record relating to the Japanese-Canadian community on Salt Spring has been collected. Note: some documents referred to in the link below are large (e.g. b.pdf, which is 49 pages long). To view the main document itself, please click on the link below:
Archive (PDF: 320KB)
The following was written by Keiko Mary Kitagawa
The Japanese Canadian community of Salt Spring Island before the exile was vibrant, productive, cohesive, and generous. According to my mother, she remembered approximately 140 people who at one time or another lived here on the Island. Some died here and are buried in the Central Cemetery while others went to live elsewhere.
Anyone who had the good fortune to visit one of the families would have seen a hive of activities. Everyone, including some older children would have been involved in helping with various chores. In this busy environment there were no idle hands. Most families owned large tracts of land on which they farmed. They grew a variety of berries, vegetables and fruit. My grandfather, Kumanosuke Okano and his son-in-law Morihei Murakami also had large greenhouses in which they grew grade “A” tomatoes. All of the produce was shipped to a wholesale house in Victoria. A few like our parents also raised egg laying chickens.
There were some who were not involved in farming. Several of the bachelors worked as day workers for Mr. Harry Bullock, a wealthy land owner. The Matsunes ran a laundry behind the Cunningham property at Central. The Tasakas who lived on Seaview Drive made charcoal after the fishing season was over. Bog rhubarb still grows on the roadside where they once lived. The Nakamuras also ran a laundry on Bittancourt Road. There were men who picked up work as carpenters and repairmen. Every able bodied person worked.
In the early years, some people like my grandparents were involved in the fishing industry. Their successes created jealousy among the white fishermen who complained to the government. The Japanese Canadian fishermen’s licenses were cancelled incrementally until 1941 when all were cancelled. Most who lost their licenses earlier turned to farming. They had no choice but to adapt.
The Japanese Canadian community’s successes enabled them to contribute to the wellbeing of the Island’s economy. They gave generously to all causes. For example, when the Anglican Church was being built, they donated money for both the construction and the purchase of the organ. Money and labour were donated to the construction of the Salt Spring Island Consolidated School which opened on April 1, 1940. During the depression people came to my parents’ and grandparents’ houses to ask for food and clothing. They generously provided them with whatever they could spare.
The Japanese Canadian community was a very cohesive group. They celebrated New Years in the traditional Japanese way. Food was prepared for days and shared by all. The feast that resulted included countless varieties of delicious Japanese food. Weddings and funerals were community affairs. Everyone was invited to attend. During the summers, they had picnics at Walker Hook, a beautiful piece of property owned by the Caldwells. They generously allowed access to the Japanese Canadians who had fun on the beach, rested their weary bodies and socialized while sharing their lunches. On Sundays, they would go to the Central Cemetery to clean and tend the graves. Buckets of flowers gathered from everyone’s garden were distributed to every grave. There is a maple tree and a lilac bush at the entrance of the Japanese Canadian section. They were planted by my grandmother Riyo Okano in 1930. Someone tried to destroy the lilac bush a few years ago but fortunately, it is sprouting again. The Japanese Canadians were generous in helping less fortunate people in their community. My grandparents who owned 200 acres allowed two Japanese Canadian families to each build a house on their land. My father contributed the most to this project; in the supervision and construction of the houses.
There were many very talented people in the community such as Morihei Murakami. He was a master boat builder trained at the Hitachi boat works in Japan. My mother invented a watering system for the chicken houses so that the straw on the floors could always stay dry. Innovative and resourceful minds helped the community to remain self-sufficient. They helped each other by sharing ideas, talent and labour. No one was left to fend for himself in times of need.
Hard work and sacrifices enabled many families to live in large homes and on large properties. In all, the community members owned about 1000 acres by 1941. The goal of the people was to continue adding to the acreages that they already owned. The Iwasakis had the largest tract of land on the most sought after section of Salt Spring Island today. They owned 640 acres along Sunset Drive and about three miles of waterfront. Many also owned current model vehicles that they used to deliver their goods to Mouats or to the creamery. They were always dressed in clean and modern clothes often sewn by creative women who made time to do so. Most homes had the luxury of a Japanese bath. Everyone bathed before they went to bed.
The Okano Family
The present grave site at Central was donated by Mr. Alder who saw that the Japanese Canadians were having problems burying their dead. My mother’s baby sister is buried in Vancouver on Fraser Street. I asked my mother why they buried her there so far from home. She told me that when my grandparents brought the tiny coffin for burial, they were told that they could not bury her on the Island.
There were 77 people of Japanese decent on Salt Spring Island in 1941. Most were Canadian born children who attended the local school. They were bright, accomplished students who excelled scholastically. Education was stressed because it was a means for acceptance into the mainstream society. Many also joined the Girl Guides and Boy Scouts. Like their parents and grandparents, they were law abiding good citizens.
Young Japanese-Canadians on Saltspring
I often wonder how much the Japanese Canadian people would have contributed to the development of this Island if they were not sent into exile in 1942. Robert Fulford a writer for the National Post newspaper wrote that,”In 1945 the most despised people in this country were the Japanese Canadians. Ottawa had robbed them of their property in British Columbia and moved them inland, with few protest from other Canadians. At the end of the war, many in Canada wanted to send them “home” to Japan, which most had never visited. Their prospects looked dim. After all, most had made their living from fishing and farming. No one could expect them to make a comfortable adjustment to the new (unfriendly) society developing in Canada. But in two decades they were among the best educated and most successful Canadians. They began showing up at the top of the Statistics Canada income rankings, above the white Canadians who had been ready to throw them out of the country.” Blind hate and racism, denied a group of hard working, generous, productive, loyal citizens of Canada from contributing during the war years to the positive growth of Salt Spring Island, BC and Canada.
Japanese Canadians were required to carry special ID with them after December 1941.
Registration card of islander Riyo Okano, who lived in Canada from 1902.
All Japanese Canadians over 16 years of age were required to carry these cards from 1941 to 1949.
Photo courtesy Mary Kitagawa.