Japanese Canadians: From immigration to deportation

First wave of Japanese immigrants

In May 1877, a 22-year old sailor, Manzo Nagano, landed in New Westminster, British Columbia and became the first recorded Japanese person in Canada. After him, came the first wave of Japanese immigrants known as Issei (first generation), who emigrated primarily from the southern Japanese islands of Honshu, Kyushu and Okinawa. The vast majority of Issei settled in communities along the Pacific Coast, in the Fraser Valley and in the suburbs of Vancouver and Victoria. A few took up residence in the surrounding areas of Lethbridge and Edmonton in Alberta. The 1901 Census shows 4,738 persons of Japanese ancestry living in Canada.

Barred from professions such as law and pharmacy because they could not vote, they became farmers, fishers, canners, loggers, miners, sawmill workers, contract gardeners, as well as the proprietors of cleaners, lodging houses, grocery stores and restaurants.

As the community grew and prospered, so did the racial enmity and resentment of many fellow British Columbians who felt their way of life had been invaded and threatened. Violent strikes and a major anti-Asian riot in 1907 followed. By 1911, the Japanese Canadian population had doubled to nearly 10,000.

Image 1: Kyosei Kohashigawa and George Takayesu from Okinawa, Japan, 1910, Mikan 3193453.

Image 2: Sutekichi Miyagawa and his four children Kazuko, Mitsuko, Michio and Yoshiko, in front of his grocery store, the Davie Confectionary, Vancouver, British Columbia. March 1933, Mikan 3192196.

Image 3: Riot damage to store, 264 Powell Street, Vancouver, British Columbia, 1907, Mikan 3363562.

First World War (1914-1918)

Yet, despite the open hostility, at the outbreak of the First World War, 200 Issei volunteers joined the Canadian Expeditionary Force and fought in Europe. Fifty-four were killed in action and 92 wounded. Among the dead was Iwakichi Kojima (10th Battalion) who was killed during the Battle of Vimy Ridge on April 9, 1917. 

By 1931, the population had doubled again. Vancouver could now boast of no less than 60 major Japanese Canadian businesses.

Second World War (1939-1945)

When Canada went to war in 1939, like the Issei before them, some 30 Canadian-born Nisei (second generation) volunteered for military service. These enlistments took place east of the Canadian Rockies, before the Pacific War.

Following the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, war hysteria and anti-Japanese racial hostilities flared in British Columbia. Canadian-born Nisei were barred from military service.

The racist anti-Asian views of certain British Columbia members of parliament, in particular Howard Green Footnote1  and the Minister of Pensions and National Health, Ian Mackenzie Footnote2  (British Columbia’s representative in the Cabinet), were well known even before the war. But as we shall see, less known but no less pertinent are the morally ambivalent actions of Prime Minister Mackenzie King and some in positions of power within the federal civil service.

At no time did the RCMP or the military recommend the forced removal of Japanese Canadians as a measure necessary to ensure the defence or security of Canada. However, on February 24, 1942, under Order in Council P.C.1486, the Government of Canada used the War Measures Act to order the removal of all Japanese Canadians residing within 160 kilometres of the Pacific coast. Some 20,000 persons of Japanese ancestry (74% of whom were Canadians by birth or naturalization) were sent to civilian and Prisoner of War internment camps, road camps and sugar beet farms in the interior of British Columbia, Alberta, Manitoba and Ontario.

Image 4: Colonel Clyde Scott (left) and the Honourable Ian Mackenzie (right), August 18, 1939, Mikan 3207137.

Image 5: Japanese-Canadian internment camp. Lemon Creek, British Columbia, June 1945, Credit: Jack Long Mikan 3191570.

Image 6: Canadian military rounding up fishing vessels owned by Japanese Canadians, Steveston, British Columbia, December 10, 1941, Mikan 3193627.

Image 7: Japanese-Canadian deportees who had been interned during the Second World War, waiting for a train to take them to ships bound for Japan. Slocan City, British Columbia, 1946, Credit: Tak Toyota, Mikan 3191856.

Image 8: Rt. Hon. W.L. Mackenzie King (right) and Mr. Norman Robertson (left) attending the Commonwealth Prime Ministers' Conference, London England, May 1, 1944, Mikan 3194639.

The community’s property – including houses, boats, businesses and farms – were confiscated and held in trust. In 1943, the federal government liquidated all of these assets. Internees were compelled to use money realized from the compulsory sales of their property to pay for their own internment.

In spite of their internment and dispossession, Canadian-born Nisei continued to press for the right to enlist. Finally, beginning in January 1945, the government agreed to the enlistment of up to 250 Nisei for service in the Pacific. This decision was given no publicity. It had come at the urgent request of Australia and the United Kingdom.

Killed in action

On February 20, 1945, Nisei Minoru Tanaka (PDF 27.5 MB) (10th Armoured Regiment – the Fort Garry Horse) who had enlisted in April 1941, was killed in action in Germany. He was the Canadian-born son of Taisuke Tanaka, a First World War Issei veteran of the battle of Vimy Ridge.


By the spring of 1945, federal bureaucrats, principally Norman Robertson, Under Secretary of State for External Affairs – one of the Prime Minister’s closest advisors - and his special assistant, Gordon Robertson Footnote3 had developed a scheme to substantially reduce the numbers of Japanese Canadians in the country.

Under the plan, each person 16 years or older was forced to choose between what would amount to deportation to war-ravaged Japan or relocation to provinces east of the Canadian Rockies.

Throughout the war, the Prime Minister’s morally ambivalent actions with respect to the Japanese Canadian community had only exacerbated a complex situation. In 1943, he supported affording Japanese Canadians every facility, including free transportation, for the voluntary repatriation from Canada of all persons of the Japanese race, regardless of nationality. On the other hand, he would not agree to lifting the restriction on Japanese Canadians buying land, to enable them to start their lives over again in the provinces east of the Rockies. Footnote4

Between May and December 1946, 3,964 Japanese Canadians (66% of whom were Canadians by birth or naturalization) were deported to Japan. They were the most vulnerable members of the community. These were, in many cases, single parent families, those who had family members trapped in Japan during the war, those who were in ill health (including psychiatric patients) and those who were destitute and feared starting their lives over in typically hostile eastern communities.  In October 1944, for example, police officers in Ingersoll, Ontario, “freely swinging batons,” had to break up an anti-Japanese “near riot” at a fertilizer plant which employed seven Nisei. Footnote5

In 1995, almost a half century after the deportations, Gordon Robertson was interviewed  by journalist Linden MacIntyre in the Canadian Broadcasting Company’s documentary “Throwaway Citizens.” During the interview, speaking about the deportations, he reflected: “We were not responsible for individuals… we were responsible for some aspects of policy.” Footnote6 Those who remained in Canada were dispersed across the country to Ontario, Quebec or the Prairie provinces. Japanese Canadians were not permitted to return to the west coast until 1949, the same year they finally received the right to vote in both provincial and federal elections.

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