Different waves of Japanese immigrants to Canada, and their children, have had very different experiences in this country. Today, Japanese Canadians contribute richly to Canada’s cultural, political, economic and public life, but in the past many Japanese have faced discrimination and even dispossession, internment and deportation.
First Japanese Immigrants to Canada
The first wave of Japanese immigrants, called Issei (first generation), arrived between 1877 and 1928. Most settled in British Columbia and pursued livelihoods in fishing, farming and pulpmills; others moved to Alberta. After 1928, Canada severely restricted Japanese immigration, although it was not the government’s first attempt to discourage migration from Japan.
The Issei immigrants and their Canadian-born children, called Nisei (second generation), faced significant discrimination. They were excluded from many professions—sometimes even despite their university education, as in the case of many young Nisei—and were not allowed to vote. Their wages were lower than those paid to Caucasians, and during the 1930s Depression they suffered great hardship as the British Columbia government limited their fishing opportunities, denied them logging licences and often withheld social assistance. Attempts by Japanese Canadians to win the vote, or to demonstrate their loyalty to Canada by serving in the Second World War (as more than 200 Issei men did), were largely ineffective. Excluded from Canadian society, Japanese Canadians formed their own close-knit communities and developed their own social, religious and economic institutions, including community halls, schools, hospitals, Christian churches and Buddhist temples, unions and cooperatives.
The actions of the federal government during and after the Second World War shattered the Japanese Canadian community in British Columbia. Following Japan’s attacks on Pearl Harbor and Hong Kong, the Canadian government used the War Measures Act to remove all Japanese Canadians from the Pacific coast. More than 200,000 people—75% of whom were Canadian citizens—were sent to detention camps, farms, road camps, and prisoner-of-war camps. All their property, including their homes, businesses and personal possessions, was sold. At the end of the war, Japanese Canadians were forced to choose between deportation to war-ravaged Japan or dispersal east of the Rocky Mountains. Most chose the latter, moving to Ontario, Québec, or the Prairie Provinces. Their freedom was officially re-established in 1949, but few returned to British Columbia.
In the 1950s, Japanese Canadians struggled to rebuild their lives but, scattered across the country, could not rebuild their communities. The third generation, the Sansei (born between the 1940s and 1960s), grew up without a strong sense of membership in a larger Japanese Canadian community.
Japanese Immigrants to Canada after 1967
After 1967, a new wave of Japanese immigration to Canada began, largely due to amendments to the Immigration Act. These immigrants were typically educated men and women from industrialized cities who spoke English or French. Many found work in Canada in the service sector and skilled trades.
The Japanese Redress Movement
The late 1970s and 1980s saw a growing movement both within and outside the Japanese Canadian community in support of redress for the wrongs committed against Japanese Canadians in the Second World War. In 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney acknowledged the federal government’s wrongdoing and announced compensation for those who had been affected. The War Measures Act was also revoked and was replaced with the Emergencies Act, which restricted some of the government powers that had allowed the maltreatment of Japanese Canadians in the Second World War to take place.
Japanese Canadians Today
Today, some 100,000 Canadians of Japanese descent live across the country, most in British Columbia, Ontario and Alberta. Japanese Canadians are a diverse group, involved in all areas of Canadian life and in a variety of professions. Immigrants from both waves, and their children, have retained and adapted various unique skills and art forms from Japan—from martial arts and ikebana (flower arranging) to manga and taiko drumming.
Canada and Japan have enjoyed friendly bilateral relations since the 1950s, and today are partners in many important political and economic organizations. Japan, as one of the world’s major economies, is a large export market for Canadian products and resources such as coal; Japan is also a major source of import goods, such as cars, for Canada. Tourism, as well as work and student exchanges, are strong between the two countries, and many sister-city relationships exist between cities and municipalities in Canada and Japan.