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Sunday, May 24, 2015

First Japanese Immigrant In Canada

Being a curious sort, I often ask myself questions when trying to come up with what I perceive to be original content for this blog.

Sometimes I can find original content, and then other times, when it's obvious someone else has done some foot work already, I like to do my own take on it with my own questions and answers.

So, I asked myself... just who might the very first Japanese immigrant to Canada be? And, as luck would have, someone already figured that out for me/us.

That would be the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre (, a website I have no doubt got its data right.

The article is in the link above, but I'm going to write a version here anyway... maybe not adding to the color of the original (like I said  - well done), but just because this blog writer likes to pretend he is creating his own Encyclopedia Japonica. 

The very first immigrant to Canada  would have to have been by today's standards an illegal alien.

Nagano Manzo (surname first), touched down on Canadian soil in New Westminster, British Columbia, Canada in May of 1877 as a 22-year-old.

I'm unsure how he would even have heard of Canada, considering the visitors to Japan in the days before were not generally part of the Canadian navy.

Born in 1855 in Nagasaki, as a 17-year-old, Nagano worked as an apprentice carpenter in Japan - a popular profession for him as an adult, as by the 1860s Japan had only recently opened up its borders after a self-imposed global exile for 250 years - as Japan realized that it's cities looked pretty damn old-fashioned relative to the rest of the world.

Urban renewal was huge in 1870s Japan.

Along with urban renewal, Japan sought to build larger sea vessels for it's own navy.... and while it is unclear if Nagano was involved in any sort of ship building, he did perform carpentry work repairing and retrofitting boats...I would assume he was involved in performing work on larger craft - even those belonging to the foreign visitors to Japan.

Why? Because he somehow got it in his head that one day he would travel to Canada, and so stowed away on a British vessel leaving Yokohama. He must have known that the British ship was making a port of call in BC.

Again... why the hell would he want to go to Canada? There is nothing wrong with Canada, of course. It's my home and native land... but what sold him on stowing away to come to Canada? That's what I would like to know.

It is always possible that after meeting some of the sailors on a British vessel, he might have learned about Canada that way, seeing as how Canada was still a part of the British Commonwealth then (and now).

Aside from stowing away, I also read that Nagano paid for his passage by stoking that ship's furnace to produce steam.

My guess is that he did stow away, but was caught and paid for his safe passage by stoking the ship's furnace. But that's a leap on my account.

Once in Canada, rather than wield a hammer, he instead opted for a rod (sort of), and became a fisherman - or at least a guy working on a fishing vessel, fishing for salmon along the Fraser River.

After three years of that, Nagano shifted gears and moved to Vancouver, loading timber onto outbound sea vessels.

Perhaps filled with wanderlust, or perhaps being homesick, Nagano left Canada and returned to Japan in 1884 - where he got married - it was probably all arranged... but then left to work in Shanghai, China before heading back to North America again where he eventually ended up in Seattle with his own tobacco and restaurant business.

You have to love Nagano's ability to try different things... I don't know if he was good at these things... I mean... he was an apprentice carpenter in Japan... and being an apprentice anything in Japan can sometimes mean you spend 10 years without actually touching the tools of your would-be trade... implying he might not have even actually hammered a nail in Japan... even though I'm sure he could...

By 1892, Nagano was once again back in Canada, this time in the city of Victoria, B.C., where he ran a small hotel (probably a bed and breakfast style) and a store - probably located at the foot of the hotel.
December 1910 in the Nagano home in Victoria, BC. (Front L-R): Seki Nagano (daughter), Manzo Nagano; Tayoko Nagano (wife); (Standing L-R) sons George Tatsuo Nagano, and Frank Teruma Nagano. You'll notice I didn't place the surname first - because these folks are Canadian now! (Image from Japanese Canadian National Museum).
Either because he was unable to focus, or because all the previous business ventures failed, Nagano eventually performed other odd jobs, including exporting salted salmon to Japan, and eventually a landowner in BC.

Being a man of many talents, and perhaps because he was such an old hand at being Canadian, Nagano was well-respected within the burgeoning Japanese community in BC.

By 1922 and still living in Victoria—though weak from tuberculosis, Nagano lost damn near everything after a fire ripped throough his property.

Sad, and realizing that this sort of thing would never happen in Japan, Nagano left Canada and returned to the land of the rising sun to reunite with his family.

I would assume his parents might have been dead, but he might have had some siblings or cousins... I mean this guy hadn't really been to Japan since what... 1892? That's 30 years!

After being away for three years while I was in Japan, I didn't see most of my friends ever again... which is fine, actually. Sometimes people change (me), and sometimes people don't (them).

Nagano eventually did in Japan at the age of 68.

You might be wondering what the hell that image of a mountain is doing up above... well, that is Mount Manzo Nagano situated about 400 kilometers northwest of Vancouver, near where Japanese Canadians helped pioneer the commercial fishing industry along the Pacific coast. 

Nagano still has descendents living in Canada today.

Andrew Joseph


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