The Canada Museum in Mio, Wakayama prefecture, is dedicated to telling the history of Japanese emigrants in Canada.
MIO, Japan — There is a small seaside town in Japan called Mio, with roots connecting to the Japanese Canadian community that run deep in the town’s history and identity. Mio is also my ancestral home and thanks to a trip organized by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, I was able to see the place my family left over 100 years ago.
In December, I was invited to visit Japan with a delegation of third and fourth generation Japanese Canadians to learn about Japanese culture and bring those lessons back to Canada. It was an incredible, whirlwind week-long adventure. We explored Tokyo, Kyoto, Yokohama and Osaka, visiting temples and shrines, eating delectable foods, meeting with Japanese government officials and even having tea with a Japanese princess. It was an unbelievable trip and one I will continue to share in follow-up columns.
A day trip had been arranged for me to visit Mio with a translator and guide. I was unsure of what to expect. As the day to visit got closer, I learned that the rest of the delegation would be spending the day in Osaka, while I would have to leave at 7:30 in the morning to take a three hour car ride to Mio. I started to regret having to go, but visiting Mio ended up being the most meaningful part of my trip.
Part of Wakayama prefecture in the Kansai region, Mio is a small coastal town, about a two and a half hour train ride southeast from Osaka. Mio’s connection to Canada began in 1888, when Gihei Kuno arrived in Steveston, B.C. and saw how fruitful salmon fishing in the Fraser River could be. He returned to Mio, which was a poor fishing village at the time and encouraged others to work in Steveston. Men would work Steveston and send money back home. Others would return, and build houses with Western influences, built out of concrete, with basements and brightly coloured exteriors, earning Mio the name, “American Village.”
Today, Mio is not a place you will find in Japan travel guidebooks, but many Japanese Canadians know the town. In the 1940s, there were around 2,000 immigrants from Mio alone living in Steveston. Many current residents in Mio have some sort of connection to Canada. As a result, there are touches of Canada spread throughout the town. The local restaurant is called Steveston, serving Japanese comfort food, as well as western cuisine. There is even a Canada Museum, dedicated to the history of Japanese emigrants to Canada.
Painted bright blue, the museum was once the home of Suguru Noda, born in Canada in 1923. He returned to Mio in 1928 and built a house that was the ultimate dream for migrants in those days. Nisei Tameo Noda, who played for the Asahi baseball team also lived in the house.
The museum’s director, Takae Mio, also has a Canadian connection. Her mother-in-law was a Nisei who lived through Japanese Canadian internment. She has the acknowledgment letter signed by former Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, when the Canadian government apologized to Japanese Canadians in 1988, in the museum.
My great great grandfather, Bunichi Hamade, was born in Mio in 1876, and immigrated to Steveston in 1902, where he worked as a fisherman. His adult daughter, Hana, and her husband, Matsunosuke, followed him to Canada shortly afterwards. The family, including their Canadian-born children, was later interned in Lemon Creek.
After the war, Bunichi returned to Mio, hurt and angry with Canada for confiscating his fishing boat and taking away his freedom. The rest of the family urged him to stay, but his mind was set, though he quickly regretted his decision. Japan had just lost the war, food was scarce and life was hard. He died in Mio in 1954 and was buried in Hozenji Temple.
Over 65 years later, I stood in front of Bunichi’s grave. The cemetery is elevated so you can see the ocean and the mountains. I could understand why so many Mio emigrants felt Steveston could be their new home.
The museum director lit incense and put rosary beads in my hands and my guide told me to say a prayer. I immediately felt overwhelmed, unsure what to say. I bowed my head and thanked Bunichi for coming to Canada. I also thanked the generations of my family between Bunichi and myself for the sacrifices they made and the hardships they faced building their lives in Canada. I have lived a warm and happy life because of them.
As we left, I thanked the priest for taking care of Bunichi’s grave and the words got caught in my throat and I suddenly felt overcome with emotion. I have no family left in Mio, and other than my cousins who visited last year, no one visits Bunichi’s grave. Yet his grave was so well cared for, it was clean and the grounds were well-groomed. This priest, half way around the world, was looking after my great great grandfather in his final resting place. I know there are other Japanese Canadians’ ancestors buried there, it is touching to know someone is looking after them, they haven’t been forgotten or left behind.
I didn’t know what to expect when I went to Mio, but it was an experience I will never forget. It reinvigorated my Japanese Canadian identity. Mio has so many connections to Japanese Canadians weaved into the fabric of its identity, not only because of its history, but because of the people within it who keep those connections alive.