A Pioneer's Roots

Nagano Manzo's Journey from Japan to Canada

Kuchinotsu is a quiet port in southwest Japan. Strategically located at the mouth of the Ariake Sea that’s home to a few dozen fishing boats and a car ferry that links Nagasaki and Kumamoto Prefectures. Manzo Nagano was born there in 1855.

After Japan opened to foreign trade in the 1850s, coal from its largest coalmine, Mi-ike in Kumamoto, was brought to Kuchinotsu to refuel foreign steamships. And it was there that young Nagano, the fourth of seven children, became a carpenter’s apprentice, eventually learning to repair boats and working on foreign vessels.

I’ve travelled up and down the Japanese archipelago and have often found that even the most obscure corners can hide a fascinating history. But I was still surprised to learn that the village of Kuchinotsu hides an important link to my own homeland: it was the birthplace of the first Japanese to immigrate to Canada.

Amid the increasing numbers of ships from foreign lands, he boarded a British merchant ship that plied the seas, visiting Japan, China and British Columbia. In 1877, he jumped ship at New Westminster and became the first Japanese to start a life in Canada. He was 22 years old.

Nagano’s long career in Canada began with fishing for salmon on the Frasier River. He was so successful he was named Minister of Salmon, while Japanese who heard about his good fortune were eager to follow in his footsteps.

Three years later, Nagano moved to Vancouver and found work as a stevedore. Operating between Japan and North America, from 1886 Nagano began a series of businesses including salmon exports from Canada, a restaurant and tobacco business in Seattle, a Western-style restaurant in Yokohama and a souvenir shop, called Japanese Fancy Goods J.M. Nagano & Co., in Victoria.

I’ve travelled up and down the Japanese archipelago and have often found that even the most obscure corners can hide a fascinating history.

In 1918, after several marriages and children, Nagano was diagnosed with tuberculosis and a tragic fire resulted in the loss of all his property. He returned to his birthplace of Kuchinotsu in 1921 and died there three years later at age 69. His grave stands in the cemetery of Gyokuhoji temple overlooking the bay where he worked as a boy.

It’s unclear exactly why Nagano decided to leave Japan in 1877, but it was the year of the Satsuma Rebellion, in which disenfranchised samurai rose up against the new Meiji imperial government. The story was the background to the 2003 Tom Cruise film, The Last Samurai. Jim Nagano, Manzo’s great-grandson, believes that Manzo, foreseeing that the Meiji government would have an expansionary foreign policy, may have feared being drafted.

Whatever the reason, Manzo planted a seed. A memorial at British Columbia’s Ross Bay Cemetery commemorates the “courage and endurance” of 150 Victorians of Japanese descent who were interred there beginning in 1887. Many of the grave markers were vandalized in the 1940s. The dead include Nagano’s first wife, Tsuya, who died in 1893.

While his store in Victoria is long gone, a brick bearing his name sits in a wall by Munro’s Books on Government Street. In 1977, the centennial of Nagano’s arrival in Canada, the Canadian Permanent Committee on Geographical Names christened a peak, near Owikeno Lake in the Coast Mountains, Mount Manzo Nagano. This is the area where early Japanese-Canadians pioneered Pacific commercial fishing.

In a 19th-century clapboard building that still stands by the mouth of Kuchinotsu’s harbour, there’s a newspaper photo of Nagano’s great-grandson Steve Nagano at the summit in 1979, having completed the first-ever ascent of the peak. The photo is part of a display dedicated to Manzo in the Kuchinotsu Rekishi Minzoku Shiryokan museum, which chronicles the pioneer’s life and contributions, as well as the history of Kuchinotsu and its people.

“It’s said that Vancouver is the city where Japanese desire to live the most,” says Takeo Harada, former director of the museum. “Manzo took the first step in this relationship 140 years ago, and I would like him to serve as a bridge as we deepen the ties of friendship between Kuchinotsu and Canada.”