An obscure fishing village in Wakayama Prefecture sustains an unlikely yet powerful bond with Canada that stretches back well over a century.
Gihei Kuno was a master carpenter from a poor fishing village called Mio in Wakayama Prefecture, down south of Osaka on Japan’s Pacific Ocean coast. In 1888, Kuno crossed the Pacific to start a new life in British Columbia, settling in Steveston and hoping to earn money to send back home. There were only fifteen other Japanese living in that part of Richmond when he arrived.
But when Kuno saw the salmon running thick in the Fraser River—some leaping obligingly right into his boat—the master carpenter abruptly switched professions. What’s more, he wrote to the folks back in Mio to tell them about the finny bounty he’d discovered on Canada’s lush West Coast.
That sparked a mass exodus of around three thousand fishermen from Mio to Steveston, with Kuno regularly recruiting people who planned to work hard and send their money back to their kin in the village.
For the first twenty years or so only men made the voyage, and they were usually just going over seasonally. But they were lonely. At some point, the fishermen from Mio decided to bring their wives over and start families and a community there, essentially transplanting a whole town. Meanwhile, Gihei Kuno reportedly made a fortune in the fishery business.
That exodus also gave rise to a relationship between Japan and Canada that has lasted for several generations. Retirees returning from BC would bring back Western culture, including gramophones, Western clothing, beds and more, even building homes in a hybrid Western-Japanese style. Those going to Canada brought mandarin oranges with them, and the fruit became a favourite in the new land. Their community came to be called Americamura—somewhat blurring the true destination—but Canada was always the draw for the emigrants from Mio and their descendants.
Karl Pires, a Canadian lawyer from BC working at the international law firm Shearman in Tokyo, was in Japan as a coordinator of international relations (CIR) in Wakayama after graduating from the University of Victoria in 1992.
“I got into the JET program that same year, and they assigned me to the Wakayama Prefectural Government’s International Affairs Division as a CIR for two years,” says Pires, who was a director in the Japan-Canada Chamber of Commerce while working in Vancouver and now serves as a CCCJ governor.
“At first, I wondered why I’d been sent to Waka-yama,” he notes. “When I got there, though, I realized the connection. Wakayama and Richmond are sister cities, and Steveston is the place where the emigrants from Mio went for the salmon fishing. So historically, the JET program has tried to assign people from British Columbia to Wakayama to maintain that sister-city relationship.”
Pires recalls that one of his primary tasks was to promote tourism in English, including preparing tourism plans and a tourism guide, organizing events for the community of foreigners in Wakayama.
Since his wife is from Wakayama, Pires has maintained a connection to and an interest in this bilateral phenomenon. According to Pires, there’s a sizeable Japanese-Canadian population that’s very disproportionately from Wakayama. “There are nineteen Waka-yama Kenjin Kai around the world, and the association established in 1965 in Richmond by some of the descendants of the original Wakayama emigrants is one of the oldest. When I returned to Vancouver after JET, I got involved with them.”
The Canada Museum, built in 2018 in a private house in Mihama-cho, is one tangible development that showcases the trans-Pacific relationship and has refreshed the connection. It chronicles the journeys to and influence of a far-off land as well as the inevitable cultural crossings.
“From what I understand, the prefectural government, city government and some descendants decided it would be nice to actually have a place to visit,” Pires explains, “especially for Canadians, whether it’s high school students or government officials visiting, they now have a place to visit that showcases the history and the relationship.”
Back in 2000, the BC Wakayama Kenjin Kai and the Wakayama Prefectural Association brought in 255 Akebono cherry trees from Japan to be planted in Kuno Garden, named after Gihei Kuno. The trees were later transplanted to Garry Point Park as part of a decade-long beautification project to celebrate both the millennium and the Wakayama Kenjin Kai’s thirty-fifth anniversary.
Since 2017, the Richmond Cherry Blossom Festival at the park has celebrated the generous donation. The association supports the legacy and heritage of Japanese families that emigrated from Wakayama Prefecture to Steveston.
Sammy Takahashi, the president of the Japan-Canada Chamber of Commerce, says one of his organization’s main missions is to connect Japan and Canada through business, culture, education and tourism.
“We’ve been working hard to maintain and enhance sister-city agreements between Japanese cities and Canadian cities,” he says. “The city of Richmond and the city of Wakayama are sister cities. A few years ago, a delegation from Mio visited Vancouver and asked for help to rejuvenate Mio, which is now called Mihama-cho.”
He also heard that one of the town councils was interested in having a totem pole—a symbol of First Nations people in Canada—to Mio. The Japan-Canada Chamber of Commerce had a big role in getting a totem pole carved in West Vancouver and shipped to Mio.
Takahashi met one of Kuno’s great-grandsons, Toshio Takai, who lives in Himeji, Hyogo Prefecture, a few years back. “He funded the totem pole project.” The totem pole was carved and transported to Mio and was erected on the grounds behind the Canada Museum in May 2021. Darren Yelton, a member of the Squamish Nation, carved the massive totem. Next to the totem is a bust of Gihei Kuno, the man who started it all.
For Future Reference
Well over a hundred years later, both the Canadian community and Mihama-cho still find ways to energize their link, and it’s only growing stronger. Takahashi and his friends in both countries have farsighted plans for Mihama-cho. One two-pronged project is designed to revitalize Mihama-cho as well as strengthen the ties between Japan and Canada.
“Heidy and Keith Murao, whose grandparents were from Mio, donated their parents’ house there last year to the Committee for Promoting International Cooperation, which is led by Toshio Takai, one of Gihei Kuno’s great-grandsons,” Takahashi says. “We plan to get the house renovated and turn it into the Nishihama Seminar House, where people from Japan and Canada can have seminars, art exhibitions and music events.” Although originally scheduled to take five years, this part of the project has been attenuated due to the recent pandemic.
“We’re also interested in opening a branch of a restaurant that originated in Steveston in Himeji, Hyogo,” Takahashi adds. “A whole lot of details need to be worked out on that one, but we certainly hope to make it happen.”
According to Takahashi, there’s an even more ambitious plan for the fishing town that has meant so much to the Japan-Canada relationship. “We want to build a satellite campus of a university in Mihama-cho where both Japanese and international students can live and study together,” he states. “If we’re successful, it would revitalize Mihama-cho economically. That one may end up being just a dream, but I want to keep talking to as many influential people as possible to make it a reality.”
Above: Tomoyo Artworks