Skip to content

From the archives

Paper Rout

Postmedia in the gutter

Past Trauma

Richard Wagamese and an Indigenous literary resurgence

Family Pride

Profiles in gay life

West Meets East

Reliving the Canada-Japan relationship

Bronwyn Best

Finding Japan: Early Canadian Encounters with Asia

Anne Shannon

Heritage House Publishing

240 pages, softcover

ISBN: 9781927051559

Many Canadians, if asked to think about our country’s relationship with Japan, will recall the internment of Japanese Canadians as enemy aliens during World War Two, even though it was subsequently demonstrated that they posed no security threat whatsoever. Although an apology, compensation and other forms of redress took place starting in 1988, the internment remains one of Canada’s darkest chapters.

But there was a long history of Japanese-Canadian contact before World War Two, and Anne Shannon’s Finding Japan: Early Canadian Encounters with Asia pulls together a disparate collection of characters—“adventurers, military and technical advisers, missionary educators and social workers, businessmen and art collectors, politicians, diplomats and soldiers, as well as the occasional misfit”—whose stories indicate that the relationship is much more colourful and complex than we realize. For me, a second-generation Canadian missionary kid born in Japan and a student of Japanese studies, people I know personally and others whom I have studied over the years spring from Shannon’s text.

Shannon begins the relationship between Canada and Japan with Ranald MacDonald and his journey to Japan, in 1848, disguised as a shipwrecked sailor, “quite possibly the first person of Canadian origin to reach the shores of Asia.” Unhappy with his banker’s life, MacDonald was pulled to Japan, spending six years in preparation, including signing on to a whaler headed for Hawaii, where “Japan seemed closer and the prospect of its opening not so far-fetched.” What he planned to do in Japan is not clear, but he may have intended to be an interpreter or to engage in trade. Regardless of his intentions, MacDonald was seized upon his arrival, and literally carted in a cage around Japan, where he was studied and stared at. He ended up in Nagasaki, giving daily English lessons, hinting to the authorities about the potential for trade with Japan, and, “with the exception of personal liberty … had everything he wanted.” Nine months after his arrival, however, MacDonald was put on the USS Preble, there to rescue survivors of an American shipwreck, and told never to set foot on Japanese soil again.

Several unsuccessful attempts were made to publish MacDonald’s account of his Japanese sojourn, as early as the 1850s. Part of his story was printed in 1893, the year before his death, but the full version was not published until 1923. There are American historians who claim MacDonald, with a Chinook princess mother from Oregon, as their own. His Scottish-born father, however, was a Hudson’s Bay fur trader, and Ranald “grew up at his father’s forts at Kamloops on the northern end of the Okanagan Trail and at Langley on the lower Fraser River east of what became Vancouver.” The story of MacDonald in opening up relations with Japan is certainly big enough to be a shared part of the history of both Canada and the United States.

Shannon covers just over one hundred years of the Canada-Japan relationship, to 1950, a relationship that has not always been easy. She divides her book into three parts, “Arriving,” “Growing” and “Struggling.” The first starts with MacDonald—who, even though he was imprisoned, was treated with great courtesy, unlike other foreigners finding themselves in Japan between the 1600s and 1800s—and then moves on to the unequal treaties between Europe and Japan and treaty ports of Japan, which “became synonymous with guiltless fun,” the replacement of the rule of shogun with Emperor Meiji in 1868, and all the change that “set in motion an astonishing transformation of everything from the country’s social structure, to its economy, to its place in the world.”

As an economist, Shannon begins with MacDonald’s hints at the potential for trade and moves on to talk of a “rapidly industrializing Asian power.” A Canadian engineer named Henry Spencer Palmer assisted with the design and construction of the first pressurized waterworks in the city of Yokohama and then went on to serve as a journalist for a British journal, extolling “Japan’s progress in areas like law and the judiciary, while sympathizing with growing Japanese frustration over foreign unwillingness to reopen the unequal treaties struck at the end of the 1850s.” Many other Canadians made their lives in Japan as Christian missionaries and educators, all in the name of helping Japanese to embrace western civilization. But Christian theology, Shannon notes, was never “an easy fit in a society where spiritual values were rooted in the family, the community and the state.”

“Growing” focuses on the years my grandparents and others went to Japan as Canadian missionaries. Shannon regales us with the first vestiges of trade between Japan and Canada—from the Japanese side, tea, mikan (Japanese oranges) and the silk trade, with Canada acting as intermediary between Japan and the United States. Canada had wheat and timber, both sorely lacking in Japan, as well as modern “products” such as automobiles and life insurance. The Japanese were quick to encourage direct trade in order to bypass foreign agents. The first Canadian Legation was established in Japan, in 1929.

Antipathy toward Asian immigration had also been growing since the early 1900s, when Japanese immigrants entered Canada, along with their goods. Initially welcomed, the mood turned when the Japanese became prominent in the fishery. As Shannon reports, “for a country reliant on immigration, Canada could be remarkably unwelcoming … While the context was racial, the flashpoint was labour competition.” Sadly, this echoes, even today, in attitudes toward Canadian immigrants.

Canadian women missionaries and educators were a remarkable asset in “raising the status of [Japanese] women through education.” For some, like Caroline Macdonald (who was an educator and founder of the YWCA in Japan but was most revered for being a prison reformer and labour activist) and Emma Kaufmann (who took over from Macdonald and spent 23 years of her life at the Japanese YWCA), the challenge of making a difference in Japan was euphoric. For others, like my grandmother, the environment in Japan sometimes proved inhospitable—the greatest challenge, as Shannon notes, being loneliness. While foreigners in Japan were treated with great consideration, they were also treated with curiosity, often as novelties, always as gaijin. Nonetheless, many of these Canadian women gave “every indication of having been feisty, energetic individuals who got on remarkably well in Japan’s male-oriented society.”

By the 1940s, “Canada and Japan had gone from being allies to enemies.” Canada’s attitude toward immigrants feeds into the last part of the book,  “Struggling,” which includes a quick overview of the Canadian side of the Second World War years, years in which my grandfather, mother, father and aunt-to-be all worked in the Japanese-Canadian relocation camps (to put a nice name to them)—also a part of my own history for this is how and when my parents met. Shannon spends more time on Canadian veterans caught in Hong Kong and held in grim conditions as prisoners of war in Japan, and ends, rather abruptly, with the story of one of Canada’s greatest Japan experts, diplomat Herbert Norman, a man of peace, and his influence on post-war Japan.

Through Finding Japan, Shannon enriches our history, helping us identify those Canadians, well known in Japan but little known in Canada, as well as the Japanese, who played a significant role in Canada-Japan trade and cultural relations. Indeed, as Shannon notes in her introduction, “what leaps out of many pages is the sheer power of human connection, the sparks of energy that transcended seemingly impossible cultural barriers and ignited some remarkably productive relationships.” Those of us intimate with Japan find many friends among the pages of Shannon’s book. Those new to the stories will come away with an appreciation of the wider relationship between Canada and—as Shannon, the economist turned historian, captures in her subtitle—Asia more broadly, one that continues to deepen and expand, across our Pacific border.

Bronwyn Best is president of Heiwa Business International, a Canada-Asia cross cultural awareness, management, negotiation and mediation, and international business ethics consultancy.