Early Life and Arrival in Canada
Manzo Nagano was born in Kuchinotsu, a fishing village in the prefecture of Nagasaki, Japan. According to his grandson, Paul M. Nagano, he was the fourth of seven children born to Kihei Nagano.
About this time, Japan opened to foreign trade. In 1854, two and a half centuries of Japan's isolation from the outside world ended. That year, an American naval commander convinced the powerful shoguns (hereditary military dictators) to open a limited number of Japanese ports to trade with America and Europe. After the Meiji Restoration (1868), the country rapidly modernized. Trade with other countries increased, and the government invested heavily in industrialization, including the building of shipyards.
Work in the shipyards servicing the growing traffic of foreign steamers enticed Manzo Nagano away from his carpentry apprenticeship. According to his grandson, he joined a British merchant ship that made trips to Shanghai, China, and to British Columbia. “My grandfather developed his own sense of adventure, and in 1877, during one of his trips to Canada, decided to jump ship in Victoria.” Family stories suggest that he first lived among the local Indigenous community. Like most immigrants, Nagano worked a variety of jobs from fishing for salmon to loading timber on outbound ships. He also mingled with the Chinese immigrant community in Victoria, and ended up working in railway construction for a time.
Marriage, Family and Business
In 1886, now aged 33, he returned to Japan to marry 17-year-old Tsuya Ichi. Nagano’s first son, George Tatsuo (named after the British monarch, King George) was born on 9 December 1893. Sadly, Manzo’s wife died not long after, and he returned to Japan with his young son.
In 1896, Nagano, his son and new wife Tayoko returned to Canada. Shortly after, he set up a store selling supplies to prospectors headed toward the Klondike during the gold rush of 1897. His other businesses included a small hotel and store on Government Street, the export of salted salmon to Japan, and contracting labour to Japanese foremen. According to his grandson, he also opened two restaurants under the name “Ricksha” — one in the United States and one in Yokohama — but neither succeeded. On 3 October 1898, Manzo and Tayoko had a son, Frank Terumaro.
During the First World War, Nagano played host to naval officers from Japanese cruisers docked in Esquimalt. (Despite the fact that Japan and Canada were allies during the war, most Asian volunteers were turned away by recruitment offices in British Columbia; over 200 travelled to Alberta to enlist in the forces).
Not long after the First World War ended, Nagano became ill with a lung disease (likely tuberculosis) and decided to return to Japan. While Toyo Takata believes that his businesses had failed by this time, Paul Nagano states that his grandfather “was rich enough to hire the best Japanese doctors to find a cure for his lung disease.” In 1923, Manzo Nagano returned with his wife to his home village of Kuchinotsu, where he died the following year. His two sons remained behind: elder son George Tatsuo and his wife had moved to the United States in 1917, while younger son Frank Terumaro remained in Canada.
DID YOU KNOW?
Manzo Nagano’s sons, George Tatsuo and Frank Teramuro, were big baseball fans. Many members of the Japanese community in British Columbia enjoyed both playing and watching baseball, and the famous Vancouver Asahi team dominated leagues in Vancouver and along the Northwest Coast. Frank played with the Vancouver Asahi, while George was such a big fan of the game that he named his first son after American outfielder Tyrus “Ty” Cobb, one of the greatest players of the era.
Significance and Commemoration
In 1977, 100 years after his first arrival, Canada named a peak for Manzo Nagano in British Columbia’s Coast Mountains, near Rivers Inlet where many Japanese pioneered the coastal commercial fishery.
Nagano was the first of many Japanese immigrants to Canada. By 1914, about 10,000 people of Japanese descent had settled in Canada, most of them young men. However, Japanese immigrants faced overt racial discrimination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries; by law, they could not vote in provincial or federal elections, and they were denied employment in several occupations, including mining and the civil service. In Vancouver in 1907, a rally of the Asiatic Exclusion League turned ugly when the mob converged on Chinatown and “Japtown,” smashing windows and throwing rocks — there was even gunfire. After a Japanese force attacked Pearl Harbor during the Second World War, over 20,000 Japanese Canadians were removed from their homes and detained in camps. They regained their freedom and received full civic rights after the war’s end.
There are now over 100,000 people of Japanese descent in Canada, most of whom live in British Columbia, Alberta and Ontario. Japanese Canadians have contributed to Canadian society in many fields, including the arts, science, politics and sports.
Note About Sources
Toyo Takata uncovered Manzo Nagano’s story while doing research about the history of the Japanese community in Canada. Takata identified Nagano as the first Japanese immigrant to Canada, and included his story in the book, Nikkei Legacy: The Story of Japanese Canadians from Settlement to Today (1983).
American theologian Paul M. Nagano, Manzo’s grandson, has included detailed accounts of his grandfather’s life in the collections Issei: Stories of Japanese Canadian Pioneers (1984), edited by Gordon G. Nakayama, and Journeys at the Margin: Toward an Autobiographical Theology in American-Asian Perspective (1999), edited by Peter C. Phan and Jung Young Lee.
DID YOU KNOW?
Toyo Takata — who identified Manzo Nagano as the first Japanese immigrant to Canada — was born in Esquimalt, British Columbia, where his family ran the Takata Japanese Tea Gardens in Gorge Park. During the Second World War, the Takata family was sent to an internment camp in Slocan (over 20,000 Japanese Canadians were interned in camps during the war). Toyo Takata later settled in Toronto.
A version of this article appeared originally on Historica Canada’s Asia/Canada website.