Home History Discover Nikkei Waves of Pandemics and the Prewar Japanese Canadian Community

Waves of Pandemics and the Prewar Japanese Canadian Community

The doctors, Christian ministers, and community leaders involved in the ad hoc committee of the 1918 flu pandemic. They include Dr. Kozo Shimotakahara, first row, third from right, Consul Goji Ukita, Rev. Yoshimitsu Akagawa, and Dr. Akinosuke Ishihara.

by  Yusuke Tanaka

The 1918 influenza epidemic swept the world for two years, infecting 500 million people and killing approximately 50 million. The outbreak first infected World War I soldiers on the battlefield, and the pandemic occurred as the soldiers returned home from the war, spreading the virus around the world. Canada was no exception; nearly 50,000 Canadians died.

Until then, racism against Japanese immigrants seemed to have toned down during the war (1914-1918). This was partly because Japan’s warships, based on Yap Island (in today’s Micronesia), had guarded the Canadian west coast from German warships in compliance with the Anglo-Japanese Alliance (1902). After the war, demobilized soldiers flooded the labor market, pushing the Japanese workers in the lumber industry out of their jobs. In 1923, the Anglo-Japan Treaty was abolished after 20 years of alliance, and the Canadian government passed an act that deprived 40% of Japanese fishermen of their licenses in its wake. Thus, war and racism always create synergies.

To set the broader historical context, in the 1890s, Germany began a racist campaign agitating the public about Yellow Peril, or a fear of Asians. Its intent was to avert Russia’s intrusion into the west and to turn its attention to the east, when Japan and China began interfering in Korean domestic affairs. Tension on the Korean Peninsula triggered friction between Japan and China, leading to the Sino-Japanese War in 1894, followed by the Russo-Japanese War in 1904. Imperial Japan’s victories in both wars left many western countries stunned. For the first time, Japan’s military power was seen as a threat, fueling more anti-Asian racism.

Typhus Epidemic Hastens the Formation of a Japanese Hospital

Japanese immigrants began arriving in British Columbia in the 1880s, at first as seasonal workers. Salmon fishing in the summer, in particular, attracted laborers from Wakayama, Japan to Steveston, at the mouth of the Fraser River, leading the Japanese workers to form a community there in the early 1890s. Over the span of ten years, that immigrant community grew into a village of about 3,000. However, these laborers’ living conditions were terrible—unsanitary and unhealthy. An outbreak of typhus—fever, headache, and rash diseases from bacteria spread by fleas and lice–quickly erupted, infecting many. However, Stevenson’s St. Mary Hospital refused to admit and treat the Japanese patients. To comply with this emergency, the local Japanese church (which had been built by Christian dentist, Umejiro Yamamura, in 1895) was immediately used as a substitute, to accommodate the patients.

Meanwhile, Japanese fishermen founded the Fraser River Japanese Fishermen’s Association in 1897 and offered to pay St. Mary Hospital to accommodate Japanese patients, but its offer was declined. So, the Association decided to build its own hospital, hiring Japanese doctors. Dr. Seinosuke Oishi, a Christian socialist who had studied surgery at Montreal University, is said to have worked there for a short period. He was succeeded by another Christian doctor, Akinosuke Ishihara, from Kyoto, who had worked with the title of nurse under the supervision of a Canadian doctor since he did not have a Canadian medical license. Later, Ishihara moved to Japan Town in Vancouver and opened his own practice.

Dr. Shimotakahara and his wife, Shin (née Kusama), a Japanese American. Photo courtesy of Mike Ashikawa.

The Fraser River Japanese Fishermen’s Association Hospital in Steveston lasted for over 40 years. However, its patients were limited to the members of the Association and their families. Moreover, it was not in a convenient location, since their members were scattered along the whole B.C. west coast. For these reasons, as the Japanese community grew, people hoped that another Japanese hospital, located in Vancouver’s Japan Town, would open.

The 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic attacked Vancouver three times—first in the spring of 1918, then in the fall of the same year, which was much worse. Then it came back in 1919, killing over 100 in the Japanese Canadian (JC) community alone. As the second wave of Spanish Flu overcame Canada, the Vancouver General Hospital suffered a bed shortage. When the alcohol used for disinfection ran out, it was said that the hospitals used smuggled whisky as a substitute disinfectant, despite it being the Prohibition Era.

In the midst of this crisis, three notable Issei emerged: Goji Ukita, Consul of Japan, Rev. Yoshimitsu Akagawa, and Dr. Kozo Shimotakahara. With approval from City Hall, they used the flu-vacated Strathcona Public School, on Pender Street near Vancouver’s Japan Town, as a temporary hospital for three weeks. The wives of Christian church members volunteered to work as nurses under the supervision of several former nurses from Japan. They worked as long as twelve hours a day. Other volunteer doctors, such as Drs. Takahashi, Kinoshita, and Ishihara, also worked there. Dr. Shimotakahara was the only licensed doctor who was authorized to issue prescriptions.

In those days, “dekasegi” (migrant workers) constituted the majority of the local JC community. In their eyes, harsh racism was the price to pay to make money until they went back home. Diseases caused by unsanitary environments and injuries caused by dangerous work were risks every migrant worker had to take. Professor Ken Kawashima of the University of Toronto calls this fate of migrant workers “The Proletarian Gamble” (Duke University Press, 2009).

After 1911, when the influx of picture brides hit its peak, the entire community swiftly became a more family-oriented community. As Nisei babies were born, Issei parents needed a physician for their children. But it was hard for them to visit local Canadian clinics, due to the language barrier.

In 1916, the first fully-licensed Nikkei doctor opened his clinic in Japan Town, Vancouver. He was Kozo Shimotakahara (1885-1951), a legendary figure who dedicated his life to the local Nikkei community. He had immigrated to Canada from Kagoshima at the age of 14 and studied at local schools while working as a houseboy (housekeeper). He completed his medical training in the United States at the University of Chicago and returned to Vancouver with his wife, Shin (1891-1972). Since she was an experienced nurse in the U.S., Shin and Yasuno Akagawa, a qualified nurse from Kyoto, did a tremendous amount of work supervising the volunteer staff during the pandemic. Unlike today’s coronavirus pandemic, victims of this flu included many children, and even nurses and volunteers were infected and some died.

After the horrors of 1918-1919, the Nikkei community found that they needed its own hospital in Japan Town to prepare for the next pandemic. (Antibiotics would not become widely available until after World War II.) Initiated by Drs. Ishihara and Takahashi, the first Japanese community hospital opened on Alexander Street in the spring of 1920.

The next epidemic that spread worldwide was not a flu but tuberculosis (TB). In 1932, as the number of TB cases soared in Canada, Rev. Kosaburo Shimizu of the United Church rang the church bell, signaling the opening of a clinic that was set up to diagnose and treat TB patients. However, the clinic was soon flooded with patients, due to the increasing number of cases, so it was decided to move all of the Japanese TB patients to St. Joseph Oriental Hospital’s TB ward, a medical facility in Vancouver that admitted Asian patients. St. Joseph’s Oriental had been founded in 1928 by Missionary Sisters from its parent hospital in Montreal. In 1935, alarmed by the TB pandemic, Dr. Shimotakahara reacted quickly, and was able to obtain an X-ray machine for St. Joseph’s through a donation by a philanthropist. It was valued at $3,500 Canadian dollars (equivalent to CAN $65,300 [US $51,000] in 2015).

Dr. Shimotakahara was also known to be generous to poor students and to lower-income patients when it came to their medical charges. Later, when JCs were treated as enemy aliens after the attack of the Pearl Harbor and forced to vacate their residences, he simply waived any accumulated bills that his patients owed. The total amount of receivables was said to be more than $150,000. During the war, Dr. Shimotakahara stayed in Kaslo, a ghost town in interior B.C. that became a JC internment camp, where he busily worked for the local people, Japanese or non-Japanese. He remained there post-war, until dying from a heart attack in 1951.

Looking back at Canada’s Nikkei history, from the early 1890s forward, the JC community transformed from migrants to a family-oriented community. By the late 1910s, Nisei children began being born. The struggles of Issei parents with a series of pandemics and recessions were made worse by racism. Tremendous efforts were made by medical doctors and community leaders to secure the well-being of the community.

Dr. Ishihara served in the early years of the Steveston Japanese Fishermen’s Hospital. He was the only family doctor for Japan Town in Vancouver until Dr. Shimotakahara opened his clinic in 1916. In the middle of the 1918 flu epidemic, Rev. Akagawa, with his wife’s nursing skills, took the initiative to set up a short-term field hospital, resourcefully using a public school. This urgent project was made possible through diplomatic support from Consul Goji Ukita.

Consul Ukita was first posted to Vancouver in the 1890s. He helped Rev. Goro Kaburagi, a brother-in-law of Dr. Ishihara, launch the first Japanese community newspaper in 1897. Ukita also helped the community struggle through the typhus pandemic in the 1890s, twenty years before the 1918 flu pandemic. It can be said that Ukita was the most devoted diplomat among the high officials assigned to the JC community.

As we look back at Nikkei history in British Columbia, we see that every time the community faced an urgent crisis, it produced heroes and legendary stories.

Yusuke Tanaka immigrated to Canada in 1986. A freelance writer for the Japanese media, he has been a regular columnist for the Vancouver-based JCCA Bulletin since 2012. His translation “Horonigai Shori,” the Japanese edition of “Bittersweet Passage” by Maryka Omatsu, was awarded a Canadian Prime Minister’s Award for Publishing in 1993.

Editor’s note. This article was originally published in Discover Nikkei (www.discovernikkei.org), which is managed by the Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles.

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Discover Nikkei is a community website about Nikkei identity, history and experiences. The goal of this project is to provide an inviting space for the community to share, explore, and connect with each other through diverse Nikkei experiences, culture, and history. The DiscoverNikkei.org site is a cornerstone program of the Nikkei Legacy Project, a project of the Japanese American National Museum, with major funding by The Nippon Foundation.