Near where the Yellowhead Highway ends, on a low cliff above the Prince Rupert waterfront, there is a Shinto shrine. It houses an elegant little Japanese fishing boat—at once both alien in this setting, and perfectly appropriate.
At 0900 on March 26, 1987, on a westerly swell, the Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) patrol vessel Sooke Post entered Dawson Harbour in Skidegate Channel. When the crew spotted an overturned hull they thought immediately of the Scotia Cape. DFO had helped search for the missing 120-foot dragger just the month before.
Upon approach it was clear that this was something different. The 27-foot barnacle- and weed-encrusted hull was sleek and narrow. Unfamiliar fish in the holding tank, and Japanese lettering aboard, made Captain Ken Harley and the crew of the Sooke Post guess that the vessel had drifted from Japan, and from the growth had been in the water for about two years. This was confirmed when the vessel was taken to Prince Rupert for identification.
On September 26, 1985 retired civil servant Kazukio Sakamoto had sailed from Owase, Japan, for a regular fishing trip in the boat his wife called “the love of his life.” He never returned. Sakamoto’s son, 34-year-old Mazaki, was first of the family to learn any clue of his father’s fate when he saw a story in the Japan Economic Journal about the Kazu Maru.
The remarkable coincidence of this was that Owase and Prince Rupert had been sister cities since 1968. The common ground between the small port cities could not have been more poignantly highlighted than in this connection through a loss at sea.
The Kazu Maru was donated to North Pacific Cannery National Historic Site, and it was displayed there until it became part of the plan to create Pacific Mariners’ Memorial Park. “The park started with the idea of a statue honouring those lost at sea,” alderman and retired fisherman Foster Husoy told Westcoast Fisherman, “but it just kept growing.”
Volunteers built the park. Local service clubs became heavily involved. A wall was built to display bricks naming those lost at sea, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board chose to display a plaque commemorating Triple Island Lighthouse. Marine artifacts were added, along with other memorials and even a playground. But the park’s star attraction, resting within a traditional Shinto shrine, was soon Kazukio Sakamoto’s Kazu Maru.
In late 1989 DFO staff restored the boat, and Foster Husoy traveled to Japan to visit with Sakamoto’s widow, Eiko. “I asked her how she felt her husband would have felt to have the boat displayed in a park in Prince Rupert,” he told the Daily News, “and she said he would have done anything to bring our two cities closer together.”
August 1990 Owase Mayor Haruo Sugita was on hand for the formal dedication of the park. On Sugita’s third visit to Prince Rupert in 1997, leading a delegation of 18 young Owase business people, he joined Mayor Jack Mussallem in unveiling a commemorative plaque on the Kazu Maru.
Beyond this sister city relationship, beyond the human connection of coastal people who risk their lives to work the sea, the Kazu Maru being here is fitting because it seems to me to reflect a moment in our history.
We seldom talk about the expulsion of the Japanese during the Second World War. Most of what I know I learned from the late Roger Obata, founding president of Canada’s first national organization of Japanese Canadians and Order of Canada recipient for his role in the Japanese Redress. He grew up here when the Japanese community was at its height in the 1920s and ‘30s. His father was the secretary of the Skeena River Japanese Fishermen’s Union.
Mr. Obata recalled a vibrant Japanese community, by degrees both integrated and segregated, with a cultural centre, language lessons, and social events. “In Prince Rupert,” he told me, “because of the type of community it was, there was very little race discrimination.” That was the legacy of the canneries, where the families of Japanese boatbuilders and fishermen lived alongside the families other cultures. It was the beginning of a cosmopolitan community. In Prince Rupert the expulsion remained an open wound, understood neither by the Japanese people, most of whom never came back, nor by the community they left behind.
When we talked about fishing Mr. Obata told me how Japanese techniques found their way into a vernacular style of boatbuilding. Japanese-built boats survived here into the 21st century. Here there was a marine legacy, integral to the human legacy.
I think that it is particularly fitting that this traditional Japanese boat has found a home in the park where we honour our sacrifice to the sea. And I think that it goes a little way toward acknowledging, if not mending, the way that the fabric of our community was ripped open a half-century before Kazukio Sakamoto lost his life aboard his little Kazu Maru.