The Japanese Community in Calgary


The first known Japanese to settle in Canada was Manzo Nagano in 1877, although there were reports of Japanese fishermen shipwrecked along the coast of British Columbia prior to this date. Waves of immigrants followed, young men in particular seeking adventure, wealth and in some cases independence from family obligations. By 1907 there were over 18,000 Japanese living in Canada. Most were farmers and fishermen, only a few were well educated and from the aristocratic class. Most found employment in logging, fishing, and mining, while others started businesses.

One of the earliest pioneers to settle in Calgary was Kumataro (Keno) Inamasu in 1905. Mr. Inamasu worked as a cook’s helper and then as a pastry chef. He later worked for Senator Patrick Burns in this capacity. It was in the 1930’s that he finally turned his attention to his real passion for horses. Mr. Inamasu was the only person of Japanese descent to own, breed and train horses, not just in Calgary, but in North America until his death in 1959.

Long simmering anti-Japanese sentiments in British Columbia came to a boil in 1941, with the beginning of the mass gathering and forced removal of 22,000 Canadian residents of Japanese ethnic origin. Over 17,000 of them were Canadian citizens. Most were incarcerated in detention camps during the Second World War, and subsequently forced to disperse across Canada or shipped to war-torn Japan. By the end of October 1942, 2,585 Japanese Canadians had been relocated to Alberta to work on sugar beet farms, ranches and coal mines around Lethbridge, Raymond, Taber and Vauxhall.

Sataro Kuwahara immigrated to Canada in 1907 and attended Catholic school to learn English. In 1922, Sataro and Genzo Kitagawa opened a small novelty store on 1st Street SW and later moved to 8th Ave. under the name of Nippon Bazaar, then Nippon Silks. In December 1941, following Pearl Harbour, the name of the business in Calgary would be known as Silk-O-Lina. The Kuwahara family was allowed to operate its business in the city of Calgary during the war years.

Though the number of Japanese in Calgary was small until the 1930s, they were employed and well integrated into the Canadian culture. They kept in touch with other local Japanese families mainly by telephone and met on a regular basis in peoples’ homes to socialize. They worked diligently to preserve their Japanese culture and heritage even though they were so far removed from the land of their birth. The founding families of the Calgary Japanese community, the Okazakis, Takaokas, Matsuokas, Kuwaharas and Inamasus were the driving force that created the solid foundation on which the community was built.

A small group of these community members secured government grants and raised enough funds to purchase the Maccabees Hall which stood in the current location of the Calgary Japanese community and Seniors Centre in SW Calgary.

The uprooting and internment experience was a defining event for Japanese Canadians, altering the course of the lives of families forever. The assimilation of the Japanese into Canadian culture happened very quickly—essentially within one generation. Because of their experiences during the Second World War, many postwar Japanese families avoided clustering together, giving Japanese names to their children, or teaching them the Japanese language. These factors, combined with a rapidly modernizing society and a high intermarriage rate, meant that many Japanese Canadians lost much of their cultural identity.

In spite of this, the Japanese Canadian community continues to exist and evolve. As time has passed, the past prejudices against the Japanese have become a distant memory, and has allowed a rediscovery of their Japanese roots. While their cultural identity has changed drastically, Japanese Canadians continue to revisit the past to learn about their own family histories and celebrate their Asian heritage.