The area around what is now Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site was once home to many. Home as in not simply a place to live and work, but as in a place to grow and raise a family, a place to be part of a community, a place to experience not only inevitable hardship, but also beauty.
People came from far away places to make Steveston their new home, in the hopes of having a happier and more prosperous life. The Murakami family’s story stands out among these both for their human interest and for the legacies they left for others to witness.
As visitors wander through the Murakami house, garden and boatworks today they continue to be inspired by the love and effort the family put into nurturing their idea of home. Here, an uncanny yet true history of adventure, romance, hardship, community, strength and culture unfurls. Here visitors can experience first hand the journey one family took to find and create beauty, to build and support a family and to preserve parts of their own culture while making a new life in Canada.
It began with a picture. In 1923, Asayo Imamoto boarded a steam ship with several other Japanese picture brides for the long journey to Canada. She was then in her twenties. She had been married previously in Japan, but the marriage had been dissolved for unknown reasons. Asayo’s daughters were sent to live with their paternal grandmother while Asayo was bethrothed to a Japanese man living in Steveston. She was a picture bride, a practice common at the time where potential partners exchanged photographs of one another and based on this exchange, chose to travel and marry the person they had only experienced through a letter and a photograph. They did not meet in person until the ‘bride’ stepped off the ship in Canada.
Upon meeting the man she was to marry, Asayo immediately broke her contract; a very brave and unusual thing to do at the time as she would have no one to support her in this new world. Her reasons? She found him short and unattractive. She knew that they were not a good match. All she had with her at the time was her violin and a precious photo of the two daughters she had left behind. In order to repay the debt to the man she refused to marry, Asayo laboured for two years picking berries and working on the canning line.
Fortunately, a matchmaker introduced Asayo to Otokichi Murakami, a widower, shipbuilder and fisherman with two children of his own. They married and in 1929 moved to the house that visitors can experience today. Here, while continuing to nurture her garden, harvest vegetables for others and work on the canning line, Asayo raised their ten children with joy, love and resilience.
The Murakami family built a boatworks in 1929 on land rented from the Phoenix Cannery. Otokichi was an outstanding craftsman and created everything by hand. He built one boat at a time using traditional Japanese and contemporary tools, often constructing two gillnetters per winter. He was known and respected far and wide for his skill.
Asayo was a very cultured woman with a love of music and beauty. She was practical as well and could make a little go a long way. She was known for her prolific flower garden which gave her joy and security, while most others simply grew vegetable gardens for their families.
Asayo’s garden is lovingly preserved and cared for, with authentic plantings that Asayo herself would have grown. It is the one place that I am always drawn to when I visit Britannia. It has a healthy sense of peace and resilience. It serves as a beautiful metaphor for its original gardener. It has a history that blooms every season, year after year, recalling the hands that originally seeded the soil, remembering Asayo crouched over her garden, encouraging it to grow. Her spirit lives on here, along with the spirit of other Japanese immigrants who called Steveston home.
In early 1942, the Federal Government forced approximately 22,000 Japanese Canadians to relocate due to the attack on Pearl Harbour. Much of what they owned as well as their property was confiscated and sold. The Murakamis had to leave their home, boats and garden behind to work on a beet farm in Letellier, Manitoba.
Before they left, many Japanese Canadians, perhaps hoping to return one day, planted yellow irises in wooden barrels in the marsh. Those same irises continue to bloom every year, one might think, in their honour, to remind us of the Japanese presence that helped to form Steveston. The enduring flowers reflect their roots…their stories. They are reminiscent of the love of beauty and of the joy that Asayo and other Japanese Canadians took in their homes in Steveston.
Asayo’s garden, as it blooms today, speaks to the impact she and her Japanese community had on this place…Asayo’s, a particularly lovely one…forever hopeful.
Visit the Murakami house and gardens and the Murakami Boatworks during Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site’s opening hours, free of charge.