Fieldnotes – The Nakagama Store

I hadn’t heard much about Japanese internment or labor camps in Canada until last year. That’s when I wandered into the Glenbow Museum in Calgary, and discovered an amazing exhibit telling the story of the Japanese-Canadian experience during and after World War II. In particular, I was struck by this:

The exhibit explored the Japanese-Canadian experience in general, and paid particular attention to the story of Ryutaro Nakagama. In 1942 Ryutaro was a successful merchant in Steveston, a mostly Japanese fishing community near Vancouver, when Japan entered the war. Within weeks, the ethnic Japanese inhabitants of British Columbia – a majority of them Canadian-born – had their possessions confiscated, and were sent to labor camps in the interior of Canada. Ryutaro, along with his wife, daughter, and a few other relatives, ended up in Alberta, where they labored in the sugar beet fields. After the war, surprisingly, the Nakagama family and many other Japanese-Canadians opted to stay in Alberta. Ryutaro saved his money, bought a truck, and started travelling the Alberta countryside, selling tofu, miso, rice noodles and other Japanese foods to Japanese living on isolated farms. He soon established a storefront in Lethbridge (although his application for a business license was turned town many times), and the Nakagama store became a magnet for people of Japanese origin in Alberta.

The store is still going strong, 64 years after its founding. Ryutaro’s son, Ken, runs the business, and still gets up extra early on Fridays and Saturdays to make sushi – using his mother’s rustic recipes – for his loyal customers. About two thirds of those customers, says Ken, are not of Japanese origin: a big change from the early days.

As for the connection of the Nakagama family to their ancestral country, Ken says this:

“Japan, to me, is a fascinating country with a fascinating culture. I still speak the language, and we still practice some of the cultural things that my parents brought with them to this country. But as for me…I’m Canadian.”