Murakami Family in Steveston
In the late 19th century, Otokichi Murakami, a trained boatbuilder and fisherman, arrived in British Columbia from the fishing village of Takumaru, Hiroshima. He was part of an influx of male Japanese immigrants that settled in Steveston. Otokichi was married and had two children with his first wife who died during the birth of their second child.
On May 27, 1924, Asayo Imamoto arrived in Canada as a twenty-six-year-old picture bride. Previously, she was married to a man from a prominent Hiroshima family named Ishibashi. Asayo delivered two healthy daughters and, in 1921, gave birth to a son who died shortly afterward. Her first marriage was dissolved in 1923 because of her perceived inability to bear a healthy heir. After a bitter argument, Asayo’s young daughters were sent to live with their paternal grandmother. The daughters were later sent to live with separate families after the death of the paternal grandmother in 1926.
Asayo was betrothed after exchanging photographs through mail to a Japanese immigrant living in Steveston. On April 27, 1924, Asayo and other picture brides boarded a steamer for Canada. Her few possessions included a photograph of her beloved daughters, Fumiko and Chieko, and a violin. Asayo’s fiancée, Murakami, was a short unattractive man. She broke her marriage contract upon seeing him for the first time. For three years she cleaned houses, picked berries, and laboured on Steveston canning lines to repay her $250 transportation debt to her former fiancée.
A few years later a matchmaker introduced Asayo to the man she would marry who was also named Murakami. Asayo, Otokichi and his two children lived on Westham Island (Delta) before moving into a house at the Pacific Coast Cannery east of the Britannia Shipyard. In 1929, they moved to the house now known as the Murakami House on the Steveston waterfront. Asayo continued to pick produce and work the canning lines while caring for their ten children.
In early 1942, the Federal Government forcibly removed more than 23,000 Japanese people from the west coast and confiscated and sold their property. The Murakami family was sent to a sugar beet farm in Letellier, Manitoba where they laboured for fifty cents an hour. In 1949, the family joined their eldest daughter and her husband on a potato farm in Rainer, Alberta. Asayo and Otokichi retired in 1967. After Otokichi’s death in 1969, Asayo lived on her own for twenty-seven years before moving to a nursing home in Calgary.
In the late 1990s, Asayo was reunited with her youngest daughter, Chieko Nishida. Chieko grew up believing her parents were killed in the 1923 Great Kantō earthquake. Fumiko Sogou died in 1996 without meeting Asayo and Chieko. At the time of her passing on December 21, 2002, Asayo left nine children, twenty-one grandchildren, fifty-seven great-grandchildren, and five great-great-grandchildren. Four children, including an infant son, and her second husband, Otokichi Murakami, who died in 1969, predeceased her.
In 2001, Linda Ohama released Obachan’s Garden, a poignant documentary about her grandmother.
The Murakami family built a boatworks in 1929 on property rented from the Phoenix Cannery. Otokichi Murakami built two gillnetters every winter, and fished during the summer. Japanese and Western tools were used to build one boat at a time. Using temporary rails, completed boats were directed across the front boardwalk for launching. A hand-operated capstan was used to move the cradle along the rails. Today, the boatworks is home to boatbuilding programs and maritime demonstrations.
The building was originally on piles over the marsh and could have been built as early as 1885. It was the house of Otokichi and Asayo Murakami and their 10 children from 1929 until their internment in 1942. It was also known as Phoenix House #40 and was among many small residences linked together by wooden boardwalks. A community of two hundred and fifty Japanese families lived on the Steveston waterfront.
Otokichi handcrafted an ofuro, a traditional Japanese bath, for his family. Asayo created a garden beside their home to feed their large family. In 1998, the Murakami family recreated Asayo’s colourful garden in celebration of her one-hundredth birthday.
The Murakami residence as seen today at the Britannia Shipyard was reconstructed on a new foundation on its original footprint. The interior was recreated from a sketch drawn by George Murakami, Otokichi and Asayo’s eldest son, and from shared recollections of their other children. Portions of the house were furnished based on their descriptions to reflect life between 1929 and early 1942.
National Historic Site Designation
The Britannia Shipyard was designated a National Historic Site in 1991 by the National Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada. The 3.3-hectare park located along the Steveston Channel of the Fraser River consists of a community of workshops and dwellings that served the shore-based salmon fishery during its boom years from 1890 to 1913. Built over water, the shipyard is part of Steveston’s Cannery Row extending from Garry Point and the Gulf of Georgia Cannery to London Heritage Farm. Many of the buildings on the site were built in 1885.
The property includes the Britannia Shipyard and two boatworks operated by Japanese-Canadians. Labourers and craftsmen of Chinese, European, First Nations and Japanese descent lived in houses on site, and worked in salmon canneries, on the fishing boats, and in the boatworks.
Britannia Shipyards National Historic Site
5180 Westwater Drive
Richmond, British Columbia
May 1 to September 30
Monday to Sunday
10:00 AM to 5:00 PM
October 1 to April 30
Saturday and Sunday
12:00 PM to 5:00 PM