Japanese adventurer battled racial prejudice and bitter cold

Jujiro Wada was known as a Jap. In 1892, the term was perfectly acceptable. The Arctic adventurer would end up being drugged, kidnapped, robbed,…

Jujiro Wada was known as a Jap.

In 1892, the term was perfectly acceptable.

The Arctic adventurer would end up being drugged, kidnapped, robbed, wanted by the law, mush dogs, chart gold trails, prospect and become King of the Inuit.

But in the end, it was still Wada’s ethnicity that defined him.

And when he died in California, at 62, he was buried in an unmarked grave.

A new travelling display may help redress some of the neglect.

“In the early 1900s, in North America, there was a backlash against Asians,” said Yukon Humans Rights Commission public education specialist Lillian Nakamura Maguire, one of the organizers.

“Looking at Wada’s life, we can draw parallels with what is happening today to Middle-Eastern people.”

Wada lost his Samurai father when he was four and grew up in poverty with his mom on the outskirts of Matsuyama City, Japan.

At 16, while working for a trading company in Kobe, Wada managed to squeeze into a large tea box destined for America.

Arriving in San Francisco in 1891, the young stowaway walked the streets looking for work.

But he couldn’t speak English.

And things didn’t improve for Wada until he was drugged and kidnapped.

After going for a few drinks with a stranger in a San Francisco bar, Wada woke up on a whaling ship chugging toward the North Sea.

It was the whaling industry’s solution to a worker shortage, and Wada was forced to sign a three-year contract.

The total pay would be $80.

Happy with the kidnapping arrangement, Wada embraced the work and befriended the ship’s captain, learning English and navigation skills.

While hunting whales off the Yukon’s Herschel Island, Wada spent time with the local Inuit learning to hunt, dogsled, snowshoe and speak their language.

He also heard about gold buried along the Arctic shore.

It was something he wouldn’t forget.

After finishing his whaling contract, Wada took his $80 and returned to Japan to give the money to his mother.

But the thought of gold haunted him.

And after a couple years he returned to the North.

Working as a cook on another boat, Wada and the crew ended up getting caught in drifting ice flows in the middle of Alaska’s Smith Bay.

Swiftly putting together a small team of dogs, Wada and his huskies loped through minus 62 Celsius temperatures to get help from the Inuit he’d met whaling.

Wada and his Inuit friends shot some caribou and returned to feed the ship’s crew.

After getting off the ship and earning a name for himself as a prospector, the “fake Eskimo shorty” applied for American citizenship in Nome, 1901.

He was denied.

Without citizenship, Wada’s prospecting was all for naught.

He wasn’t allowed to stake a claim.

Instead he was forced to sell his information to a group of mining registration officers for a meagre fee.

“There were laws that limited the number of Japanese immigrants allowed in the country,” said Nakamura Maguire.

And by the end of his adventurous career, Wada ended up fearing for his life, she said.

“He had to keep a low profile.”

Things started to turn for Wada after Alaska’s Chena gold strike.

Asked to relay the information to the North American Trading Company in Dawson City, Wada left Circle, Alaska with his dog team.

Three weeks later, with the mercury hovering at minus 56 Celsius, Wada arrived in Dodge.

Wada’s news of the gold strike spread like wildfire and set off the Tanana Stampede, which saw more than 1,000 prospectors arrive in Chena with gold fever.

But there wasn’t much gold.

And an angry mob formed, blaming Wada’s inflated story for their empty pockets.

Narrowly avoiding a lynching, Wada left Chena in June 1903.

But his bad luck continued.

In Nome a month later, he was arrested for illegally selling mink furs.

He was released on $500 bail, but never returned for his hearing.

Still under a black cloud, Wada snuck onto a ship bound for the Arctic coast, but it hit an iceberg and had to return to Nome.

Familiar with Wada’s dilemma, the captain loaned him a team of dogs so Wada could travel the 1,100 kilometres to Herschel Island on land and sea ice.

Back with the Inuit, Wada became known as “King of the Eskimo,” gaining their trust by bartering fair prices for their furs.

It is possible Wada also had a daughter during his stay with the Inuit.

Some of Wada’s past remains hazy.

“We had to figure a lot of things out from newspaper clippings,” said Yukon Archive’s Peggy D’Orsay, another of the display’s organizers.

“We started researching after we had enough information.”

Wada’s stint with the Inuit ended when he was accused of embezzlement, after $395.39 of fur money was stolen from his pocket while he slept.

A brief court hearing found him innocent.

Here there are more gaps in Wada’s past.

But it’s known that in March 1907, he entered a 80-kilometre foot-race, without any training, and won.

Following this success, he went on to win several more, and became known across Alaska as a runner.

More prospecting, a 8,200-kilometre trip by dog team, steam, boat and whaling ship, several more treks with dogs from Dawson to Herschel Island, and a dog sled trip from Seward to Iditarod to establish a route to the newly discovered gold mine, marked Wada’s next few years.

On several more occasions, the explorer was forced to sell claim information to other prospectors at reduced rates because he remained a foreigner in the country he called home.

And in 1915, he was accused of being a Japanese spy.

An article in the Cordova Daily Times, by geological engineer Ernest Blue, described the contents of a backpack Wada accidentally left behind.

In it there was “a very accurate and detailed map of Alaska with all the gold deposit sights with routes to them,” and a few thousand dollars cash.

World War I had just begun, anti-Japanese sentiment was escalating and Blue’s accusations ruined Wada.

After writing a hasty letter to a friend stating he feared for his life, Wada returned to the North.

But he was always on the move.

His final years were spent trying to find sponsors for his continuing explorations.

Wada died of a heart attack in San Diego, March 5th, 1937.

He had 53 cents in his pocket.

His mother had passed away years before and Wada had continued to send money home to build her a decent grave.

But he would not have the same honour.

With no acquaintances found, Wada ended up in an unmarked grave, on the continent he called home, but where he remained an outsider.

D’Orsay became interested in the Yukon’s Asian history after hearing Wada’s story.

“The Asian population has always been small up here,” she said.

“And once I finished the black history, I became curious about the Asians.”

The Yukon Archives, together with the Human Rights Commission has created two historical panels charting Asian history from 1920 to 1967.

And two more are in the works, said D’Orsay.

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