The Hotel Northern, left, which was owned by Yasutaro Kawakami, was consumed by flames when a fire started in the Sourdough Saloon next door on December 30, 1902, but he quickly rebuilt. By April of 1903, a larger three-storey building replaced the original hotel. The hotel continued to operate until Kawakami left town in 1916. (Submitted/Michael Gates)

The rising sun in the land of the midnight sun

Japanese brothers in Dawson ran thriving businesses despite racism

“Nowhere else in either the United States or Canada is a greater privilege extended to the Japanese than in this territory. Racial discrimination and prejudice, which are not uncommon in the cities on the Pacific seaboard, are unknown entirely in the Yukon.” Those were the words of Shuzaburo Kawakami in a special edition of the Dawson Daily News from August of 1913.

Swirling under the surface of Yukon society, however, there were sinister undercurrents of the racism toward the Japanese, similar to those being expressed along the west coast, especially in America. Even before the gold rush, in 1894, a party containing a number of Japanese and Chinese seeking entry to the Yukon was turned back near Dyea by a hostile miners’ committee.

At Atlin, in 1902, R.D. Fetherstonhaugh dealt with his company’s labour problems by introducing Asian labour. When he brought a number of Japanese to work his claims on McKee Creek, a party of 90 local miners confronted Fetherstonhaugh and his new employees on his claim, forcing him to send away all of his new workers, except for the Japanese cooks.

The same thing occurred in 1907 when the manager of the Pine Creek Power Company brought in 21 Japanese to work the company’s property. The Western Federation of Miners established a union local in the district, one of whose major aims was “to prevent the introduction of any more Orientals into Atlin.”

A similar situation occurred in the early days when a delegation in Whitehorse met a train from Skagway carrying a number of Oriental passengers, and forced them to return to Skagway, without getting off the train. Japanese who were not naturalized Canadians had to post bonds to ensure their passage through American territory without attempting to remain in the United State illegally.

Some Yukon newspapers took a hostile stance on Japanese in the territory. All of them used such racist terms as “Japs,” “little brown men,” “sons of chrysanthemum-land,” and “Klondike brownies.”

In an article published in the Klondike Nugget Sept. 2 1901, alarmist warnings were made that the influx of more Japanese to the territory would “crowd out the whites” from the labour market.

Yet a number of Japanese, often numbering close to 100, mostly single men, lived and worked in the Yukon. They were cooks and carpenters, laundrymen and hoteliers. One ran a machine shop, others operated retail stores. Two of the latter were the Kawakami brothers.

Yasutaro Kawakami arrived in Dawson City the year before the big stampede and established the Northern Hotel on the west side of 2nd Avenue between King and Queen Streets. He also profited greatly from a commission business that he ran on the side. From 1899 to 1901, he also operated a Japanese goods store on King Street, opposite the Klondike Nugget newspaper office.

Kawakami travelled to Japan on a pleasure trip in 1900 and returned the following year with a new bride, Josephine, who came from a prominent family in Osaka. He was also accompanied by his brother Shuzaburo.

Both brothers were well educated and fluent in English and other languages. They haunted the local newspapers, seeking the latest news. Shuzaburo Kawakami was described as slightly reclusive, a man committed to reading the entire Encyclopedia Britannica, which he had completed by 1923. Yasutaro took on a leading role within the Japanese community and his name frequently appeared in the newspapers organizing one social function or another.

Yasutaro was held in high enough esteem that in 1902, he was petitioned to run in the election for Yukon Territorial Council. Charles Blunden, the president of the miners’ union on Bonanza Creek gathered more than 80 names on a petition of support for Kawakami. He set up a campaign office next door to his store and aided by a friend, J.P. Simonds, published campaign literature promoting “The Mighty Atom,” as a candidate.

Meanwhile, the Yukon Sun newspaper set out a crusade of insult and ridicule regarding Kawakami’s campaign, which it maintained until, at the 11th hour, Kawakami withdrew his candidacy. His withdrawal coincided with a fire that destroyed his business the day before nominations closed.

In 1910, Shuzaburo, now the proprietor of the Japanese Bazaar, a retail store in Dawson, spoke out against the attempt by George Black, council member for South Dawson, to take away the right of Asians to vote in any election in the Yukon. The amendment proposed by Black, he asserted, was aimed directly at the Japanese citizens in the territory:

“I am proud to say that no Japanese ever committed any criminal offense in the territory and no one ever begged for a meal from a soup kitchen. Even a civil case against a Japanese is a very rare occurrence. Not one has ever been given a ‘blue ticket.’ I make no mistake in saying this that Japanese in the territory are good law-abiding people, always respecting the institutions of this country.”

The people heard, the people sympathized, and the people rejected Black’s proposed amendment unanimously, Black being the only one to vote in favour.

Yasutaro left the Yukon in 1916 for Seattle, where he opened a mercantile business. He returned to Japan with his wife and their four children around 1920. They were living in Tokyo in 1923 when the city was hit by a great earthquake. We do not know the fate of Yasutaro Kawakami and his family after that date.

Shuzaburo remained in the Yukon and continued to operate the Japanese Bazaar through the lean years of the 1920s. Included in his line of goods for sale were curios, novelties, glass and china, fine silks, clothing, post cards. In 1931, he embarked on a vigorous advertising campaign to counter the mail order competition. He survived a debilitating stroke in 1935, and put his Encyclopedia Britannica up for sale, but continued to operate his store until 1940, when he flew out of the territory on Oct. 1. He became a naturalized Canadian in Vancouver Jan. 16 1941. Whether he was in British Columbia at the time of the bombing of Pearl Harbour Dec. 7 1941 or had returned to Japan by that time is unknown.

What we do know is that both Kawakami brothers operated successful businesses in Dawson for decades, having gained the general respect of the community, despite undercurrents of racism.

Michael Gates is a Yukon historian and sometimes adventurer based in Whitehorse. His new book, From the Klondike to Berlin, is now available in stores everywhere. You can contact him at msgates@northwestel.net

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