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Japanese dressmakers

by DG Graham | June 1, 1998

I wish that it was possible to rifle through the history books and find one group of a different culture who were welcomed with open arms when they came to Canada. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to. Given how the Japanese are respected today, you’d think that they might have been one such group. Like so many other people’s cultures to come to Canada, the early experience of the Japanese was one of brutal discrimination. But they coped, and it is how the women found a solution that interests us here.

The first known Japanese immigrant came to Canada (to Victoria, British Columbia) in 1877. By 1914, there about 10,000 Japanese settled here permanently. Until 1907, when Canada insisted that Japan limit her immigration of males to 400, almost all of the immigrants had been young men. From then on it was mainly Japanese women who came, joining their husbands.

Although the first wave of Japanese (the “Issei” [ee-say]) were healthy, literate and skilled, the British Columbian government did everything possible to make them leave. It:

  • denied them the vote;
  • excluded them from many professions, including the civil service and teaching;
  • passed laws so that employers would only hire Japanese immigrants for the most menial jobs, and pay them less than white employees;
  • restricted the numbers of fishing licences given to the Japanese (one of their traditional means of livelihood);
  • during the Depression, the recent immigrants received far less in social assistance than did whites.

The outright, no-apologies blatancy of the discrimination shown to people from Japan is hard to believe today.

So the Japanese in Canada, excluded from white culture and society, created their own. They had their businesses, shops, accountants and dressmakers.

Almost every Japanese woman knew how to sew. It was basic preparation for marriage, and a skill that the Issei passed on to their daughters when it became clear that it was going to be a struggle to survive in this country. And there weren’t very many alternatives: Japanese women could go into canneries, housekeeping or dressmaking. I think it’s indicative of the will of Japanese women to be independent that of these three, most Japanese women chose dressmaking, as it was the only one that offered a real possibility of becoming an independent businesswoman.

So that’s what happened. Schools were set up, teaching pattern design, drafting, layout and construction. Competition between the schools and their prospective students was strong, keeping the standards high. These schools were started and run by women and employed primarily women. (Certainly in the sewing departments! Men might work there as machinists or gardeners).

After a young women graduated, she might go into business with a relative or friend. Often the dressmaking was combined with cleaning and alterations to form a complete business that could support one or more families. These businesses were integral to the Japanese community, and very important to the independence and development of the women themselves. As one woman of that era – Kay Tatebe – said: “There was a dressmaker on every corner and most of them were Japanese.”

When War War Two came, this community was knocked down. The federal government, responding to racist politicians in B.C., used the War Measures Act to evacuate and in some cases intern all the Japanese Canadians. Their property was taken and sold by the federal government, and they were forced into either camps or outlying areas where they “couldn’t be a threat to Canada’s security.”

Within the camps and out in the remote, unserviced parts of the West, sewing was a great asset. The women had very little money, and very few opportunities for getting access to supplies. Undaunted, they organized sewing classes within the camps, and continued to encourage self-reliance in their daughters through skill-building. One woman, Marie Saito, explained how grateful she was for her training after her husband died:

“My youngest was only four years old so I couldn’t go out to work. I was fortunate that I took up dressmaking and I could earn a living from home ... I had to sew from early in the morning to late at night to make ends meet ...”

The conditions in the camps weren’t encouraging either. Many didn’t have electricity, only coal lamps, therefore the sewing machines were the old pedal version. I think this kind of perseverance is amazing, given that the camps were virtually prisons, and the level of bitterness that most people would feel would all but destroy any attempts at community building.

After the war, many people protested so strongly about these racist policies that the government caved and conditions for Japanese Canadians improved. They were able to take other jobs, and so their focus on dressmaking ceased. Increased mechanization also played a role in ending the era of the private dressmaker. But for many years, dressmaking had played a vital role.

The Japanese Canadian National Museum and Archives Society in Vancouver has created a display on women dressmakers during World War Two entitled: “Our Mothers’ Patterns – Sewing and Dressmaking in the Japanese Canadian Community.” The display shows what a pivotal role dressmaking played in the development of Japanese culture, and features many photographs, stories and visual materials about this subject. If you’re anywhere near the area, it sounds like it would be a fascinating display to check out.

resources for this story

  • Some of the information in this article comes from an article by Susan Michi Sirovyak entitled: “Our Mothers’ Patterns – Sewing and Dressmaking in the Japanese Canadian Community” and from a submission about Japanese Women from Kate O’Rourke
books about Japanese immigrants in Canada

  • Adachi, Ken. The Enemy that Never Was: A History of Japanese Canadians, Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1976
  • Ayukawa, Dr. Michiko. “Yosai: Western Sewing,” Nikkei Images (Newsletter of the Japanese Canadian Museum and Archives), Vol 1, No. III (July 1996), 3-4
  • Broadfoot, Barry. Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame, Toronto: Doubleday Books, 1977
  • Nakayama, Gordon C. Issei: Stories of Japanese Canadian Pioneers, Toronto: Britannia Printers Ltd., 1983
  • Newman, Peter C. The Aquisitors. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981
  • Patton, Janice. The Exodus of the Japanese. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1973
  • Shibata, Yuko et al. The Forgotten History of the Japanese Canadians: Vol 1, Vancouver: New Sun Books, 1977 (excellent and exhaustive bibliography)
  • Sunahara, Ann Gomer. The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians During the Second World War. Toronto: J. Lorimer, 1981
  • Young, C.H., H.R. Reid and W.A. Carruthers. The Japanese Canadians, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1939
films and other related works

  • Falcon Films/International Telefilm. The Pool: Reflections of the Japanese Canadian Internment, 1992 [Video Call No. 57723]
  • Oiwa, Keibo, ed. Stone Voices: Wartime Writings of Japanese Canadian Issei, Montreal: Vehicule Press, 1991
  • Takashima, Shizuye. A Child in Prison Camp. Toronto: Tundra Books. 1971
  • The New Canadian. Japanese Canadian Newspaper

This feature was first published on’s predecessor site CoolWomen.


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