Mackenzie King took this photograph in 1907 and the building featured is a Japanese grocery store located at 130 Powell Street in Vancouver and it was licensed to a man named Masuya Nishimura. The damage to the building was done during the 1907 Anti-Asiatic riots.
The riot began around 9pm on September 7 as a demonstration of about 50-60 members of the Asiatic Exclusion League marched through Chinatown and Japantown breaking windows and doing other damage.  The Asiatic Exclusion League was an organization that was founded in 1905 in San Francisco before appearing in Vancouver in 1907, which said their purpose was “to work for the exclusion from the Dominion of Canada, its territory, and its possessions, all Asiatics”.  The Government of Canada has digitized a collection of documents pertaining to the riots and one of the most interesting is a group of telegraphic messages from two men named Mr. K. Ishie and Mr. Moriwaka to the Imperial Consulate of Japan in Canada. These messages detailed the riots from the beginning to the end.  They say the group of 50-60 quickly became upwards of around 500 whocontinued to do more damage. Moriwaka referred to it as an “Anti-Oriental riot” and details events such as the burning of an effigy of Lieutenant Governor Dunsmuir, due to his unwillingness to sign the “Anti-Oriental enactment”. He goes onto to say another attack occurred early on in the morning of September 8, storming more Japanese stores in the East End.  In his second message, he says a fourth attacked had occurred previously at Midnight on Japanese quarters for about three hours until the Japanese were able to fend them off with the help of the police.  The final incident occurred on Monday, September 9 where rioters set fire to a Japanese primary school.  By the end, an immense of damage had been done by the mob, and it was very troubling news for the Japanese Foreign Minister.
This photograph’s backdrop is a destroyed grocery store run by Masuya Nishimura, and his family, who originally came from Shiga-Ken prefecture in Japan.  It is very intriguing because when one looks at this photo of a destroyed grocery store on 130 Powell St, instead of sadness this photo emits a sense of hopefulness, confusion and ambiguity. The feeling this photo portrays to its audience is very contrasting to the actual situation of the riot where some family homes and businesses were completely damaged. This contrast can also be seen with the oddly happy Japanese women (presumably Masuya’s wife Kinue) who is standing in the middle of a completely ruined shop.  Perhaps the bright mood of the photo is the reason why it is often a popular photo used to showcase the riot in articles and newspapers, this can be used to lighten the devastating and intensely racist event.
Another interesting note on the photo is the number of subjects (people) who are here, how different they are from one another and their dynamic in this photo. There seems to be seven people present, three white men, one South Asian man, and one Japanese women with her two children. This is able to show how multicultural and non-isolated Japantown was back then and how everyone was a part of each other’s lives. This staging of one lone Japanese women surrounded by mainly white men and an South Asian man looking on from the sidelines is intriguing as well, because this shows a huge contrast in the power dynamics. If the women is thought of as representation of all Japanese Canadians then it would imply that the Japanese were more feminine, which at that time would be an insult, it would also imply that they are overpowered by the presence of white men. This type of feminine verse masculine relationship between Japanese Canadians and Canadians seems very similar to the Meiji period in Japan and the relationships between Japan and the West during the westernization. Most importantly, this photo is significant because it has become a primary source that gave us an inside look at the riot and racism in Canada.
The riots were a very concerning time in Vancouver and Canada’s history; today the Asian population has grown much larger and now is an integral part of Vancouver’s identity in many ways. My mother’s family is Chinese, and they experienced the same discrimination, my grandfather, for example, had to pay the Chinese Head tax when he came to Canada work on the Canadian Pacific Railway. The riots were one of the points where these racial tensions peaked and came to violence, and even after they did not fade, as we can see with the Internment of the Japanese population. Some would argue that it was a security threat, or that it was for their own safety, protecting them from the general population, but there is clear evidence that there was still racist reasons for these government decisions. No more obvious than the fact that they were kept away for four years after the end of the war. The riots were a microcosm of the racism towards the “Asiatics” in the city that some would argue has not fully gone away.
Partner: Gregory Read
- Wilfrid Laurier, Political Papers, General Correspondence (1907).
http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=449131, page 2.
- John Mackie, “This Week in History: 1907 The Asiatic Exclusion League is formed,”
Vancouver Sun, August 11, 2017,
- Laurier, Wilfrid.
- Ibid., 2.
- Ibid., 3.
- Ibid., 3.
- Ibid., 4.
- Ibid., 5.
- Nakayama Jinshiro, Directory of Japanese Residing in Canada (Toronto: Japanese
Canadian Cultural Centre Heritage Committee, 1929), 210.
- Ibid, 210.
Jinshiro, Nakayama. Directory of Japanese Residing in Canada. Toronto: Japanese
Canadian Cultural Centre Heritage Committee, 1929.
Laurier, Wilfrid, Political Papers, General Correspondence. 1907.
Mackie, John. “This Week in History: 1907 The Asiatic Exclusion League is formed.”
Vancouver Sun, Postmedia. August 11, 2017.