Thursday, August 24, 2023

Canadian Heroines: Asayo Murakami

By Terrie Todd

So much can be buried in silence.

Imagine, at the age of 26, setting sail for a foreign land whose language and customs you did not know in order to meet for the first time the spouse you married by proxy. Imagine arriving and having to search the docks for the face you’d seen only in a picture. Imagine realizing right away the person is not your type. Imagine calling off the marriage and having to work for three years to repay the $250 he paid for your voyage. Imagine doing all this while carrying a heartbreaking secret that would not be revealed for another 75 years.

Such was the case for Asayo Murakami, one of 6,000 “picture brides” who came to Canada from Japan between 1908 and 1924 seeking a better life. Though many men had already made the trip, they now sought partners from home through these arranged marriages.

Having rejected her match, returning to Japan was not an option for Asayo. She worked in strawberry fields and salmon canneries in British Columbia. until she’d paid her debt. Once free, she married a widower, Otokichi Murakami, and became stepmother to his two children.

Eight more children joined the family over the next 18 years. While Otokichi built boats and fished, Asayo grew massive flower gardens at their home in Steveston while she continued to work in the produce and canneries industry. I doubt she found much time to play one of the only possessions she brought with her from Japan, her cherished violin.

Asayo and Otokichi Murakami
Life changed abruptly on December 7, 1941, when Japan dropped bombs on Hawaii. By February of 1942, all Japanese Canadians within 100 miles of Canada’s west coast were under strict curfews, their radios, cars, fishing boats, and cameras confiscated. By March, they were moved to the interior of BC to work in road camps or internment camps for what they believed would last “a couple of months.” Some came to the prairies to work on farms.

The Murakami family spent the remainder of the war working on a sugar beet farm near Letellier, Manitoba. Having lost their coastal home, they moved to Alberta after the war and worked on a potato farm until they retired in 1967. Two years later, Otokichi died.

Asayo lived on her own for another 27 years, then lived out her days in a Calgary nursing home. Not until after her hundredth birthday did she reveal the deepest secrets about her life in Japan. Asayo had been married before. Her husband came from the prominent Ishibashi family. After the births of two healthy daughters, Asayo birthed a boy in 1921. Sadly, he died shortly after. Because of this perceived inability to bear a healthy heir, her in-laws dissolved the marriage. Asayo’s young daughters were sent to live with their paternal grandmother. When she died in 1926, the girls went to separate families where they were told their parents died in the Kanto earthquake in 1923. By this time, the heartbroken Asayo lived in Canada and knew nothing of their whereabouts. She carried pictures of the girls, Fumiko and Chieko, who were six and four the last time she saw them.

Upon hearing this story, Asayo’s Canadian children wondered whether to believe her. A lengthy pursuit of these long-lost daughters involved several trips to Japan for Asayo’s daughter, granddaughter, and great-granddaughter. Eventually, they learned Fumiko died in 1996. In 1999, they found Chieko, who had never heard the true story of her birth mother.

In 2001, Asayo’s granddaughter Linda Ohama released a poignant and heartbreaking documentary about her “Obachan” (grandmother). This 90-minute film, Obachan’s Garden, includes the emotional reunion. You can view it for free on the National Film Board of Canada’s website.

What qualifies her as a Canadian heroine in my judgment is her resilience through so many unspeakable wrongs. Incredible perseverance like hers should not be forgotten. Thanks to her family, it won’t be. They worked together to restore the original Murakami home and gardens in Steveston, which are now open to the public as B.C. historical sites.

Asayo passed away in 2002 at the age of 104.


100 Canadian Heroines: Famous and Forgotten Faces, by Merna Forster, Dundurn Press, 2004 

University of Victoria, Landscapes of Injustice Archives

Bitter war might be raging overseas, but Rose Onishi is on track to fulfill her lifelong goal of becoming a dazzling concert pianist. When forced by her own government to leave her beloved home to work on a sugar beet farm, Rose’s dream fades to match the black soil working its way into her calloused hands.

When Rusty Thorne joins the Canadian Army, he never imagines becoming a Japanese prisoner of war. Only his rare letters from home sustain him—especially the brilliant notes from his mother’s charming helper, which the girl signs simply as “Rose.”

Rose Among Thornes received the 2022 Debra Fieguth Social Justice Award as well as Best Cover Award from The Word Guild.
Terrie Todd’s novels are set in Manitoba where she lives. Her next book, April’s Promise, releases later this year. She lives with her husband, Jon, in Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, Canada where they raised their three children and where her novels are (mostly) set. They are grandparents to five boys.

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