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Memory Mondays – Asian Heritage Month – Wakabayashi Collection

May is Asian Heritage Month in Canada. In observance of this month, May’s Memory Mondays highlight artifacts and archival photos from the WDM’s Kimi and Tokujiro “Tom” Wakabayashi Collection.  

Asian Immigration to Canada

Tom Wakabayashi was born in Shiga Prefecture, Japan in 1900. He came to Canada in 1915 and worked in the logging industry for 13 years before moving to Regina around 1928. In Regina, he worked at Nippon Silk, a fabric store owned by Genzo Kitagawa. Tom was naturalized as a British Subject in Canada in October 1930, only one month after a September 16, 1930, Order-in-Council was passed by the Government of Canada, severely restricting Asian immigration.  

In the early 20th century, the Government of Canada and many Canadians were opposed to Asian immigration to Canada. These racist frameworks and beliefs were embedded in social policies and laws of the time. A 1902 report by the Royal Commission on Chinese and Japanese Immigration claimed that Chinese people living in Vancouver and Victoria had no understanding of sanitation and were physically polluting the areas in which they lived. It also raised concerns that Chinese workers were “encroaching upon skilled occupations” and pushing white Canadians out of jobs. The fact that Chinese immigrants usually had no interest in converting to Christianity was noted in the report as well, calling their morality into question in the eyes of Christian, European-Canadian society.

“From and after the 16th August, 1930, and until otherwise ordered, the landing in Canada of any immigrant of any Asiatic race is hereby prohibited.” Order-in-Council P.C. 2115, 16 September 1930

This was an escalation of a number of earlier restrictions that had been implemented in Canada attempting to discourage Asian immigration. In 1908, Canada asked Japan to limit the number of Japanese men coming to Canada to no more than 400 per year (they did not request a limit on the number of women coming to Canada from Japan at that time). The number was decreased to 150 people of any gender in 1928.

The only exception to Asian immigration restrictions was to allow the admission of a “wife or unmarried child under 18 years of age of any Canadian citizen legally admitted to and resident in Canada, who is in a position to receive and care for his dependants.”

Restrictions on Asian immigration to Canada were not completely lifted until 1967 when the federal government made dramatic changes to Canada’s immigration policy, no longer allowing race or ethnicity to be considered as factors when determining a person’s eligibility to immigrate.

Tom and Kimi

In 1931, Tom returned to Japan to find a wife. In Japan, he struggled to find parents who were willing to let their daughter move to Canada. Kimi Hayashi, who was 19 years old at the time, was encouraged by her father to marry Tom and come to Canada. She had never met Tom before but was told he did not drink or smoke and was a good man. They married on May 12, 1931 before travelling to Canada. Though immigrants from Asia were prohibited from entering Canada at the time, Kimi was exempt from this ban as the wife of a Canadian citizen.

Upon their arrival in Regina, Tom and Kimi moved into the same apartment building as the Kitagawa family, who owned the shop Tom worked at. Kimi did not speak English when she arrived in Canada, so having a Japanese-speaking family living in the same building was helpful. Kikuno Kitagawa helped Kimi adjust to life in Canada, taught her how to cook, and offered companionship as well.

Mikado Silk

In 1933, Tom and Kimi moved to Saskatoon and opened their own fabric store: the Mikado Silk Company, located at 223 2nd Ave S. The building still stands, now housing Bon Temps restaurant.

Mikado Silk quickly gained a reputation in Saskatoon for their excellent customer service and high-quality fabrics. In its first year of operation, in the midst of the Depression, Mikado Silk only made between $15-$30 in profit, equivalent to about $250-$500 in 2024, but this didn’t discourage the Wakabayshis.

Tom and Kimi had three children: Arthur, Ruby and George. Their daughter Ruby was named for a ruby ring Kimi’s father gifted to her the day she left Japan.

In 1957, Tom suffered a stroke, so his younger son George, who had been studying in Toronto, returned to Saskatoon to help run the store. Tom passed away in 1985; George kept the store open for another 13 years. In 1998, after 65 years in operation, Mikado Silk permanently closed on Saturday June 13, 1998.

Kimi worked as a clerk at Mikado Silk for 52 years before retiring shortly after Tom’s death. In addition to her work at the store, Kimi enjoyed gardening and maintained a flower and vegetable garden in her back yard. She was also known for both her sewing and her cross-stitch skills. Kimi passed away in 2009 at the age of 97.

In the Saskatoon neighbourhood of Silverwood Heights, Wakabayashi Way and Wakabayashi Crescent are named for George and Tom. The City of Saskatoon names streets after individuals who have provided ‘outstanding contributions’ to the city of Saskatoon, Province of Saskatchewan or Canada.

For May’s Memory Mondays photos, we’ve selected a few highlights from the Wakabayashi Collection.

Kimi Wakabayashi’s furisode-style kimono made of hand-stitched silk with hand-painted floral patterns. To wash this garment, the seams would be unstitched and each individual piece washed by hand before being sewn back together. Likely mid-1950s.

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Wakabayashi family portrait, taken in their home in Saskatoon in the 1940s. Left to right in the photo are: Tokujiro/Tom, George, Arthur, Kimi and Ruby.

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Kimi Wakabayashi’s wedding photo, 1931, taken in Japan.

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Tom and Kimi Wakabayashi’s shared Canadian passport, issued in 1931. They used this passport when Kimi came to Canada in 1931.

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Tokujiro “Tom” Wakabayashi’s Japanese passport from 1920. Issued on October 18, 1920. Tom used this passport to return to Japan in 1920. The passport was valid for one journey only.

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