Shinkichi Tamura pioneered Japan–Canada trade and ties

By Tim Hornyak

In 2025, Osaka will welcome people from around the world to a big party when it hosts a World Expo, and Canada is likely to play a prominent part. Discussions are already underway between planners and Canadian lumber officials, who put together a large wooden structure for Osaka’s last expo, in 1970. But it was in 1903 that an international exhibition in Osaka put trade ties between Canada and Japan on firm footing, due in great part to a local entrepreneur who made it big in Vancouver.

Born in 1863, Shinkichi Tamura was one of the most successful Japanese to emigrate to Canada. He began his career at age 13, as an apprentice at an Osaka textile retailer, and before he was 26 he had moved to Victoria and found work at a sawmill and then a sulphur company. After working as a purchasing agent for the latter in Hokkaido, he moved to Vancouver and set up a trading company, Tamura Shokai. At first importing Japanese silk, produce and consumer products, the company began exporting salmon to Japan. When a shipment was lost at sea, Tamura received an insurance payout of C$150,000, allowing him to grow the business.

The 1903 expo was the largest of its kind to be held in Japan, lasting 153 days, drawing more than 4.3 million people and showcasing Japan’s might as a rising industrial power.

But Tamura’s ship really came in when theCanadian government asked him for help with its pavilion at Japan’s Fifth National Industrial Exhibition, held in Osaka in 1903. The expo was the largest of its kind to be held in Japan, lasting 153 days, drawing more than 4.3 million people and showcasing Japan’s might as a rising industrial power. There were pavilions dedicated to machinery, fisheries, forestry, agriculture, transportation, education and, in a Japan first, foreign goods.

In the Foreign Samples building, Canada showed off everything from canned fish and maple syrup to furniture, bicycles and a model of the Canadian Pacific ocean liner Empress of Japan. “The pièce de résistance was the bakery,” writes Anne Shannon in Finding Japan: Early Canadian Encounters with Asia. “Several times a day, a cook demonstrated breadmaking with Canadian flour and equipment as hundreds of Japanese spectators, most of whom had never seen bread, let alone watched it rise and come out of the oven, looked on in fasci­nation. The results were eagerly sampled, and bread became a popular item on the menus of Osaka restaurants.”

With Tamura’s help, Canada’s showing in Osaka was a resounding success. He later organized the first major shipment of Canadian wheat and flour to Japan. Tamura Shokai became one of the biggest companies in Vancouver’s Japanese community, esta­bli­shing offices in Japan and the United States. In 1907, it diversified into finance, with its affiliate Nikka Chochiku (the Japan–Canada Trust Savings Company) handling savings and remittances for Japanese immigrants.

As the only Japanese listed in C.W. Parker’s Who’s Who in Western Canada, Tamura was an important banker and businessman, but he left his mark on Vancouver in other ways, too. He co-founded the Japanese Methodist Church and established an organization to help Japanese immigrants learn English. To help with temporary accommodation, he opened the New World Hotel in an ornate, four-story brick structure named the Tamura Building; it was erected in 1912 on the corner of Powell and Dunlevy in Vancouver’s Japantown.

In 1918, the year he filed a U.S. patent for an automobile suspension system design, Tamura left his business to relatives and moved back to Japan to pursue politics. He served as president of the Kobe Chamber of Commerce as well as in the House of Representatives and, having been made Baron Tamura, in the House of Peers. In 1919, he was a Japanese delegate to the first conference of the International Labour Organization, held in Washington. Nikka Chochiku continued to go strong in Canada until World War II and in Japan until the 1980s.

Tamura died in November 1936 at age 74, but his legacy lives on. The Tamura Building is now a Class A Vancouver historic landmark and was restored to its original splendour in 2017, complete with rooftop pediments in black sheet metal. While Japantown has changed dramatically in character over the past century, the Tamura Building still shelters those in need. Operated by the Lookout Housing and Health Society, a nonprofit group, Tamura House offers 109 rooms for those at risk of homelessness. Surely the baron from Osaka would be proud.

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