Phantom Immigrants

~written by Jirō Nitta
~translated by David Sulz

Phantom Immigrants is one of three historical novels available in English by the Japanese author Jirō Nitta, the other two being An Alaskan Tale and Death March on Mount Hakkōda. After finishing Death March on Mount Hakkōda, I was interested in reading more of Nitta's work. Of the three novels, Phantom Immigrants is the most difficult to find in print. (Fortunately, a digital edition is readily available.) As of 2009, only about three hundred fifty copies of the English edition of Phantom Immigrants have been printed, handmade by the translator David Sulz. Phantom Immigrants was first published in Japan in 1979. Sulz completed the English translation of the novel in 1998 after several years of work; he continues to make revisions and additions, such as a bibliography of materials available in English that relate to the people, places, and events of the novel.

Born in 1854, Ryoji Onodera was a precocious boy destined for great things. The third child of the Masubuchi village head, he would eventually marry into the respectable Oikawa family at the age of 21, changing his name to Jinsaburo Oikawa. For a time, Oikawa worked closely with his father-in-law in the coal transportation business, but soon his attention wandered to other opportunities and industries. In 1896, Oikawa heard rumors that the fishing companies in Canada discarded the salmon roe from their catches. Sensing a profit to be made, Oikawa left his family behind in Japan to investigate the situation in Canada. Once there, his dreams of exporting salmon roe back to Japan grew into a desire to establish a Japanese colony on the Fraser River. Going so far as to illegally smuggle immigrants into the country, over time Oikawa would be directly and indirectly responsible for the arrival of more than four hundred Japanese in Canada.

Although Phantom Immigrants is a novel, the book is the result of extensive research and travel on Nitta's part. As with many (if not most or all) of his historical novels, while the story of Phantom Immigrants has been somewhat dramatized, the events on which the novel is based are absolutely true. Nitta makes good use of primary and secondary documents, and even includes excerpts of those resources in Phantom Immigrants. He traveled across Japan and Canada in order to interview those who knew Oikawa as well as their descendants, incorporating their oral histories into the novel. Large parts of Phantom Immigrants are based on Oikawa's autobiography. Written in an older style of Japanese, his autobiography is difficult to read. As is mentioned in the author's notes, one of Nitta's goals in writing Phantom Immigrants was to "revive his story and make it accessible." Nitta also made extensive use of the memoir of Souemon Sato, one of Oikawa's business partners, which Nitta uncovered while traveling in Canada.

I can't say that I have a particular interest in Oikawa, salmon fishing, or the history of Canadian immigration. I primarily read Phantom Immigrants because it was written by Nitta. However, I still found portions of the novel to be utterly fascinating. What intrigued me the most was Oikawa's efforts to create a Japanese utopia in Canada while at the same time striving for acceptance by white society. Particularly engaging was the story of the Sui-an-maru, the ship Oikawa chartered to smuggle Japanese immigrants into Canada, and its passengers. The colony that Oikawa was able to establish along the Fraser River was among the first wave of Japanese immigration to Canada; their descendants became an important part of the Japanese-Canadian community. Still, despite Nitta's fictionalization, Phantom Immigrants can be somewhat dry in stretches and will probably appeal most to readers who already have an interest in the novel's subject matter.

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