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26 January 2010

Research Into Historic Disaster Discovers Japanese Victims' Stories


Revelstoke resident and RMR ski patroller Tomo Fujimura has spent the past year uncovering the stories of Japanese victims of the 1910 Rogers Pass slide, including meeting living relatives who will travel here for upcoming memorial ceremonies.

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Revelstoke British Columbia - Just before midnight on 4 Mar 1910, CPR Roadmaster John Anderson returned through the snow after placing a call to let the railway know of his crew's progress in clearing a slide blocking the line at Rogers Pass.
Approaching what should have been a busy work site with a huge rotary plough and over 60 men toiling away, he was instead greeted by a flat silence.
Soon he heard fireman Bill Lachance crying out for help. Lachance had crawled from the smashed rotary plough with shattered legs, and was one of only a few survivors of the worst avalanche disaster in Canadian history.
In total, 58 men lay dead, many of them buried under up to 10 metres of snow, rocks, trees, and other debris that had swept down from between Mount Macdonald and Avalanche Mountain, freezing some of them literally where they stood.
32 Japanese Workers Stories' Unknown
Many facets of the disaster are well known in local historical circles, but one area that has gone largely without research was the stories of the 32 Japanese labourers who were amongst the victims. Much has been discovered about the victims since Revelstoke resident Tomo Fujimura became involved in researching their stories just over a year ago.
Tomo first heard of the commemorative events through his wife Yuko, who had been volunteering at the Revelstoke Museum & Archives when curator Cathy English asked her for some help looking into the Japanese victims. His interest was piqued, and Tomo eventually took over the project, with Yuko focusing her efforts on the commemorative origami cranes being produced for the 4 Mar 2010, ceremonies to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the disaster.
Fujimura is himself an avalanche professional and works as a ski patroller at RMR. He's one of a handful of Japanese nationals with level two Canadian avalanche certification. When he dropped by the office last Tuesday evening, Fujimura had just that day assisted in the rescue of a Swedish skier who had collapsed a cornice and started a small avalanche in an out-of-bounds area on RMR. The man came to a rest on a cliff ledge and required a helicopter rescue.
Like many of those involved in centennial commemorative events related to the Rogers Pass Slide, Fujimura also has more personal connections to avalanches. He's lost friends and acquaintances to avalanches in Canada and Japan. Also, while patrolling, he was caught along with eight others in an in-bounds avalanche in Fernie. Everyone survived that incident. He also experienced the Kobe earthquake in 1995 that killed over 6,400 people. He believes there is fate involved in his journey, and feels his involvement could make international connections. "I could be the person that bridges it up between two countries", he says.
Once involved, Fujimura dove into researching the stories behind the individuals. "We always knew that there was a strong Japanese involvement in the event, but we didn't know a lot about them," says Revelstoke Museum & Archives curator Cathy English. She has deep praise for Tomo's work as part of a committee organizing memorial events. "He would make a great researcher and historian. He's done a really good job. He's a very dogged researcher. He really delves in and keeps digging. He's very good at finding sources and tracking them down and verifying them," she said. "His work has been excellent."
Despite the many hours of complicated research, Fujimura didn't have any formal history training when he first got involved in the project about a year ago. He came to Canada in 1995 to study English, and then completed a tourism degree. He has years of experience as a volunteer and pro patroller. Fujimura was also involved in tourism promotion in the East Kootenay.
Following the scant paper trail of the Japanese labourers is difficult. Most of the men were single and in their early twenties. They came to Canada to labour. The young workers migrated around the province, filling seasonal labour positions. Canning in the coastal mills, fruit picking, and in the case of the 32 killed at Rogers Pass, contract work with the Nippon Supply Company. The Vancouver-based labour contractor was hired by the Canadian Pacific Railway to supply labour to keep the pass open during the winter.
Fujimura visited archives in Vancouver and Japan and enlisted the help of researchers and university professors. He's also scoured newspaper archives and is in the process of translating over a month's worth of related stories following the disaster from Vancouver-based Japanese language publication the Daily Continental.
A search for past relatives wouldn't be complete without an internet component. Fujimura got boarding lists from ships heading from Japan to Canada in the years prior to 1910 from anscestry.ca, and tracked down more relatives by locating their place of origin from the ship's manifest.
Another breakthrough was determining the total number of victims of the accident. Following the slide, the number of Japanese victims became confused during the month-long recovery process, and the total number of victims was thought to be more. Due to Fujimura's research, duplication of names resulting from clerical errors. Also, some of the victims used more than one name. As a result of his work, the official total is now 58 victims, with a confirmed count of 32 Japanese victims.
Once Fujimura had spent some months tracking down the victims, he embarked on a trip to Japan to try to locate some of their relatives and also to do some avalanche education work in the process.
Along with Whistler-based big mountain skier Daisuke Sasaki (whom Fujimura describes as "big in Japan" in ski circles) they embarked on an eleven-city fundraising tour to raise awareness about avalanche safety and the Rogers Pass disaster. Armed with a subtitled version of the Canadian Avalanche Centre-sponsored and Rocky Mountain Sherpa produced avalanche safety film The Fine Line, the pair embarked on a tour promoting the film and the events this summer. The tour raised $9,000, some of which covered research costs, and a portion will go towards assisting relatives of the victims travel to Canada in August.
Along the way, he conducted research into the Japanese victims, including tracking down relatives, and visiting their final resting places. He's found living relatives of four of the victims.
On 4 Mar 2010, relatives of victim Mannosuke Yamaji will be on hand for the 1910 Avalanche Memorial Service at Grizzly Plaza in Revelstoke.
On 13-15 Aug 2010, relatives of Masatora Abe will travel to Revelstoke for events including a memorial service at the site of the disaster, now located at Rogers Pass National Historic Site.
Aaron Orlando.

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