The Suian Maru Voyagers were a group of people, 80 men and three women, who sailed to Canada in the summer of 1906 aboard the Suian Maru, which set sail from Japan's Miyagi Prefecture. Their destination was Don and Lion Islands in the Fraser River near Richmond, British Columbia, known in the Japanese community as Oikawa-jima and Sato-jima, respectively (jima, or shima, means island.)
Only one of the passengers had been to Canada before: Jinzaburo Oikawa, after whom one of the islands is named. Oikawa, an entrepreneur who had arrived in Canada a decade earlier, had learned first-hand the salmon fishing and processing industry, and wanted to help people from his home village escape the poverty that was prevalent after the Russo-Japanese war. His plan was to have the voyagers enter Canada as shipwrecked ocean-going fishermen.
The Suian Maru never made it as far as the Fraser River. In October 1906, the schooner landed at Beecher Bay, on Vancouver Island, and the group was subsequently arrested. Because the group had split off into smaller factions upon reaching land, early newspaper reports reflected the confusion surrounding just how many Japanese citizens had entered the country illegally.
Although some accounts state that the emigrants were allowed to stay because Canada needed cheap labour for the construction of the railway, researcher David Sulz sheds doubt on the theory, noting that Yoshie Saburo, Oikawa's acquaintance and a clerk at the Japanese consulate, was able to negotiate the passengers' entries due to a variety of circumstances, such as the absence of pertinent immigration legislation, lack of public outrage and Japan's attitude toward emigration.
The Suian Maru voyagers eventually settled on Oikawa and Sato Islands and worked in the fishing industry. While Jinzaburo Oikawa returned to Japan in 1917, many of the Suian Maru voyagers and their children remained on the islands until 1942, when they were forced into internment camps. Today, a plaque commemorating the voyage's centennial stands on the Richmond, BC, shoreline overlooking the islands.