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First Lady Plumber in Canada Is a Nikkei

Mary Kitagawa and Anna Higashi (right). Courtesy of Tosh Kitagawa.

Anna (Fujimura) Higashi grew up in Woodfibre, B.C. Her grandfather Isaburo Fujimura and son Taichiro, seventeen years of age, came to Canada in the early 1900s. Isaburo was a caretaker of a community bath on Powell Street (Japantown). Taichiro worked for a railroad company that took him to the province of Ontario. Once finished, he returned to Vancouver, but soon after Taichiro left for Powell River to work at the pulp and paper mill. Later, he found work at Woodfibre mill where he stayed much longer.

Taichiro returned to Japan and got married to Tome Hasegawa. He returned to Woodfibre to work in the pulp mill. There were two Japanese “towns”: one on the hill and the other below. The Fujimura family lived by the beach. There, daughter Anna went to both public and Japanese Language School. Anna had brothers Hitoshi, George, Bill, and Sam, and sisters Hisako and Miyoko. Woodfibre had no access by road back in the ’30s. Merchants from Powell Street came by boat to take orders such as soy sauce and rice. Goods were delivered by ferry or by boat.

Anna enjoyed her stay in Woodfibre. There were baseball games and swimming at the beach. May Day and Obon Festival were the special celebrations. Anna had many friends, both Japanese Canadians and Caucasians. One in particular was a teacher who exchanged letters even when Anna left Woodfibre because of the war. The carefree life that she spent on the coast of Howe Sound ended when the War Measures Act enforced by the federal government took all the Japanese Canadians to Hastings Park holding ground in 1942. Anna’s father was sent to a road camp near Jasper, Alberta.

The Fujimura family was sent to Kaslo. Anna remembers having Miss Shinohara and Miss Atagi (Aya Higashi) for teachers. When war ended, they were forced to move again. This time, it was Midway, B.C. Most of the families were placed at the Spokane Hotel. Anna, a teenager, had to babysit the Tasaka children when the writer’s mother gave birth July 13, 1945. The baby was named Hachiro because he was the eighth child in the family. Many of Mrs. Tasaka’s friends chuckled and quizzed why the child was given such an old-fashioned name.

After a year in Midway, the Fujimura family moved to Greenwood. Anna worked at Dr. Kamitakahara’s office. She was asked to give injections and wrap bandages on patients even though she was not a certified nurse.

Greenwood High School Yearbook ads, 1962.
(Click to enlarge)

In 1947, Anna and Masakazu Higashi were married. Mas worked for his father Shizuichi in the plumbing business. The Higashi family was there before the first internees made it to Greenwood in April of 1942. They were sent to do the plumbing on all the vacant buildings.

When war ended, the Japanese Canadians were fortunate that the Greenwood Board of Trade petitioned that it was unjust for any person to choose the government’s ultimatum of: “Go East of the Rockies or ‘Repatriate’ to Japan.” Thus, they were not pressured to leave.

In 1949, the Nikkei residents were given the freedom to live like any Canadian citizens. As a result, many shops and businesses in Greenwood were operated by Japanese Canadians. Mook’s Cafe was owned by the Mukai’s and Windsor Cafe was run by the Omae’s. There were other businesses like Imai Shoe Repair and Electrical, Tanizawa’s Greenwood Bakery, Nakamura Store, Nakagawa Dry Cleaners, Tasaka Barber Shop and Pool Hall, Watanabe’s Cherry Shoppe Beauty Salon, Wakabayashi Radio Repair, and of course Higashi Plumbing.

Anna Higashi certificates. Courtesy of Wendy Higashi.
(Click to enlarge)

When Shizuichi passed away, Mas took over the plumbing business. Anna worked alongside her husband even though she was raising four children. They worked long hours being the only plumbers in town. Therefore, Anna started to lend a helping hand by assisting Mas. She must have learned very well. Mas passed away in 1973. Anna kept the business going. She received her tradesmen’s permit on July 29, 1976. Anna had the distinction of being the first female plumber in Canada! Moreover, she also earned the gas fitter ticket from the B.C. Director of Boiler, Gas and Railway Safety Branch. Anna was now the first female to receive this permit in the province! It was a proud moment for her.

Whenever she was called to fix the plumbing, most of the customers were expecting a burly male with cleavage showing above his jean belt. To their shock, here entered this wispy lady, who didn’t weigh more than 90 lbs., show up at their house! Anna must have had a lot of chuckles over this incident. Not only did Anna work on plumbing and gas related jobs, she even sold fly fishing hooks and tackle.

Sadly, Anna Fusako Higashi passed away September 12, 2017 at the age of 88. Daughter Audrey (Rick) and sons Bruce (Beth), Boyd (Wendy), and Dean (Jean) can be so proud of their mother’s legacy.


© 2017 Chuck Tasaka

british columbia Canada Greenwood Japanese Canadian plumber Powell Street woodfibre