Tastes of Internment

How Internment Camps Changed Japanese Cuisine in Canada

It may surprise you, but the internment of Japanese-Canadians during World War II plays a significant part in the history of Canadian cuisine.

In 1942, the government of British Columbia ordered the confiscation of 1,200 Japanese fishing boats[1]. These boats were the tools for collecting the fish and shell fish which played a significant role in the Japanese-Canadian diet at that time. When the 22,000 Japanese-Canadians living on the west coast of Canada were ordered to go live in internment camps in the Canadian Rockies, they suddenly lost access to food imports from Japan[2]. The removal of the Japanese-Canadians from the coast, alongside the loss of their boats, meant primary ingredients in their cuisine like salmon, oysters, miso (soya bean past) and shoyu (soya sauce) were no longer available. How would the Japanese-Canadians adapt their cuisine to their new surroundings in the Rockies of British Columbia?

Photograph of second and third generation Japanese-Canadians protesting for Redress at Parliament Hill, April 14th, 1988. Source: Yamada-Shirley Collection, Cheng Yu Tung East Asian Library, University of Toronto.

Prior Internment

Prior to their internment in 1942, Japanese-Canadian cuisine was dependent on ingredients found in the ocean such as salmon, seaweed, and shell fish[3]. These ingredients were primary food sources for Japanese immigrants arriving in Western Canada, since they resembled those found in Japan[4]. The confiscation of the fishing boats, and the relocation of Japanese-Canadians from their homes along the coastal regions, meant the access they once had to familiar ingredients was cut off. The unavailability of seafood and other imported foods from Japan, meant the internees turned to local ingredients out of necessity[5].

Food in the Internment Camps

At the onset of internment, food distributed in the camps by the government was of scarce and of poor quality[6]. To supplement the impoverished food conditions, local ingredients were purchased from nearby villages, and gardens were grown in the camps providing vegetables such as, “daikon, strawberries, corn, watermelon, spinach and nappa cabbage,” with varying degrees of success[7].


Several years after World War II ended, when the Japanese-Canadian population was released, they continued to face difficulties accessing familiar ingredients[8]>. The destruction of Japan, would have made it impossible to send any foods out of the country. Many Japanese-Canadians migrated to other parts of Canada, such as Toronto, where these ingredients were less available due to a lower Japanese population, and therefore less demand. Ingredient restrictions meant Japanese-Canadians began eating local dishes made from more available ingredients, such as dairy products, previously less popular among Japanese-Canadians prior internment[9]. This caused a shift in preferred tastes of later generations of Japanese-Canadians.

Most Japanese food found in Canada today is an echo of what it once was. If you are ever lucky enough to be a guest at a Japanese-Canadian home cooked meal, remember that the dishes you are tasting reflect a time in Canadian history when Japanese-Canadians were resourceful and adaptive in a time of hardship.


Jessica Svenningson is developing her skills as curatorial researcher. After attaining an archaeology degree, she travelled to South Korea for 2.5 years as an ESL teacher, making a few stops in Japan, Nepal, China, Hong Kong, and Malaysia to name a few. Her interest in object and material culture has lead her to personal research in the anthropologic interaction of makeup, and how it relates to the identity of drag queens and the everyday individual.

[1] (SEDAI, 2008-2016)

[2] (SEDAI, 2008-2016)

[3] (JCCC, 2010)

[4] (Mudrock, 1997)

[5] (Takashima, 1971)

[6] (Takashima, 1971)

[7] (Gagnon, 2006, p. 221)

[8] (JCCC, 2010)

[9] (Takashima, 1971)

At the onset of internment, food distributed in the camps by the government was of scarce and of poor quality.