Monday, March 28, 2011

Wada, an Alaskan Trailblazer

Much to my delight, I found another Ehimean, another stowaway, an Alaskan trail-blazer. I have decided to introduce him here. His name is Jujiro Wada (1875-1937), born in Saijo City, Ehime Prefecture, near my hometown Imabari (30 km away), and was buried in San Diego, California, my second hometown in the U.S. What a coincidence!

His father died when he was four years old and he was taken to his mother’s relative in Matsuyama. He seemed to be quite an ambitious boy and a wizard. At 16 years of age, he left home saying “Ma, I wanna be Sumitomo in the U.S. and send you money.” Saying Sumitomo is just like saying ‘Rockefeller’ in New York.

In 1892, he landed in San Francisco, but seemingly as a slave on a whaling boat sailing in and out of the Arctic. Probably on those voyages, when the boat was caught in the ice, he had to spend long winters and befriended the local Inuit. Inuit and Japanese look alike in appearance and stature and they must have felt kinship with each other.

Stocky Wada, 5’2” (155 cm) in height, was nicknamed by the crew, “Fake Eskimo Shorty”. With persistence, he learned dog sledding from his Inuit friends and traversed Alaska, hunting, trading in furs, prospecting for gold. He paid off debts and began sending money to his mother. (He returned to visit his mother once in 1896).

It is almost like reading a Jack London story. (I saw a couple of Japanese novels available about him by writers Jiro Nitta, Yuji Tani and others).

One story had him hunting caribou in order to feed the crew in a boat stranded near Cape Barrow. Another story told how entrusted he was by the Inuit that they elected him the village master.

He struck gold in Chena at the Tanana River, a tributary of the Yukon River, which later became known as Fairbanks. E.T. Barnette, the first Mayor of Fairbanks, asked Wada to travel to Dawson to get the town so christened / registered and he was able to complete the mission in just three weeks. The trail he followed is part of today's Yukon 300 International Dog Sled Race which started in 1984. It's a 300 mile cross-country competition, between Fairbanks and Whitehorse. Wada is revered as a trail-blazer.

Looking for another challenge, Wada embarked on a 50-mile marathon in Nome in Seward Peninsula and won the $500 award money with a record of 7 hours, 39 minutes and 10 seconds. He did not win it just once. He won the Nome marathon 3 times.

He had many other great accomplishments between 1910 and 1920.

1910 - Opened a trail to the Iditarod Mines using a dog sled.

1912 – Established mines in Alaska, with supporters / backers including Mcllhenney, Tabasco and the Guggenheim brothers.

1920 - Explored for oil in Canada

Things changed after 1924, the year the U.S. government banned Japanese immigration. I read Wada was suspected of being a Japanese spy in the U.S. and he had to curtail his activities in Alaska. He was rejected landing in Alaska with his claim of Canadian nationality. He was still seen in the U.S. often, during his visit to the Van Camp Tuna Packing industry in San Pedro, California.

Van Camp used to have a factory in San Diego where Wada died during his visit there in 1937. He was buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery, close to the Japanese Buddhist Temple I frequented while I resided there. Wada is still an inspiration to those that know or uncover his story.

1 comment:

Paul Dion, STL said...

Rio San:
There are not too many people of such dare and do in the world. It is so interesting to red the results of your persistent research. You are helping many people open their minds to the marvelous power that humans have. Keep up the good work.