This article was originally published in our 2nd edition, Autumn/Winter 2011, pp. 33-40.
Nisei relocated to Lillooet, BC during the Second World War
"If policies leading to a general discrimination on the basis of racial origin were a bane to the development of a united Canada, if an official act of religious intolerance was worse, the English language does not have words to condemn adequately the treatment of the Canadian Japanese."
— John Diefenbaker MP
IN THE PARAGRAPHS building to this declaration, John Diefenbaker, an opposition backbench MP during the events, castigates his country’s government for injustice against Italian immigrants and Jehovah’s Witnesses. His indignation then springboards to a pointed yet succinct account of the cruel internment and relocation of British Columbia’s Japanese Canadians during the Second World War:
On 26 February 1942, the King government by Order-in-Council decreed that all people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast … be uprooted from their homes and businesses. It did not matter whether they were Japanese nationals, naturalized Canadians, Canadian-born, first world war veterans, even heroes. ... This situation was made worse by the fact that the more rapacious of their Occidental fellow Canadians realized large profits from an unconscionable government action.
While placing the heaviest blame on the former Liberal Prime Minister, Mackenzie King, Diefenbaker does not exonerate his own party: “The Conservative Party took its stand, not officially but in fact, in favour of the government’s plan ... Feelings were running high and were not confined to any one party.” Allowing “that in war security and survival are paramount,” he notes the economic jealousy which fuelled racial hatred in BC, and recalls the emotional climate which drove King’s political expediency: “When war broke out with Japan in consequence of its dastardly and unprincipled attack on Pearl Harbour, there was a revulsion across the country against Japan and all things Japanese. Only those who lived at that time can fully appreciate the depth of this revulsion.” With that memory, Diefenbaker warns, comes a fear for the future, as new enemies are found with whom to fight cold wars or hot: “There is always a pretext when the rights of the citizen are trampled on; those who participate in the destruction of liberty invariably profess the highest of purposes.”
I propose to deal here primarily with emotions, revulsions, memories and fears, recognizing the maltreatment of Japanese Canadians as less a wartime exigency than a cynical culmination of decades of racial animosity driven by political and economic opportunism. The more I research the story of the Japanese Canadians (Nikkei), both first generation immigrants (Issei) and second generation citizens-by-birth (Nisei), the more I trigger my own memories and recognize that their story is part and parcel of the story of British Columbia, of Canada, and myself. Our family business on Gabriola Island, which we bought in 1987, began as a floating store and fish camp owned by Kanshiro Koyama from 1934 until he was forced to leave in 1943. My various efforts to include him in the telling of the story which he began have led me to this essay.
DURING MY EARLY childhood in Fiji we listened to the BBC every day, and knew Hitler had started the war. We also knew that the Japanese were geographically much closer to us. Mail boats were lost, and my mother wrote to her sister in Canada: “you must not send anything of value while the Pacific is in such turmoil. For Phyllis’s birthday you can send some cut-out dolls which she loves as much as anything. It is foolish to send things that have cost you good cash and which may land at the bottom of the sea or be given to some Jap child.”
My aunt did send paper dolls, and I did love them. In “What Do I Remember of the Evacuation,” a poem by Joy Kogawa, a Nisei whose childhood coincided with my own, She describes whispers “that there was suffering” and, she wrote, “I missed my dolls.” Our lost toys became emblematic of greater loss. By the end of 1942, after my father died, the Americans and Anzacs had cleared the eastern Pacific sufficiently that the Norwegian freighter which brought my mother and her children home to Canada suspended gunnery practice because it frightened us. I doubt they would have spared us had they considered the danger imminent. But the BC shores which welcomed us were busy expelling the Nisei children and separating them from their dolls. After the war my adults swallowed their misgivings and bought affordable Woolworth’s toys made in Occupied Japan.
As a child in eastern Canada, I had a schoolmate who claimed to have German parents. When we played war in the gully behind our house, he always insisted on being the enemy. But he looked like everyone else, not quite so blonde as the Danish boy, and no one suggested we should not play with him. I saw no Japanese, except the squinting, buck-toothed monsters of the Sunday comics and Andy Panda flipbooks. When I moved west twenty years later, I could make no connection between those horrible caricatures and the Japanese I met at the University and in downtown Vancouver. I knew the word “internment” because the mayor of Montreal, Camillien Houde, was interned from 1940-44 as a collaborator. Someone told me he was confined in the fort on St. Helen’s Island, which I could see from our upstairs window. I am disappointed to learn that I was misinformed, and that he was on the base at Petawawa all the time. After the war, he picked up his career pretty much where he left it — unlike the Japanese Canadians.
J.L Granatstein and others have challenged the accuracy of the word “internment.” No barbed wire surrounded the “relocation” sites, and the occupants were more or less free to leave provided they travelled in the direction away from their homes. But if internment means “to oblige (a prisoner, alien, etc.) to reside within prescribed limits,” as the Canadian Oxford says, then this is what happened to both Mayor Houde and the Nikkei.
Emerging from the war my information about Oriental races came mainly from the United Church Mission Band. We sang with feeling Clare Herbert Woolston’s hymn:
We learned the same song, but our understandings differed.
In the summer of 1945 between V-E Day (May 7) and V-J Day (August 14) I turned seven. I remember May 7 vividly: the parade, the thanksgiving service, the hanging of Hitler from the belfry of the old Methodist church in St. Lambert, Quebec. I have no recollection of V-J Day. Why not? Did everyone just take it for granted? For us Montrealers, after the May 7 celebrations “for all intents and purposes, the war over,” wrote William Weintraub in City Unique: Montreal Days and Nights in the 1940s and 50s and “a new era was beginning.” Did we perhaps not know exactly when or what to celebrate? The official Japanese surrender followed by more than a month the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, so that on the west coast also the surrender felt like “almost an anticlimax,” as Eric Nicol recalled. Only many years later did I begin to wonder why, if the surrender were assumed, was the bombing necessary.
But that is another question, or another part of a larger question. V-E and V-J involved different sorts of people. The Germans had behaved abominably, but they were European. The rules they broke were our rules, and we thought we knew how to make the punishment fit the crime. But everything and everyone from the Far East threatens something foreign, inscrutable, dangerous. British Columbians still fear an earthquake in Japan more than a volcano in Iceland, although Tokyo and Reykjavik are comparable distances from Victoria.
NORTH AMERICA IN the early twentieth century festered with white resentment of the Orientals: fishermen, farmers, or school children, especially those who presumed to excel. It was not fair that they were willing to live modestly and work long hours. It was barbaric that they required their children to do so. When I was thirteen, I read a novel, Her Father’s Daughter, first published in 1921. I expected it to resemble Gene Stratton-Porter’s American classics Freckles and A Girl of the Limberlost. Perhaps it did, but it overshadowed the environmentalism of the other two novels with racial hatred so blatant as to take my teenage breath away. Facing the threat of top marks going to Japanese students, the heroine, a California high school student, tells her white classmates: “When they have got our last secret, constructive or scientific, they will take it, and living in a way that we would not, reproducing in numbers we don’t, they will beat us at any game we start, if we don’t take warning while we are in the ascendancy, and keep there.” The white man creates; the “red man and the yellow man and the brown man and the black man” imitate. The white world, especially America, needs more “sturdy boys and girls” with “the proper love of country and the proper realization of the white man’s right to supremacy.” Her Father’s Daughter is now widely available online, where comments tend to excuse the paranoia in the face of Japanese imperialism, but no such excuse accompanies my copy, which was bought new in Canada in 1951.
Fear and loathing of the alien and horror of miscegenation, fuelled by resentment of economic competition, enabled parliamentarians, scholars, and other upstanding citizens to make outrageous statements with impunity. Louis St-Laurent, Minister of Justice and later Prime Minister, referred to “the twists and quirks of that oriental mind,” a quote included by historian Patricia Roy her 2007 book, The Triumph of Citizenship: the Japanese and Chinese in Canada, 1941-67. In a pamphlet issued in 1944 by the Wartime Information Board, historian A.R.M. Lower, a card-carrying Liberal, asserted that Japanese who had “a knack for getting themselves disliked” might have to be deported after the war. Senator J.W. de B. Farris, a former Liberal MLA in BC, in 1945 opposed the postwar enfranchisement of the Japanese because they were “not equal to the requirements of democracy. ... No sensible person,” he went on, “wants to compare those of German or Italian descent with the heathen Japs.” An excuse rather than a cause, the war provided, as historian-activist Ann Gomer Sunahara has written, “an ideal opportunity to rid British Columbia of the Japanese economic menace forever.”
During the first world war the United States had accepted Japan as an ally only with reluctance, and after 1918 saw nothing reassuring in the post-war advance of the Japanese empire into Asia and the Pacific. Inevitably Canada, and not only the old-line parties, shared American misgivings. The Research Committee of the League for Social Reconstruction, a Depression-era organization of Canadian leftists and the intellectual godparent to the CCF and the NDP, in 1935 issued a tract, Social Planning for Canada, which worried: “The big navy policy of the present American government points to a collision sooner or later with Japan in the Pacific, and this would affect us in Canada more directly than troubles in Europe.” The committee included prominent progressives Eugene Forsey and F.R. Scott, with a preface by J.S. Woodsworth. One of the policies in the gradual process leading to the achievement of the socialist commonwealth would be the “treatment of Oriental settlers,” but they did not elaborate.
THE CCF’S RECORD in advocating justice and enfranchisement for Japanese Canadians outshone those of other parties, but idealistic politicians faltered at voting time. Patricia Roy cites an advertisement during the 1945 provincial election which boasted that the CCF “had urged the removal of the Japanese from the coast, had always opposed their return, had urged their dispersal across Canada, and had favoured the deportation of non-Canadian citizens.” With friends like these, the Japanese-Canadians were at the mercy of their enemies. Examining the record of the BC Left during the evacuation, sociologist Werner Cohn found faulty memories among those who could not believe that the “nice, humane, anti-xenophobic CCF could have been racist,” as he wrote in BC Studies (Winter 1985-86). “One may argue that perhaps a determined opposition by one of the country’s major parties — the largest one in the key province of British Columbia - could have forestalled government action.” But the CCF failed to mount such an opposition .
Not only the Left are embarrassed by an examination of historical myths. BC Conservative Howard Green, Diefenbaker’s Minister of External Affairs and one of my early political heroes for his advocacy of nuclear disarmament, vociferously called for the removal of the Japanese and forecast bloodshed if they were allowed to return after the war.
As for the Liberals, Bruce Hutchison, supporter and biographer of Mackenzie King, wrote in the sentimental bestseller The Unknown Country: Canada and Her People, “there is no hope either of their absorption or their decline.” In the revised postwar edition he still frets about “the fecund Japanese,” their “unmatched capacity for reproduction,” and their “competition in low living standards that no white man can meet.” He sighs that, despite BC’s recurrent anti-Oriental rhetoric, “Every year their farms spread further into the Fraser Valley, their shops appear in the better retail sections, their homes in the residential districts, their young men and women in new automobiles” and follows this diatribe with a pious hope for the abatement of anti-Japanese feeling. Hutchison received the 1942 Governor General’s Award for Creative Non-Fiction and Oxford University Press issued a new paperback in 2010.
On the chance that Imperial Japan posed a real threat to our west coast, police and military authorities had some justification for investigating Japanese nationals living in Canada. They found little or no evidence of anything beyond the traditional maintenance of family ties. The RCMP recorded no subversive activity and reported that “the few potentially subversive Japanese have already been interned and that no further internment was necessary.” Lt.-Gen. Ken Stuart, Chief of the General Staff, reported that, “from the Army’s point of view, I cannot see that they constitute the slightest menace to national security.” What lacked justification were campaigns based on racial and economic jealousy. Ken Adachi, the son of Japanese immigrants, offers an ironic litany of arguments given for his people being “inassimilable,” a pseudo-clinical term almost as ugly as “fecund:”
Virtues aroused suspicion when they should have inspired admiration. From their earliest nineteenth century re-encounters with foreign countries, Japanese realized they could excel by applying superior work habits to the use of their innate human intelligence. Reporting in 1872 on a tour of America and Europe, Kume Kumitake advised: “talented black people will rise and white people who do not study and work hard will fall by the wayside.” Our Vancouver church, St. James’ Anglican, stands at the crossroads of several ethnic neighbourhoods and the Downtown East Side, separated by a lane from the Sunrise Market on Powell Street and from rows of once-flourishing confectionary shops with names like Tanizawa’s, Yamasaki’s and Eishindo. Kelty Miyoshi McKinnon’s photo essay, “Sugar,” links the sweetshops to Japanese workers in the refineries at the port and ironically to their wartime relocation to sugar beet farms in the prairies. A block to the south are First United Church and the Salvation Army Temple. To the east the Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement are connected to the Vancouver Buddhist Church by Oppenheimer Park, a gathering place and sometime baseball field, and in recent years the centre of the Powell Street Festival, an increasingly popular celebration of Japanese-Canadian arts and culture. St. James’s ministry to Japanese immigrants and citizens began in 1904 and contact continued after Japanese Anglicans built their own Church of the Ascension on the far side of Burrard Street Bridge in 1935.
When the evacuations began, Canon Wilberforce Cooper, rector of St. James’, took the plight of these “good neighbours and good parishioners” to the General Synod. But, while parishes and individuals provided support, the institutional church did worse than nothing. During the Japanese’ enforced absence their church buildings were “relinquished,” a euphemism employed by the diocesan treasurer for sale of the properties and loss of “sacred articles” and record books -- the actual sale taking place after the war when people had begun to return! Fr. Cooper allowed the Japanese-language Anglicans to worship in the Blessed Sacrament Chapel at St. James’ while they regrouped and rebuilt. The question remains why the Diocese of New Westminster did not keep the churches ready to welcome the returning parishioners -- especially since no diocesan funds had been used in the original building and maintenance. Later, publications such as Opening Doors: Vancouver’s East End, a remarkable collection of taped interviews by the Aural History Program of the BC Archives, and bestsellers like Barry Broadfoot’s Years of Sorrow, Years of Shame (1977) began to prod the Canadian conscience.
DELVING INTO OTHER people’s memories, through local, popular and personal histories, I find real fear of a real threat. Canonical historians, such as Jean Barman, Margaret Ormsby, and George Woodcock, discuss the Japanese evacuation as a major horror of Canada’s war and hope for a better future. Had the Canadian powers-that-were wanted to calm west coast nerves, as they apparently they did not, they would have faced a challenge on June 1942 when the Japanese landed briefly on the Aleutian Islands and shelled the lighthouse on Estevan Point, Vancouver Island, a mere 130 miles from Koyama’s fish camp on Gabriola Island. Mid-island at Port Alberni, a sense of vulnerability was heightened by the inlet’s accessibility from the island’s west coast, where Japanese fishermen had been living and working since 1904. In spite of a total lack of evidence, people readily suspected a connection between the possible invaders and BC’s Japanese. Certainly the men of the Fisherman’s Reserve (FR) fervently believed in the necessity of their task. Between 1938 and 1944, the Royal Canadian Navy tasked the fishermen and fishing vessels of the “Gumboot Navy” with patrolling the coast and assisting the impoundment of boats belonging to their Japanese-Canadian colleagues. Forty years later, interviews with FR veterans revived rumours of the Emperor of Japan owning a copper mine in Sidney Inlet and “reports of Japanese accosting large fishing vessels and taking their diesel fuel,” of Japanese navy personnel working as fishermen, of “one shop in Prince Rupert where they found all sorts of subversive stuff.” Many of the FR had not personally known many Japanese-Canadians. Those who had, felt regret and even sympathy, but still maintained: “it had to be done because you couldn’t take a chance.” Even before Pearl Harbor, the northern west coast hosted a nervous military presence. The Canadian Army posted thousands of troops and their families to the small town of Terrace, on the Skeena River, and rushed construction of a 300-bed Red Cross outpost hospital, which they closed just as abruptly when the war ended. At the Skeena’s mouth, the US Army controlled production at the sawmill in Wainwright Basin and built a cannery at Port Edward. Joan Skogan in Skeena: A River Remembered heard an ambivalent view of the Gumboot Navy from fisherman Freddy Edgar: “The Japanese were taken — Fisherman’s Navy, they went around gathering them up … They were taken away right from the cannery … They were my friends.”
Others who had lived close to Japanese Canadians along the coast echo Edgar’s sentiments: friends and neighbours suddenly gone and communities bereft. The little school at Osland, on Smith Island near Prince Rupert, survived only as long as Japanese families joined those of Icelandic origin to make up the government quota of pupils and had to close when they left. A half-century presence was obliterated at Chemainus and Cumberland on Vancouver Island’s east coast. The federal government assumed too readily that all British Columbians shared the views of the most racially demagogic politicians, and ignored the fact that, as Ann Sunahara points out, anti-Japanese letters from people “who actually lived among them were conspicuous by their absence.”
What of the places asked to receive the evacuees? Too often, they resented and feared the forced intruders, either shunning or exploiting them. Joy Kogawa has described in Obasan the bleak existence on prairie sugar-beet farms. The displaced Japanese experienced appalling living conditions virtually everywhere, but in some places they found a sort of welcome. As Katherine Gordon shows in The Slocan: Portrait of a Valley, they brought new life to dying communities, reinvigorating New Denver as they had depleted Osland. Pressure to move them on from the Slocan, and out of BC, seldom came from their neighbours.
In the Okanagan, which had a substantial prewar Japanese population and orchards as prone as fisheries to economic rivalry fuelled by racial animosity, they found no welcome. In Vernon in the 1960s I began to learn what had happened and was still happening, as my father-in-law, an Anglican priest, would come home beaming over the bounty of apricots and tomatoes for his visiting family, but grim over the stories of the people who grew them. They were his parishioners and his friends, and they were doing well enough now, but they should not have had to suffer such humiliation. There, as on the coast, nasty mutterings about the unassimilable took a long time to die. My friend the poet Patrick Lane, who grew up in Vernon, learned this earlier than I did and relates a memory from the early 1950s: his father dispersing a drunken crowd as they stoned the house of a newly-married Japanese man and his white wife, “because of race, miscegenation, and a war that had not yet left their minds. The police had been called but had stayed away.”
When the uprooting began, it quickly became a cause in itself, and Japanese-Canadians already living beyond the Rockies were not immune. Roy Kiyooka, poet and artist, was born in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan, a quintessential prairie origin. In December 1941 he was a high school kid in Calgary. Overnight, he became an “enemy alien.” He was pulled from school, his father and older brother lost their jobs, and the family moved to Opal, a small Ukrainian farming town. His older sister was trapped on a visit to Japan.
Postwar Canada very gradually removed discriminatory immigration restrictions and restored to the Japanese-Canadians their rights as citizens, but could not re-create the destroyed homes, livelihoods, neighbourhoods and personal relationships. Patricia Roy concludes her trilogy in 1967, the centennial year, with everyone embracing a multicultural society and proclaiming that: “ citizenship had trumped ethnic or racial origin.” A happy ending? Not yet. The traditional Japanese motto: Shikataganai, “it can’t be helped,” no longer satisfied Nisei who saw too much unfinished business to let it be. Masako Fukawa has described her personal struggle between her need to see justice done and her regard for the sensitivities and values of her parents’ generation while documenting the demise of the fishing industry, still, it seems, more ethnically conscious than resource-based. After twenty more years of campaigning by the National Association of Japanese Canadians, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney made a formal apology on September 22, 1988 and announced a compensation package.
Having achieved one kind of closure the Nisei refused to close their memories. In 1981 Sunahara had listed some legacies of the war as “the poverty of the Issei, the social silence of the Nisei, and the cultural ignorance of the Sansei.” Thirty years later, this poverty, silence, and ignorance have been almost, if not quite, overcome. In Pacific Windows Roy Kiyooka wrote long poems meditating on his prairie boyhood, postwar angst and the restoring of links with Japan, his ambivalence contributing to his creativity: “I’ll be damned if I’ll let the word ‘shikataganai’ fall from my lips again.” But later he wavers, “‘shikataganai’ I caught myself saying ’cause no other word came to mind.” Still, “I don’t want to go on moanin’ the old ‘yellow peril’ blues the rest of my days.”
Ken Adachi wrote: “What happened to the Japanese Canadians is an enduring monument to the fragility of democratic ideals in times of crisis in which, given the right circumstances, people so easily lose their perspective on civil liberties.” Turning to Trudeau’s imposition of the War Measures Act in 1970 he writes, “The real lesson of 1942 and 1970 was in the complacency of Canadians over the fact that there is no guarantee that future governments will not once again shuffle off the imperatives of freedom in the name of law and order or ‘national security.’”
I KNOW I AM not the only one of my generation to squirm at the number of years during which I told myself the internment of the Nikkei was a necessity of war and not an action requiring “apology” no matter how misguided it later appeared. I am not consoled by finding traces of the bad seed in even the most supposedly enlightened among us. In his memoir, My Times, Pierre Berton compares anti-Japanese sentiment in Vancouver to anti-Semitism in Toronto, and remarks with characteristic glibness that in the early postwar years, “British Columbians were so busy hating the Orientals they hadn’t much bile left over for others.” Yet in Vimy he caricatures the presence of Canadian Japanese in the 47th Battalion who he says “added to the weirdness of the occasion — the Orientals squatting on their haunches, grinning because the fight was over and they were still alive.” Ann Gomer Sunahara, author of The Politics of Racism and a Nisei through marriage, has written, “The culture of the second wave of Japanese immigrants, who began arriving in 1967, is very different from the pre-WWI peasant culture brought by the Issei.” Characterizing the newer arrivals as “highly educated products of Japan’s industrialized, urban middle class,” she maintains, perhaps rightly, that they have inspired young Japanese Canadians to reclaim their ethnic heritage, but her words seem to dismiss a whole generation as a Lumpenproletariat. Fortunately, the tenor of the article clarifies her intention, but word choice reflects deeper assumptions.
And racial ignorance works in more than one direction. Adachi’s history helpfully relates Canadian events to Japan’s pre-twentieth century history of xenophobia and isolation, but the colonial context tricks him into imperialistic language: “And at a time when European countries were sending out a great stream of people into the empty lands overseas, the Japanese government had done everything to keep its subjects on the home islands.” Aboriginal peoples did not consider their lands — or for that matter their seas — empty. Late in the twentieth-century, in his suburban Vancouver neighbourhood, Roy Kiyooka detected the Nisei themselves looking askance at more recent immigrants from other parts of Asia:
In the Broadway musical “South Pacific,” the US Navy character Lt. John Cable sings,
Ann Sunahara uses the same words, probably not coincidentally, when discussing the education of Nisei children: “They had been carefully taught that things British and Canadian were right and that, by inference, all else was suspect.” Having learned to hate, we can always find an object for our hatred. On May 3 this year, Muslim Canadian Yahya Abdul Rahman blogged, “we are feeling left behind and can’t help wondering what our future is in a social and political environment which is becoming increasingly hostile towards Muslims.” Is this feeling justified? We must make sure that it is not because, as we assure aspiring citizens in official publications, “Canadians celebrate the gift of one another’s presence and work hard to respect pluralism and live in harmony,” and because, as John Diefenbaker said, “overheated popular feelings are a poor basis on which to determine the course of government.”
1. One Canada: Memoirs of the Rt. Hon. John George Diefenbaker. The Crusading Years 1895-1956. Macmillan, 1975. pp. 220-225.
2. Phyllis Reeve, “Japanese Canadians in Silva Bay,” Shale, No. 25, March 2011, online at www.pagesresort.com/history.htm.
3. Musako Fukawa, Spirit of the Nikkei Fleet: BC’s Japanese Canadian Fishermen. (Harbour, 2009), p.139.
4. Rev. Canon Timothy Makoto Nakayama, “My Story”, The Bulletin: a Journal of Japanese Canadian Community, History and Culture, May 2010. Available online.
5. Pacific Windows: Collected Poems of Roy K. Kiyooka (Talonbooks, 1997).
6. Fukawa, Nikkei Fleet, ch. 10.
7. Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship. Citizenship and Immigration Canada, 2009, p. 8.
Phyllis Parham Reeve has written about local and personal history in her three solo books and in contributions to journals and multi-author publications. Her specific interests embrace colonial and post-colonial life in southern Quebec, where she maintains family ties, and in Fiji, where she was born. Her current home on Gabriola Island, British Columbia, has inspired explorations of settler relations with the Snuneymuxw First Nation and the Japanese-Canadian community. A graduate of Bishop's University and the University of British Columbia, she studies modernist literature and art, and collects bestiaries. Her writing appears in Amphora (the journal of the Alcuin Society), in BC BookWorld, in publications of the Gabriola Historical and Museum Society and online in The Ormsby Review. She is rumoured to vote Green. http://www.phyllisreeve.com. A full list of sources is available from the author at email@example.com