Discover Nikkei

Japanese Canadian Concentration Camps

I appeared on the earth just before the bombs went off in Pearl Harbor. That, of course, led to the outbreak of the Pacific War. I was just a little baby in my mother's arms and was declared an enemy alien by my government, the government of Canada. So my mother had to carry me as a result, in her arms, to the cattle stalls of Hastings Park, which was the assembly point for the community of some 22,000 Japanese Canadians that had been living up and down the coast. So this community was dispossessed and then placed in interment camps throughout the interior of BC. You had this situation where this peaceful community living their lives in the temperate climate of the West Coast was suddenly thrust into the harsh environment of the interior.

There's a picture of Tashme, which my family was at. There's rows of shacks which were built of green wood, like unseasoned wood. And there's these winter scenes where they're buried under snow and there's huge icicles happening. And the people, two families to a little shack, were freezing their butts off. The contrast to that, to that almost idyllic living that the West Coast gives you in Canada is rather stark. And then you have people who wandered over to the sugar beet farms in Southern Alberta. And there was a huge labor shortage because the usual laborers had gone to war. The white laborers.

So there's descriptions of it. Joy writes of this very powerfully, and I've done interviews of people, and they say, “Wow, geez. It was just like slavery days, that we arrived at the station and we'd lined up as a family, and then the white owners would come by and check us out. And they would only take the families that were young and healthy and had big, strong sons. And the families that had aging grandparents and little kids were kind of left aside.” So it was almost like, let's check your teeth and everything. It's a startling image.

Hastings Park temporary detention center Alberta sugar beets

Date: February 9, 2011

Location: California, US

Interviewer: Patricia Wakida, John Esaki

Contributed by: Watase Media Arts Center, Japanese American National Museum

Interviewee Bio

Tamio Wakayama was born in New Westminster, British Columbia in 1941 shortly before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. His family was among the 22,000 Japanese Canadian Nikkei who were declared to be Enemy Aliens, deprived of their property and confined in concentration camps by the Canadian government. The Wakayamas were sent to the Tashme camp in a remote part of British Columbia for the duration of World War II. At the War’s end, forced to choose between deportation to Japan or relocation east of the Rockies, the Wakayama family remained in Canada, eventually settling in a poor section of Chatham. Tamio’s neighborhood friends were black children descended from slaves who had escaped by way of the Underground Railway.

In 1963, Tamio left university studies and journeyed South to join the American Civil Rights Movement in Mississippi, spending two years as a staff member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and beginning his photographic documentation of his experiences. Tamio’s work has been featured internationally at such prestigious venues as the Smithsonian Institution and his photographs have appeared in numerous TV and film documentaries, magazines, books, book covers and catalogues. Tamio has authored two major books and is currently working on a retrospective exhibit and a memoir.

He passed away on March 2018 at age 76. (June 2018)