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Nisei: Internment Camp Life


Greenwood was the first “internment centre” and Tashme was the last. In-between, there were Lemon Creek, Popoff, Bay Farm, New Denver, Rosebery, Sandon, and Kaslo. Self-supporting camps were East Lillooet, Minto Mine, Bridge River, and McGillivray Falls. Other self-supporting camps like Taylor Lake, Tappen, Blind Bay, Christina Lake, and Grand Forks had much smaller settlements. These were the internment camps in B.C. in 1942–43.

Christmas, East Lillooet, BC. NNM 1995.134.1.1.

It must have been a shock to go from a bustling city to towns and villages that were slowly becoming ghosts towns. The hastily-built shacks on farmers’ fields looked like old fishing or hunting cabins that you could “rough it” for the weekend. Unfortunately for the Japanese Canadians, they had to stick it out for three to four years!

Amenities in the Slocan Valley camps were very limited. The shacks were not built quickly enough to accommodate all the internees, so some of the late-comers were provided with army tents. One mother sarcastically said that she wouldn’t have to cook and clean anymore. The shacks were small and a family with five children or fewer had to share with another family. Two families were cramped together in a small shack the size of a garage. The kitchen stove was in the middle. The two farthest walls had bunk beds for the children. Piped-in water and electricity came later as well as stores, schools, and other amenities.

Rosebery was called the suburb camp of New Denver. Sandon? Government officials sent Buddhists there. Only Greenwood and Kaslo had an resemblance of a town. They were not segregated like the other camps. Greenwood had electricity, water, and plenty of empty buildings. The roof leaked in some of the old hotels. It’s hard to visualize over 100 people living in #1 Building or the old Pacific Hotel. In Kaslo, Langham Hotel was huge but run-down. The self-supporting groups had to provide accommodation with their own money, but they had a choice of location outside the 100-mile radius.

This was the predicament that Japanese Canadians were in, so they had to make the best out of a bad situation. Resourcefulness and resiliency became a priority. The first winter of the internment days was the coldest in years. Therefore, men had to gather up any newspapers and cardboards to insulate the ship-lapped walls. Wood had to be chopped. Buckets of water had to be hauled back to the shack, kerosene lamps had to have enough fuel, and the candles stored in the drawer.

Top priority was firewood after that first blustery winter. Firewood came in all shapes and sizes. Kindling was cedar, long, bark-covered slabs and sawdust were more affordable, planer ends burned well, but cordwood of fir blocks was the most expensive.

Most people bought slabs because they were least expensive. However, the work was dirty. Long slabs came by truck, and fathers had to make sawhorses. Long slabs were placed on top with a lasso rope tied around. With a cross-cut or Swede saw, the slabs had to be sawed to fit different types of stoves in the house. Barks would drop off, and sawdust would be flying in the air when being sawn. Therefore, children working wore hankies like the old cowboy bank robbers to cover their nose and mouth. Finally, freshly cut slabs were piled inside the woodshed.

BC Security Commission staff portrait, Greenwood, BC. NNM 2011.77.1.4.

In a sawmill town, planer ends were ideal. They were hard fir or larch that burned well. This firewood was great for either the kitchen stove or omu stobu (warm stove). They didn’t need to be sawn. These were just loose ends that the lumber graders cut off.

Sawdust was very inexpensive and it worked very well in the winter. Kitchens generally had this type of stove. A hopper was located on one end of the stove. This hopper would gradually drop the sawdust into a compartment where the fire was burning. One bucket of sawdust would last a long time. It wasn’t unusual to see buckets of sawdust inside the house. The danger of this fuel was in the winter time. Some of the sawdust would be frozen in clumps. This heavy clump would melt and suddenly drop inside the stove abruptly. Sparks of cinder would go flying out of the damper! It was a fire hazard.

I personally disliked “doing wood” because all the work had to be done in the summer. This meant loss of playing time! No swimming, hiking, playing games, etc. Our house had to feed so many stoves. One for the barber shop, another for the pool hall, and we also had stoves in the kitchen and parlour (living room). Fortunately, we had a large family. Those who lived in “apartments” finished their work early so they would be “hired hands” to earn extra dime or quarter to help elderly people. Children learned to use the axe or saw with great skill, especially those boys who could split kindling with blinding speed!

First things first, outhouses had to be built and be ready for use. If you have never experienced going to an outhouse, you haven’t missed a thing! At the Nikkei Memorial Internment Museum in New Denver, I saw a multi-holed outhouse. I jokingly called it “Outhouse Condo.” During winter it was bearable as far as bad odor was concerned. However, try doing #1 and #2 when it was -30 degrees F. You couldn’t go there fully clothed because there was no place to hang your coat and pants. If one wore layers of clothes like long johns and keito no dorosu (sarumata), it was tough to do the job properly! In the evening, a boy had to take a candle so that he could see where he was aiming. Now, summer time was a whole new experience! The smell was terrible. Flies were buzzing and spiders were crawling about! You couldn’t plug your nose so it was like swimming underwater, you just held your breath! Toilet paper was a luxury so most of the time, newspaper, catalogue, and even Mandarin orange wrappers were saved in case of emergency.

The ofuro or Japanese bath was very important in the lives of the Nikkei. Not every home had an ofuro, so carpenters built community bathouses. They were made out of cedar, and cotton batten were chiseled in-between the boards to make it water proof. An old hot water tank or metal barrel was used as a stove on one side of the tub. Cedar slats had to be placed over the tank so that no one would get burned by touching the tank accidently (ya-ke-doh). One paid a nominal fee to use the facility.

At a public bathhouse, one side was men’s and the opposite side was for women. Some of the boys were cagey. They would knock a pine knot out and put it back in. When women came in to take a bath, the knot would suddenly fall! I wonder if any women ever noticed a flickering knot hole?

Children enjoyed going to the public bath because it was their swimming pool. No wonder older men wanted to take a bath first because for one thing, it was scorching hot and another thing, they didn’t have to listen to screaming kids. There was a Japanese commercial about one boy sitting beside other boys and a bubble surfaced to the top. That was true in real life too. When someone spotted a bubble, everyone leaped out of the tub!

Cast-iron stoves were amazingly handy. You could toast bread, make pancakes, cook rice or stew. The top compartment was used for keeping food warm. The oven made cake, cookies, and even cured saya endo (snowpeas) stalks to make tea. Heating nori was a challenge. The oven door had to be opened at a precise moment or else it would be burnt to a brown crisp. One drawback for the mothers was that firewood had to be lit for lunch in the summer even when the temperature rose to 100 degrees F.

With winter in the Boundary-Kootenay district being so cold, yutanpo (hot water bottle) became a necessity. The earlier ones used were like a salt crock. It was cylindrical and very heavy. Boiling water from the kettle was poured inside the crock. A towel was wrapped around the yutanpo. It was then placed under the futon (thick quilt) near the feet.

Since families were given only blankets, mothers had to make their own futon and pillow cases. Kokuho Rose rice sacks came in handy as they were bleached repeatedly to soften the cloth. No matter how many times they were bleached, faint lettering of the word Kokuho could still be visible. This cloth rice sack also made swimming trunks, underwear, dish rags, and even clothes bags. My sister-in-law’s mother saved these rice sacks for years, and 60 years later, it was given to me. Mrs. Tanaka made a cover for her Singer sewing machine.

Lemon Creek Boxing Club. NNM 1995.133.2.2.

For children, internment camps and towns provided a massive natural playground. Nikkei kids were able to meet old friends from Powell Street or village of Steveston, but they enjoyed the excitement of meeting new friends who came from Vancouver Island or Nass Valley. Therefore, children gathered in large groups to go swimming, hiking, fishing, or picnicking. The lakes and rivers had excellent swimming holes and fishing spots. Mountains on both sides kept children fit when they ran up the slope. Lot of boys carried pocket knives, not for protection, but to carve wood to make bow and arrows, rifle, Jim Bowie knives, and whistles from branches. There were many woodsheds so playing Hide and Seek was ideal. Katana Kiri was another game boys of all ages enjoyed. Jax, hopscotch, and skipping kept the girls active. School activities provided glee club and sports.

In that sense, internment camp life developed the Nisei’s unique traits. They had a sense of adventure because they were used to exploring old mines and prospector’s cabins. Parents taught them not to be wasteful. Children improvised and made their own toys. Most of them could handle a saw or an axe with ease. Would you ask your child to use a double-edged axe now?

Hard work was the norm. Older Nisei experienced hardship (kuro) so they could handle adversity. Some children and adults were moved around, going from one camp to the next and eventually ending up in the prairies harvesting sugar beets or going to some unfamiliar town or city in Ontario or Quebec. Others had to tag along with their elderly parents to Japan. That’s why most Nisei are grateful (ari-ga-tai) for what they have achieved.

The concept of “The whole village will raise a child.” was ingrained in them. The parents would remind them that if they did anything bad, the action would not only give the family a bad name but for all Nikkei people. Therefore, everyone looked out for each other. Nisei would say, “Don’t give us a bad name.”

When they returned to the coast, they were skilled in curling, hockey, skating, hunting, and woodworking. Most of the curlers came from Greenwood or Port Edward. Yuki Onizuka who lived in Greenwood started a Nisei Hockey League when he moved to Toronto. Fuji Miki (Midway, B.C.) is the coach of Japan’s Women Olympic Curling Team.

Hockey team, Greenwood, BC. NNM 2011.83.84.

New Denver has a national heritage Nikkei Internment Memorial Museum and Kohan Garden. Kaslo has done a marvelous job of keeping their town’s Nikkei history alive at the Langham Hotel. A Japanese garden is in the works. Lemon Creek and Popoff have interpretative signage along the Slocan Rail Trail. Greenwood has a section in the museum and Nikkei Legacy Park is being upgraded. Lake Country has a section on the Nikkei farming community. Smaller centres like Mayne Island, Ganges, Nelson, and Hope have beautiful Japanese gardens. Momiji Garden at the PNE (Pacific National Education) is a landmark site. Lillooet has the Miyazaki Heritage House, Galiano, Mayne, and Salt Spring Island have the Wakayama-styled charcoal kilns restored. Telegraph Cove has restrored Japanese Canadian homes of Nakamura, Ogawa, and Okura family. Cumberland has restored #1 Camp, which was a Japanese settlement. If you are interested in Japanese Canadian history, these are some of the places you can visit.


*This article was originally published in the Geppo The Bulletin: a journal of Japanese Canadian community, history + culture, June 2016 issue.


© 2016 Chuck Tasaka

bathing British Columbia Canada children families generations imprisonment incarceration Japanese Canadians mottainai (phrase) Nisei public toilets Slocan Valley World War II World War II camps
About the Author

Chuck Tasaka was born in Midway, B.C., but he spent most of his life growing up in Greenwood, B.C., the first Japanese Canadian Internment site. His grandparents Isaburo and Yorie lived in Sashima, Ehime-ken and immigrated to Portland, Oregon, then to Steveston and finally to Salt Spring Island in the Gulf Islands. Chuck’s father Arizo was born on Salt Spring Island but lived in Sashima during his youth. His mother was born in Nanaimo, B.C., but was raised in Mio-mura, Wakayama-ken. Chuck attended University of B.C. and became an elementary teacher on Vancouver Island. After retiring in 2002, Chuck has spent most of his time researching Japanese Canadian history and he is presently working on the Nikkei Legacy Park project in Greenwood.

Updated June 2024

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