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Japanese Canadians Remember Internment 80 Years After — Part 2

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Masumi Izumi, Fulbright Scholar, 2004-2005; Professor, Faculty of Global and Regional Studies at Doshisha University (Kyoto, Japan)

The courage of Japanese Canadians to break the silence about their World War II experiences of the uprooting forever changed the course of Canadian history. It revealed the ominous side of the Canadian past, which is filled with Anglo supremacy, racial violence, exclusion, and the denial that such a past is a part of Canada’s identity. The Redress movement provided an opportunity for Canadians to look back into their history, set a stage for many minority groups to publicly narrate their own experiences of racial and other kinds of oppression, and opened people’s minds to listen to each other’s plights.

This process was indispensable for Canada to truly become a multicultural nation. The struggle for equality and justice continues and the passage to reconciliation is a long one, but the nation, I believe, is on the right track. I commend all the people who are a part of this process.

*Prof. Izumi is an author of The Rise and Fall of America’s Concentration Camp Law (Temple University Press, 2020)

* * * * *

Joy Kogawa, poet/writer, Member of the Order of Canada, the Order of British Columbia and Japan’s Order of the Rising Sun (Slocan, BC; Coaldale, AB; Toronto, ON)

80 years ago, when we Japanese Canadians were removed from our homes and sent into the mountains, I was seven years old.  Seven, for me, was the perfect age and I wanted to stay seven forever. I remember praying every single night, to know “the truth,” though I don’t know what I meant by that. It had something to do with suffering. After the chicken’s head was chopped off, it flapped its wings and ran around headless until it dropped. The horror of that. When was its suffering over? Somewhere in the world, a boy was hanging over a cliff clinging by his fingers. Dear God. Let me know the truth.

What God gave me was the gift of wonderful parents. My mother was the most truthful person I have ever known, and my father, the most forgiving. It turns out he also did a lot of harm, but I didn’t know about that ‘til later.

During what we called “the evacuation,” they brought with us a twenty volume encyclopedia, The Book of Knowledge, with its wonderful pictures, poems, stories, tales of martyrs. We also had “My Big Litttle Fat Books” about Mickey Mouse and Donald Duck and other Walt Disney tales – Story of Clarabelle Cow, Pluto the Pup, Dippy the Goof. Plus The Yellow Book of Fairy Tales and The Green Book of Fairy Tales, Little Men, by Louisa May Alcott and Heidi, by Johanna Spyri.

I lived in these stories – the fun of the boys, Heidi’s love of the mountains – the trees, the wind, the taste of cheese. I remember vividly one story from the encyclopedia about children being hidden beneath bales of hay. At a checkpoint, soldiers thrust their bayonets into the hay. What would I do? Would I cry out?

My mother told us Japanese folk tales and taught my brother and me to read Japanese.  She would call out little verses, and Tim and I had to find the cards. We also had board games: Snakes and Ladders, Ludo, and a Yellow Peril board game with fifty small yellow pawns, representing the Japs and three big blue pawns were American soldiers. A Christmas present. I donated it, along with many other things to the Galt Museum in Lethbridge.

Childhood is the time of strongest memory and my happiest are the Christmases after the war in the southern Alberta village of Coaldale.  We Japanese Canadians, unlike Japanese Americans, were not permitted to return to our lives along the coast, but were sent East of the Rockies. Our family ended up in a place of brutal weather, blizzards, blazing heat, constant wind, constant dust, washboard roads, no electricity and water with bugs from a reservoir. Back and forth, we lugged the buckets...and Mama was always trying to keep the dust out by stuffing rags by the door.

Our paradise in Vancouver was lost. I dreamed of, ached for our beautiful home of many windows at 1450, West 64th in Marpole, Vancouver. A real house with a real yard, a sidewalk, flowers, a gate, fruit trees and a garage, not the one room shack with a scraper to clean off the gumbo mud.

I still love that house and wish it well, whatever happens to it. I’m thankful the city of Vancouver owns it.

 * * * * *

Kiyoshi Nagata, Taiko Master (Toronto, ON)

This past June as well as in September 2021, I was fortunate to have the opportunity to visit the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre in New Denver where my father was interned, as well as Lemon Creek where my mother was interned. The reason for my visits was because I was working on two separate projects that both dealt with this dark and sad period in Canadian history.

Growing up, I rarely heard about the experiences that my parents and their families went through during their time in the camps. I’ve heard that this silence was common among Nisei who never wanted to cause a stir and to do their best to assimilate into Canadian society. Visiting the Memorial Centre and the now barren fields of the Lemon Creek site, really brought home to me the discrimination, isolation and poor living conditions my parents experienced.

On this occasion of the 80th anniversary of the internment, I hope that the projects that I am currently working on will bring some human elements, and stories that will bring to life the real tragedy of these past events so they will never happen again in the future.

* * * * *

Diana Morita Cole, Writer/activist (Minidoka Concentration Camp, Idaho; Nelson, BC)

When my older sister Betty died in August of this year, she took with her nearly 89 years of precious memories. She was just a little girl of eight when my family was banished from their home in the Hood River Valley, and a little older when her former second-grade teacher, Mrs. Heaton, made an impromptu visit to see her in Tule Lake where my family was detained near the California-Oregon border.

I felt a fire in my belly when my sister told me ‘I was embarrassed’ to be seen living in such shameful circumstances.

That an innocent child should absorb the racist and bellicose beliefs held by white supremacists, FDR, and his government is an outrage that must never be forgotten by those who have not only been witnesses, but also by those of us who, like me, were born behind fences erected under the wicked command of liars.

* * * * *

Jiro Takai, Professor and Dean of the School Education at the Nagoya University, Japan (Grew up in Saskatoon, Ste. Foy, and Sault Ste. Marie)

Eighty years since internment, and where are we at now? Today, we are getting yelled at and belittled if we’re lucky, and if not, we can get physically assaulted by people who we had never met, who prejudge us on our looks, and assume that we are responsible for COVID-19.

I do admit, Canada has come a long way since 1942, but it does not take much for us to return to being second-class citizens. I remember in school, the bully was usually the kid who had family problems, or was lagging behind in academics, and in need of self-esteem. By picking on other kids, they felt strong and superior. I would not like to think that Canadians have nothing going on about themselves, so that they need to treat JCs and our other Asian brothers and sisters in this manner. We are too good for this.

* * * * *

Howard Shimokura, Tashme internee,  (Vancouver, BC)

Howard Shimokura in 1943

As an 8-year-old boy when the Tashme camp closed, my memories of my time at the camp are mostly happy ones, totally oblivious to the hardships imposed by the harsh and primitive living conditions. Memories of attending kindergarten and primary school are dim. All I remember now is of having fun playing with other children, or alone in the woods and fields around the camp.

It was not until years later that I learned of the atrocities committed on the Japanese, the reasons for the silence among the survivors, the absence of writings about those times, and the very palpable public unawareness of the entire episode.

Now, as I reflect on the events triggered by Pearl Harbor, I am gratified by the distance we have come to learn what happened, and to raise consciousness among the general public and the descendants of those who experienced and survived the incarceration and successfully rebuilt their lives. Stories of the events of the day, of survival and reconciliation, now abound.  

We have truly come a long way.


* Profiles of all artists who shared their comments here can be found in the Japanese Canadian Artists Directory.  


© 2022 Norm Masaji Ibuki

80 years anniversary internment Japanese Canadians World War II