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History Lessons with Professor Masumi Izumi — Part 3: Postwar Community Revitalization and Redress Movement

Relocation of Japanese-Canadians to internment camps in the interior of British Columbia (Photo: Library and Archives Canada)

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As a historian, Izumi says that the ongoing use of euphemistic language to describe the WWII experience can be problematic. “I now use the term ‘internment/incarceration’ for the confinement of the ethnic Japanese in the camps in the United States and Canada,” she explains.

“The reason is that the ethnic Japanese included both Japanese nationals and American/Canadian citizens at the time of World War II. Legally speaking, Nisei, Sansei, and naturalized Canadians of Japanese descent were ‘incarcerated,’ while American Issei and Canadian Issei who remained Japanese nationals were ‘interned.’

“I agree that using the term ‘internment’ for the incarceration of American citizens is incorrect. However, I am trying to include the Issei and Kibei experiences in the Japanese North American wartime history through my research, and throwing out the term ‘internment’ leads to omitting the experiences of transnational figures such as Issei and Kibei from the story. So I personally try to use an inclusive term.”

“I think ‘concentration camp’ is a correct term to describe Japanese North American confinement. A ‘concentration camp’ is a detention facility for individuals confined outside the ordinary legal process, in many cases, for reasons of (alleged) national or internal security. Because of the extra-legal nature of these facilities, human rights violations tend to happen in them to various degrees, depending on who is confining whom. The governmental terms such as ‘war relocation centers’ and ‘evacuation’ are euphemistic, and it is good that these issues are pointed out by the members of Japanese North American communities.”

She continues with another little known story of our post-war JC narrative: the Bird Commission.

“In the late 1940s, both the United States and Canada partially compensated the ethnic Japanese for the loss they suffered due to their expulsion and incarceration. In the United States, the Japanese American Evacuation Claims act of 1948 provided Japanese American citizens with compensation for their lost real and personal property. Approximately 26,550 claims totaling $142 million were filed, of which $37 million dollars were awarded. Not only was the compensation inadequate, no apology for the policy was made.

“The Canadian government set up the Bird Commission in 1947 to assess the property losses of Japanese Canadians caused by the forced sales of the property commissioned to the Custodian of Enemy Property. Hundreds of Japanese Canadians made testimonies about their losses, to which the government awarded $1.2 million, which was only a fraction of the amount the claimants made. The failure to admit the injustice of the policy and the inadequate amount of compensation left the door open for the Redress movement in both countries.”

Our governments resisted paying any reparation for JA and JC losses up until Redress in 1988 for fear of opening up the ‘floodgates.’

“Admitting the governmental injustice on the basis of race and paying individual financial compensation to the victims would open up the discussions on the reparation for other racial injustices, such as slavery and segregation of African Americans in the United States, and the violence against and the theft of land from the indigenous communities in both the United States and Canada.

President Ronald Reagan signs the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 in an official ceremony on August 10, 1988. Courtesy of the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library via Wikipedia Commons.

“Veterans’ associations in Canada opposed Redress for Japanese Canadians, pointing out that the Canadian veterans captured and abused by the Imperial Japanese Army had not received individual compensations from the Japanese government. Japanese Canadians had to explain with great patience that the issues of the veterans and that of the internment/incarceration were not equivalent because the former was Japan’s abuse of the enemy POWs, while the latter was Canadian governments’ civil rights violation of its own citizens.

“In Canada, Redress was not supported unanimously by the people within the Japanese Canadian community. That also made the prospectus of the success of Redress more precarious.”

Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and NAJC President Art Miki signing the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement, September 22, 1988. Photo: John Flanders.

When I asked Izumi to comment about the post-WWII reconstruction of our Japantown communities, she said:

“I found that in both countries, Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians engaged themselves in cultural activism, which led to the community revitalization, before they got fully engaged in Redress.

“In the United States, I studied the cultural side of the Yellow Power movement by writing about Nobuko Miyamoto’s life story. Nobuko is a Los Angeles-based Sansei performance artist. She published a memoir titled Not Yo’ Butterfly: My Long Song of Relocation, Race, Love, and Revolution (University of California Press, 2021).

“In Canada, postwar community revitalization was difficult because Japanese Canadians were dispersed across the nation, and it was literally difficult for Japanese Canadians to find each other. However, some artists/activists gathered in Vancouver and Toronto during the 1960s and 1970s, and they started studying about their own community’s past, which was not discussed in most of the families. They learned about the discrimination their parents and grandparents faced before and during World War II, and they started collecting old photographs and preserving oral history from the elders. They also started pursuing their own literary, musical, and other artistic expressions, oftentimes working with other minority groups in Canada.

“The Powell Street area in Downtown Eastside of Vancouver was a former ethnic town for Japanese Canadians. After their forced removal, the area turned into an impoverished district. In the 1960s, Chinatown and the adjacent former Japantown became the target of urban redevelopment and faced demolition.

“However, thanks to the protest from the local residents and social activists, the federal and municipal governments saw the advantage in saving these working class neighbourhoods and revitalizing them also as ethnic communities. In the 1970s, the Powell Street area became revitalized as Japantown, and in 1977, Oppenheimer Park became a place where Japanese Canadians from all over Canada could gather in August during the Powell Street Festival, the first major ethnic Japanese festival in postwar Canada.

“1977 was a pivotal year, which marked end of the postwar ‘silence’ of Japanese Canadians, and since then, political, social and cultural activism within the community, including the Redress movement, flourished. I explained this process in the chapter I contributed to Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest: Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians in the Twentieth Century (University of Washington Press, 2005), edited by Louis Fiset and Gail M. Nomura, and also in my book 『日系カナダ人の移動と運動―知られざる日本人の越境生活史 (The Japanese Canadian Movement: The Little-Known Trans-Pacific History of Japanese Migration and Activism)』(Tokyo: Takanashi Shobo, 2020). Unfortunately this book is only available in Japanese, but I am hoping to get it translated and published in English later this year or early next year.”

25th Anniversary of Redress event by JANM in Seattle, 2013. From the left: Mayumi Takasaki, Masumi Izumi, Tamio Wakayama, and Rick Shiomi.

With some final words about the importance of remembering the internment, she concludes:

“I think the history of the internment/incarceration is evidence of how the government can abuse its power by claiming a national security emergency, when the general public allows it. People turn a blind eye on human rights abuse, when it only affects alienated individuals or minorities. The Japanese American and Japanese Canadian internment/incarceration story is a ‘usable past’ to remind people that we must always be vigilant about governmental abuse of power and raise our voices against human rights violations when we see it, even when it does not affect us directly.”

Izumi heads back to Kyoto at the end of March. “But even after I go back to Japan, my research work with the Past Wrongs, Future Choices will continue. Now, I am co-chairing the Archives Cluster of the PWFC, and we will collect historical materials related to the expulsion/internment/incarceration of the Nikkei people in various nations, such as Canada, the United States, Mexico, Brazil, and Australia. We plan to collect materials and think comparatively on topics such as legal elements that enabled different governments to confine the ethnic Japanese, the numerous gardens that the Nikkei built in the camps, and how religious and educational activities were conducted in the camps in different countries.

“I am a part of a group of scholars in Japan helping to disseminate knowledge about Nikkei history by bringing Canadian museum exhibits to Japan, doing public lectures, creating maps and databases, etc. My mission, in short, is to bridge what we know as migration studies experts in Japan, and what is known in North America in studies about Nikkei.

“In my own research, I will continue to think and write about how to create a transnational and transcultural history of Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians, particularly in relation to their experiences during World War II. A war is a ‘state of emergency’ that forces transnational people to choose which side they affiliate themselves with, but in reality, that is not a simple process. I am hoping that thinking deeply about these historical issues helps us consider our own complex relationships with our nations, and how we can work for broader social justice by thinking beyond the confinement of the nation-state we individually belong to.”

Watch the video: Canadian government apologizes to Japanese Canadians in 1988.

*Learn more about Izumi and her academic work on Facebook or at


© 2023 Norm Masaji Ibuki

academics (persons) China colonization Doshisha University Japanese Americans Japanese Canadians Kyoto (city) Manchuria Masumi Izumi Pacific Ocean scholars universities World War II
About the Author

Writer Norm Masaji Ibuki lives in Oakville, Ontario. He has written extensively about the Canadian Nikkei community since the early 1990s. He wrote a monthly series of articles (1995-2004) for the Nikkei Voice newspaper (Toronto) which chronicled his experiences while in Sendai, Japan. Norm now teaches elementary school and continues to write for various publications. 

Updated August 2014

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