Discover Nikkei

The Ironies of the Japanese Canadian Internment History: Part 2—Discovering Japanese Canadian History

Read Part 1 >>

For too long, I lacked understanding about Japanese Canadian history and why World War II internment had happened. Even when I retired in 2002, I was still too busy coaching to research this history. I told myself that when I turned 65, I would dive deeply into this project. That was in 2010.

I read voraciously, but there weren’t too many books on Japanese Canadian history. I studied Chinese Canadian, First Nations, Native American, and Japanese American history. The Discover Nikkei website was a great help to me because I could read about the internment camps in South America, Cuba, Mexico, and Australia.

Reading Muriel Kitagawa’s book This Is My Own really opened my eyes because she personally experienced the trauma of being forcibly removed from her home. The emotions of uncertainty, desperation, and hasty decisions to be made came out loud and clear. Muriel witnessed that her own government could pass discriminatory laws to target Japanese Canadians. 

Another book by Patricia Roy, A White Man’s Province, also caught my interest. Her book described the attitudes of the B.C. politicians of that time.

Anti-Asian Sentiment on the West Coast

The Japanese Canadian internment didn’t just happen in 1942. It began 174 years ago with the California Gold Rush of 1849. Chinese placer miners came, as well as people from all over the world. When the Union Pacific Railroad Company hired cheap Chinese labourers, 40,000 of them debarked in San Francisco. That was the beginning of the anti-Asian movement. 

Chinese miners, Harper's Weekly, Oct. 3, 1857. Photo: Library of Congress (#2001700332)

In the U.S., the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882. In 1913, the Aliens Land Act was passed to target Japanese farmers. To get around that, the Issei parents put down the names of their American-born children as owners of the land. Later, the Oriental Exclusion Act was passed in 1924 to deny all Asians from immigrating to the United States.

In Canada, the B.C. Gold Rush of 1858 on the Fraser River and in the Cariboo in 1860 brought waves of American prospectors up north, including the Chinese placer miners. 

Chinese man washing gold at Fraser River in 1875. Photo: Library and Archives Canada, PA-125990

A smaller gold rush was found in Rock Creek about 21 miles west of Greenwood. A Chinese settlement was present. Chinese were also evident in Greenwood because the mining town of Phoenix a few miles east barred Chinese from living there. As you can see, there was an anti-Asian attitude in British Columbia as well.

In the Vancouver area, Chinese were hired by the Canadian Pacific Railroad to work on the tracks. By 1885, there were some 17,000 labourers. After the completion of the railway in B.C., Chinese workers gravitated to Vancouver.  Therefore, a Head Tax was imposed and increased from $50 to $500 to discourage Chinese immigrants from coming to British Columbia.

A typical store on Powell Street, prewar. Photo: Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre, 2012-10-1-1-254.

Japanese immigration became more evident after 1890 when they came over to work in the coal mines in Cumberland on Vancouver Island, salmon fishing in Steveston to create a small settlement, and in Vancouver, they were brought in to work at Hastings Mill to replace the Chinese labourers. As a result, a thriving Japanese Canadian community sprang up on Powell Street that was referred to as Japantown. The most serious anti-Asian incident occurred in 1907 with the Chinatown and Japantown Riot.

Nuinosuke ‘Joseph’ Okawa in WWI. Photo courtesy of Julie Starr

During World War I, Japanese Canadians in B.C. were denied enlistment, so they had to travel to Calgary to enlist as volunteers. After the war, the veterans fought another battle to be granted enfranchisement. In 1931, only Japanese Canadian veterans had the right to vote.

After researching and reading on the life of Asians in America, one thing is for certain. Asians were not embraced or welcomed into this “new” America. The same goes for other visible minorities. That was the reality.

I would like to use Dolly Parton’s song “Coat of Many Colors” as a metaphor.  Coming from a poor family, Dolly’s mother had to use rags of many different colours to sew her daughter’s coat, putting forth all her heart and soul. Dolly wore her unique and colourful coat proudly to school. She was ridiculed by her classmates. The question is, “What is acceptable?”

The Ironies of History

As I tried to wrap my head around Japanese Canadian history, I noticed bits and pieces of irony. For one, the “evacuation” or forced removal was more racially motivated rather than for national security.

The U.S. “internment camps” were run and operated by the military with guard towers and machine guns. Canadian internment camps were supervised by a civilian B.C. Security Commission without having to erect barbed wire fences with military presence.

There was not a single case of domestic terrorism, espionage, or conspiracy committed by Japanese Canadians and Japanese Americans. Thus, they were “guilty until proven innocent.”

I learned that there were self-supporting camps at East Lillooet, Grand Forks, Christina Lake, and smaller pockets in the north Okanagan in order to keep families together. A few thousand went to Alberta and Manitoba. They had to pay for their own incarceration. Keetley Valley, Utah under Fred Wada was a similar case in the United States.

The national security risk was more on the Atlantic side where German U-boats were sinking many merchant ships. The ships carrying the 442/100th Japanese American soldiers and many convey ships had to zig-zag across the Atlantic to avoid the U-boats. 

Why weren’t the 140,000 Japanese Hawaiians incarcerated? Hawaii would have been the most vulnerable area for security risk. Nevertheless, about 1,100 Japanese Hawaiians who were Buddhist priests, principals, teachers of Japanese language schools, and recent visitors to Japan were sent to a Santa Fe, New Mexico internment camp.

The barracks at the Honouliuli Internment Camp, taken by Ronald Harry Lodge, circa 1945. Photo: University of Hawai'i at Manoa / Copyright held by the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii.

Once the Battle of Midway was over in June 1942, the perceived risks lessened. The threat of another attack was not imminent on the Pacific side.

When the war ended in 1945, the War Measures Act in Canada couldn’t be enforced, but the federal government found another wrench. It passed the Emergency Transitional Powers Act to delay the process to keep firm their policy of removing Japanese Canadians from British Columbia. Thus their directive to “Go East of the Rockies or (Repatriate) to Japan.

That proved the intent of the federal government’s policy. Japanese Americans were allowed back to the West Coast as early as December 1944. However, Japanese Canadians weren’t allowed back until April 1, 1949.

The anti-Asian movement began with the California Gold Rush in 1849. There are still many cases of incidents happening today since the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.

Ironic Government Propaganda

Why were the hard-working, law-abiding citizens of Canada considered to be a “Japanese Problem” or the “Yellow Peril?” Government propaganda in the 1900s seems so ironic today.

My grandparents Isaburo and Yorie Tasaka had 17 children. They were hard-working law abiding Canadian citizens contrary to B.C. politicians propaganda.

One politician in those days stated that the Japanese people breed like rabbits. He said that one family had 24 children! I chuckled when I read that statement because I think he was referring to my grandparents’ family. This politician was incorrect. My grandparents had only 17 children and they were productive Canadian citizens. Today, 75% of the Nikkei (people of Japanese ancestry) attend post-secondary education.

He also said that if Japanese mix with white women, the children will have the worst traits from both sides. Present day “hapa” or mixed race children are intelligent, talented, and progressive.

(left) Tamara Tasaka finding her grandparents roots in Mio and Sashima; (right) Tamika Roberts is a 16-year old multi-talented 'hapa' who is a singer/songwriter/dancer. She plays the guitar and piano.

One more politician reported then that the Japanese immigrants would never assimilate into their Anglo-European Canadian society. Their mantra was, “Don’t give voting rights at all costs.” Now, 90% of Canadian Nikkei are married to people of a different ethnic race.

Another politician said that the Japanese live in a ghetto with substandard housing and low wages. When you see the photos of Powell Street or Japantown, you will think otherwise. Present day Powell Street? Is it a ghetto?

Girls playing at the Powell Street, prewar. Photo: Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre, 2010-23-2-4-236.

Overcoming Hardship through Community

Under such dire circumstances, the Issei (first generation) and Nisei (second generation) overcame hardships and adversity to survive the ordeal. They could have given up. The government did this to us, so let them handle everything.

However, that was not the case since their pride of raising a family was stronger. It was, “Kodomo no ta-meh ni” or “For the sake of the children.” There’s a Japanese word gaman–to endure hardship silently, but never give up.

The Japanese Canadians were strong in numbers, and that meant they could cooperate as a group to set up the infrastructure at the internment camps to make the best of the situation. Japanese Canadians found comfort in groups to solve problems within the camp without outside interference. They provided school, church, and sports activities to maintain normality.

There were people who “did right, not wrong” and Japanese Canadians are eternally grateful to them. One such person was Mayor McArthur who initiated the move to the Boundary-Kootenay area. He got more than he bargained for, since “his” town was revived, whereas the four surrounding mining towns became ghost towns. Church groups also lessened the hardships by providing education and faith.

There are still ten internment survivors who have remained in Greenwood since 1942, but many have passed on before them. My parents lived in Greenwood until the early 1990s. When their friends kept passing away, they moved to Vancouver to be closer to their adult children. They also didn’t want to endure the cold winters in Greenwood anymore.

Remain Vigilant

For me personally, Greenwood was a special place while growing up. I am now at peace with myself. My insecurity of not knowing Japanese Canadian history is no longer.

One question still remains: Will the Canadians of Asian ancestry ever be perceived as fully Canadian?

History can repeat itself if the wrong leaders come to power. The expulsion of Acadians in Nova Scotia happened in 1755. Mostly Ukrainian and some German Canadians were interned during WWI and Japanese Canadians in WWII. Which group will be next?

Politicians in Canada are more diverse now, so it might be less likely that this history will repeat itself. But racism is universal. No one is exempt. While we cannot undo or remake history, we must stay vigilant to not have history repeat itself. Genocide and ethnic cleansing still occur the world over.


© 2023 Chuck Tasaka

British Columbia Canada Greenwood (B.C.) Japanese Canadians World War II
About the Author

Chuck Tasaka is the grandson of Isaburo and Yorie Tasaka. Chuck’s father was 4th in a family of 19. Chuck was born in Midway, B.C., and grew up in Greenwood, B.C. until he graduated from high school. Chuck attended University of B.C. and graduated in 1968. After retirement in 2002, he became interested in Nikkei history. (Profile photo courtesy of Nelson photographer)

Updated October 2015

Explore more stories! Learn more about Nikkei around the world by searching our vast archive. Explore the Journal
We’re looking for stories like yours! Submit your article, essay, fiction, or poetry to be included in our archive of global Nikkei stories. Learn More
New Site Design See exciting new changes to Discover Nikkei. Find out what’s new and what’s coming soon! Learn More