English 日本語 Español Português


Dr. Jiro Takai's Journey of Becoming From the Soo to Nagoya University — Part 2

Read Part 1 >>

Jiro’s Parents

Remembering his father who has since passed on, Jiro shares his own experiences.

JT: He was a wonderful man, who never got angry, and had a great sense of humour. He was super sociable, and loved to have parties at our home. That kind of bugged me, as a youth, since these old geezers (in their 40s) would come over, get drunk and loud, whilst I was trying to study.

His friends were mainly fellow immigrants, most from the Eastern bloc. Birds of a feather flock together, but being that there was an acute absence of Asians where I grew up, and not fitting in with the large Finnish and Sicilian immigrant communities, he found his place amongst the “minority” of the immigrants.

My mom met my dad when she was working in a lab as an assistant at Kyoto University, where my dad was a graduate student. My mom was never down with the idea of immigrating to Canada, and she was often homesick. She’d go back to Kyoto for a two month stay every two years. During her absence, I would get hungry, but without mom to fix me up something, I took to some cooking on my own. At age six, I was fixing up mushroom and cheese omelets, which eventually extended out to pies of all sorts.

Mom was never keen on English, so she could not make the directions out in Betty Crocker cookbooks, hence it was up to me to cook up Canadian food. She felt very lonely, unable to relate to other people aside from Japanese folks. Quebec City had a small Japanese community, so that was okay, but in Sault Ste. Marie, we were basically the only Issei Japanese. Mom was not much of an extrovert, so she was often lonely.

Knowing that, my brother and I got her a dog, a poodle terrier, who we named Cookie. She has fancied dogs ever since, and we currently have Cookie V, now a toy dachshund, who keeps her company throughout the day, and I reckon she is the reason mom has not become senile at all, despite being 93 years old.

Jiro's mother and his brother, Hiko, Japan 2017. Photo courtesy of Jiro Takai.


JT: The Soo was a much smaller city than Quebec, and Asian groceries were unavailable. The move to this Northern Ontario town virtually took away our heritage, at least in terms of what food was on our table. Occasionally, my dad would have a meeting in Toronto, 800 km south on mostly two-lane snow covered highways, and he would stock up on rice, kikkoman, soba, and other staples.

The highlight of our family vacation was our visit to Furuya and Dundas Union stores. They had daifukumochi, which to this day, have been the best I have ever had, handmade right there in Toronto by Nisei hands, not Japanese shokunin masters. And the unagidon (eel BBQ) at Nikko restaurant was a delight. Come to think of it now, I reckon it was canned sardine kabayaki and not actual unagi, but at that time, it was delicious.

We always felt sad when we had to leave Toronto to go back to the frozen backwoods of the Soo. I do admit that summers were fantastic there. Pristine Lake Superior beaches, just minutes away. The waters were so clear, and you came out of it feeling clean and refreshed, unlike Lake Ontario which leaves a peculiar smell that you will certainly notice on your way back home in your car with the windows closed.

It was a good town, mind you, although winters were hardly tolerable, and there wasn’t much to do but fish, hunt and get high. I concentrated my attention on athletics, namely track and cross-country. I would train year round, jogging more than 15km a day, if not skiing cross-country for two-hour treks on the frozen St. Mary’s River.”

I remember that there was a community of sorts of Japanese scientists at the lab. I still get Christmas cards from Takeshi and Yukiko Kawarabata in Fukuoka. Takeshi worked at the same centre. 

JT: I had never heard of the Kawarabatas. There was a Sansei scientist, Ed Kondo, as well as an Issei, Yoshi Hayashi, and then my dad at the Great Lakes Forestry Research Centre. Yoshi left shortly to go back to Japan, but Ed and his family, including his dad and mom, were our good friends, but they eventually left for Toronto to seek a better gig. Ed did not speak Japanese, but his parents spoke a bit, and they would often share with us matsutake mushrooms they picked from the local forests.

Yoshi was a cool dude. He’d get drunk and pick a fight with local hooligans at the pub who called him slant eyes or whatever. Kind of instilled in us some pride in that nihonjin ain’t going to take no crap from hakujin. He got an offer from a leading “pharm” company in Japan. His son Yuki passed away from leukemia while he was in the Soo. That might have been a factor in his decision to go back.

I never got a chance to meet Yuki, but I got his bike. That made us seem like some sort of brothers. It was a cool five-speed banana handle/seat bike, the kind that was popular in the 70’s, but with gears. I took good care of that bike, aware that it was from a friend I’ve never met who lost his life. He had an older sister, Sugako, and a younger sister, Mika.

Living in the Soo… they were such formative years when I learned to play ice hockey at the outdoor rink at Parkland PS and at the Pee Wee Arena, joined the Cub Scouts, played baseball and learned early not to back down whenever playing against bigger and older kids: an important life lesson. I wasn’t really conscious of racism. 

JT: Back in the 70s, you had to be tough to make it in Northern Ontario. No political correctness to pamper minorities. Our first day in Parkland Public School, I was in Grade 3; my brother in Grade 7. Some kids were ranting, “I know them chinks. They live on our street. I hope they don’t come to Parkland.” To that very warm welcome, my brother went up to the two, punched them in the face. First impressions are important, as nobody really bugged us again during our attendance at Parkland.

Perhaps the popularity of Bruce Lee and Kwai Chan Caine (actually played by a white dude), and the fact that the only Asians they had ever seen were these particular guys on TV, gave them the idea that we knew kung fu. The stereotype put a burden on us, as we would have to perform round-house and double kicks whenever they asked, and when a rival “gang” member showed up, our peers would leave it to us to kick their ass. I watched my big brother working out, to get that Bruce Lee look, and I followed suit. Hence we looked like we were on steroids throughout our youth.

We were typically called “Big Jap” and “Little Jap” at Parkland, so I guess you can say they respected our heritage. When I got into secondary school though, kids who did not know me would call me just “Chink.” This bugged me at first, so I tried educating these idiots about all the different kinds of “chinks” in the world, like Chinese, Koreans, Filipinos, and Taiwanese, trying to prompt them into calling me by my rightful slur of “Jap,” but they just replied, “Who cares. All you chinks are the same.” There are some people that just do not respond to education, so I just let them have their way.

As a matter of fact, I think I got called “Chink” more than by my real name at high school, and it kind of grew on me. One time, a goody-two-shoes who was student rep wanted to get my attention and called me “Jiro” repeatedly, but when I shunned him, he called me Chink, to which I responded, “Yes?” That got a lot of laughs, and a whole lot of respect for being good humoured. I established my reputation as the Chinese Fonz (as in Fonzy of Happy Days).

By the way, it was a real honour to be called the Chink, as there were two other Oriental dudes beside me. But I was THE Chink. Because I took that title, the other guys had to be called something else, which was Chinger and Chin-Yu. Where they got Chin-Yu from, I don’t know, because he was third gen and didn’t even have a Chinese name. His name was Larry.

I remember First Nations kids at Parkland and white kids, many Ukrainians…

JT: Had a great time at Parkland School. The staff were wonderful, and the kids, although many were juvenile delinquents, we had a lot of fun and laughs. Mind you, I saw a lot of bullying, lots of fights, vandalism, and drug usage, but I got along well with virtually everyone, including the criminally insane ones. Seemed each day a different kid would come knocking on my door to hang with me.

There was a new kid in town, who made a concerted effort to befriend me. Later on as adults, he let me know that one of the teachers told him to be friends with me, as I was the guy least likely to spend his life in prison, the only kid who got along with both the nerds and the criminals (cool kids), and that I would protect him from being bullied. At graduation, I got the award for every subject except for Phys Ed, which I came second. The guy that took that award eventually played for the Oshawa Generals.


Part 3 >>


© 2023 Norm Ibuki

Chink Jiro Takai Northern Ontario Parkland Public School racial slurs racism The Soo