A Place to Remember: The Japanese Canadian War Memorial
by Mika Ishizaki
While the history of the Japanese Canadian War Memorial is tied to the struggle for the rights of Japanese Canadians, the space has come to symbolize justice, equality, and peace. It is ironic and tragic, as these things often are, that those who fought for our rights and freedoms are the ones who don’t get to see or enjoy the fruit of their labour. Such is the fight for future generations, the struggle to be the catalyst for change. Such is the sacrifice to create peace.
Now we get to look back over the 100-year-history of this space and think about what that means for our future. How can we remember those who gave so much? And what does this space, the Japanese Canadian War Memorial, mean for us now? How does the design and the symbolism of a space affect how we perceive it over time? The meaning of a place transforms over time, and when I consider how the identity of being Japanese Canadian has changed over time, and the significance of the community within Vancouver, I think that the memorial is culturally significant in understanding the lived experience of Japanese Canadians.
The memorial was built and dedicated three years after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, dedicated to the soldiers who lost their lives over the whole of World War I (WWI), and to also celebrate those who were able to come home. This was in 1920, a hundred years ago, but a time that has many similarities to today. It was the decade before the Great Depression, the end of a massive epidemic; sometimes, history has the tendency to repeat itself.
In much the same way that the alt-right sentiment against coloured minorities has seen a surge, the memorial was dedicated at a time when anti-Asian sentiment ran high. Though many Japanese Canadians were citizens, they had few political rights and no right to vote. In large areas of Vancouver, Asians were not allowed to buy land. Any success attained in the community scared Euro-Canadians; only 13 years prior, an anti-Asian riot damaged businesses and attacked individuals in the Chinese and Japanese corridors. These feelings against the community did not abate for many decades after.
Before going much further, I have to write a disclaimer. I am issei, a first generation Japanese Canadian. I am also hafu – or as I prefer daburu – and am very white presenting. My experience of being Japanese Canadian is very different from the sansei, yonsei, and gosei Japanese Canadians whom I’ve gotten to know through the Nikkei community. It is their story I am trying to tell as it surrounds the memorial. My introductions, through the Kikiai Collaborative, to people who have inherited the traumas of internment through their ancestors and elders have given me some insight to this lived experience, though I will never fully understand it; I will only ever be able to empathize.
My own inherited trauma is that of being both victor and loser in the World Wars; my family from Canada were Norwegian immigrants who logged and farmed in the Kootenays and did not have many sons and fathers that fought in the war. They also lived not far from the internment camps of BC’s interior. I imagine that my grandmother and grandfather, who were raised in Creston, heard rumours of the Japanese Canadians who were moved en masse nearby, which influenced their opinions of Asians over their whole lives. My family from Japan must have fought and worked in the war and had to rebuild and leave eastern Tokyo when it was destroyed after the war. I imagine – though no one talks about it – that some of my Japanese ancestors died during the war, either fighting to take over the Pacific or in the bombings of the major cities of Japan. I have shame about the way the Japanese military treated prisoners-of-war, that they strove for Asian-Pacific dominance, that my family may have been involved in that somehow.
To come to terms with some of those feelings, in the summer of 2018 I had the chance to walk through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. For the whole four hours I walked through the park, I cried. I cried for grief, for shame, for the loss that the whole of the world felt through the war. Then and now, I think about how war brings out the worst in humanity. But the space, what it was dedicated to, also reminds me how it can bring out the best in humanity. I walked through the museum and read stories of how people helped strangers as best as they could through the worst possible circumstances imaginable. I walked and wondered how in this day and age we could deal with such tragedy again, and then thought about the places in the world that are still dealing with such horrible circumstances. And then I thought about home, and, despite the juxtaposed halves of my identity, how grateful I am that I live with the privilege that I do in this beautiful place. When I was done in the park, I sat down with the owner of the hostel I stayed at, and she told me her grandparents owned an inn before her, and they took in refugees from the city who escaped the A-Bomb. It was the most open I had ever seen a Japanese person talk about the war.
This is what the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park seems to be; it is a place where people, especially from our community, can go and work through the conflict that I think many of us feel. It gives us a place to appreciate and remember the past, while looking to a future that we dream of and that so many have fought for. The privilege that we have now is thanks to the people before us. These people built, maintained, and continue to bring significance to the memorial. I don’t want to give a full breakdown of all the historical context, but it’s also a pretty amazing story that spans decades that deserves telling.
The president of the Canadian Japanese Association, Yasushi Yamazaki, organized a battalion of about 200 volunteers and began to train them to fight in WWI. While unsuccessful at first at convincing the federal government to allow them to go and fight, another gentleman, Sainosuke Kubota, discovered that Alberta recruitment teams were having difficulty meeting enlistment targets. Small groups of Japanese-Canadian men traveled across the Rockies to enlist one-by-one through Alberta. Soon, 222 men in over ten battalions were fighting in Europe, and while they were fighting were also temporarily granted the right to vote in the federal election. And when they returned, they used their service as a means to prove their dedication to Canada and therefore as proof that they deserved the right to vote permanently.
In the same year that the memorial was dedicated, the veterans were denied that right however, and only attained it for veterans again in 1936 when a delegation went to lobby. It took them 11 years after the first attempt, as anti-Asian sentiment continued to rise, especially given the beginnings of Japanese militaristic aggression before WWII, such as with the invasion of Manchuria. Of course, all of these rights were reversed during WWII, and conditions for all Japanese Canadians became something out of a nightmare. The internment and impoundment of property which affected the whole Japanese-Canadian community is cruel in a way that I can’t even begin to put into words.
There is an accounting of Sergeant Masumi Matsui who threw his medals at the officers who were taking him away, asking “what good” the medals were when confronted by such dishonour. The light in the lantern in the memorial was extinguished at this time, a physical symbol of how Canada turned its backs on this community.
It feels like it took until the relighting of the lantern atop of the memorial in 1985 for this cloud to begin to lift. In the collective memory of Japanese Canadians in Vancouver, the injustices against the community are many, and the timeline of these events seems to surround the memorial.
Despite the injustice of internment, veterans who ended up across Canada, many east of the Rockies, witness Remembrance Day. In Vancouver, the community remembers at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial. It was 1948 before Japanese Canadians secured the full federal franchise, and 1949 before they received the provincial franchise. The Japanese-Canadian fight for the franchise which dates back to 1900, set the precedent for all Asian-Canadians. In 1985, at 98-years-old, Mitsui was the honoured guest at the lantern relighting ceremony, one of the few of that generation to bear witness as the community began the process of healing. He died two years later, just a few months shy of his 100th birthday.
The lantern is, in my opinion, the most symbolically significant part of the memorial. It stands atop the column, a form that looks like a Japanese lantern pagoda. Its extinguishing and relighting demonstrably shows how the Japanese-Canadian community is accepted and welcomed in Vancouver. It has remained lit for almost forty years, a true testament of the enduring change we’ve seen in Vancouver and across Canada. In my mind, the lantern is now a beacon – a symbol of a place that Japanese Canadians can continue to return to.
The rest of the design of the space works symbiotically with the lantern. For instance, the base is an abstracted flower; each of the petals has the names of the battles that the veterans fought in. However, the symbol of the flower is just as potent. While some believe that it is supposed to represent the chrysanthemum of the Japanese imperial crest, others have also seen it as a lotus. In Buddhism, the lotus resembles enlightenment and purity. It rises out of the muddy waters to bloom. In much the same way, the community has come out of the darkness of years of disenfranchisement to find a true place to belong.
What I find the most potent however is the mixing of styles; the memorial combines European and Asian architectural traditions. In art history, they called this chinoiserie, which is a term I’ve always disliked because it doesn’t differentiate between the many Asian races that have distinct architectural styles. This style has also traditionally tried to reinterpret Asian styles through a European lens to make it more “refined” and “architectural.” In the case of the Japanese Canadian War Memorial however, the architect James A. Benzie took these distinctive Asian elements and added them to a pretty typical form of European monument design. It provides representation for the duality of Japanese-Canadian identity; separate, distinct but complimenting and balancing one another. Neither one nor the other, but a fusion and redefinition of what this memorial should be in the face of the duality of Japanese-Canadian identity. And, most importantly, the significant pieces of the monument are the Asian parts. The European styled column does not overshadow the rest of the space.
The cherry blossom trees at this site, which include a rare ojochin, finish the space in the best way possible. The blossoms remind us of the transience of life, that nothing is permanent. We have to remind ourselves of how far we’ve come as a community, but how that fight hasn’t ended. The peace that we have found for ourselves hasn’t extended to others yet, and by remembering the veterans that worked hard for us, we need to pass the torch forward. Or, in the case of the memorial, to light the lantern for others.
Mika Ishizaki M.Arch is a recent Masters graduate from the UBC School of Architecture and Landscape Architecture (SALA). She is working to begin her internship in a firm in Vancouver, BC.
This article is reprinted from the Spring 2020 issue of Nikkei Images, Volume 25 No. 1, a publication of the Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre. To read the entire issue, which is devoted to the 100th Anniversary of the cenotaph in Stanley Park, visit centre.nikkeiplace.org/research/nikkei-images