a time to celebrate
So long ago –
We lived inside that glory, local stars we were,
shooting through the unseen dark fear clouds
massing out beyond the field where we played ball, bright ball.
excerpt from Shadow Catch as performed by Michael Mori at UBC Honorary Degree Ceremony Music by Benton Roark, libretto by Daphne Marlatt
Yesterday afternoon I watched my eldest daughter Emiko graduate from high school in a ceremony at Simon Fraser University. It feels like it was mere months ago that I was pushing her on the swings in the playground at the elementary school, following below her on the monkey bars, ready to catch her if she fell. I remember clearly the steps she took along the way—learning to crawl, then walk, then run; learning to spell and then to write and then to write well. There have been so many accomplishments, so many milestones—some small, some large—all building towards the amazing young woman she is today.
To see her up on stage in her cap and gown, ready to make that transition into the next stage in her life, was to measure how far she had come and how far we—her family—had come along with her. As I watched her and her friends cross that red carpet I had the same bittersweet sense that comes with the turning of the seasons: “change is in the air.”
Next year Emi will be attending university, immersing herself in a new world, one that will open up new doors and generate new questions and new ideas. In a few years, assuming things play out as they should, she will be up on that stage again, marking yet another milestone in her life’s journey. It is not a path that I ever walked, and I look forward to experiencing it alongside her, if from a respectful distance.
Three weeks before Emi’s graduation, on May 30, I sat in the Chan Centre at UBC, one of many who came to watch as another group of graduates crossed the stage to receive their diplomas. The occasion was the granting of honorary degrees on Japanese Canadian UBC students of 1942, a story that we have covered extensively in The Bulletin.
All together, seventy-plus Japanese Canadian students or their representatives, received honorary degrees in a deeply moving ceremony. I know I was not the only one who had tears rolling down my cheeks as I watched the ceremony unfold in a beautifully choreographed and structured manner.
Coming seventy years after the students, along with 22,000 other Japanese Canadians, were ripped out of their lives and sent to internment and road camps and sugar beet farms, it was a day of celebration. It was also a day of vindication, not just for the students and their families, but for a community that had worked so hard to give their children the opportunity to attend university back in the days before World War Two split the community apart.
The issei understood that it was education, not just hard work, that would bring Japanese Canadians into mainstream Canadian society and put them on an equal footing. Although barred at the time from many of the professions that they were working towards qualifications for, they knew that if they had any chance of breaking through the barriers that existed, education was the key.
Sadly, of the 76 students who were attending the University of British Columbia in 1942, less than two dozen remain, and of those, only ten were able to attend the ceremony in person.
It is a sobering reminder that all those who remember the hard years will soon be gone. With this year marking the 70th year since internment, our connection to those seminal years is slipping away. Perhaps this is behind the upsurge in books and films in recent years. Soon all memories that remain will be those that exist in print, in film and on computers. It is why the work of organizations like the Nikkei National Museum is so important. And why we must celebrate our elders while we can.
I was also reminded, as I watched my daughter’s high school graduation ceremony three weeks later, that those of us born after World War Two are fortunate to have had many of the barriers knocked down by the generation that came before us. Although issues of inequality and injustice still remain, the pluralistic, inclusive society those students envisioned as they stepped through the gates of UBC those many years ago has come a long step closer to being realized. And that is no small achievement.
Speaking of achievements, on May 29, the day before the UBC event, President Barack Obama awarded of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, America’s highest civilian honour, to Gordon Hirabayashi, the Japanese American—later Canadian—who fought the United States government over the abuse of his civil rights and his treatment as an American citizen. The award, which was given posthumously, reminds us that it is important to acknowledge those who have led through example and who make us better, not only as Japanese Canadians, but as human beings.
Like many of you, I am looking forward to the Powell Street Festival, now in its 36th year. It will run, as it has every year since 1977, on the Saturday and Sunday of the BC Day long weekend, bringing together people from all walks of life—Nikkei and non-Nikkei, local residents and people from across the city. For many of us, the Festival is one of the highlights of the year. The August Bulletin will once again contain the Festival guide. I’ll see you all there!