Book Review: Honouring Our People – Breaking the Silence
Blessing in Disguise – What was a blessing for Japanese Canadians?
Review of a New Book: Honouring Our People – Breaking the Silence
by Yusuke Tanaka
This book is a collection of testimonies presented at a conference: The Honouring Our People – Stories of the Internment. At this three-day conference, approximately 160 Japanese Canadians gathered at Nikkei Place in September, 2009. They talked about their wartime and postwar experiences. It reminiscences about the forced uprooting of 22,000 Japanese Canadians. Each chapter is composed of several testimonies of the specific camp and it goes from west to east: Tashme, Greenwood, Lemon Creek towards East Lillooet and continues about people who moved to sugar beet farms in the Prairies and self-supporting camps.
In addition, there is the testimony of a nisei who was confined to a prisoner-of-war camp in Ontario, and who left for Japan with their parents after the war and faced discrimination again. Finally, a Japanese Americans who faced similar discrimination south of the border spoke about the resemblance and difference between American and Canadian experiences.
This is a substantial English-language book consisting of over 50 testimonies, notes, photographs and maps. It was edited by Randy Enomoto, former NAJC President and was published by the Greater Vancouver JCCA.
As you read the testimonies and look into the old, grayscale images in the book, you may slip into the world of 1940s ghost towns deep in the forest. However, I urge you to be aware that most witnesses are nisei who reached school age at the time (approximately 4,000). In that era, the majority of the Nikkei community were Issei parents aged 30s to 40s. In addition, there were also nisei people who had reached adult age. Two different images of nisei will become distinguished when you compare this book with Teaching in Canadian Exile (2001) which was co-edited by Frank Moritsugu and the Ghost Town Teachers Historical Society.
At each camp, an elder group of Nisei, approximately 250 people, of high school students and high school graduates taught younger siblings, thus maintaining their school education. They were “instant teachers” but they were excellent former high school students as well. It is not surprising that nisei students who came back to the public school system after the war became aware that the education they had received in their camp had turned out to be as good as other students had received. Further, among substitute teachers, some of them became regular teachers who benefited from their experiences as the ghost town teachers. With their intelligence and wisdom they made “misfortune” into “blessing.”
Is a misfortune an advance notice of happiness?
Margaret Lion, née Inoue, one nisei who reached the position of the vice-president at CBC radio in 1982 had once said, in an interview held at the JCCC in Toronto, that the wartime relocation and dispersion pushed Niseis to the mainstream society from the Japanese society as a ghetto was a blessing in disguise. Furthermore, she said, “Had it not been for the forced move, my fate might have been sealed as a wife and mother with no chance for a meaningful career” (Nikkei Voice, March 2010). In contrast, Frank Moritsugu had written in the inaugural issue of the Nikkei Voice that “There was no blessing in disguise. We would have done well anyway.” (December 1987 issue).
Which can be true? Before the war, nisei were unable to find a decent job even if they graduated from university. Even after the war, the British Privy Council still approved the deportation of Japanese Canadians by the Canadian Government. It was in 1949 that Asian Canadian citizens obtained the right to vote, thus institutional discrimination was eliminated. But the trauma of the second generation continued. For example, Roger Obata felt that he finally became a first class citizen after the Japanese Canadian Redress Agreement was settled in 1988. I wonder if we could call the experience of rejection a “blessing”?
On the other hand, Dr. Satsuki Ina, a Japanese American who has counselled many Nisei Americans and contributed a forward for this book, points out that a blessing for the Americans and Canadians of Japanese ancestry “…was not the incarceration; the blessing was the parents, friends and teachers, who worked to make our lives more meaningful, who helped us to have hope, who took care of us during desolate time.” “Blessings” described by her are repeatedly obvious in this book.
What do we learn from a discriminatory experience?
The majority of the participants of Honouring Our People: Stories of Internment conference in 2009 were nisei seniors. However, several participants were postwar immigrants such as Tatsuo Kage. I also joined the conference not as the Japanese editor of the Nikkei Voice but as an individual. Together with Judy Hanazawa I moderated one of the small discussion groups. One participant in our group was Haruji Mizuta, a kika nisei (a nisei who came back to Canada). His testimony is included in the book. In the group he tearfully spoke about his experience of being discriminated against after he returned to Canada at the age of 22.
Following his words, I talked about my own experience. When I arrived in Toronto, suddenly snow balls were thrown at the window of our house and such harassment by neighbourhood children continued until next spring when the daughter of our neighbor chased them around. I told the group that we became the target of harassment probably because we were a family of an international marriage that was unusual in the neighbourhood where we settled. Mr. Mizuta came to Vancouver in 1955. As for me, it was in 1986. Even after 30 years, discrimination was still a part of daily life in Toronto which had become a city of people with the most diverse backgrounds in Canada.
In the 1930s, Japan withdrew from the League of Nations and in isolation in the world, the Japanese army surged into the Asian Continent and committed all kinds of atrocities. Ken Adachi wrote “Spreadeagling the course of events in Canada and ultimately providing the sanction for evicting the Japanese from the west coast of BC was Japan’s pellmell military rush for territory in the Far East” (The Enemy That Never Was). The racism against Japanese descent in North America was the result of this fear towards Japanese in the Far East.
There in the Prairies Japanese Canadian families were evaluated just like at the trade of black slaves and were packed into cattle stalls. Thomas Tazumi’s family was hired by a farm in Manitoba. He was thrown out of a public school by white parents who told him: “We do not want Japanese children in our classroom.” He also remembers that there was a notice at a Chinese restaurant that said “No Japs allowed.”
However, there were people in farms who treated Japanese Canadians in a normal way. It is said that Mennonite people among Caucasians in Manitoba were impartial and considerate. Mr. Tazumi as a young boy found salvation there and became a Christian minister later. He said, “…the hardships my parents went through, the discrimination that I went through, I look at it as a blessing in disguise. It made a man out – I should say, made a man out of me, but it made me tolerant of other people, so that was my journey.” Here was another “blessing.”
There was a woman who was eloquent and full of humour in my group. Her name was Ellen Crowe-Swords (née Kimoto). She said her mother asked her to “go and tell the story and tell them that we were pushed around and we got used to being pushed around and now other people are pushed around we feel it. The Muslims, the First Nations People, the Chinese Head Tax.”
It is “the spirit of redress” that is talked about here. It sure is a blessing for both sides of the people to help underprivileged people. Here is another blessing; the compassion for others which Japanese Canadians learned from “an evil.”
(Translated by Eiko Furukawa. The original article in Japanese was published in the Bulletin/Geppo, August 2016 issue.)
Honouring Our People: Breaking the Silence is available through the Greater Vancouver JCCA
firstname.lastname@example.org Retail price: $ 24.95 + GST.
Yusuke Tanaka is a freelance writer based in Toronto, former managing editor of the Nikkei Voice. He is the translator of Bittersweet Passage by Maryka Omatsu, Throw Your Heart Over the Fence by Diane Dupuy and others.