Cy Hisao Saimoto
Cy Hisao Saimoto was born in Steveston, BC on April 21, 1928, one of ten children born to Kunimatsu and Kiku Saimoto, who had immigrated to Canada in the early 1900s. The family went to a self-supporting camp in Minto Mines, BC during the Second World War and upon returning to the coast Cy’s father became involved in the re-establishment committee of the Vancouver Japanese Language School—the only building returned to the Nikkei community following the lifting of wartime restrictions in 1949. Cy would accompany his father to meetings and lend a hand refurbishing the building. On his father’s death, Cy took on a greater role at the school, becoming a director, a position he held until 2006. He remains Honourary Chairman. As Chairman of the VJLS-JH Y2K Project that saw the construction of the new building, Saimoto maintains a passionate belief in the value of history and need to maintain roots in the Downtown Eastside—the historic home of the Japanese Canadian community. This past November, Saimoto travelled to Japan to receive the Order of the Rising Sun, Japan’s highest civilian honour, for his years of volunteer service to the Vancouver Nikkei community.
In addition to his volunteer activities with the Language School and the Vancouver Buddhist Church (he served as President from 1976 to 1990), Saimoto founded Great West Paper Box Co. Ltd. in 1955. He remains chairman and owner.
Cy Saimoto sat down with The Bulletin at the Vancouver Japanese Language School to discuss his recent trip to Japan and his vision for the School.
In His Own Words
Cy Hisao Saimoto
You were born in 1928, so you remember the pre-war years. What was life like back then?
For the first immigrants to come here, it was a tough life with all the discrimination. Because the Japanese traded amongst themselves, Powell street became Japan Town before the war. They all lived around this area. Before the war, the Japanese School had over a thousand kids.
What did your father do before the war?
He came here in 1907, working as a fisherman, and then as a fish buyer for B.C. Packers. Fish buyers would buy the fish from the fishermen and bring it to the cannery and get a commission to sell it to the cannery. He had a 62-foot seine boat built called the “May S”. But the Japanese couldn’t get a licence to seine, so he chartered out his boats. They used it to haul salmon in from Alert Bay into Steveston with this boat. In summertime I used to go to the packer on the river, collecting fish.
You went to Minto Mines during the war, what was it like?
We were evacuated from here in ‘42. The thing is, the B.C. Security Commission was run by government people: Austin Taylor, H.R. McMillan, and W. H. Moffatt. Austin Taylor controlled all the mines, Bralorne mine up north in the Chilcotin there, it was still going in ‘42 and he had people in that area looking after the property they owned. They had homes built there for the miners, and then the depression came and the gold went flat so they all moved out, so they were ghost towns. But someone had to look after the place, right? So there was a fellow called Bill Davidson that looked after that property and they said it was a good deal for the Japanese to come here, good rent. So that’s what happened. We paid rent, we were what you call self supporting, we didn’t get any help from the government. Our parents thought the war would only last a year or so, so we didn’t have to get any help from the government. Quite a few families went on their own. But most couldn’t go on their own, so all the people on the coast, the government shoved them all into Hastings Park, the stables there. I’ll never forget that. You don’t treat people like that. I’ll never forget all that in my lifetime, anyway. We want to let the young kids—second, third, fourth generation—know what happened. It’s history.
Was there school in Minto Mines?
I didn’t go to school no. I worked in the sawmill, 42 cents an hour. I worked all over. There was no high school there, so my dad says, oh, we better move out of here, so in 1945 we moved to Revelstoke. There was a high school there, but you couldn’t live in the city limits either, there. So that’s where I finished my high school. But during that time I worked in the logging camps in Rogers Pass. And then in ‘49, I even worked for the C.P.R., 55 cents an hour, this kind of thing. I worked in the ice house. Do you know how they cooled those the C.P.R. rail passenger car cars? With blocks of ice underneath. The air comes up and cools the car. I used to ice those hot air conditioned cars, and then fill the seaboard freight cars, you know, fill them with ice, because they’re shipping fruit and produce from the Okanagan. But it’s good training for you, you know. You’re a young kid. But I just felt sorry for my parents, that’s all. That age, coming back, nothing to start with, you know, that’s tough to take, to losing everything . . .
You become involved in the Vancouver Japanese Language School shortly after the return to the coast. What was the importance of the School to the community?
This is the only institution that’s been here over a hundred years. A lot of people think oh, the Downtown Eastside is a bad area, so they dump everything here. But to us, I like to save the heritage, the Nikkei heritage. In order to do that you’ve got to have a building or place so the young people have somewhere to gather. And all I tried to do is bridge this for the sansei and the yonsei, so they can carry on back and forth with Japan, so the culture keeps carrying on. It’s a legacy, you know. We’ve been here over a hundred and thirty years. The first Japanese came here in 1877, and the school started in 1906. And then the First World War came, the Depression came, and the Second World War came, we lost everything. Discrimination was so bad here. They (the Canadian government) tried to send us all back to Japan, to repatriate in ‘46, ‘47. But we didn’t go. We fought like hell trying to get something back. We got the School back. This is the only property officially that we know of that was returned.
What did your father do after the war?
My father was a good businessman, you know, his line of credit was good. Before the war my dad was in the salting business, packing caviar and salted salmon to Japan. So he had a lot of connections in Japan and he had a lot of connections here too. After the war, he got back into the import/export business working with the Nelson Brothers Fisheries and the St. Mungo cannery on River Road in Surrey. Richie Nelson was the boss you know. You shake hands with him and the deal’s on. You don’t know what our parents had to go through. Even going through life, we can’t imagine what kind of hardship they had to go through. That’s why I’ve always wanted something like this, this community area saved. If nobody’s around here, it will be forgotten.
In addition to helping rebuild the School, you were one of the founders of the Vancouver Judo Club.
Yeah. I used to play judo at the judo club in Steveston before the war and when I came back, bunch of fellows like Tamoto and all those guys called me up and said, Cy, how about coming up and help us form the Judo club. I didn’t know too much but I picked up all the rules and everything before the war. So I came out and helped them out. We started the club in 1950, Vancouver Judo club.
One thing about Judo, any sport, doesn’t matter, you learn discipline. You come into the dojo, take off your hat, shake, bow, practice and that discipline is good. Today we lack that discipline. And that’s the problem with young people. You don’t have that discipline. Because you got to get that discipline when you’re still a young kid. It automatically grows in them. Today a teacher can’t discipline your kids. You know, that’s what people expect. I say, what do you mean? They can’t do that. It’s the parent’s job to discipline.
But it’s nice that you’re in a position that you can help people. That’s a good feeling. You can’t buy this kind of thing. I know friends that got all kinds of money, they’re lonelier than hell. What the hell for? do something I said. But they’re that type: they don’t want to go out and this and that. I like to help people, the community. If the bottom moves up, you move up automatically. You don’t have to have that ego. But everybody isn’t that way.
There was pressure to relocate the school somewhere else, wasn’t there? A lot of Japanese left the area years ago . . .
That’s right. A lot of people want to forget, want to forget the past. That’s why I was involved with the church, too, the Vancouver Buddhist Church. We built that new building 30 years ago. We asked all the membership what they wanted to do, they said they wanted to build there. 1977 was a hundred years since the first Japanese came here, so we made a project and built the Church in ‘79—exactly 30 years ago.
A place like this (the Language School) is very hard to put together and maintain. This school is all operated as a volunteer organization. It’s hard to maintain a place like that. Anybody can build something, but how are you going to maintain it if you don’t have young people following? That’s my thinking. So 25 years from now or 50 years, I don’t care, I won’t be around anyway but they’ll say, you made a good school here.
By giving, you get something back, don’t you?
Yes. I don’t expect to get it back right away. Life is a circle. It’s a nice feeling that eventually it will come back, maybe not in your time, maybe your kids time or your grand kids time. It might come back, might not . . . the Japanese expect it to come back all the time. Right away. It doesn’t come back that easy. It’s like my golf game, I go this way and that but at the end I’m going to get it in, you know. You have to have patience, you can’t get mad when you’re helping the society, you know. Sometime you get mad at yourself, but you can’t show that. You have to hold back. Because the good times will come if you hold back. You know, your turn will come.
You are a Buddhist?
Yes, I’m a Buddhist. But I’m not a really religious guy, I’m just a human being. But the Buddhist teaching is really nice, you know. Everyone that dies, you have a first year memorial, third year, seven year, etc. You get all your family together, you know, for the service, and then we have lots of things to eat and drink, and talk about what your father did, your ancestors did. It’s your own flesh and blood. Young kid hear, gee, my grandfather did all that, you know. It might come around. I don’t know, but at least you’re sowing the seed. Just like sowing a seed, do you expect everything to come out? No. A small percentage comes out, that’s great. Same with the School here. That’s why I’m interested in this School. Having a daycare centre and kids coming when they are small. Once they grow up, there’s something there they never forget. When they’re middle aged they say, oh, I went to that school, I better come and volunteer my service here. I don’t know. It might happen. But if I don’t do anything, nothing happens.
We Japanese people are very strong. Once they set their mind, they’ll do something. Right? I mean, we lost everything during the war, and came back. We put up the church, we built a new wing at the School now. I mean you got to give credit where credit’s to be given. They’re fighters. You know, if you don’t have the will, nothing happens.
I don’t imagine you can sustain the school with only Japanese students—is the student population diverse in terms of ethnicity?
Yeah, pure Nikkei is less than 30 percent now. There is a lot of mixed marriages, some with no Japanese blood. That percentage is over 15 percent now I think. They just love Japanese culture and Japanese language, or they had some connection with Japan. Many of the kids that come here are actually trilingual, or quadlingual, so it just enriches their life to have another language.
We want to make this place kind of an educational centre. Eventually, once it starts going, we’ll have teachers from different countries come here. That’s what my dream is one day. Maybe it will never happen but you can’t depend only on the Japanese. The numbers are so small. Today we only have about 70,000 in the whole of Canada. After 130 years.
Before the war we went to English school, and then after, from 3:30 to 5:30 we took Japanese. Lots of parents pushed us to go there. When you’re a kid you want to play hooky and go to the movies in the afternoon, this kind of thing, but I never played hooky because if I got caught, boy, I know I’m going to get it. You don’t learn very much—that’s all right. It’s just like sending the kids here: you think they’re not learning anything but they’re learning. That’s what my dad always said, travel when you can. Meet people. Listen to them. If you don’t meet anybody, you know you don’t hear anything. Business is same too. You know, I am a businessman myself so I used to meet people.
You just came back from Japan, where you received the Order of the Rising Sun for all your volunteer service. How was that?
To me, it’s not a big deal but it’s a big deal in Japan. It was announced November the 3rd and the ceremony was on November the 11th, and so I went there, and for me to go there, you know, it was amazing. It’s an all day deal from nine o’clock in the morning. You sit around and this and that, and then they serve you lunch. And then after all the presentations, the foreign minister gives you the scroll, and then they give you the medal. And then they take you to the palace, to the Emperor, and there’s thousands of people lined up, and he speaks for a few minutes, then he walks all around in front of us there. It’s something. So I got out of there close to six o’clock, you know. All the days I was there I had a party every night. Oh, that’s tough to take, you know, but it’s a real nice feeling to get that. I thought it was good for the community to get something—I was the only one from Canada.
I just want to make sure it gives a lift to the Downtown Eastside area here, that’s what I want to make sure, not only the Japanese, but the whole neighbourhood. You know, let’s work together, do something, go fight city hall, work together.
One thing that’s impressed me about the school is that you’ve really gotten involved in the community around here and not just kept to yourselves. I understand you have another project underway . . .
Yes, our Heritage Renovation Daycare Project. We’re planning a green renovation of our Heritage Wing to add a full-time daycare centre We’ve received seed funding from the provincial government, so we want to kick off a fundraising campaign to raise another half a million. That’s what we’re trying to do so we can fix the building. When I ask for donations, I say I don’t care how much you give, it’s how much you can afford to give. You know the Japanese way of doing it is the guy who gives the most gets their name on top, you know, put pressure on people. I never did it that way. It’s the little ones that count. These are the people that are going to maintain this place. The big ones are just there, bang, and that’s it, leave nothing behind. But you know, it’s going to last fifty, a hundred years, who’s going to maintain it? It’ll become a warehouse, you know, so you need the small ones, lots of small money donated. It’s not the amount. I want to borrow your heart. Your hundred dollars or the other guy’s thousand is just the same. If you can only afford a hundred, that’s great, you know, people that can afford a thousand, great. People that can afford ten thousand, that’s great too.
We’ll become one of the largest child care centres in BC. And at the same time, because we are a heritage building, we decided to also make it an interpretive centre, to tell the story of our history. We’re doing special green features like the solar thermal panels and green programming as well to make it one of the most innovative centres in BC.
What are your plans for the future?
We’re looking at the long term in the next 25 to 50 years, so we will continue to adapt as we have over the past one hundred years. There are a lot of businesses, small businesses cropping up around here. There’s no hall around here this size, so a lot of people use the place. That’s the kind of centre we would like to be. Basically right now we’re a community centre but in our next phase, we are adding a child care centre. We like to help the Downtown Eastside, not only Japanese—any race, doesn’t matter, just come to the place, use the place.
The Emperor and Empress visited your school during the recent visit. That must have been exciting.
We invited all the Japanese Canadian and local community representatives and you know it was great. This area does have problems but the people are great, actually, and there’s a lot of good stuff happening here. It was really a warm community welcome for them and they really appreciated it. The mayor showed them around and the councillors came and it was really nice because the whole community got together so we were really happy. With Mayor Robertson, we showed them our Centennial History Exhibit and then our plans for what we’re doing now and our renovation plans for the daycare. It was a historic day of celebration for the Japanese Canadian community and the Downtown Eastside.
Any last words you’d like to share with our readers?
To get involved with something like this, you got to sacrifice. So that’s why you have to get the right kind of people around you. Hard to do, but get people working. Become a volunteer. You know, a lot of volunteers say, I got to come and help. I say, don’t think that way. You’re not doing it for anybody. You’re doing it for yourself. That’s the kind of volunteer you want. I know, all the years I’ve been helping this church and the School. I mean, when you’ve gone through life you get to know all the angles. Volunteers are the same, there are a lot of volunteers that have an “I’m doing it for you” attitude. You know, if it’s that way, please don’t come. Come with the feeling that I would like to do something on my own to help you. To feel good yourself. Come in and help, you know. You don’t think that when you’re younger but when you get older, you realize this. That’s what I did, anyway. So I try to help everybody think that way, a little bit that way.