Dr. Norikazu Nishio: Looking forward in life
by John Endo Greenaway
Retired dentist Norikazu Nishio was at home in Nanaimo when he got word that the University of British Columbia had agreed to award honourary degrees to UBC students who were forced to leave university and their studies in 1942.
Now 88, Dr. Nishio was eighteen and in his first year of studies at UBC when Japan attacked Pearl Harbor. As one of several Japanese Nationals on campus, he was given twenty-four hours to leave not only the University but the west coast. In all, seventy-six students of Japanese descent were eventually affected, of whom the majority were Canadian citizens.
During the 1940-41 session, with the war heating up overseas, military training had become compulsory for all students, including Japanese Canadians, making them the only Japanese Canadians taking military training. This changed with the December 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. In her 1977 paper A University At War: Japanese Canadians at UBC During World War II, Elaine Bernard notes, “The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and Canada’s entry into the war against Japan occurred at the beginning of the Christmas break. There was no coverage of the declaration in the student press, which had shut down for the break. When Japanese Canadian students arrived back at school in January, they were asked to turn in their uniforms. The COTC (Canadian Officers’ Training Corps) daily orders for 7 January 1942 “Struck off Strength” (released from service) forty-three Japanese Canadians enrolled in the Basic Group and the six enrolled in the COTC Group. The decision to discharge the trainees was made by the university Senate’s Committee on Military Education, which was the body that had governed the training and military affairs on campus.”
As government plans to remove all Canadians of Japanese origin from the coast progressed, the rest of the students—including those born in Canada—were forced into exile. It wasn’t until the fall of 1948 that fifteen Japanese Canadians received permits to enrol at UBC again.
I spoke to Dr. Nishio by phone at his home in Nanaimo.
Dr. Nishio, what were your feelings when you heard the news that UBC had agreed to grant honourary degrees to former UBC students?
Wow – it’s been a long, long time. It’s just great—better late than never! I was in a slightly different category, though. I was attending UBC as a Japanese National, whereas most of the others were Canadian-born. So I was really considered the enemy and was given twenty-four hours to leave the 100-mile zone. My three siblings were all born here, but for some reason my mother decided that I should be born in Japan so I was born in Tokyo. We came back when I was a year old so I was basically raised as a Canadian but was considered Japanese because that’s where I was born.
Where did you live in Vancouver?
I was brought up in Kitsilano so as youngsters all our friends were English-speaking, apart from a few other Japanese Canadian families. I went to Lord Tennyson Elementary and then Kitsilano Junior and High Schools. Mum and dad had lots of Japanese friends who they would visit. Dad ran an import/export business on Granville Street, dealing in dry goods—dinnerware and tablecloths and those sorts of things. They took a huge hit when they confiscated everything. They had to start all over again when they moved east.
Where did they go during the war?
Most of my family relocated to the Bridge River self-supporting camp, then ended up in Montreal after the war. They eventually moved to Toronto. They brought in the Mikasa chinaware line for Canada and did well with that. They only sold the business a while back.
And what about you?
Well, I was attending UBC in my first year of general studies—I was only 18, one of the youngest Japanese Canadian students. I got the news I had to leave, and the night I was packing, my mum and dad said, why don’t you go into dentistry? I was always good with my hands, I was pretty good at art—I thought I might be a commercial artist. So I went to Calgary, where we had family friends, then to Edmonton, where I stayed at the YMCA.
I took a year of courses at the University of Alberta by correspondence—I wrote my first year exams at Convocation hall—and then enrolled full time in the dentistry program. I worked every summer to help pay my way. I worked at the Swifts Packing Plant and spent one summer working at a chick hatchery. For some reason the Japanese were good at chick sexing. They were noted for their expertise.
Was there a different attitude towards Japanese Canadians in Alberta than on the coast?
There was a huge difference. In Vancouver there was a constant barrage of articles in the papers speaking out against the Japanese. There were some aldermen noted for stirring up anti-Japanese sentiment and the papers went along with it. I only remember one incident of discrimination in Alberta. I was working in a sign painting shop one summer. I was handy with show cards and things like that—I’d paint bank windows with gold leaf, wall signs, things like that. This one customer complained to the management about me working there, so they assigned me to a different area where of the shop where I was out of the public eye.
I’d say that most of the people who went to Alberta and out east felt more comfortable than on the coast. On the sugar beet farms, though, they had a difficult time. As labourers, they were treated pretty badly. There are always people who will take advantage of those in a difficult situation.
What did you do once you got your dentistry degree?
I ran a practice in High Prairie in the Peace River area for five years, spent nine years in Whitehorse and then eventually relocated back to the coast, to Nanaimo.
It must have been pretty interesting living and working in the Yukon . . .
It was. And it led to some interesting experiences. I had just received my Canadian citizenship. I was a good fisherman and was asked to guide Prince Philip fly fishing and then John Diefenbaker, who was Prime Minister at the time. I took him three times.
That’s pretty cool! What were they like?
They were both excellent people. The Prince chatted as we fished—he was an excellent fisherman. Diefenbaker was a little unusual—he wasn’t as skilled but just as eager to catch a fish! I remember he was one of those people who talked without expecting any answers in return—it seemed like his mind was going a hundred miles an hour all the time. When I moved to Nanaimo, Diefenbaker was back in opposition and he looked me up—I took him steel-heading and salmon fishing. He was very, what would you call it—sympathetic—towards the Japanese. With both of them, especially the prince, there were lots of RCMP around. They were everywhere . . .
Why did you move back to the coast?
Well, I had married while in Whitehorse, and our son and daughter were born there too. I thought they’d have better educational opportunities on the west coast.
Your wife is not Japanese?
No—we were one of the first intermarried couples, I guess. She was an English teacher. But we never had any difficulties, and it wasn’t hard for the children either. One of them is now a medical doctor and the other is a chartered accountant. Once you’re accepted into a community, you don’t think about it anymore—you don’t think of yourself as Japanese, you’re just Canadian.
You don’t sound like your harbour any bitterness.
I don’t. I’ve always looked forward, rather than back. I’ve had a good life and I’m certainly not thinking of slowing down at all. But you know, some of the others weren’t as fortunate, especially those who ended their university careers because of the war. It was life-shattering for some of them and it changed their life and their outlook on life.
I’m really happy that the University of British Columbia has decided to honour the former students and their families. Mary Kitagawa has worked so hard to achieve this. As long as my health allows it I intend to be there at the ceremony.