When I met Oyama Seishin, head of the Canada Association of Okinawa my first night in Naha this April, he told me he wanted me to meet an elder, a Mr. Roy Oshiro. A field trip to explore the origins of Ryukyuan emigration to Canada had brought me to Okinawa and the idea of meeting an Okinawan Canadian elder was intriguing.
Mr. Oyama, whose own father emigrated to Canada in 1917, turned out to be a fountain of wisdom. Not only had he been actively promoting Okinawa-Canada relations for many years, he was in close touch with the Okinawa Kenjin Kai groups in Vancouver, Calgary, Lethbridge and Toronto.
That Monday morning dawned windy but clear in Naha. Oyama Seishin and I drove through the neighbourhoods that fan out from downtown Naha in a continuous wave of dense suburbs. We passed the large US bases that occupy huge tracts of land and from which supersonic jets scream into the sky on a regular basis.
Unlike Japan proper, which regained its sovereignty on April 28, 1952, Okinawa became a US military colony (protectorate) after the war and remained so for 25 years. The Japanese government only gained control over Okinawa in 1972. Even then Okinawa did not really regain its freedom. The military bases on this small island continued to dominate the landscape and the economy despite continuing protests by many islanders.
After a 45-minute drive, we arrived at a concrete two story building in Uruma city, the home of Roy Oshiro. The first floor includes a carport and a separate suite and the upstairs is a modest flat. The varnished wood framing in the living room suggests a hint of Canada.
Roy’s wife, a native Ryukyuan, met us at the genkan and went to fetch Roy: “Chotto yoko ni natta” (“he laid down for a bit”). Roy quickly appeared. A tall gentleman, with silver hair, a sharp nose, and a sparkle in his eye, he reminded me of my own father in his later years. “So, you’re from Canada, eh—welcome” he said in fluent English, switching quickly and effortlessly to and from Japanese.
Roy, it turns out was born in Brandon, Manitoba in 1921. In his eighty-eighth year, Roy’s mind remains sharp and he kindly shared his family history with us.
Worried that he would soon be conscripted into the Japanese imperial army, Roy’s father, Kamasuke, left Okinawa in 1907 with a group of contract labourers heading for Hawai’i. His dad’s passport, which Roy still has and allowed us to photograph, bears his Okinawan name, Ogusuku Kamasuke. The family name, Ogusuku is the Okinawan reading of the characters for “big castle.” Only after arriving in Canada and having faced discrimination within the Japanese Canadian community, did his father adopt the Japanese reading, changing his name from Ogusuku to Oshiro.
After a year in Hawai’i, he left for Canada, going to work on the CPR in Kenora, Ontario. He held a myriad of jobs—farming in Nanaimo, working in the hotels in Lake Louise. In 1918 he returned to Okinawa to get married. The mayor of Gushikawa village was a cousin and he acted as a go between. In 1919, Kamasuke returned to Canada with his new bride, Masako.
They eventually settled in Vancouver and founded a thriving business, B.C. Wood and Coal. They raised their family, which by the 1920s included Roy and two younger brothers, George and Aki.
The depression, however, created hardships and the family made the difficult decision for Masako and the three children to return to Okinawa. Roy remembered the couple of years going to school in Okinawa, running around in bare feet and in shorts.
The family returned to Canada in 1932 and Roy attended Templeton and Britannia high schools.
The virulent racism that attended the war with Japan brought years of trials and tribulation for the family. Roy recalls that his Dad had mixed feelings and said to the family, “Dou shiyou?” (what should we do). That decision was soon made for them as the King government forced the uprooting of all Japanese Canadians.
Kamasuke and his family left BC for the sugar beet farms of Alberta, eventually settling in Coaldale. During the uprooting and dislocation, B.C. Wood and Coal was sold out from under them and the family struggled to make ends meet, as did many others.
Roy, then in his twenties, was able to take teacher’s training in Alberta in 1943 because of labour shortages during the war. He began teaching in a Hutterite community in Alberta. Roy went on to teach in other public schools and among the students he taught was the renowned writer, Joy Kogawa.
Roy had been greatly impressed by Christians who had helped people during the hard years. He in turn decided to become a minister. He was ordained and in 1955 went to Okinawa as a missionary. He never left.
Roy was a missionary unlike many—his familial roots and his own experience growing up in Okinawa for a few years made living and working in Okinawa a constant homecoming.
Roy told us, “I’m an Okinawan but I’m a Canadian too.” He returned to Canada on a number of occasions including in 2000 for the 100th anniversary commemoration of the arrival of the first Okinawan, Makishi Anson, to Canada.
An Okinawan Canadian elder, Roy is a living symbol of those whose life trajectories spanned the East China sea across the Pacific to Canada.
John Price is associate professor of history at the University of Victoria. He is currently working on a transpacific anthology of Asian Canadian lives and is looking for further information on Ryukuans in Canada. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.