Honouring Our People: a sansei’s perspective 2
by Derek Iwanaka
Prior to last year’s 20th Redress Anniversary Conference, I knew so little about the interment of my parents and the dispersal of approximately 22,000 other Japanese Canadians during WWII. That conference featured some very well-spoken academic speakers but I particularly enjoyed the selection of panelists who shared their firsthand recollections of their internments. Although I only heard a few stories, I was struck by the incredible hardship they endured and their resolve to get through those arduous years. Those individuals’ stories inspired me to learn more and I have since read more stories online but I am especially looking forward to the upcoming “Honouring Our People: Stories of Internment Conference” which will be held September 25-27. This special conference will provide all attendees the chance to share their collective stories and it could be one of the last opportunities for descendants like myself to learn first-hand from the issei and nisei who lived through that historic time.
As a sansei who is involved in the Nikkei community, I was asked by the organizing committee to write some thoughts on my parents’ story of internment. Both my parents were interned during the War yet surprisingly, neither of them actually perceived those years negatively until their adolescence.
My mother, Kumiko Iwanaka (nee Tabata), was only two-years-old and living in Steveston when she was shipped to Kaslo with her family in early 1942. My father, Don Iwanaka, was barely four-years-old and living on Vancouver Island when he was sent with parents and one younger brother to Hastings Park for collection before being shipped by train to the Tashme internment camp around the same time as my mother.
The Tabata family included 11 brothers and sisters and being the 9th child of 11, she was too young to have recollected much of her internment. When the war ended in 1945, she moved with her family to Midway because Japanese Canadians weren’t permitted to return to the west coast. During her early years, she avoided encounters of racism or prejudice in Kaslo and Midway because each town was predominantly populated by Nikkei. She also found that the other Nikkei families supported one another and she felt quite comfortable growing up with others of her kind. It wasn’t until the early 1950’s that she returned to Lower Mainland, where she finally faced some minor incidents of racism like name calling, but even those moments were rare. Throughout my mother’s childhood and into adolescence I believe it was her steadfast positive outlook on everything that kept her out of trouble and I am happy to report that she remembers those years as any other fun loving child.
My father is two years older than my mother but only one significant hardship lingers in his mind. He will never forget the cold winter nights living in interior of BC. He especially recalls my grandmother warming up the iron at night, wrapping it in a wool cloth and then stuffing it into their beds so they wouldn’t freeze at night. By 5 o’clock in the morning my grandfather would have to wake up to light the wood furnace so it was warm enough for the rest of the family to get out of bed. Despite being more conscious of his internment situation, even my father doesn’t dwell on the difficult times and summarized his experience by stating, “Nobody really felt that under privileged at that time because we were in the same boat,” and “there was no reason to be envious of others because we were all poor.” It wasn’t until after he was in high school in Vancouver that he looked back with some distain on his family’s mistreatment during that time, but according to him, he doesn’t harbour ill feelings for his experiences during the internment and both he and my mother look forward to the upcoming conference.
Derek Iwanaka, a sansei, is currently Chair of Tonari Gumi and of the Legacy Sakura Coalition. He attends Japanese School and his wife is Japanese-born. After becoming involved in the JC community back in 1999, he met people like Tatsuo Kage and Takeo Yamashiro who knew and respected his grandfather, Motoi Iwanaka, and this encouraged him to further connect with and help the Japanese Canadian community. His grandfather was the first elected President of Tonari Gumi back in 1976.
Derek went to University of Northern BC where there were few Asians, yet he spent most of this time with mostly Asians, especially with the Japanese students. He recalled that during his childhood in Coquitlam he was almost always one of the smallest players on any team and in school and was often picked on for his small size. This usually meant he had to try harder than others in sports such as hockey, baseball, soccer and karate. Growing up in the suburbs, he had issues with his Japanese Canadian identity and found that he escaped much of the teasing by trying to blend in with his Caucasian-dominated peer group and trying to be as white or non-Japanese as possible. Today he is aggressively pursuing his cultural roots.