Honouring Our People: stories of the internment
The following presentation is reprinted from the recent Honouring Our People conference, held September 25 – 27 at the Nikkei Centre in Burnaby. Reprinted by permission.
by Seichi Bill Tahara
My name is Seichi Bill Tahara, a depression-born Nisei. My birth certificate indicates I was born at 143 Dunlevy Street in the heart of Japantown some 80 years ago. Today, enjoying RETIREMENT in one of THE best places to live, Victoria.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to attend this weekend’s conference with you to share a few memories of some of my personal experiences, thoughts and recollections growing up during a very unsettling wartime & internment years during the early 1940s.
In the 30’s, our family lived right here in Vancouver at 325 West 4th Ave in Fairview, today an industrial and business district. I attended kindergarten at the Columbia Street United Church at the corner of 6th and Columbia and attended Model school on 10th Ave near the City Hall. Each day after grade school, I also attended Nihon-Gakko (Japanese School), learning nihongo and being taught the traditional Japanese way: very disciplined and very strict!
As Niseis in our formative years, we were taught to be polite, be honest, obey and respect our elders, study hard, work hard, try your best in whatever you do, and care for others’ well being. A typical Japanese kid: well-behaved, quiet, dull, not an exciting Nisei. Most Niseis of our era avoided being a “desha-bari”—an outgoing character—because you’ll be talked about in the community. In other words, “Never rock the Boat, Mind Your Own Business.” Independence and individuality were frowned upon by the wider Japanese community (gaman, ganbare, giri, “GO for IT”).
In Sep of 1940, our family moved up the West Coast of BC to Ocean Falls, a thriving pulp and paper mill, one industry town. There were approximately 400 Japanese living in Ocean Falls at the time, a closely-knit segregated community.
Whammo!! Sunday December 7th, 1941. Aerial attack by the Japanese military on Pearl Harbour. This surprise attack not only changed the course of the wider world but altered and changed the lives of 22,000 plus Japanese living within 100 miles of the West Coast of BC. The Government of Canada, led by PM Mckenzie King took swift action to evacuate all Japanese living within 100 miles of the BC Coastline. We were labelled as “Enemy Aliens.” Me, a 13 year old, an “Enemy Alien”? Imagine!!
Most of our Issei fathers and Nisei boys over 18 were ordered and sent to different road camps in BC. If one resisted, I believe, the government sent them to Angler. Ontario, a prisoner-of-war camp. There must be a few survivors and relatives from those experiences here at this conference.
Everything happened so rapidly: curfew, lights out at 7:00pm, the RCMP came and confiscated our prized Marconi radio and a Kodak box camera. Today, more than likely, they would be valuable antiques.
Dad was sent to a road camp on the Hope-Princeton Highway. I grew up in a hurry, at 13, having to take charge of the family—mom, younger brother and younger sister.
In February or March of 1942, we were given one week to leave, each one of us allowed to take one piece of baggage each. I vaguely remember we literally got rid of our possessions to natives of Bella Bella and Bella Coola. I cannot remember how, but somehow, we returned to our former place on 4th Ave in Fairview and I finished grade 7 at Model School.
Summer of ’42, we moved into the Hastings Park Complex, waiting to be evacuated to one of the Internment camps. My kid brother and I bunked together with other young Nisei boys. Mom and sis were housed in the women’s dorm with absolutely no privacy. To this day, I am truly thankful to the many dedicated Nisei leaders who were responsible in looking after our well-being while in Hastings Park. Under very trying and unsettling times, they did an awesome job.
September of ’42, our family was sent to Tashme. Tashme was built on a ranch 14 miles east of Hope set up to house 2000 plus internees. Today, it’s a residential/resort complex, “Sunshine Village.”
The four of us shared a 14 x 28 tar paper shack with a Nisei mother and her two young boys from Prince Rupert. Their Issei father was also sent to a road camp. For water, we shared an outside water tap set up between two units, and each unit had their own outhouse. Every time I drive by Sunshine Village, it brings back many memories of Tashme, our wartime home. A few of us were lucky to get our first paying job that first summer building a dam for a minimum wage of around 15 cents per hour. It was a very rewarding experience getting a summer job.
On another positive note, thanks to Mr. Yoshida, a very determined and dedicated Nisei Scoutmaster, the First Tashme Troop was organized and established. This was the largest Boy Scout Troop in the British Empire of that era. In 1992, Scoutmaster Yoshida was honoured with a mural in Chemainus, his home town. Indeed, very deserving! The murals in Chemainus are world-famous and a huge tourist attraction today. By the way, the Scout motto is “Be Prepared.”
Most of the who’s who in BC black belt judo instructors were in Tashme. In those days, judo black belters were held in very high esteem in the Japanese community. Needless to say, most of the Nisei boys joined to create a huge dojo.
We were fortunate to have the opportunity to be in Scouting and to learn judo in those trying times. Both Scouting and judo kept us active, competitive and out of mischief. We also had opportunities to play organized baseball and basketball. We learned to ice-skate that first frigid and snowy winter of ’42. We also enjoyed the outdoors and what nature could offer in a beautiful valley with a creek running nearby. Personally, growing up I enjoyed being involved in sports. Sports was something to do and it was fun to compete.
Another enjoyment was nihon-buro, a Japanese-style community bath. It became a daily ritual to socialize with your buddies, like going to a hot spring.
In the brief period I was in Tashme, I made lasting friendships with Nisei kids from Vancouver Island communities—Victoria, Chemainus, Duncan Cuumberland, Royston—f rom Fraser Valley communities such as mission, Haney/Hammond and from Steveston and Vancouver.
Our family’s stay in Tashme was brief, from September 1942 to April 1944. We were one of the first families to leave Tashme. We left for our Uncle’s Farm in the Okanagan, hopefully to live as a family and to start a new life. To this day, leaving Tashme is still one of the most endearing, emotional and gut-wrenching experiences of my life. It seemed the whole town of Tashme came out to bade our family farewell lining both sides of the main boulevard.
At the time, we really did not know if we will ever meet again or where our future lay. Leaving Tashme was the beginning of another adventure and challenge. I’m happy to say that in September of 1993, the year I retired, a Tashme reunion was held in Toronto. Indeed, it was truly an enjoyable reunion, meeting many former friends for the first time bridging over 50 years. We all certainly endured and embraced whatever we were faced with. It sure was a scrambling lifestyle.
I often wonder how our lives would have played out if the internment did not take place. It certainly has been an exciting, fascinating, challenging and rewarding life’s journey in a rapidly changing world. Speaking of change, to me the most amazing change are the 90% or more intermarriages that are taking place today among the 3rd, 4th and 5th generations of Japanese heritage. What beautiful mixes!
To think not too long ago inter-marriages were unheard of. Taboo!! Both of our daughters married a hakujin . . . by the way, they were not arranged. In closing, I feel very fortunate to have been born a Nisei in a rapidly changing Canada. Yes, CHANGE, we are now NIKKEIs. Thank you.
William (Bill) Tahara, Victoria, BC