In Search of Private Hikotaro Koyanagi
by James Koyanagi
The air was damp and the weather cold as we stood on the steps of Menin Gate, looking for the name Private Hikotaro Koyanagi on the memorial wall. Then the light drizzle, and after an hour’s search we were about to give up when my wife Kimiko pointed to the wall and shouted, “There is Private Hikotaro Koyanagi, Canada 50th Battalion.” It was a touching and an emotional moment to find Hikotaro’s name inscribed on the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, in Ypres, Belgium.
Hikotaro Koyanagi was born in Mikawa-Machi, Miike-gun, Fukuoka Japan. When his wife and newborn child died at childbirth, Hikotaro was despondent. Times were tough in Vancouver and jobs were hard to get. When he went missing for six months and could not be located, a missing-person alert was published. Eventually word filtered back from Calgary that Hikotaro and a friend from Fukuoka had joined the Canadian Expeditionary Forces in Calgary and were Europe-bound.
Hikotaro’s brother Kuichi Koyanagi and Hikotaro’s niece Masako Nishi lived at 41st and Cambie in Vancouver. Both are now deceased. During my frequent past visits from Ontario I was able to get information about Hikotaro from Mrs Nishi. I also obtained information from Maj Roy Kawamoto on Statement of Service in the Canadian Forces. Roy now lives in Kelowna.
Hikotaro was a strong, healthy individual who could lift a 100-pound bag of rice with ease. He joined the Canadian Army in September, 1916. After 13 months service, he was killed on October 1917, on the first day of the Battle of Passchendale. He was carrying a wounded fellow soldier on his back when he accidentally stepped on a mine and was killed instantly. Private Hikotaro was awarded the British Service Medal and the Victory Medal.
I recall Mrs Nishi telling me that a wounded soldier put out his hands to thank her at a Remembrance Day ceremony held at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park. She thinks he could be the wounded soldier Hikataro had on his back when he stepped on the mine and got killed. This was in the thirties.
Back in July 1992, Kimiko and I were invited to a friend’s anniversary in Copenhagen Denmark. I had worked in Tokyo with Gunnar, a talented Danish architect, and we were among 150 guests invited to the three-day Danish feast. Looking for Hikotaro’s memorial was not in our itinerary. I knew little, if anything about Hikotaro. However, I recall seeing his photo in Roy Ito’s book We Went To War (page 45). After Denmark we continued on our European journey. Our leisurely two-week trip was a revisit to some of Europe’s architectural sites, to galleries and restaurants in Germany, France, Italy and the Netherlands before catching our return flight from Schiphol back to Toronto. However after unfolding a map of Europe at our Paris hotel, I noticed that we could essentially drive through northern France, scene of fierce World War II battles, places like Dieppe, Normandy, Dunkirk and Calais Northern France.
A quick flashback to my high school evacuation days, I recall the evening news in black and white of death and destruction, twisted barbed wire fences, sunken troopships and relentless bombing. Other than Dieppe, with many Canadian war cemeteries, I could find nothing left from the WW II destruction. We travelled to Nieuwpoort on the French-Belgium border and stayed at a quaint seaside hotel. After explaining to the young hotel receptionist why my English was better than other Japanese tourists because of my Canadian passport, she immediately replied, “I know a Canadian poem” and recited for us In Flanders Fields, which is familiar to all Belgian elementary school children. She was pleased when I mentioned we were from Burlington, Ontario, which is near Guelph, home of John McCrea who wrote In Flanders Fields. As we all know, Dr. John McCrea died in Belgium shortly after writing this famous poem.
The Belgian border tourist information officer was very helpful, directing us to the town of Menin and the location of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Menin was once a thriving medieval marketplace. The town was reduced to rubble during WW I. Menin Gate, the south entry to the town, was easy to find. The gate itself is an imposing stone archway with walls reaching 15 metres in height. It is unlike the monument at Vimy Ridge, which stands high on a hilltop overlooking the French countryside. World War I ended in August 1918 but it was not until 1928 that Menin Gate memorial was erected in memory of the Commonwealth soldiers who gallantly fought and fell in Belgium but have no known graves. It bears the names of 55,000 missing, including 6,700 Canadians who came from four corners of the world, the former British Empire, from Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Egypt . . . the Sikhs, Pathans, Gurkas and many others. Menin was the scene of atrocious fighting – it evokes tales of horror and heroism, chlorine gas warfare, of mud, rain, cold, quagmire and trench battles, of unbearable suffering, all to secure a two-square-mile of land. It is reported to have caused casualties of 16, 404 Canadian soldiers.
At the end of WW I, in 1920, a War Memorial was built in Stanley Park to honour the 54 Canadian soldiers of Japanese ancestry who were killed, including Private Hikotaro Koyanagi. The annual Remembrance Day ceremony is observed to honour those who never returned. Likewise in Ypres Belgium they also hold a tribute to the fallen Canadians. There is the sounding of the Last Post, a traditional tribute to the fallen played by the volunteers of the local Fire Brigade, followed by a minute of silence. This ceremony, which had its start in 1929, was disrupted only during the German occupation of Belgium during WW II. Both ceremonies, in Stanley Park Vancouver and in Menin Belgium, are tributes honouring the missing soldiers with no known graves who died fighting for their country in far away, distant lands. An engraving at the Tomb of Unknown soldier reads:
THEY SHALL NOT GROW OLD
AGE SHALL NOT WEARY THEM
WITH THE GOING DOWN OF THE SUN
FOR THEY ARE IN THE HANDS OF GOD