Interview: Frank Moritsugu
You began your journalism career as a staff member with The New Canadian. Did you have aspirations to be a journalist already, or was it something that just happened?
I began being paid for writing and editing when Tom Shoyama first hired me at The New Canadian in Vancouver (1941-42). I had been editor-in-chief of the Kitsilano High School Life, the student newspaper which was a monthly back then and printed in semi-tabloid format; not the more common mimeographed letter-size format. I had met Tom when he came to speak in Kitsilano at a gathering in the Japanese-language school, and had occasionally contributed sports reports from the Kitsilano area to the paper.
So after Pearl Harbor and the war beginning against Japan in early December 1941, when the three Japanese-language dailies were closed by the Mounties and only The NC was allowed to keep publishing, it changed from an all-English weekly for Nisei, temporarily to a thrice-weekly sheet with some nihongo for the issei (especially material issued by the federal government about restrictions and other conditions enforced on us).
By the way, a full-fledged Japanese section probably didn’t begin until after the paper moved to Kaslo but am unclear about that situation having been away in a road camp near Revelstoke at that time.
Back to my first stint on The NC: It was a few days after the Pearl Harbor attack on December 7th, and this ex-high-school-editor/ graduate (class of 1940) was working for his landscape-gardener father. But I had little to do then because even in Vancouver grass and weeds don’t grow much at that time of the year. On hearing that The NC was going to come out three times weekly, I phoned Tom at his Powell Street office and offered my help with the extra work the paper had become. He said come on down.
So starting on Monday Dec. 15, the week after the Pearl Harbor attack, I joined the staff in Nihonmachi and learned how a real newspaper was put together from the boss Tommy Shoyama, as well as other staffers such as Yoshi Higashi—original editor Peter Shinobu Higashi’s younger brother—and Seiji Onizuka who was the sports editor. I learned how to type my stories in the Hotel World office and did many things including getting coffee for my elders. I wrote a column filled with hep talk as it was called then (became “hip” later). And the regulars among The New Canadian crowd called me the young staff jitterbug.
This means I was present at a downtown information source during that crisis period when the government was deciding what to do with us; cars, trucks & radios were confiscated; dusk-to-dawn curfew was enforced, and eventually “evacuation” was announced.
I left that first NC stint in February 1942 because the initial announcement about the issei males being sent away to work camps inland meant Dad would be going, and as the eldest son I had better be at home with Mom and my brothers and sisters.
Then after “mass evacuation” was decided, I was sent to the Yard Creek highway work camp, one of five men-only for Canadian-born and naturalized males in the Revelstoke-Sicamous chain. I was at that “road camp” (as we came to call them) from April 1942 until August 1943. That was when Tom Shoyama contacted me via mail asking if I would join The New Canadian staff again, this time in Kaslo and as the assistant English editor replacing Roy Ito. Roy had been accepted by McMaster University in Hamilton. I had known Roy since meeting him in the Powell Street New Canadian office during that last Vancouver winter.
So being allowed to leave the road camp to go to Kaslo to work for Tommy was my second time around. That period lasted about seven months. Under Tommy’s editorship my writing and editing improved, while watching Tommy in action daily taught me much about life and how to handle things in a most positive way.
And in the second half of each week, I would move into the printing shop side next door to our large one-room editors’ office in Kaslo. Then we’d put each English page together, with each column-width line of words in slugs of lead created by young Junji Ikeno on the linotype machine. These leads were put into a frame, following the pencilled page-layouts. Then we would pick the larger-type headlines, character by character and carried on a handheld “stick” and then loaded into the spaces reserved for them. When each page was done and locked firmly into its frame, two of us would carry the completed frame into the next room where the hand-fed printer stood, hoping against hope that nothing would come loose and drop out. If anything did, that disaster meant making the page or a part of it all over again after picking up the fallen bits from the floor and figuring out how to arrange them in the proper order. That was much more difficult and frustrating than putting the toughest jigsaw puzzle together.
As for the Japanese pages, each character in the stories as well as the headlines had to be picked by hand from the various type boxes and put together. That meticulous work was done by the two Japanese-section editors, Mr. Takaichi Umezuki (whom we all called “T.U.”) and Harold Mayeda (Mayeda-san)—both being issei and older.
All this Kaslo training in the pre-computer era stood me in good stead, too, when I became a mainstream magazine and newspaper editor in the postwar years.
My Kaslo stay also meant living with Tom Shoyama and the third NC bachelor—linotypist Junji Ikeno from Lemon Creek (he was a member of the Ikeno printing family)—in a lakeside cottage near Kaslo’s Vimy Park. (In my Kaslo columns I used to call our place Lakeside Villa.)
As for my “aspirations” about becoming a journalist, although I loved the work I never dreamed back then while working on The New Canadian of becoming such a professional. Growing up in BC in the 1920s and 1930s like my nisei contemporaries I knew that nobody who looked like me and had a name like mine could become a journalist on a non-JC publication.
Years later, my mind was completely changed by a dramatic happening that occurred in 1946 in Toronto, and after my overseas service with the Canadian Army in Southeast Asia.
Is there any one incident that sticks out in your mind from those days?
Nothing particularly to do directly with the paper. But going to Kaslo in August 1943 from a road camp meant that for about a month I was allowed to play hardball with one of the two JC teams that played at Vimy Park. The player-managers of the two teams were the two Vancouver Asahis who were sent to Kaslo: catcher Ken Kutsukake and pitcher Naggy Nishihara who had been battery-mates during the final Asahi seasons in Vancouver. I played outfield on Naggy’s team. I had also played a fair amount of softball during the two summers at the Yard Creek road camp, in the house league and also against other camps on warm-weather weekends.
It must have been difficult keeping the censors happy yet still serving as an advocate for the Nikkei community and speaking out against injustice—how did you keep that balance?
That was Tommy the boss editor’s responsibility and he did it so well I became one of many lucky individuals who were so privileged to be allowed to work with him when the world had turned bad for all of us. The dealing with the censor weekly was just being literal and then doing what was ordered in the return telegram (sometimes deleting an entire piece, sometime just deleting a sentence or a paragraph or a section and sometimes not having to make any changes at all.)
What do you see as the main achievement of The New Canadian during the Kaslo years?
Keeping up the morale of our readers as much as possible, informing them of what was happening that they couldn’t learn anywhere else, helping to make them feel their under-attack community still kept existing so they would survive the wholly unjustified mistreatment by our government. And at the same time convincing those other Canadians who were open-minded enough to pay attention that we were loyal citizens of our own country no matter what any racist alleged.
Was The New Canadian sent out to the self-supporting camps and to people in the east, or was it confined to the Kootenay area?
So far as I remember, it was sent anywhere in Canada and also to United States addresses. So keeping morale up and keeping JCs and others informed was not just a local goal.
You are now publisher of the Nikkei Voice—do you see the paper carrying on some of the legacy of The New Canadian, or do you think the times are now so different that the role of community papers like The Nikkei Voice and The Bulletin has changed?
Actually I am past publisher—Mel Tsuji replaced me, bless his soul, last year. But in the 12 years or so that I was publisher, I did my best to pass on The New Canadian legacy to my comrades, nisei and sansei (it obviously will always be a part of me).
However, in this post-redress era it’s not so much the community morale but keeping the sense of the Japanese Canadian community together that is of vital importance. We are so scattered now in Canada as well as in other places as the States, Japan, etc. And, as I said in a lecture I delivered last year at the University of Toronto last year, there are no Japantowns in Canada the way there are Chinatowns, Koreatowns, Little Indias and so on. All the more reason why news about people they know and topics that they are familiar with are priorities for the Nikkei Voice staff, in addition to dealing with racism of any kind. And although the staff are mostly sansei or postwar ijusha now, getting more of the younger generations from sansei down to become regular Voice readers the way their parents and grandparents have been is a toughie we try to achieve year by year.
Despite what you said earlier, you did go on to a career in journalism. Tell me a little about that.
As mentioned, growing up in prewar BC as I did, despite my being elected editor-in-chief of the student newspaper of the province’s largest high school (I was elected by the high-school journalism class in which I was the only non-white) and the newspaper winning a Pacific Northwest high-school newspaper award that year, I never dreamt that getting a job on a newspaper or a magazine was possible, even at the Kitsilano Times, the community newspaper at whose plant the KHS Life was printed—and this feeling of mine was strong well before Pearl Harbor and the wartime incarceration, etc.
After the Kaslo NC time and my move to Ontario to join my family, I worked for a year as a farmhand and then when the chance finally came, volunteered for the Canadian Army and served in Southeast Asia as a Japanese-language interpreter-translator with the rank of sergeant in the Canadian Army Intelligence Corps attached to the British counter-intelligence forces. On returning to Canada and becoming a civilian again, I decided to use my veteran’s benefits by going the post-secondary route, and applied to the Ontario College of Art in Toronto (back at Kitsilano High School, I also had been the school cartoonist in Grades 11 and 12.)
But in 1946 there were so many student veterans on campuses that late returnees like me had to wait an entire college year to enroll.
After working in the harvest in the 1946 summer at our St. Thomas home, I visited Toronto for a while. Irene Uchida, who I’d gotten to know during my Powell Street NC days, had followed my New Canadian career (so to speak). This subsequent Order of Canada member and internationally-respected biologist and McMaster professor emeritus had been the first female columnist for the Vancouver New Canadian. Irene suggested why didn’t I see B.K. Sandwell, the editor of Saturday Night magazine? He had been a strong supporter of our postwar anti-deportation cause as a leading member of the Co-operative Committee for Japanese Canadians. I had nothing better to do so phoned him and got an appointment to visit him at his magazine’s office in downtown Toronto.
He was a very nice gentleman, English to the core, and asked me all about my wartime experiences. Then he said, “Moritsugu, why aren’t the Japanese still back in B.C. refusing to come east, even though the camps have been closed?” I answered by giving him 5 or 6 reasons (being 23 at the time I knew all the answers). Dr. Sandwell then said, “Why don’t you write about this for Saturday Night?”
Well, I did some research and wrote the article (my first for a magazine) on a borrowed typewriter in the attic of the friend’s home that I was staying at in Toronto. Irene and Kunio Hidaka, two older Nisei, went over my draft and I followed some of their suggestions and then sent the piece to Dr. Sandwell.
Then back on the farm in St. Thomas, this was in October 1946, I got a call from Japanese editor T.U. Umezuki from the New Canadian office then in Winnipeg. My successor in Kaslo as assistant editor Noji Murase who had moved with the paper to Manitoba the year before was leaving to join his family in Hamilton. If I wasn’t doing anything now that I have been discharged from the Army, would I like to come to Winnipeg and work for the paper again? This time the editor was Kasey Oyama who took over when Tommy Shoyama enlisted in the Army the year before.
So back to the NC I went, for my third and final time. A month later in November 1946, my Saturday Night article appeared. I rushed to a downtown Winnipeg store and bought several copies—of my very first national magazine article. On looking the piece over, and comparing it with the carbons, I found only two short paragraphs missing, and neither was more than being connectors. In effect, my article had been published almost as is, and probably cut a bit to fit into the editorial space between the ads on those back pages.
After my euphoria wore off, it suddenly hit me. Why was I waiting to go to the Ontario College of Art the following September? If with my limited experience, a national magazine had published me, I didn’t have to fall back and become a third-rate commercial artist. I didn’t live in BC anymore with all those doors barred to those like me. In this different world in Eastern Canada I could become a journalist, my first love.
I wrote to my high-school journalism teacher in Vancouver for advice. Miss Jean Story replied why not ask Dr. Sandwell, after all he had been a university professor. So I followed his advice, took a liberal arts program at the University of Toronto. In my third year I was elected editor-in-chief of The Varsity which was a five-times-a-week student daily back then. I won the best editorial award in the annual Canadian University Press competition. And unknown to me, one of the judges of that competition had been Ralph Allen, the best Maclean’s magazine editor ever. In my fourth and final year, he hired me part-time, as an assistant copy editor so I could learn the specific skills during my final semester at U of T
And that’s how this “Jap boy from B.C.” got to be a staffer on Maclean’s, Canadian Homes & Gardens, Toronto Star and the Montreal Star.
And who started it all for me? I was lucky to have the encouragement and support of Miss Jean Story, my KHS English and journalism teacher. And who laid my professional journalistic foundations that made all the rest possible: Tommy Shoyama whose The New Canadian in Vancouver and Kaslo was the essential community machine which helped the prewar nisei and also the issei, to survive one of the worst injustices our nation has committed.