Interview: Mickey Tanaka
In April, 1968, The Bulletin was published for the first time under the editorship of Mickey Nakashima (now Tanaka). She was kind enough to talk to The Bulletin about those early years.
Where were you born, and where did you spend the war years?
I was born in Mission City, BC in 1927 on my father’s farm on Mt. Maryanne where the Westminster Abbey presently stands. My earliest memories are of Santa’s visits, sleigh rides, watching a black bear approach as we hid in a shed, mochitsuki, potato roasts on our cliff, singing and watching the moon come up over Mt. Baker, the summer influx of friends who came from Vancouver to pick berries in the summer, and most of all, our parents love. In 1934 we moved to Dewdney where there were only four nisei in the four-room school. We met with no racial discrimination in the community or at school and our best friends were Caucasians. When the war in Europe began we bought war savings bonds, collected foil wrappers, knit for the war effort, and were in the school formation marching cadets. We were heart broken when the war with Japan began and were told we could no longer join the marchers. The four of us stood forlornly by and watched.
In June of 1942 we sadly bid all our friends goodbye and left for Lethbridge, Alberta, where our family of seven was assigned to a small farm. Eldest brother Kim found work as a book keeper in the Broder Canning Co., father as a worker in the cannery and Tak as a student in town. Father also contracted acreage of beet work which was left to mother and the remaining three children (ages 15, 9, 6) to work, with the men-folk helping on the week ends. My mother and I topped beets by moonlight well into the freezing night. But we had our enjoyments: school, participation in basketball games, music festivals and Camp Kasota. After we moved to West Lethbridge my sister and I started piano lessons. Imagine a piano in a shack where our drinking water was carted from the irrigation canal, which was also our swimming pool, where we sat around the kitchen table with one lamp doing our homework while father wrote his interminable letters and his diary, mother reading.
Where did you relocate once the war was over?
In December of 1944 we moved to Montréal to join my brother Kim who had enrolled at McGill for his MA in Commerce on his way to his Chartered Accountancy. I graduated high school the following year with just six months of French thanks to a most understanding examiner. Then came McGill, graduation, a lab technician job in the Anatomy Department, and finally nisei friends. I joined the Nisei Fellowship Group, the drama club, ski outings, dances, choir, softball team. A year later my boss, Dr Friedman, accepted a position as Head of the Department of Anatomy at UBC in the Medical School which was to open in the fall. He asked me to join him and I accepted upon assurances from President Dr Mackenzie that there would be no racial prejudice practiced at UBC. I left BC in 1942 in tears as I felt my country had abandoned me and returned in June 1950 with high hopes for a wonderful future. I worked as a Research Assistant with Dr Friedman for 42 years.
Having lived mostly in the country where prejudice is scarce, I had my first encounter with it when my friend and I went room hunting. On the phone we were told that the room was available but when we appeared at the door they said sorry we just rented it to someone. But there are wonderful people everywhere and our subsequent landlord was one of them.
Can you describe arriving back in Vancouver—what was the mood like among the returning Japanese Canadians?
Vancouver was beautiful, the returning Japanese Canadians were definitely optimistic, excited with their jobs, happy to be ‘home’ again. They started businesses, dry cleaners, gardening, florist shops, corner stores, barber shops, restaurants, garages, not only around Powell Street, but around the city. There were a number of school girls working and completing their education, boys enrolled in vocational schools. The JCs were scattered from Dunbar to Burnaby but gathered in places like the Maria Stella Club at the Sisters of Atonement social centre, or the United Church (where the Buddhist Temple now stands), or the Japanese Language School for community meetings.
You started The Bulletin in 1958. Were you involved in the community before then?
In 1950 I became involved with the Japanese community and had to keep the 200 or more Nikkei returnees informed of our activities. We used a mimeograph machine to print the flyers for mailing. This continued for a number of years and as the Nikkei population grew and with it the activities and mailings, we decided in 1958 to make it a monthly publication. I must admit, my brother Kim in Montreal was the editor of the Montréal Bulletin and I fashioned our publication on his, taking even the name as the JCCA Bulletin. He was editor for over 40 years until his death, while my tenure was but two years until my marriage. I was happy that Gordon Kadota took over the editorship
The Greater Vancouver JCCA was formed in 1952, I believe, three years after restrictions were lifted and Japanese Canadians were allowed to return to the coast. What kind of role did the JCCA play in people’s live back then?
The JCCA played an important role in the local, provincial and national life of the Japanese Canadians. Provincial conventions were held annually in Kelowna, Vernon and Vancouver, the National, less frequently. As I recall,the main issues were obtaining the franchise and the Crown Land Timber Rights. The Greenwood BC group had begun studying these and other cases in 1945 and these people were the forerunners of the Vancouver JCCA. The JCCA brought the community together as we were now scattered from UBC to Aldergrove and beyond. An interesting fact in those days was the tension between the issei and the nisei. Yes, the nissei made representations to the city and the government but within the community the issei still wielded the power. Luckily there were certain issei who understood the nisei and they diplomatically eased the tension towards a smooth working organization. In Vancouver the JCCA along with the social activities, sponsored an Oratorical Contest and a Scholarship that was awarded each year.
Tell me about the operation in those early days, I’m sure it was much different than it is today.
Our Bulletin staff in 1958 consisted of the Japanese section editors, Mr and Mrs T. Sato, art editor Sets Takemoto, circulation manager Bob Miysaka, business manager Barb Adachi, set and typist Chizu Uchida, Gestetner operator Min Urata, and many others who volunteered their services every month to print, collate, staple, address, stamp and finally drive our finished product, usually after midnight, to the downtown post office. Our circulation of 400 included all JC’s in the lower mainland. Our Bulletin budget was I think $40 a month. The assembly was done at the editor’s rented lower level home on Dunbar and 25th, the printing in the furnace area. The postage for mailing at that time was 2 cents.
You’re long-since retired—how do you spend your days now?
My husband Min and I have done a good bit of travelling, the most recent, a South American cruise around Cape Horn, an adventurous trip full of wonder and surprises. At home Min is busy with his mums and his bonsai, his crosswords and sudoku but golf will soon take over as spring has arrived. We both enjoy books, movies, theatre, bridge and entertaining. I enjoy my volunteer work at Nikkei Home and the museum, and the Oral History Project. The nisei are such a unique lot, they have accomplished so much, have done amazing things, have such fascinating stories to tell, but so many of them are too modest to speak of themselves or feel they are not sufficiently eloquent to have their histories recorded. Such a loss to the community as they are gradually leaving us, taking their stories with them.
Min tells me that you and your staff are doing a great job with the Bulletin, bringing to light the many people who are contributing so much to the community. Your coverage includes the issei to the yonsei, all of whom we need to keep the community vibrant and progressive. The Nikkei Centre is doing a great job bringing the generations together with their participation in the sales and social events. The Kaede Seniors Club which is comprised mostly of golfers is gradually attracting the shin issei and I enjoy seeing them socializing with the nisei, in fact the two groups are equally represented on the various committees.