March to December : Remembering Roy Ito
Illustration by Cindy Mochizuki
“It was a problem of communication. My father read Japanese language newspapers, he could not read English. I read English language newspapers, Japanese newspapers were too difficult in spite of my years at the Japanese language school. Reading a newspaper printed in Japanese required a mastery of 2000 Chinese characters. Few Nisei read the Tairiku Nippo or the Canada Times. My father’s world consisted mostly of Japan, community activities and life in British Columbia, especially discrimination against Orientals. When he and his friends got together, I could hear snatches of conversation about their work in the sawmills, on the fishing boats and the latest news from their villages in Japan. I had no interest in their world.
“Outwardly my parents did not show any interest in my world. At school I learned about Christopher Columbus and his discovery of the New World, the travels of Marco Polo, the subjugation of the Aztecs and the Incas, the Battle of Hastings, the Magna Carta, the glory of the British Empire. I read poetry like “Relief at Lucknow” immortalizing the bravery of British soldiers in India. I memorized the great poems of Shelley and Wordsworth, sang “Men of Harlech”, “The Maple Leaf Forever”, and “Comin’ Thru the Rye”. I learned about a culture my parents could never understand.
“Meaningful conversation about politics, government, philosophy and religion was difficult between Issei parents and Nisei offspring. Perhaps it was impossible. It was a drawback in our upbringing. The paucity of good conversation at home and around the dinner table probably contributed to the difficulties many Nisei had articulating ideas and thoughts.
“Baseball was one subject everyone could discuss. Father knew and understood the language of the diamond – strike bo-ru, se-fu, au-to… He and every adult male in the community were baseball fans and followed avidly the fortunes of the community baseball team, the Asahi. The box scores were in the Japanese language papers for all to see. More than anything else, the Asahi were a focal point, the pride of the community, and helped to bridge the gap between the two generations. We could talk about baseball with our parents.
“The Asahi played on a dusty diamond known as Powell Street grounds. It was sandlot baseball. There was no grass to speak of. The spectators sat on hard boards in a dilapidated stand which squeezed in 200 fans. Others sat or stood on Cordova and Jackson Streets in the outfield. When the Asahi played it was always to a full house, the grounds completely ringed by spectators who cheered lustily at a good play and even more loudly when an Asahi got a hit, which was not too often. They were a light hitting team and relied on speed and defence in their games with the bigger hakujin. They were crowd pleasers and had many fans even among the white people.
“After classes at the language school on Alexander Street which was only a block away from the Powell grounds, I sat on my school bag, munched on peanuts and watched a game. The Asahi players were our heroes and one in particular was almost akin to god. That was Roy Yamamura, the short-stop, a marvellous player with a magic glove and a personality to match. I’m positive, given the opportunity and perhaps another four inches and thirty pounds, Roy Yamamura would have been a star in the major leagues. In 1933 the Asahi played under the lights at Con Jones Park near Hastings Park. I walked with father and his friends to the game, came home satisfied and happy if the Asahi had won. I can still see a home-run hit by Sally Nakamura. It just cleared the top of the railing and went into the stand for a key run. That brought the crowd to its feet. When the Park burned down and the Asahi moved to Athletic Park, they were outclassed and community interest sagged. This was just before the war.
“We lived in the “Heaps” district around Victoria Drive and Dundas Street and we had a baseball team. Tamio Fujiwara was our captain and manager and we challenged a pick-up team of Nisei who attended Seymour School. I was a pitcher for a while, had good control but lacked speed and was relegated to the outfield, the usual fate of fringe players. My one happy memory of those days was a game we played on the grounds of Templeton Junior High School. Playing centre field I managed to catch a fly ball which I and everyone else thought was going over my head. I ran back as fast as I could, put up my glove at the last moment and the ball plunked into my glove. I was the most surprised player on the field. From then on my short baseball career was all downhill.”
From Stories of My People, 1994
by Roy Ito
In many ways, Roy Ito’s life story reads much the same as many of his peers. Born in British Columbia, he was sent with his family to a sugar beet farm in Alberta following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. The family later relocated to Kaslo, BC. In 1943 he moved to Hamilton, Ontario where he began his studies at McMaster University. After completing his university degree, Ito became a teacher. He was employed for 25 years as a school principal, and retired in Hamilton, Ontario in 1984. He married and had four children.
These broad strokes leave out some important details, however, including the fact that while in Kalso, Ito joined the staff of the New Canadian, the only Japanese Canadian publication allowed to publish during the war years. And although he soon left Kaslo for the east to pursue an education, his schooling was interrupted by a stint in the Canadian Army, where Ito was one of only a small number of Japanese Canadians allowed to serve the country of their birth. With the rank of sergeant, Ito served with the Canadian Intelligence Corps in India and South-East Asia. Following the war, Ito completed his education and settled down to raise a family and pursue his chosen career in education.
In 1977, Roy Ito was approached by the S-20 and Nisei Veterans Association to compile a history of the army service of nisei in the Canadian Army during World War Two. Ito embarked on several years of research, travelling across the country to interview veterans and delving into the archives. Within a couple of years, the scope of the book was expanded to include the story of Japanese Canadians in the Canadian Expeditionary Force in World War One. While the original manuscript was an exhaustive recounting, through interviews and accompanying text, of the Japanese Canadian experience through the two World Wars, at the urging of others outside the community, the book was rewritten to include historical background that placed the nisei war experience in context. The finished book, We Went to War, was published in 1984 and proved to be a seminal book that stands alongside books like Adachi’s The Enemy that Never Was in documenting the Japanese Canadian experience.
While We Went to War covers several important chapters in the history of the Japanese in Canada, it doesn’t tell the whole story and in 1994, Ito published Stories of My People, a comprehensive, sprawling book that covers the story of the Japanese Canadian community beginning with the moment Manzo Nagano landed in New Westminster and ending on September 22, 1988 with the signing of the Redress Agreement. In between those two pivotal events, Ito covers virtually all of the important events in the community’s history, some well known and others more obscure.
Both We Went to War and Stories of My People should be considered required reading for anyone interested in the Japanese Canadian experience. While the books are notable for their broad scope, coupled with a fine attention to detail, what sets them apart is the passion that lies just below the surface of every page. It is the passion of a man who considered himself a loyal Canadian his entire life yet was interned as an enemy alien, only to be vindicated in the end. When finally given the chance to prove his loyalty by joining the Canadian Army, he did so without hesitation and any bitterness he felt was pre-empted by his sense of duty and honour. The underlying theme throughout both books is one of loyalty, honour, citizenship and pride.