Mary and Tosh Kitagawa: Two Peas in a Pod
On May 30, 2012, the University of British Columbia held an emotional convocation for the 76 Japanese Canadian UBC students of 1942 who were unable to complete their studies following the bombing of Pearl harbor and the subsequent internment and removal of all Japanese Canadians from the coast. It was day of celebration for the students and their families but also a day of vindication for the Canadian Nikkei community at large.
The woman behind this story, Mary Kitawaga, has been recognized for her tireless efforts to achieve justice after all these years, but sometimes lost in the accolades is the recognition that Mary is part of team. It’s a team of two, but it’s a team none-the-less. By her side through all of the years and for many other causes has been her longtime husband and life partner Tosh Kitagawa.
Mary and Tosh have each been awarded the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal. The Bulletin talked to Mary about her life with Tosh and the strong partnership they have built over the years.
When and how did you meet?
Tosh’s friend and I began teaching at Kitsilano Secondary at the same time. He kept putting notes in my box in the office saying that there was someone who wanted to meet me. I wasn’t interested. This went on for several months until I agreed. Our first blind date was to hear Stan Kenton at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre. After two years of on and off dating, we got married.
What has been your biggest challenge as a couple?
Our challenge as a couple has been the lack of time to do everything on our wish list. Tosh likes to do projects himself like finishing the inside of our house in Tsawwassen where we have lived for 44 years. Since woodworking is his hobby, he has built a lot of custom furniture for family and friends. When our two children began to take part in sports, he began coaching flag football, baseball and rep hockey for our son. He began the first girls’ hockey team for our daughter and coached her softball team. Although our son also played soccer, there was no opportunity for our daughter because there were no leagues for girls in the lower mainland. Now our granddaughter plays for the UBC Thunderbirds. My job was to have the family fed on time for the games. We attended all of our children’s activities and our house was always filled with their friends. Now we are travelling a lot more to watch our five grandchildren’s activities: soccer, field hockey, and taekwondo. Tosh is always on the field or the floor to take thousands of photos of their activities.
What do you enjoy doing together?
There are very few activities that we do separately. We’ve been like two peas in a pod. If you see one of us, you’ll see the other. The only times he spent away from me was taking our son golfing and fishing on our boat. He also travelled a lot on business. On most of his trips to Japan and Hong Kong, I went with him.
You’re part of a pretty dynamic family, with a long history of activism. What was it like for Tosh becoming part of the family?
Our family backgrounds are quite different. From the beginning Tosh wanted to be an integral part of mine. One day, after our children were in elementary school, his friend began talking about Tosh’s parents on Salt Spring Island. She said that he always referred to them as my mom and my dad so she thought they were his parents. I told her that his parents lived in Ladner. On one of our visits to Salt Spring, I heard Tosh ask my father, “Daddy, if Mary threw me out of the house, may I come to live with you?” My father answered, “Of course you may.” He was greatly influenced by my parents.
You have both been involved with the JCCA Human Right Committee for many years. What fueled your passion for human rights?
We became involved with the Human Rights Committee when my family the Murakamis, especially my brother Richard, needed help dealing with racism on Salt Spring. When we returned to the Island, we faced daily challenges of harassment and overt threats to our lives. The RCMP informed us that their services were not for people of our race. One officer even threatened to wipe out our family. This was a death threat that frightened us. We had no one to protect us. A member of the Islands Trust told us that he knew people in high places who will get you Japs off the Island. I can write a book about what our family had endured since 1954 when we returned to the Island. It is still going on but the family now have advocates who speak up for us. The Human Rights Committee had a workshop in Vancouver to teach us how to deal with each situation. It was a great relief for the family to have a group advocating for us.
What are some of the causes you have championed?
I read in the Vancouver Sun that a Federal building was to be named for Howard Charles Green. That name was familiar to me because my parents used to talk about all the BC politicians who were involved in sending Japanese Canadians into exile. To me, no person who helped to destroy the lives of 22,000 innocent Canadian citizens was going to be so honoured. I emailed the Minister Fortier to inform him about Howard Green. I sensed from his reply that a mistake had been made. With the help of Grace Thompson and Roy Miki, we were successful in having that hateful name removed and replaced with Douglas Jung. It took over a year to achieve success.
You took on a big challenge over the past few years with the battle to have the Japanese Canadian UBC students of 1942 recognized. Now you’re helping to raise money for a fund that recognizes those students. What do you hope to accomplish with this fund?
The money raised for the Asian Canadian Studies program will help to preserve historical materials and stories of our Japanese Canadian elders for future generations. It will allow us to create community-based research that engages students with their families and communities. The students will be directly supported in their studies of Japanese Canadians and other Asian Canadians.
Mary, you were the main instigator of the UBC Honorary Degree initiative, but I know that Tosh did a lot behind the scenes. What did that mean to you?
Tosh has always supported me in whatever venture I was involved in. Without his dedication and hard work in locating the 76 UBC students of 1942, we would not have been successful. For over four months, he was on the phone for about six hours a day beginning at six in the morning trying to make connections with anyone who knew these students. He created a data base and recorded all the information about each student: addresses, phone numbers, emails, and biographies. At every planning meeting at UBC (once or twice a week from January to May) his input was a valuable asset to how the congregation evolved and succeeded. I give him all the credit that he deserves for the successes we achieved in making sure that the 1942 UBC students received their just reward.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
We thank the people in our community and those outside of our community who generously contributed support to get justice for the 1942 students.