Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre – Twenty Years of Memories
by Tsuneko Kokubo (with ‘ghost writer’ Paul Gibbons)
At just about the time that the Kyowakai Society of New Denver was being created, I was a small child visiting my grandmother in Japan. When the internment happened, I was stranded there, and separated from my parents and sister until after the war. My father was sent to the Angler prison camp in Ontario, and my mother and younger sister were interned at Lemon Creek in the Slocan Valley, about 30 kilometres south of New Denver.
It wasn’t until the early 1970s that I came to visit the Slocan area, and immediately fell in love with the lake and the mountains. Later, in the early 1990’s, when my husband Paul and I decided to leave Steveston and the Vancouver region and move to the country, this is the place we chose. We purchased a large piece of land which had been clear-cut in a bad way, and set about building a new life. For the first few years we just came in the summer – planting trees, constructing a little cabin, and starting work on a small hydro-electric system for our power – then returning to the city to work the rest of the year. In 1994 we moved here full-time.
That was twenty years ago, and coincidentally the Kyowakai Society (with assistance from the Village of New Denver and others) was just about to open the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre. We had already become members of the Society and had got to know many of the ‘movers and shakers’ behind the formation of the NIMC: Mrs Chie Kamagaya as President and thirty or so members. We were able to put to good use our experience in the performing arts, when plans were made for the grand opening of the NIMC.
The Kyowakai Society is probably the only Nikkei organization in Canada which has been in continuous operation since the time of internment. Now almost all of the original members (the ‘elder elders’) have died, leaving just a handful of us ‘junior elders’ to keep the Society together.
I was most fortunate to have come to know many of the original members in the early 90’s. There was Pauli Inosi, who not only was a backbone of the Kyowakai Society, but also active in the creation and operation of the Kohan Garden – a couple of blocks from the NIMC. A tree was planted there in her memory. Then there was Kay (Kyoko) Takahara, a devoted Buddhist, graceful dancer, avid origami enthusiast, and like Pauli, a very warm human being. The names and faces come swirling around in my head: sweet Mrs Okura and Mrs Hoshino, jovial Nancy Mori, stern but kind Mrs Takanaka, the indomitable and loquacious Nobby Hayashi, and so many more … Most of them still lived in their original internment houses, renovated to different degrees.
On the annual clean-up day in the spring, before the opening of the Centre to the public, everyone arrived with aprons, brooms, vacuums, rakes, buckets, rags, and cleaning agents. In no time at all the Centre was ship-shape and ready for action. It is a place of memory but also, when there were so many active members, it was one of dynamic activity. I remember helping with luncheons and tea parties (just like when I was a volunteer with Tonari Gumi in Vancouver) as well as organizing the showing of Japanese movies. I even taught some Yoga classes for the seniors.
It was up to the younger ones to keep the Society going, and keep the NIMC functioning. Sakaye Hashimoto was President for many years. Ruby Truly created the “Path of Leaves”, an educational study-guide based on the NIMC and the history of internment. Mel Swanson worked tirelessly in the NIMC garden. Sakaye’s wife Bronwen has taken on the daunting task of organizing 20 years of Kyowakai and NIMC files.
Now, sadly most of the ‘elder elders’ have died – many of them spending their last time in the Pavilion (a complex care unit attached to the New Denver Hospital). Gayle Swanson (our current President) along with her husband Mel, have spent countless volunteer hours giving care at the bedsides of many, in their final stages of life.
Gradually as the few juniors became elders themselves, it became more and more challenging to keep on running the NIMC, so the difficult decision was made to transfer operations to the Village of New Denver, with the Kyowakai Society continuing to act in an advisory capacity on the interpretation of the NIMC.
The NIMC is special and unique – one of the only places in Canada that provide a visceral feeling of what internment was really like. At the same time, as long as the Kyowakai Society can continue to exist, it is much more than a museum, with artifacts frozen in time, but a place for people to come together to celebrate Nikkei culture as it is today. The name Kyowakai means “working together in harmony.” Of course, within the Society there have been conflicts and disputes over the years, as with any human group, but let’s hope we can remember that initial guiding principle of harmony as we move into the future.