Plowing My Parents’ Landscape of Conscience
Plowing my parents’ landscape of conscience: reflections of a daughter on compiling her father’s book, Migration, Displacement, and Redress: A Japanese Canadian Perspective by Tatusuo Kage
by Mariko Kage
About eight years ago, prompted by my mother, I started sorting through the piles of boxes and files in my father’s personal library study. This became an annual summer project. I found volumes of correspondence, committee meeting minutes, reports, articles, magazines, letters, and more. Digging through the archives, like a treasure hunt, I gradually organized my father’s original writings and memorabilia into several binders. One can grow accustomed to the people they live with, and eventually no longer surprised by their outstanding contributions: that is just my Papa, being Papa. But when I was faced with the toppling stack of headlines about human rights breakthroughs, each headline having been years of dedicated work in the making, and when I read through the thoughtful and relentless articles, each promoting peace and understanding among us, my sense of responsibility as a global citizen and not just a proud daughter forced me to take action. I decided to embark on sharing his collected works with the world. That initial housekeeping project evolved into a new publication that was successfully launched this season, entitled Migration, Displacement, and Redress, A Japanese Canadian Perspective. This work, the creation of my father, Tatsuo Kage, is for all of us, and so our family has gone to some lengths to present it to the community.
As a teenager I would peek into my father’s small, cluttered study, where his bookshelves were filled with titles related to Nazi Germany and ask him why he was studying Hitler. Typically, never taking his eyes off his desktop full of papers, he evaded my question, mumbling in Japanese, “Saaa ne…”, best translated as “Hmm, I wonder….” Disappointed, my burning curiosity had no choice but to leave the absent-minded professor alone until the next chance presented itself. And the next. One day, after many such failed attempts, he finally gave an explanation that stuck with me. “Since Japan was a close ally with Germany during World War II, I always wondered if what happened in Nazi Germany could also potentially happen with Japan, so I started researching.”
I remember my father periodically sitting on the floor of his home library with a paper cutter, glue stick, scissors, and scattered pieces of paper. He was editing and assembling the monthly newsletter, the old-fashioned way, for the Japanese Immigrants Association going back some 30 years or more. Every summer, I would find my father on the floor in the same manner, carefully labelling, cutting, matting, and pasting photos of some key community events, creating large display panels to be set up at the Human Rights Committee booth at the Powell Street Festival site.
During the 1980s in Vancouver, with his fellow new immigrants, my father organized and wrote scripts to be performed as skits for the annual Powell Street Festival – a downtown eastside park lit up by Japanese cultural events for a whole weekend. One summer, one of my teenage sisters was roped into playing the role of Wonder Woman for the skit while I was intrigued to see my father dressed up to play the role of Ultra-Man, a Japanese superhero in a popular TV show my sisters and I used to watch growing up in Tokyo, for which he wore a fitted swimming trunk over a greyish pair of tights! For an intellectual, he was quite an accessible person.
In 1992, my father invited me to participate in the Homecoming Conference. Elderly Japanese Canadian survivors of dispossession and internment during World War II, who had afterwards been forced to migrate from British Columbia to more eastern reaches throughout Canada and to Japan, came back to Vancouver for a summit on the whole community’s experience of migration, displacement, and redress. My mother invited her Indigenous friends, Vera, Arlene and young N’Kinka Manuel who shared moving poetry and traditional stories with the participants. Following their presentation, accompanied by my sister playing the taiko drums, we performed a bilingual storytelling show, blended with poetry and Japanese folk songs. While creating culturally relevant entertainment for the Japanese Canadian seniors, I experienced my own personal homecoming. Having spent my childhood in Japan, I now had the opportunity to celebrate and share my Japanese cultural roots. I appreciated this unexpected gift of reconnection which transformed into a ritual of intergenerational giving and receiving.
From the 1990s, my parents’ home became a meeting place and a regular lodging for various members of the Líl’wat Nation and many other indigenous leaders and representatives. My mother, a retired social worker, befriended many of these activists. Hearing stories of their struggles, my mother spoke highly of all her guests, admiring their courage to battle for their sovereignty rights. Over the years whenever I journeyed home, I met so many fascinating individuals who would drop by to visit – those attending court hearings, appointments, or making their way to legal assistance in Vancouver. I witnessed enduring friendships that my parents developed with visitors from all over, sharing dinner time conversations, tea, and breakfast in the morning. There were times a group of friends from Mt. Currie, Líl’wat, needed lodging so they could catch a flight to Geneva and New York for their important United Nations conferences. In fact, Kerry Coast, the publisher for this book, was one of the people who joined the trips to these UN conferences, and has worked with and known my family for many years. During those years, whenever I would call home, my mother would have endless news and stories of travelling visitors, and the going-ons of an involved household. And this is how I met the father of my four younger children. One of my mother’s comments was planted deeply in my heart: “I am of colonial European ancestry; so one of my responsibilities is to do what I can to support the plight of Indigenous people who suffered so much through colonialism. This is the least that I can do.” Following my mother’s example, I have worked towards healing some of the damage of colonialism. Through raising my children in and as part of Indigenous communities, I have been privileged to be involved, and to learn some of the traditional arts and cultural teachings.
By 1997, I joined my parents, who were founding members, in the Japanese Canadian Community Association’s (JCCA) Human Rights Committee. Triggered by the cases of exploited Japanese workers and immigrant victims needing support and advocacy, my father proposed we hold bilingual workshops to help raise awareness about domestic violence and sexual harassment in the workplace. These workshops were the first of their kind for the Japanese Canadian community in Vancouver and my mother was instrumental in bringing in professional resource people to speak on these subjects which were especially unfamiliar to immigrant Japanese women.
I fondly recall of the few years I sat through JCCA board meetings and Human Rights Committee meetings with my father. At meetings, he was an excellent listener, and when he shared, he did so in a calm and practical manner respectful of all those around him. One of the projects I enjoyed was the Intermarriage Workshop series initiated by my father and the committee. Because of my interest in the topic, I stayed involved for five years, learning from the many discussions throughout the twenty workshops mentored by the cross-cultural psychiatrist, Dr. Fumitaka Noda, and engaging with other intercultural couples along the way. It was rewarding to see mostly Japanese immigrant women with their Canadian partners exploring common issues and questions creating a culture of peer support through these workshops.
Looking back, I saw how my parents were perpetually attentive to matters that concerned people in need, exploring what could bring wellness to the community, and investigating problematic issues that would come to their attention. Through my parents, I learned the value of caring and supporting others when we can, especially those who are marginalized or disadvantaged. I have seen and participated in bringing about results from such care: forests still standing, and not clear cut in my Indigenous children’s traditional territory; youth stepping up in creative, safe spaces; a heritage house still standing; erecting internment memorial sites holding a marker for history. My parents were there for me offering moral support and assistance as I stumbled through launching projects in my own communities.
I felt personally connected to this book project because of the shared experience working with my father on several eye-opening projects. Notably, the most powerful experience working with him was in 1998 when our Human Rights Committee joined with the British Columbia chapter of the Association for Learning and Preserving the History of WWII in Asia to organize an earth shattering event my father reports in his book. The Unit 731 Photo Exhibition and its opening press conference at the Vancouver Public Library made me – and many others – aware of atrocities that had been hidden conveniently away, apparently in the global superpowers’ need for diplomacy in pursuit of their economic and trade priorities following the war. Until then, I knew nothing about the history of the Asian Holocaust.
I had the privilege of meeting delegates to the exhibition. The victim representative from China attended; a former doctor for the Japanese imperial army, who was involved in Unit 731; and a dedicated Japanese lawyer supporting the Chinese victims. They all came to Vancouver, united by the mission to educate the public. Two members of this delegation of peace activists were former soldiers in Japan’s imperial army. They were only sixteen and seventeen years old at the time of recruitment to serve at Unit 731, the secret Japanese medical facility in Harbin province, China. They were both denied entry into North America and unable to join the delegation. For the press conference, a special international phone call was arranged with one of the soldiers and my task was to provide interpretation for his statement.
The Chinese representative named Wang Xuan shared how her relatives were still dying, suffering from the virus incubated in Unit 731 which had been discarded into their local river after Japan’s defeat. Listening first-hand, I was deeply moved by all the testimonies and learned about the long-term harm done to innocent Chinese people. This experience also left me with questions: why were the former soldiers who were witnesses working at this secret medical facility not allowed entry to North America? Since that event, not one person I spoke to over the last 20 years has ever heard of Unit 731, not scholars, not educators, not even peace activists. Why is this part of world history not included for our youth to learn and educators to teach in social studies?
I love so many aspects of Japan; it is my homeland, furusato However, when I was growing up in Tokyo, I was impacted by hearing adults around me making hurtful racial remarks about Chinese and Koreans; I could never forget what I heard. My half Korean friend in Japan was so ashamed to let anyone find out she was part Korean. This was shocking to me, I felt sad for her and I still wonder what it was like for her to grow up in such a harsh racist climate as a young person. Yes, as a mixed-race Japanese person, I most definitely feel ashamed of what the top Japanese military and government leaders of that period committed. As a human being, I feel I have the responsibility to support the learning of true history so that the younger generation today who will become future politicians in Japan or anywhere else, would NEVER allow for such crimes or war to happen. Furthermore, the sooner that Japan can make amends with China and other Asian countries around past wrongdoings, the more advantageous it will be in fostering healthier attitudes and improved international relationships. That is my thinking, much like my father and much like Satoko Oka Norimatsu, the founder of the Peace Philosophy Centre whom I admire. If we can bring down barriers and begin to treat each other like family and relatives, (“All my relations”, as Indigenous people say) maybe we can inch our way towards a more harmonious existence around the world and eliminating violence.
I watched my parents working as a team, extending compassion and welcome ears to those in need, volunteering tirelessly over the decades for various social justice and Indigenous related causes, and assisting the vulnerable members of society. I see my father having an unusual combination of being a pure scholar, a lifelong learner, and a person of action. He is not exactly one to engage in conversations at home, often found glued to his computer for hours; he enjoys cooking, basic yard work and has always been very handy with all sorts of household repairs. Otherwise, he kept busy and thrived in attending various committee meetings. Over the years, my father always consulted with my mother, Diane Kage, who worked for many years for a multicultural organization, AMSSA and other NGO’s. As an editor herself, she would carefully proofread nearly every article and report my father drafted in English, which was his second language. There is a saying in Japanese called, “Ennoshita no chikara mochi.” Literally, this means the strong person under the floor (holding the structure). This expression is used to describe and acknowledge the person who works behind the scenes, typically invisible to the public eye. That would describe my mother in a way; and so my father dedicates this book to her.
With the steady support from my mother, my father never stopped seeking opportunities to write and express his thoughts: constantly observing, engaging, reading, probing, documenting, reflecting, analyzing, confronting, reporting on facts and never hesitated to speak up. This year, I was humbled to carry out this project to compile a selection of my father’s life work into a book. Through his writings, readers may discover that it is as if he was planting seeds all along, seeds that grew branches and roots, over time, transforming and woven into the shared tapestry of connections, solidarity, community action, bringing joyful colours, diversity, movements and memories. He is my ‘superhero’ in truth-telling who inspires me to stretch beyond my comfort zones to explore my own values and purpose in life.
I am a mother of children who are of combined Japanese, European, First Nations, and Chinese ancestry. As such, while their grandfather’s book will serve as a family legacy, beyond that, I sincerely wish for all future generations to correctly learn the history of their predecessors. While painting the historical landscape of ‘community building’ and fighting to overcome past injustices through this chronicle, my father leaves us with the challenge to also dive into our own inner personal landscape of conscience.
I envision this collection of 59 articles to be utilized widely as a valuable resource for students and educators in classrooms, for stimulating discussions, for post secondary researchers and scholars to choose from the eclectic topics found in the table of contents. I am deeply grateful to all our supporters and contributors to this book project over this past year and to the special guests who shared their heartfelt presentations at our online book launch that took place on November 14th: taiko performance by E. Kage, Dr. John Price (writer of the Introduction), Judy Hanazawa, John Endo Greenaway, Satoko Oka Norimatsu, Thekla Lit, Mikoto Yoshida (my son and writer of the Forward), and shakuhachi song by Alcvin Ryuzen Ramos. Last but not least, our family is immensely grateful to publisher Kerry Coast for her tireless and relentless attention to detail and design in preparing the manuscript. Please visit the website www.electromagniticprint.com for more information about the book: reviews, photos, link to view the book launch and purchasing options.
Lastly, when I asked if my father had a message for his readers, after a long pause, he replied, “I want to ask people to look deep inside themselves and ask who and what they are. How do they relate to their world?” Thank you Papa, we will continue to keep your questions and messages alive.
“Otsukaresama deshita”, now you can relax, have some fun and enjoy your retirement!
Read a review of Tatsuo Kage’s book by Angela May
Purchase Migration, Displacement, and Redress: A Japanese Canadian Perspective by Tatusuo Kage