Review : Three Nikkei Books
When dawn broke on 6 June, it revealed an unforgettable sight: thousands of ships, seeming to reach forever across the sea, with their barrage balloons hoisted to keep off low-flying enemy aircraft. It was with a mixture of excitement and fear that I approached the beach on D-Day. I think what keeps every soldier going is that he doesn’t think he’ll be hit—it’s the other unfortunate guy who is going to get it. To top it all off, I was still feeling a bit queasy and wanted to get my feet on dry land again.
Tom Morimoto, from Breaking Trail
From Canada’s Northern Frontier to the Oil Fields of Dubai
by Tom Morimoto
2007, Fifth House Publishers, Calgary Alberta
Review by John Endo Greenaway
Tom Morimoto’s book Breaking Trail is one of those books that enhances our understanding of ourselves as Canadians, much the way that books by Pierre Berton and Farley Mowat do. Subtitled, From Canada’s Northern Frontier to the Oil Fields of Dubai, Breaking Trail is a charming and well-written memoir that is as humble in its telling as it is broad in scope.
Born in 1918 in Edmonton, Alberta, Morimoto grew up in Fort McMurray, the son of Japanese immigrants. The opening paragraph sets the tone for the book: It is surprising to some people that someone like me, a second generation Japanese-Canadian (Nisei), should have grown up in northern Canada. As a matter of fact, many people have taken me to be a Native Indian or Inuit, presumably because it seemed so unlikely that anyone of Japanese descent would come from the North Country. It is all due to my father being an enterprising person, always willing to try something new. His name was Katsuhei, but he was known as Tommy.
The younger Morimoto clearly takes after his father, as evidenced by the many adventures chronicled in his book. However, what makes the book more than simply a recounting of individual exploits is the care Morimoto takes to put everything in context, beginning with his upbringing in the north, which takes up the first third of the book. He paints a compelling portrait of a harsh landscape and the colourful characters that populated it.
When Morimoto was growing up, Fort McMurray was still a frontier town, with trapping the main source of income and horses, dogsleds and boats the primary means of transportation. As a youngster, Morimoto and his friends—a mix of whites, First Nations and Métis—played baseball and softball. He recalls sending away for a book on boxing to help him defend himself from boys who called him “Jap” and then beat him up when he went after them. With daily practice he eventually became proficient enough with his fists that he could land punches at will and soon was left alone by the bigger kids who became afraid of him.
At sixteen, during the height of the Great Depression, Morimoto struck out on his own and worked his way across the north, trying his hand at different professions including radio operator, gold prospector, miner and kitchen helper. He even did a stint as a hockey goalie, winning the first ever Northwest Territories hockey championship with the Royal Canadian Corps of Signals team.
In the spring of 1940, the next chapter of Morimoto’s life began with his enlistment in the Canadian Army as a signalman. In retrospect, it is remarkable that he was even allowed to join the army, given his status as a Japanese Canadian. Another issue was his height and weight. At 2 inches and 20 pounds below the minimum requirements he barely squeaked in.
As in previous chapters, Morimoto’s strength is the portrait he paints of the characters he met. Take this paragraph: Our section was filled with all kinds of characters. The sergeant was a short, corpulent beer-drinker named Innes; our orderly room corporal was a great guy named “Hash” Gofsky; and our corporal, Chuck White, was a good fellow but inclined to spout off bullshit. The other fellows who began to join us, or had already been recruited, were Jimmy Milne, who had been an accountant in the Imperial Bank of Commerce and later became the sergeant in charge of the section; the three Tatro brothers, who became good friends of mine; and John Mullan, who had been a butcher and became known immediately as “Moon” from the comic-strip character of the day Moon Mullins. There were also a few veterans who had been operators in the First World War. One was “Goody” Goodwin, a great guy but an alcoholic, who did not stay with us for more than a couple of months. The surprising thing about him was that, although he hadn’t used Morse code since the First World War, it came back to him very quickly. Another recruit was Art Layzell, who came from a well-known Calgary family. Then there was “Limey” Philips. Although he came from Wales, he was immediately named “Limey” and was called that throughout the war. The ironic thing was that his mother had brought him to Canada in 1939 so he wouldn’t get caught up in the war, and here he was joining the Canadian army to get into it. His regiment number was M44414. We used to repeatedly ask him what his regimental number was because we got such a kick out of hearing him say, “Em foe foe foe one foe. What do you want to know foe?”
The rest of this section of Breaking Trail follows Morimoto’s exploits in the Canadian Army, from winning a silver medal as a boxer (where he made good use of his early boxing training) to taking part in the D-Day Invasion.
The final chapters of the book detail Morimoto’s civilian life following the end of the war. The Veterans Charter allowed him to enroll at the University of Edmonton where he received an engineering degree. Following graduation, he embarked on a long and successful engineering and business career, travelling the world and once more exhibiting his enterprising spirit. As the subtitle of the book implies, the book ends in the oil fields of Dubai. Tom Morimoto and his wife Kim now reside in Kelowna, BC.
Breaking Trail is a thoroughly engaging book that never fails to both entertain and educate. Highly recommended.
Images of Internment: a bitter-sweet memoir in words and images
by Dr. Henry Shimizu, Ti-Jean Press: Victoria, BC, 2008
Review by Jacob Derksen
The majority of Canadians are, by now, familiar with the shameful legacy of the residential school system and its effect upon First Nations peoples. Less well known, certainly in non-Nikkei communities, is the history of the internment of Japanese-Canadians as so-called enemy aliens during WWII.
Images of Internment is Dr. Henry Shimizu’s recollection, in painting and prose, of his experience as a teenager in the New Denver Internment Camp north of Nelson, BC. The 27 oil paintings that form the basis of this book were begun in 1999, completed in early 2002, and first exhibited shortly thereafter at the opening of the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Edmonton. Dr. Shimizu’s paintings chronicle the period 1942 to 1946, from the posting of the Enemy Aliens Notice – drafted, ironically enough, by the “Minister of Justice” – to the final days at the camp before his family left to “re-enter the mainstream of Canada.”
While only brief autobiographical sketches accompany the paintings, they nonetheless breathe life into the images. Dr. Shimizu’s Images of Internment accomplishes, very succinctly, that which a library of academic tomes dare not dream: he makes his history our history, and does so very eloquently.
Available at the Japanese Canadian National Museum.
Carvings by Tad Yesaki
Photographs by Roy Hamaguchi
Text by Donna Yoshitake Wuest
Review by John Endo Greenaway
There are moments leafing through the new book, Wild Birds, when it is difficult to tell if one is looking at a photograph of a real bird or a carved decoy. This is a tribute to the intricate work of carver Tad Yesaki, a retired fisherman who took up carving in the 1940s while living on a sugar beet farm in Picture Butte Alberta. While early examples from the 1960s show the rough charm common to what is often called folk art, later carvings display a breathtaking attention to detail and realism that are something to behold. The majority of Yesaki’s subjects are ducks, in all their various permutations, but he also carves other birds including owls, hawks and pheasants. He’s even carved a two foot-tall blue heron.
Yesaki’s 2007 carving of a Gadwall (Gray Mallard) was a challenge to paint but the hours spent paid off as it won first place in the 2008 Canadian National Wildfowl Carving Competition in Kitchener Ontario, Best of Division in the Central Fraser Valley Woodcarvers “Art of the Carver” Show in Abbotsford and Best of Show at the Richmond Carvers Society show in his hometown of Steveston.
Photographer Roy Hamaguchi is an aeronautics engineer by trade. Like Yesaki, he began experimenting as a child with what would become his lifelong passion. Growing up in Minto Mine near Lillooet, he began taking photos using his father’s 2 ¼ X 3 ½ Film Pack camera. After the family moved to Greenwood, Hamaguchi and some friends began experimenting with processing their own photographs which were, he admits, nothing to write home about. However, also like Yesaki, Hamaguchi’s crude early efforts soon gave way to more polished works. In the mid-fifties, while attending UBC, he invested in a high quality professional camera and was soon pursuing photography in his free time.
Unlike Yesaki, Hamaguchi has not confined himself to birds and has trained his lens on everything from wildlife to landscapes, flowers and even sports. This book, though, focuses (no pun intended) on his stunning photos of wild birds, including the photograph that got him hooked on bird photography, a shot of a hard-to-pin-down scarlet tanager that got caught the eye of the International Ornithological Conference.
While the primary focus of the book are the birds captured in wood and on film by Yesaki and Hamaguchi, the text by Donna Yoshitake Wuest puts the images in context, giving insight into the lives and methods of these two humble and dedicated artists.
92 pages, 89 colour photographs throughout $20.00
Available at the Japanese Canadian National Museum.