Susan Aihoshi: My Incredible Journey – Part One
In February of 2012, Scholastic Canada released Torn Apart: The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi. It tells the story of a young girl growing up in Vancouver and what happened to her family, as well as the entire Japanese Canadian community living on BC’s west coast, after Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor. I am the author of that book.
Torn Apart was my first book and it changed the course of my life. This is the story of my exploration of my history and heritage.
For much of my adult life, I am sorry to say, I had ignored my Japanese heritage. While familiar with the basic facts of the internment of Japanese Canadians in WWII, I remained largely disinterested in what had happened to the community. It wasn’t until 2009, when the prospect of writing a book on this subject arose, that my eyes were finally opened.
When I was young, my mother Molly (nee Iwasaki) and her sisters shared with me many happy memories from their Vancouver childhood. I used several of these to shape the life of my imaginary character Mary Kobayashi. But there was still so much about that time period I wanted to know, and in particular the not-so-happy details about the uprooting. I was beginning at last to understand that this episode of Canadian history was personal.
My grandparents, like most of the issei or first generation, died decades ago. I can’t speak Japanese, so could never converse with them when they were alive, except in awkward pidgin English about daily activities, never about the past. The Japanese are renowned for their reticence, so I’m certain my grandparents would not have talked to me about the injustices they suffered. My only option was to explore the memories of my parents’ generation, the nisei. My own father James (Jimmy) Aihoshi died long ago when I was a teenager, but my mother is alive, as are most of my aunts and uncles. And because almost all their parents are dead, the nisei are now more open to speaking about those long ago years. I found the secret is simply to ask!
Perhaps because I have been without my dad for most of my life, the first person I wanted to talk to about his life in Vancouver was my father’s brother, Barney Murashi Aihoshi. Uncle Barney and his family had lived in Toronto but moved west decades ago, first to Revelstoke, BC, then to various towns in Alberta. As a result, I seldom saw him, his wife Setsuko (or Setty as we have always known her), and their children, my cousins John and Diane (Dee). I would sometimes visit my uncle and aunt when vacationing out west or when they occasionally came east. Whenever I did see him, Uncle Barney always liked telling stories about himself and my dad, the oldest of the Aihoshi siblings. I have always enjoyed these tales because they brought my father to life again. Now I had the perfect excuse to hear more of those stories.
My plan was to visit Red Deer, Alberta, where my uncle and aunt now live, before travelling on to BC’s Slocan Valley and New Denver where both my mother’s and my father’s families had been interned. The Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, a national historic site, is located there. New Denver is the only camp where shacks dating back to WWII are still standing. I had never been there, although I had certainly heard it mentioned many times during my life. After visiting New Denver, I could go on to other places in the province for additional research I needed for my book.
So in September of 2009, my husband and I flew from Toronto to Calgary. We drove north to Red Deer where Uncle Barney and Aunt Setty live in the home of their daughter Dee, her husband Charles, and their two young children. Like most of the nisei I interviewed for my book, my uncle was very self-deprecating about the value of any information he could give me. In fact, though, I found myself hearing the most remarkable tales.
To my amusement, Barney began by confessing his frequent annoyance with my father. As the oldest son, my dad was the only one allowed to drive his father’s car. My grandfather or Ojiichan, Harry Naosuke Aihoshi, couldn’t drive but he knew the importance of a car for his business. Nearly 70 years later, Barney expressed his envy of my father’s Leckie boots, the Doc Martens of their time. The footwear was a local product worn by loggers as well as fashion-conscious young people.
But then Barney disclosed the stunning fact that my father was born in Japan! I had always believed Dad was born in Canada. During our family’s frequent road trips to the United States, he always answered “Vancouver” when asked by customs officials for his place of birth. This was long before the official documentation now required for border crossings. I suppose it was expediency that made him say that, but I was astonished at this information.
I also learned that my paternal grandmother or Obaachan, who died long before I was born, came from a high-class background in Japan. I knew very little about her before this interview. I did know that her first name was Nobu because my brother David was given the Japanese name Nobuo in her honour. I now know that her maiden name was Kamidosono, a very unusual surname. Barney recalled visiting Japan with his father several years after his mother’s death. They went to her ancestral home, which my uncle vividly described as a castle with extensive grounds and enormous fishponds.
Nobu died when her youngest child, Henry Aihoshi, was less than a year old. Barney wasn’t sure what caused her death but he remembered his mother being very ill. He heard her weeping because she knew she was dying and was leaving her infant son without a mother. Barney then confirmed what I had always supposed but no one had ever stated—that his oldest “sister” Mary was not a true sibling. Her real name was Mary Wari Shimodozuno. She had been adopted by Ojiichan to look after his six children well before their mother died. Mary was as much a beloved aunt to me and my Aihoshi cousins as any of my real aunts. Both Barney and Setty said how unfortunate it was that Mary had already passed away because she would have been a rich source of the information I was seeking. It was a shame but at least I was gathering what I could from the two of them now.
As he spoke, Barney would shake his head at the hard times that his father had undergone in BC. He related how his father had worked on the railroads when he first came to Canada, something I’d never heard before. After seeing how badly treated the Chinese workers were and perhaps experiencing the same treatment himself, Ojiichan eventually quit. He then studied tailoring and saved up for years before opening his own shop in Vancouver. It was always a struggle for Ojiichan to support his family. Barney recalled the time his father’s store was robbed and a police chase of the thieves through the neighbourhood ended in a dramatic shootout.
In 1942, when Japanese families were ordered to turn over their businesses and belongings to the Custodian of Enemy Alien Property, Ojiichan lost his tailor shop. With it went the new steam presser he’d purchased to improve his facilities, using money borrowed from a friend. The car, of course, was also confiscated. I was curious to know if any family photo albums had been saved but my uncle was doubtful. He then described in great detail a beautiful sword his father owned that was kept wrapped up on a shelf in the shop. He wondered, as did I, whether it had belonged to my grandmother’s family and what had happened to it.
Barney confessed he wasn’t a good student. His father told him that if he didn’t finish school, then he had to work. That’s how my uncle ended up on Vancouver Island in the Duncan area, toiling for various lumber companies. The working conditions back then would make today’s workplace safety officers cringe in horror. The death of a young Japanese logger—a mere teenager—spurred Barney to find work elsewhere. He was hired by a pulp and paper mill in the remote village of Ocean Falls, where he first met my aunt. “Beautiful Ocean Falls,” as Setty has always called her birthplace and hometown, is located 88 km west of Bella Coola and 24 km from the Pacific. She and her family lived there until the 1942 evacuation orders forced them to leave. It must have been a special place because all the nisei that I have met who lived in Ocean Falls speak of it with unusual affection.
And so the stories continued. My uncle left the village in 1942 to rejoin his family in Vancouver before being sent off with my father to road camp. Barney described parts of that time in vivid detail. Some of his memorable recollections about the ghost town of Sandon appear in my book. I also learned what life was like in New Denver for my uncle and my father. My aunt went on to describe her life in Ocean Falls, while my uncle related what he witnessed when the Japanese families living there had to leave. I hope to use some of this material in a future book.
That particular visit to Red Deer was unforgettable and was just the beginning of my incredible journey. After my book was published three years later, I received this surprising email message: “I was looking for something else today and came across the attached page in the Canadian Japanese Business Ventures Album (or Japanese Business Photo Book) sponsored by the Railroad Workers in 1918. I remembered that you had mentioned [in an interview about your book] that your paternal grandfather was Naosuke Aihoshi, who was a Vancouver tailor. I thought I would send this to you, in case you had never seen it.”
This page was sent to me by the editor of the Nikkei Voice and I had never seen it before. It showed a picture of Ojiichan as a young man, two years before my father was born in 1920. As well, there was a photo of his tailor shop and its address. And perhaps most remarkably, not only was the prefecture in Japan where Ojiichan had come from indicated (Kagoshima-ken) but the date when he arrived in Canada—October, 1907! This confirmed Barney’s story about Ojiichan working on the railroads when he first came to Canada. It would also explain why this information appeared in a book sponsored by railroad workers. The message was such an unexpected gift and I quickly shared it with my Aihoshi relatives. Kirt and Mara Aihoshi, my cousin John’s children, were particularly happy to receive it. As Yonsei, or fourth generation descendants of Japanese Canadians, they are both very proud of their cultural heritage and have spent extensive time in Japan.
The fact that my father was born in Japan was verified last year when I was sorting through some of my mother’s personal papers. I found a folder with various documents pertaining to my father—including a Japanese passport for my paternal grandmother and her son, issued July 26, 1920, for entrance to Canada. What is so amazing is the passport photo of my Obaachan, whom I had never seen before. She is just 24 years old and incredibly beautiful. And there in her arms is my infant father. Another serendipitous gift I will always treasure.
I realize that I am on a journey of exploration about my heritage that will last the rest of my life. I will share more of it with you in the next issue.