Susan Aihoshi: My Incredible Journey – Part Three
This article is the third in a series describing my journey of personal discovery initiated by my book Torn Apart.
During my early research on war-era Vancouver, I was dismayed to read what happened to students of Japanese heritage in UBC’s Officer Training Corps after Pearl Harbor. The January 9, 1942 edition of The Ubyssey, the university’s student magazine, described how Michiyoshi Sumiya, along with all other Japanese Canadian male students, had been forced to turn in his uniform. Completion of the COTC was a prerequisite for male graduates. UBC, an institution I thought might have reflected higher social ideals, had fallen prey to the prejudices of the time. It was even more dismaying to find that eventually all students of Japanese heritage, men and women, were forced to abandon their studies.
Imagine my pleasure then in 2011 when I learned about the successful efforts of Mary Kitagawa and her husband Tosh to convince UBC to award these students honorary degrees. A special ceremony was scheduled for May of 2012, seventy years after the Japanese Canadian students had been forced to leave. Mary not only faced the formidable obstacle of persuading the university that this shameful episode in its past had actually taken place, but she and Tosh had also tackled the enormous task of tracking down all those long-ago students who had been dispersed across the country and beyond. With the passage of so much time, their task was particularly daunting. Mary’s incredible work had me wondering whether I could somehow be present at what was surely going to be a historic event. I really wanted to be there, in spite of the fact that I knew none of the graduates or their families—or so I thought!
As plans for my spring West Coast book tour began to unfold in early 2012, I realized that I would be in Vancouver when the graduation ceremony took place. Around this same time I discovered that my friend Janice Okada’s father was one of the former UBC students. However, she told me he was very reluctant to leave Toronto to attend the ceremony. Because I strongly believed that this recognition was long overdue, I urged Janice to do everything she could to change his mind.
In November 2010, I went to a conference called The Japanese Canadian Experience: Sharing Your Stories of the War Years held at Toronto’s Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre. More than 400 people attended that landmark event and a few became new friends. Among them were three nisei siblings from the Nagata family—Michael, Elizabeth, and Mary (Shinko) Kato. To my astonishment, I discovered that Mary was my aunt Amy Iwasaki’s best friend! They both attended Hastings Elementary School in Vancouver’s east end. Before the evacuation, the Nagatas lived on Wall Street, not far from the Iwasaki family home. My beloved aunt died in 1990, but she came to life again when I met Mary, a woman of great character with whom I still keep in touch.
I ran into Michael and Mary again at the JCCC’s Keisho conference in the spring of 2012. I had just discovered that both Mary and her sister Ruth Fusako Cezar were students at UBC in 1942. How amazing that two nikkei women from one family had gone to university in those days! The sisters appear in A Degree of Justice, the moving documentary film by Alejandro Yoshizawa, created for the UBC graduation ceremony. I told Mary how proud I was of her. She said that, regrettably because of her health, she would be unable to accept her degree in person, which only made me more determined to be there myself.
Also at Keisho, I met Jonathan Carter, a young sansei trying to learn more about his grandfather’s wartime experiences. We were sitting together in a session on road camps when he shared that his ojiichan, Frederick Shigeo Onizuka, was another of the nikkei students who would be receiving an honorary degree, in this case posthumously. Jon had an honours economics degree, the same degree he would be accepting on his grandfather’s behalf in Vancouver in May. Jon’s interest and pride in his grandfather impressed me and further reinforced my wish to be at the ceremony.
Anxious to discover whether this might be possible, I finally contacted Mary Kitagawa directly. Despite being busy with preparations for the ceremony, Mary kindly arranged for an invitation to be sent to me. And then Janice told me her father had decided he would go to the ceremony after all. Janice herself would be accepting a degree on behalf of her deceased uncle Tosh Moriyama. Now I could no longer say I knew none of the graduates!
Janice and her dad would be in Vancouver around the same time period as I would. Janice’s father planned to stay at her sister’s downtown condo, but Janice said she was looking for a hotel room. That’s how she and I came to share a vacation rental overlooking Coal Harbour for a week. The apartment was just a short walk from the float-plane terminal I used for my trip to Cumberland, as described in the February issue. It was also unexpectedly close to Janice’s sister’s home. As a result, I was able to spend time with Janice’s family and felt as though I were part of it, even if temporarily.
However, before I arrived in Vancouver, I received a surprising email that circuitously linked me to the UBC event. Shirin Eshghi, the Japanese-language librarian at UBC had read my interview with the editor in The Bulletin’s April 2012 issue. She noticed my maternal grandmother’s connection to the Tairiku Nippo, the largest Japanese-language newspaper in Canada until publication ceased after Pearl Harbor. Obachan’s uncle Yasushi Yamazaki founded the community-based paper. Shirin had been unsuccessfully seeking the copyright holders for official permission to digitize UBC’s extensive collection of the Nippo, as part of the university’s efforts to acknowledge the injustices of 1942. Although not a descendant of the Yamazaki family myself, I put Shirin in touch with my uncle Alfred Iwasaki, who is. He gave his consent, thus making this invaluable resource available to everyone. Things were falling into place in time for the graduation ceremony!
In Vancouver, I finally met Janice’s dad Hank (Henry) Yukio Okada at a busy Chinese restaurant on Robson near Seymour. I also met Janice’s sister Karen and brother-in-law Greg.As Hank firmly shook my hand, I told him how glad I was that he had changed his mind. His presence at the ceremony was important not only for posterity, but for succeeding generations like my own to witness at this historic event. His daughters enthusiastically agreed and when everyone began voicing similar sentiments, Hank must have thought we were ganging up on him! He was, however, incredibly gracious and modest in response, as he would continue to be as the week unfolded.
On the morning of May 30, the Okadas and I headed to St. John’s College on the UBC campus for a special luncheon for the students and their families before the ceremony. There was a palpable air of excitement as people began to gather in the flag-draped dining hall. The day before The Globe and Mail had run an article about the upcoming ceremony, featuring Roy Oshiro, a former student who’d come all the way from Okinawa, Japan. Hank mentioned that he knew Roy from Britannia High where they both had played on the school rugby team. When Roy and his family arrived at the college, Hank seemed reluctant to approach them. However, his daughters and I insisted that this opportunity was too important to miss. As it happened, Roy, his wife and daughter sat down right beside us, so there was no excuse. Roy, a remarkably spry 90-year-old, remembered Hank immediately. The two friends began to talk and were inseparable for the remainder of the afternoon. It was wonderful watching them reconnect.
I looked around and waved in happy recognition when I saw Jon Carter with his family. And I even managed to briefly introduce myself to Mary Kitagawa, who warmly responded on such a busy day for her. The luncheon went by in a blur, beginning with a traditional welcome by elder Larry Grant from the Musqueam First Nation, on whose ancestral lands UBC is situated—a moving reminder of the transient nature of time. A delicious meal was followed by speeches from college principal Henry Yu, Mary and Tosh Kitagawa, and several other dignitaries. The luncheon closed with the announcement of mayor Gregor Robertson’s declaration that May 30, 2012 was “Welcome Home Day” for the nikkei graduates.
Afterwards, guests had a choice before heading to the ceremony later. We could either watch Stolen Memories, a short film about the return of a family photo album lost during the evacuation, or tour the Irving Barber Learning Centre to view the digitization process for the Tairiku Nippo. I of course chose the tour and was pleased to meet Shirin Eshghi in person. Laura, a sansei from Montreal, accompanied us to the Learning Centre’s lower level where we were shown how the Nippo’s pages were being scanned, then reviewed for key words so that the issues could be searched. Having once worked in a library, I found the process fascinating, and being a writer, I knew how important this work would be for future researchers and those hoping to learn more about their family history.
Laura and I also visited the Rare Books and Special Collections area where we viewed a selection of ephemera, objects other than published books, pertaining to the Japanese Canadian uprooting and internment. There were letters, government documents, copies of the Nippo, poignant old photo albums rescued from a dumpster, and so on. Glancing at a mimeographed collection of student work from one of the internment camp schools, I was astounded to read the faded type on the first page: A Poem by James Toguri—my uncle Jim! After a quick tour of the rest of the Learning Centre, Laura and I hurried back to the Chan Centre for the much anticipated ceremony.
A large gathering waited patiently outside the doors. Laura pointed out Rose Aihoshi, a distant relative of mine. I knew Rose from Toronto but had no idea she would be there for her brother Yoichi Kato who was to receive an honorary degree. I joined Karen and Greg in the queue. Janice and Hank had already gone inside with other ceremony participants. The doors finally opened and the crowd poured in. After we found seats, Janice’s son Robert joined our group. It was thrilling for me to be present at such a milestone event; it was even more moving to experience it alongside the Okada family.
I can’t describe in detail here what took place that afternoon. A video of the entire ceremony is available from UBC’s website. But here are a few of my most memorable recollections: seeing Mary Shinko Kato’s youthful face among the many student photos projected above the stage; the innumerable faculty in their academic robes filing in for the ceremony; Hank pushing his friend Roy’s wheelchair onto the stage; Chancellor Sarah Morgan-Sylvester’s warmth and grace during the entire event; and young Jade Kagetsu accepting a degree for her late great-grandfather Hajime Kagetsu.
As the other designates accepting degrees on behalf of deceased family members filed in, I was enormously proud and pleased to recognize Janice and then Jon Carter. Some time afterwards, a spontaneous cheer erupted and everyone stood when the first living graduate, accompanied by his daughter, made his way across the stage in a wheelchair to accept his degree. I was stunned that it was Charlie Kadota, my late uncle George’s brother! Like others present there that day, I applauded vigorously as each name was read aloud and each degree was conferred. And like everyone else, I stood, cheered and wept as this took place. How proudly each recipient came forward, no matter his or her age.
The high point of my journey of discovery last year was this historic graduation ceremony. So many disparate elements came together in a remarkable fashion to allow me to witness this unforgettable event. While the fabric of our community was torn apart in the aftermath of Pearl Harbor, the threads of that old life are being re-woven into a vibrant new tapestry. Those threads are strong. I have never been more proud of my heritage than on that day.