Tatsuo Kage : a commitment to human rights
Tatsuo Kage has the appearance and manner of an absent-minded professor, but this façade belies a fierce determination to follow his principles, whether they are popular or not. Over the past 30 or so years, he has been an integral part of the Vancouver Nikkei community, sitting on numerous boards and committees, and championing a number of human rights causes.
Born in 1935 in Utsunomiya, Kage was the son of a military officer. The family moved frequently until setting in Tokyo in the early forties at the outbreak of World War Two.
Developing a keen interest in history at a young age, Kage went on to major in European History at the University of Tokyo and spent two years at Germany’s University of Tübingen on a German Government Exchange Scholarship. In 1969, he became Assistant Professor at Meiji Gakuin University, teaching Political Science and European History. Upon attaining a full professorship, however, he and his wife Diane, along with their three daughters Mariko, Alisa and Eileen and son Ken, relocated to Vancouver. In Vancouver, Kage found work as a bilingual community worker at MOSAIC, a Multilingual Social Service Agency providing services to immigrants. He has also worked as a freelance researcher, writer and translator within the Nikkei community. Following the Redress agreement in 1988, Kage served as Regional Co-ordinator for the Redress Implementation Program under the National Association of Japanese Canadians. His duties including liaising with those who had been exiled to Japan following Japan’s surrender.
Over the year’s Kage’s tireless work within the community has earned him a number of awards and grants and he has written and edited many articles.
Although retired, Kage finds himself as busy as ever. He is currently working on completing the English translation of his 1998 book Nikkei Kanadajin no Tsuihou (Exiled Japanese Canadians) [Akashi Shoten Publishers, Tokyo].
In his Own Words
You spent the Second World War in Tokyo, is that right?
My father stayed mostly in Tokyo, so I lived there. But one special experience I had is that around 1943, school children were asked to move out from the Tokyo area, so over two hundred school children from the same elementary school were sent to the countryside, and I was one of them.
They were afraid of bombing?
Yes. My parents and two small sisters stayed in Tokyo, but myself and my elder sister, who was in the 6th grade, went to a northern part called Miyagi-ken, in the countryside, and stayed there for two years. That was, you know, quite unusual, to be away from our parents. I was still only eight or nine. And I lived with a few hundred other kids, plus several teachers. It was an old inn or country-style restaurant; the building was used for a dormitory. And the teachers lived in the same place.
So it was almost like boarding school?
That’s right. It had a big banquet room, with tatami of course, that was used for both studying, eating, and even sleeping.
Do you have many memories of the war itself?
I don’t have really have any memories of the war itself, but I remember that during the last year of the war, things were getting worse, especially the food situation and we were always hungry even though where we went was a well known rice growing area. At the beginning, local farmers came to visit us with food, so it was very nice. But the last six months or so, it was not so good. And then after we went back to Tokyo again there were many food shortages. The reason is that Japan lost colonies like Manchuria. It had lots of farming land, but nothing was imported after the war, so I think the worst time was 1946 to 1947.
When Japan lost the war, what happened to your father?
Of course he lost the job, so he was looking for a job. He did a lot of odd jobs, and finally he worked for some trading company. Unusually for his age group, he was conversant in English, so that helped quite a bit. And eventually he managed to establish some sort of small foundation. Around that time the housing situation was very, very poor, partly because half of the city was bombed and burned, destroyed. So he had an idea of forming a research institute for housing. So that was his job until he died— it was 1963.
What were your interests as you got older and went to high school?
Well, I was always interested in history, and I had a very good teacher. Looking back, I think the end of the war, when I was around ten years old, was a big shock for me. Until then I was indoctrinated into believing that Japan was a very special country and couldn’t lose the war because we had some kind of mission. That kind of nationalistic idea was held by almost everybody at that time, including young people like us. But then, when the war ended, everything turned around. The war was not a holy war for the glory of Japan or the liberation of eastern people, but more like a war of aggression. Japan was governed by an emperor, but then democracy was introduced, so many value systems and ideas were changed 180 degrees. So that was a kind of the beginning of my interest in history. But at the same time, I thought that, even though this is what happened in Japan and Asia, if I were to specialize in that area, then my point of view would be limited and fairly narrow. So I wanted to study about European history. Of course it was well known that Hitler and Mussolini were allies. So my curiosity was about Japan and Germany. For example, how did they become allies of Japan? That was something I was really interested in. So I ended up studying 1920s, 1930s German history, and after I graduated university, I managed to go to study in Germany and I became familiar with German research and people’s feeling about the war. I was always meeting people there and it was very, very interesting as well.
Your interest in history was piqued by the Japan’s losing the war. Do you think that was a shock to the population as a whole?
It is hard to say. For those who lived in Japan, the end of the war was a kind of relief, even though materially it was still very tough. And I think a lot of people around that time felt that big changes were coming. And then of course a lot of people came back from overseas, soldiers and civilians, from the former colonies and so on. I think probably one tenth of Japan’s population was living outside the country, and when the war ended they gradually came back. So those people had also a hard time. Japan was very impoverished country, so to get back to normal life was pretty tough.
When you went to Germany, what was that like?
Well, lots of German people had some familiarity with the Japanese because of the long-time relationship and wartime alliance, so there was no bad feelings at all towards Japanese. But in Europe at that time, their exposure to Oriental people was very, very limited. So people were curious about people from outside, Oriental people. So that wasn’t too bad. I never had, you know any kind of discrimination. However, I did feel that it was a place we could stay only temporarily as guests. But for visiting it was fine. And Diane and I got married there.
Did you come to Canada, to Vancouver, because Diane was from here?
Partly, yes, but one of the reasons we came here is that we have three girls, as you know—our fourth child was a boy, but he was still small—and the oldest girl was just finishing elementary school, reaching the age of Japanese middle school, and at that time there were not many mixed-race children in Japan. So especially for girls, future acceptance, or a future career was quite unsure. Japan was a more sexist country at that time, and mixed kids were not really accepted, but more looked at with curiosity, and integrating into the society could have been difficult, or so we thought. And Diane had been living in Japan for over ten years, so she also felt it would be good to have a change. She didn’t want to go back to Montreal where she came from. For one thing, she felt it was too cold in winter time, and French-English issues were always present, we’re talking about 1960. So it was not a very favourable environment. So we thought that, well, Vancouver is halfway in between, and also I had visited Vancouver beforehand, and I thought it was a pretty good place to be, even though I didn’t know very much about it.
You talk about the mixed race issue in Japan. Did you and Diane run into problems while living there?
No. That is again an interesting thing. We lived in the same neighbourhood where I grew up, and my children went to the same school that I went. So we were long time residents of that area. The neighbourhood shop keepers, usually they stay for a long time, they knew who I was, and who Diane was. So they didn’t treat us as strangers. And Diane was pretty good at speaking Japanese, so she sat on the PTA and things like that. So she was doing everything, you know, that housewives are supposed to do. So I think they accepted us without too much problem.
You arrived in Vancouver in 1975. Did you become involved in the Vancouver Nikkei community right away?
No, I think it took a few years. At the beginning I had hardly any contacts. But in 1977, the Japanese Canadian Centennial—that was an interesting year—it was then that a bunch of us formed the Japanese Immigrants Association—Take san (Yamashiro) and Yuko (Shibata), Michiko (Sakata) and Peter Kubotani who later became the president of the Greater Vancouver JCCA. So that was the beginning of my involvement. And one of the first projects I was involved with was producing a list of immigrants and also a kind of directory. I think that was some kind of prototype for the Vancouver Japanese Business Directory. At that time, you know, there was nothing like that. So it was a challenge, but at the same time I learned very quickly what kind of services were available, and who the immigrants were, and so on. So that was a very good learning experience. And then about a year later, I got a job at MOSAIC, the immigrant services association. And at that time I thought that to help other immigrants, other people, I should know the resources in the community, especially people, and organizations. So I got involved with the JCCA first and Tonari Gumi soon after that. I made arrangements with MOSAIC and Tonari Gumi that I could work one or two days a week from Tonari Gumi. So since then, I have had a connection with the Nikkei community. My work place, MOSAIC was very good as well, because besides me, there were no other Japanese, and most were also immigrants, but from different countries, like China, Vietnam, Latin American, and so on. So to be with them was also quite interesting. Immigrants from other areas are quite different, and especially refugees, they have different kinds of problems. So that was a good learning experience.
At MOSAIC did everyone have their own specialty according to their language? Did you only focus on Japanese speaking immigrants?
Yeah that was basically the way it was, but in my case, occasionally I was able to use my German. Not many German people came in to ask for us to help, because German people seem to pick up English quite quickly. So they don’t seem to have many problems.
In the time I’ve known you, you’ve been quite heavily involved in the human rights end of the community. What was it that sparked that passion in you?
(laughs) I don’t know if it’s a passion or not, but around 1983, Redress became a community issue. I was on the board of the JCCA, and I recall that at that time Redress was being discussed because the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC) was sending out messages that it was going to work on it as an human rights issue. But the JCCA Board, the Japanese Canadian leaders, were quite cautious or conservative, and there was a lot of resistance to work on Redress. And I thought, right from the very beginning, I thought that this was very interesting, and a good idea to work on it. And an elder in the community warned me that there could be some kind of backlash, so you should be very careful, and I thought, well, that can’t be the case, because Japanese Canadians have a right to correct the past wrongs. Since I was not even indirectly affected by the wartime measures, my interest was a lot more general, how the community process worked among Japanese Canadians, or more generally speaking, how the democratic process could work.
So your interest in human rights came out of your involvement with the redress movement?
In 1988, when Redress was settled, I thought, and a few other people—my friends—thought that the energy generated from the redress movement had to be focussed into human rights activities. And that was the NAJC’s direction as well around that time also. A human rights committee was formed, both in the NAJC and locally too. So that was the beginning of human rights work. I was interested in Redress issues which were not resolved in 1988, with other people. One thing is that even the Chinese head tax was already an issue we were talking about, and then soon after that there were issues regarding Japanese government not dealing with past responsibility like the comfort women issue.
I think it came up in the mid the 1990s . . . just around that time that became one of the issues people became interested in. And Japanese immigrants, we were watching how the Japanese government was trying to deal with these issues. And along those same lines, in 1996/97, we were involved in the history text book issue in Japan. What happened is, Saburo Ienaga, a Japanese professor in Japan, had a lawsuit against the Japanese government. The Japanese government was screening, de facto censoring, text book drafts. Each school district or school board has a choice of choosing out of available text books, that is how the Japanese system works, and Professor Ienaga wrote one from a critical point of view regarding Japan’s past, and that was rejected by the Ministry. So he was unhappy, and eventually he sued the government. And that lawsuit lasted about 30 years. That final one came up in 1997. So about a year beforehand, we started campaigning to support that professor’s lawsuit.
Around 1996, Randy Enomoto was NAJC President and he was proposing that the Japanese and Chinese communities should get together to discuss common problems, common issues. We were looking for common issues that could be discussed together. For example, seniors care for ethnic elders could be one of the issues, that kind of thing. So at that time I became interested in the text book issue, Japanese responsibility for the war, especially regarding Asian people. I thought that unless we brought up those issues, discussed with the Chinese people, our dialogue would be useless. So I said that to Randy and he said, okay, let’s deal with it. So that was the beginning of the textbook campaign. And then I contacted the Japanese support group and got information. So eventually we started a signature-collecting campaign, and we collected quite a few signatures. 11,000 signatures were collected and the Japanese support group was surprised, they never expected that many signatures could be obtained outside of Japan. Most signatures were collected by Chinese Canadians. So we have always had some kind of connection with Japanese peace movement, human rights movement. And that’s still going on.
Did you feel there was an obligation on the part of Japanese because they had achieved redress that they then turn their focus to helping other minority groups?
Yes, well, I think simply stated, when Redress was achieved, especially at the last stage, many other people, including ethnic groups, First Nation people, some rights activists and so on, helped us, right? And so it was natural, I thought, to help them. That’s the feeling I had. And some other Japanese Canadians must have felt the same way.
So in terms of what you said earlier about, you know, connecting with the Chinese community, there are still some bad feelings on the part of the Chinese community towards the Japanese because of what happened during the war. Did you feel that getting involved in these issues, like the comfort women campaign and textbook campaign, was that a way, do you think, of bringing the communities together?
Yes. I think it’s a reconciliation process. I think at least we show some understanding, and working on the issue, together, would be helpful, I think, for the understanding between our two communities. But that’s again, my feeling. But it’s not always easy, because lots of Japanese people feel uneasy with old issues, because they’re connected to criticism of Japan’s past. So some people, even though they’re otherwise fairly open minded, they just refuse to get involved in, for example, the comfort women issue.
Why do you think that is? Do you think it’s something to do with the Japanese psyche, or is it the way they were brought up, or . . .?
I think probably many Japanese people weren’t exposed to the issues of nationalism, or their idea of what it means to be Japanese and what Japan is, because after all, Japan is an insular country, even though nowadays people are going abroad, and there’s foreign information coming in. But still, a lot of people believe that Japan is a homogenous country, and they have their own unique history . . . that kind of belief is engrained in their minds, I think. So it’s just not so easy to be critical of Japan’s past. But I think we are not bashing Japan. Looking at the past from a critical viewpoint is not meant to criticize Japan itself. It’s not anti-Japanese. But without dealing with the past properly, you can’t really establish your international standing. That’s the feeling I have, and many, many progressive people have the same viewpoint. That’s why in Japan they have a movement as well to support those people, not only comfort women, but there were many people used as forced labour in Japan during the war, and compensation for those people is still an unresolved issue.
It seems to me that Germany, after the war, had a much different response to what it did during the war. Germany, from my limited understanding, seemed to take a real hard look at itself and its actions during the war and seemed to take steps to try and make redress for their actions. Japan seems to have had a different response.
Yes, I think so. Of course the situation in Germany is very complicated, but as you mention, political leadership in Germany was quite open to trying to overcome the past wrongs, and to overcome that kind of burden by for example apologizing to Jewish people and neighbouring countries, and make arrangement for compensation and so on. I didn’t really study how that difference came about, but one thing I noticed was that in Germany, they are trying to identify themselves as different from Nazi Germany, Hitler’s regime. To be a leader in post-war Germany, they have to claim that they weren’t Nazi supporters or they are totally different from the Nazis. In the Japanese case, that kind of distance or divorce from the recent past has never been so clear-cut. For example, Prime Minster Kiishi, who was Prime Minister around 1960, was one of the minsters in the Tojo cabinet when the Asia Pacific War started, so the elite somehow survived. He could have been charged as a war criminal. So that kind of distinction from the past or divorce from the past has never been so clear in Japan. That’s to do with the uniqueness of the Japanese feeling of national identity, I think.
There’s been some strong resistance from the community to some of the work that you’ve done, especially around Japan’s responsibility for the comfort women and those particular issues. I used the word passion before, because you seemed very determined in the face of, I think, non-support within the community to keep pursuing these issues, so I’m just curious why.
Well, of course I know that some people have some objections, but I don’t expect everybody to agree. I do what I need to, what I think is proper, and yes, the comfort women issue is really a tough one because the Japanese government including embassies is involved in campaigning to promote government position, but its position is quite different from international understanding. What can you do? You know, people don’t like it, but still I don’t need to shut up.
Well, it feels like you’ve always followed your own conscience.
Yes. And, there’s a joke, because I was working with the Chinese people on these issues, and then I told Diane, I lost a lot of Japanese friends, and Diane said, but the Chinese have a much bigger population . . . (laughs)
You’ve written a book on the “deportation” of Japanese Canadians. Was that published?
In Japanese, yes. And now, we’re working on the English translation. The manuscript is almost finished and we’re now working on finding a publisher, we’re not sure. I thought that it should be translated professionally, so I asked some nissei professional translator to translate it. Actually we worked on it together, you know, almost line by line, and so the English version became quite different from a straight translation of the Japanese version, but anyways, so far we have not found a publisher. So I don’t know when it will be published.
I understand this book came out of your experience working for the Redress implementation program when you were travelling to Japan to seek out people that had been repatriated, is that right?
What happened was that after the Redress settlement, major centres had a Redress Implementation office, and I was appointed as the coordinator for western Canada of the Redress Imprementation Program, which was mostly BC, and among coordinators I was the only one who was comfortable communicating in Japanese. We knew that in Japan there were people who were eligible for redress, so I started corresponding with Japanese Canadians there, and I recommended to the Government Redress office that we do something. So that developed into a delegation, an NAJC and government delegation, visiting Japan for ten days or so, about eleven months after the Redress settlement. Before, during, and after the visit I contacted quite a few people by correspondence and in person who went to Japan in 1946 and stayed. There was another group, who went to Japan in 1946, but after several years came back to Canada. Actually probably more than half of them came back. I already knew several interesting people, like Irene Tsuyuki and Mary Seki. So there were the two very distinct groups. And I thought that to compare their experiences would be quite interesting as well.
For those people who had left in 1946 and remained in Japan, did the Redress settlement mean anything to them, or were they so far removed by that point that it was meaningless?
Well, I think they were very pleased. Someone told me that the amount of money they got was not much from Japanese point of view because at that time the Japanese economy was very prosperous. But the recognition for past injustice and the fact that the Canadian government sent people to look for them and apologize, they appreciated it very much. Until then, a lot of people had an unsettled feeling about their war time experience and “deportation.” But one of them said that for him, finally the war was over. So that kind of relief or healing happened during that visit. So you couldn’t really say that they were not interested in it, because for them it’s very unusual, a rare thing, that the Canadian government was sending a delegation to meet them. So without much effort or publicity, I’m sure that most people there knew that we were coming to visit.
Most of these people would have been kids when they were “repatriated”?
Mostly they were in their teens. Some of them did not like to go to Japan as a foreign land, but they were too young to live in Canada independently so that they had to go along with their parents and siblings.
You yourself immigrated to Canada with your family from Japan. You were involved with creating the immigrant association but then there’s this whole other side of the community, the sansei and the nisei here—the Canadian born Nikkei. Did you feel comfortable in that environment or did it some time to get used to?
Well, when I joined the JCCA board in 1978 or so, I thought that most people were very different and strange, hard to understand, so it took about two years, more or less, to follow what they were saying and so on. At that time the board was issei, nisei, sansei, that’s three generations. I wondered about the sansei, well, I didn’t find so much difficulty understanding them, even though they were quite different from Japanese of the same generation, very Canadianized . . .
It’s interesting to me that there were people like you and Takeo and Michiko, the new immigrants, and then there were people like Naomi Shikaze, Ken Shikaze, Rick Shiomi,. There was a culture gap, but there also seemed to be an alliance between the two groups.
Yes. I think the main thing was that even though our backgrounds were quite different, it was nice and good to work together on the same things, like Tonari Gumi or the Powell Street Festival. Even though we were different, we were not so different that we couldn’t work together on the same cause. Another good example is the JCCA Human Rights Committee. Over a decade and a half members of the committee always consist of nisei, sansei and postwar immigrants. Difference in our experience and expertise becomes a complementary factor for learning from each other rather than a source of friction.
Now of course there’s a whole new generation of immigrants coming from Japan. There seems to be this real divide between the Canadian born and the Japanese born. People sometimes talk about that, about how to bring them together. Are you involved at all with the new immigrants, the ones who came post-Redress?
Not too many. The face of Japanese immigrants has changed quite a bit. Until the 1980s , it was typically young working male immigrants with skills who came, but in the 1980s, not many people came. I was working at MOSAIC and I was wondering if they would get more immigrants coming. And then around that time I noticed that there was a half-forgotten provision for retired immigrants in the Immigration Regulations. I found that if you were intending to retire in Canada, you could immigrate very easily. So, I wrote that information in a Japanese publication. It was for a semi-government immigration agency, so it had a small circulation among Japanese. But one of the major newspapers picked it up and they mentioned it in a column. So that sparked an interest among Japanese, and the agency got a few hundred phone calls of inquiry. That was just around the time that the Japanese cost of living was very high and overseas, in the Philippines or Spain people could live cheaper when they retired. So because of that article, interest among retirees was generated, and until around 1990, I don’t know how many came, but in Vancouver, at least a few hundred people came. I lost contact but they still maintain their own group. And that was until 1990 when the government finally realized that it probably wasn’t a very useful immigration policy, so they struck it out.
And going back to your question about newer immigrants, after the 1990s, from around that time on, young women sponsored by non Japanese men began arriving. It seems to me that is the majority of immigrants these days. I am no longer in immigrant services so I don’t know what kind of problems or needs they have, but in the 1990s, there were group activities, and they met four to six times a year, they dealt with various topics relating to intermarriage. Then I think some people who were active in the organization moved away so that group finished. But recently there are some people who are interested in reviving it, so actually in December we are going to have a first meeting regarding intermarriage. Japanese intermarriage could include different categories, like Canadian-born sansei with non-Japanese partners, etc., but to begin with we want to focus on Japanese women, Japanese speaking women, who are isolated and need a place to meet and discuss their own problems. And I think one of the issues which will soon arise is how to deal with divorce or separation. Because once you are married, having children or common assets, there are all sorts of procedures that you have to deal with.
Do you still feel Japanese or do you feel Canadian?
Yes, that’s a good question. I . . . it is hard to say. Just yesterday I thought you might ask that question. And I was wondering . . . who are your friends? What kind of newspaper are you reading? You know, that kind of thing gives you an identity. So I . . . now I am a stateless! (laughs) Neither Japanese nor Canadian. I enjoy visiting Japan, but at the same time I don’t think I can live there permanently. Canada, well, I think, I don’t mind living here, more quietly, maybe not too much involved in the community. I left MOSAIC over 15 years ago, but it seems that I am always too busy and there are lots of things I want to do, not important things, but like repairing furniture or painting the house, those type of things, always those kind of things are neglected. So I really want to retire. I recall you interviewed Mits Hayashi and he was talking about having a second retirement. (laughs)
You have been involved in the Nikkei community for many years. How would you sum up the experience?
Well, I think that overall, getting to know and working with Japanese Canadians has been a learning experience, but has also been very beneficial for me. Most of them have been very kind and understanding. Because for example I heard that some immigrant person was talking about Redress, and Japanese Canadians gave him a difficult time saying, oh, you had nothing to do with it. But I never had that kind of thing said to me, even though I was deeply involved. That type of attitude was never shown by anybody, so that was very good. And I did help them quite a bit, in a way. Like, you know, communication with issei was important. Take-san and myself, we helped get the issei involved.
Finally, I understand that you once played the role of Ultraman, the Japanese TV character.
(laughs) Oh yeah, when our kids were still small, they were attending the Gladstone Japanese Language School and the parents were supposed to do something to entertain kids, so I think I became Ultraman with mask and costume, homemade. Take-San got to be Superman. So I got to play Ultraman.