They went to war: Japanese Canadians and the battle for acceptance
The early history of the Japanese in Canada is defined by the battle for the franchise. The attitude of the genral public towards Japanese Canadians was summoned up by one writer to the Victoria Columnist, who wrote, “We recognize the deadly menace that confronts us for eternity if we open our doors to any alien people with whom we can never assimilate, and whose unlimited presence among us can only mean our final disintegration. Therefore, we have stated emphatically our unshakable opposition to the granting of the franchise to any Japanese for any cause whatsoever.” More than one politician came to power on a platform that promised, “No Japs west of the Rockies.”
When World War One broke out, many Japanese Canadians saw enlisting as a means of proving once and for all their loyalty to their country. The government, fearing that accepting the Japanese into the armed forces would force them to give the Japanese the vote, initially refused repeated offers of young men, eager to go overseas to fight for the Allies. Desperate, members of the community went so far as to gather together a unit of volunteers—renting a hall and putting them through basic training under the guidance of a couple of sympathetic army officers, all to no avail.
Some men began heading for Alberta where several battalions were accepting willing and able bodies. Once the news got out, the floodgates were open. The Japanese volunteers went on to acquit themselves with honour and bravery, playing important roles in a number of important battles, including the Battle at Vimy Ridge. By the end of the war, 54 Japanese Canadians had died in battle, with most of the rest suffering injuries of one sort or another. 14 Japanese volunteers were decorated.
On April 9, 1920—the third anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge—the Japanese Canadian War Memorial was unveiled in Stanley Park. Built under the auspices of the Canadian Japanese Association with the approval of the Vancouver Parks Board, the cenotaph, which cost $15,000, was funded through donations by the Japanese Canadian community.
A Vancouver architect, Mr. James Benzie, was contracted to provide a design and site plan. The memorial has as its base a twelve-foot polygon of chiseled granite. A thirty-four foot column of Haddington Island white sandstone rises from the base, surmounted by a marble Japanese-style lantern, fashioned after a Japanese model. The base is divided into twelve sections on which are inscribed the names of the battles and the year in which the Japanese took part. On the pedestal that supports the column are four bronze plates. One contains the names of 54 soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice, another the names of the survivors who returned, the third a Canadian Coat-of-Arms and the remaining face is a plate bearing the Coat-of-Arms of Japan. A terra cotta roof crowns the whole structure.
The fact that the Japanese had acquitted themselves honourably on the battlefield—some sacrificing their lives—did little to gain public support for the Japanese being given the vote. In 1925, the Japanese Canadian veterans formed their own branch of the Royal Canadian Legion, Number 9, and continued to fight for the franchise. In 1931, Almost fourteen years after Vimy Ridge—after gaining the support of several influential politicians—the veterans, in a close vote, were given the franchise.
It was a bitter-sweet victory however—although they had gained the right to vote for themselves, the veterans had failed in their quest to gain that right for all Japanese Canadians.
With the outbreak of World War Two the nisei—the second generation—saw their chance to serve their country, as their fathers had done before them. A telegram was sent to Ottawa, pledging loyalty to Canada and offering the services of all Japanese Canadians. Once again, though, volunteer after volunteer was turned down for service. The political climate was, if anything, more hostile to the Japanese Canadians and Japan’s aggressive actions in Asia fueled the already fierce anti-Japanese sentiment on the coast. When three Japanese Canadians were finally allowed to join the army, it appeared that the door was opening to wholesale enlistment.
Then came the attack on Pearl Harbor and, with it, a solution to the “Japanese problem.” The light that had been burning atop the cenotaph since its unveiling was extinguished and all 22,000 Japanese Canadians, including those who had fought in the First World War, were forcibly removed from the coastal area and sent to camps in the interior of British Columbia. For the veterans, it was an especially bitter pill to swallow. Having willingly put their lives on the line for Canada, they were now rounded up as enemy aliens and shipped off in trains to eight years of exile.
From 1942 to January of 1945 the government policy remained unchanged: no persons of Japanese descent would be accepted for enlistment in the Armed Forces.
Outside of British Columbia, Japnese Canadians were being accepted into the military, and at least 30 had enlisted before Pearl Harbor. Like the issei in the previous war, they acquitted themselves with honour and bravery.
As the war in Europe wound down and the focus shifted to the war in the Pacific, the need for Japanese linguists became a priority. The British and Australian governments saw a desperate need for Japanese-English translators, and urged the Canadian government to enlist nisei. The S-20 Japanese Language School, Japanese Military Intelligence Division, Canadian Army, was formed in Vancouver and nisei were given special permission to attend the school.
A number of niseis who were already proficient in the Japanese language served in Burma, India, Australia, South-east Asia, Japan, the Pacific Military Research Section in Washington, D.C. and Canada. They were later joined by the S-20 graduates. Some niseis had enlisted before December 1941. Thirty-two served in Europe. Two niseis (not of the S-20) were killed in the service of Canada: Minoru Taisuke Tanaka, TPR, 1919-1945 and Winston Claude Mawatari, LAG, 1920-1943.
On August 3, 1985, almost 45 years after it had been extinguished, the light in the Japanese Canadian War Memorial was relit with a rededication by the guest of honour, Sgt. Masumi Mitsui, First World War veteran. The relighting was through a grant from the City of Vancouver and the Vancouver Parks Board and donations from members of Japanese Canadian community across Canada.
On November 11, 1990, another rededication ceremony commemorated the unveiling of a plaque on the occasion of the 70th Anniversary of its construction. With the generous assistance of the Vancouver Aquarium Society, the City of Vancouver, and the Vancouver Parks Board, the memorial base and surrounding area were renovated to enhance the Cenotaph.
Today, attendance at the ceremony remains high, although inevitably the number of veterans in attendance declines year after year. The world is a very different place than it was in 1920 when the cenotaph was unveiled, the freedoms and rights that the veterans fought for largely taken for granted now. Which is not to say that the world is a safer place, despite the wars that have been fought and continue to be fought around the world.
At the 2008 Remembrance Day ceremony, Ted Hayakaze attended in remembrance of his son, Trooper Michael Yuki Hayakaze, who was killed in Afghanistan on March 2, 2008 when the vehicle he was traveling in hit an Improvised Explosive Device. The incident occurred west of Kandahar city in the Mushan region, located in the District of Panjawayi, hitting a convoy driving supplies to an Afghan army outpost. Trooper Hayakaze, 25, was a member of Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians), based out of Edmonton, Alberta. He was evacuated from the scene by helicopter, but later succumbed to his injuries and was pronounced dead upon his arrival at the Multinational Medical Unit at Kandahar Airfield. Trooper Hayakaze had been scheduled to return to Canada in just a few days, after six months in the turbulent central Asian country.
In speaking to The Bulletin following the ceremony, Mr. Hayakaze spoke movingly of the loss of his son and his conflicted feelings. “I think one of the greatest tragedies in the world is for a parent to lose a child. The tragedy takes on a different meaning, though, when that child is killed while serving in the army, fighting for one’s country. Human struggle may never end while there are people benefiting from less fortunate and oppressed people in the world. It is a soldiers’ business to go to a battle, but it is citizen’s duty to remember those soldiers who died for us.”
In 2009 David Iwaasa, Executive Director of Tonari Gumi wrote in The Bulletin about his family’s experience. His mother’s uncle fought for Canada in World War One and his own father landed in Normandy during the war and fought in France, Belgium, Holland and Germany. More immediately, his son Ken is a doctor with the Canadian Armed Forces and has served with the Canadian army in Afghanistan. Writes David, “He has not had to overcome either the overt or the unspoken discrimination which my great uncle or my father had to face as they served. In many ways, he has been the beneficiary of the sacrifices which had been made by those Japanese Canadians who had struggled to serve their country. I think that my dad and my great uncle would have been pleased with the ceremony. They would have been pleased to see many Japanese Canadians of all ages in attendance along with other Canadians of many different ethnic backgrounds. They would have been pleased to know that my son, linked to them by blood, is still continuing the tradition of service to Canada. Although the scourge of war is still with us and there is still much to do to reduce the blight of racial discrimination, there has been some progress. This is something worth celebrating and remembering.”
After nearly 100 years, the cenotaph is showing its age and the Japanese Canadian War Memorial Committee, together with the Nikkei Place Foundation are raising funds to restore the Cenotaph in Stanley Park, reproduce the Japanese Canadian Legion #9 flag, and replace the plaque that dedicates the monument.
In restoring the cenetaph, we will once again fulfill the hopes of Corporal Sainosuke Kubota, a veteran of the 50th Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. On his last official function as the secretary of No 9 Legion (defunct) on September 30, 1958, he said, “It is my hope that from now on Canadians of Japanese descent will always keep the memorial clean and once a year on Armistice Day, November 11, will offer wreaths.”
This Remembrance Day, please join us at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial as we offer wreaths and remember those who served and those who gave their lives.