To the Editor
Dear Mr. Greenaway,
I very much enjoyed the April issue of The Bulletin in which Roy Ito was remembered. Soldier, writer, teacher, and family man, he continues to be admired for many different reasons. For me, appreciation of Roy stems from a lesser known incident in his life that I discovered while researching a book on the Asahi baseball team.
Some of The Bulletin’s older readers will remember that in the days after Pearl Harbour Vancouver was gripped by a hysteria that was unabating. Every person of Japanese origin was under suspicion and regarded as a fifth-columnist or collaborator. The Vancouver Sun and city alderman Halford Wilson, longtime adversaries of the Nikkei, were demanding the Dominion Government move the whole Japanese coastal population to camps east of the Rockies. Politicians of every stripe spoke not only of expulsion but of internment during the war and deportation to Japan afterwards. Vandalism against Japanese businesses was increasing.
Nowhere was this intolerance more apparent than in the letters to the editor section of the city’s newspapers. Here the daily display of fear and paranoia was on parade, reflecting the tenor of the times. Typical was one correspondent who wrote the Daily Province with this suggestion. “In Vancouver and in other cities and towns, Japanese should be confined to one section of the city. Mail and telephone communication should be suspended, and the area to all intents and purposes operated as an internment area, with the death penalty exercised on attempted escapes.” Frightening in its extremism, the letter was chillingly reminiscent of what was happening to the Jews in Europe under Nazi rule.
Worried about the increasing agitation, St. John’s United church organized a public meeting for Sunday evening, January 18, 1942, to consider the topic, “Canada and the Japanese.” It was advertised in the local papers together with a list of individuals who would speak. Seeing they were all non-Japanese, nineteen-year-old Roy Ito decided to attend. He felt this was an opportunity for the Japanese Canadian side to be heard and he wanted to be present to support those Nikkei from the community who would be there to make their case.
Reverend W.R. McWilliams, pastor of the New Westminster Japanese United Church, provided the keynote address. He began by outlining the events leading to Japan’s entry into the war and the troubles and causes of the present Canadian problem. He felt that only disloyal Japanese should be moved as part of the solution. Admittedly, the first generation had failed to establish personal contacts with the white people, but he believed this was untrue of the Nisei. “The second generation have no idea of being anything else but Canadians,” he said. Furthermore, he was sure that the great majority of the older generation would support Canada in the war. “It is my opinion we should not take a hostile attitude toward these people who have not given offense,” he pleaded. “Our attitude ought to be clear and strong and kind and creative.”
Despite Reverend McWilliams’ pleas, most of the audience in the packed church were unmoved. Many challenged the minister and expressed familiar anti-Japanese statements such as, “They are Japs, so send them back to Japan.” and “All Japanese are imbued with Japanese imperialism.” Sitting at the back of the church, Roy Ito felt “despair, isolation and anger” as one speaker after another urged the interment of the Japanese. He waited for a Japanese Canadian to come forward and challenge these arguments, But no one did. The meeting was almost over when Roy rose to his feet and made his way to the microphone. “It was a long walk,” he remembered, as the crowd’s unsympathetic gaze followed him every step of the way. Alone and afraid, the “slim Nisei stood before the microphone” and began to speak.
“We have our faults—we all have—but we are loyal to Canada,” he said, his voice quavering close to tears. “I would like to join the army, but they won’t let me,” he continued, referring to the refusal of recruiters to accept Japanese Canadians. He recognized that more contact with Caucasians was necessary. Yet there was the problem of discrimination. He had fished and worked in saw-mills but preferred an office job. In response, he was told by the whites to go to Japan. “I don’t want to go to Japan,” he said. “They wouldn’t trust me in Japan. In Japan they say we Nisei imitate the white people too much. You know, boogie woogie and Artie Shaw.” Roy was certain where the second generation belonged. “We’ve got our faults but Canada, it’s our country too.” He paused. The church was silent.
He began again. “I wanted to come here tonight, but nobody would come with me because they were kinda afraid.” A ripple of applause broke out in recognition of his courage, then swelled. When it stopped, he told the crowd he wasn’t afraid now. “You’re fair-minded. As I listened to Mr. McWilliams I felt like crying, because I knew he was standing up and speaking for us.”
The next day, The New Canadian offered its “salute of the week” to Roy, “a small fellow with a fighting heart that’s Canadian all the way through.” But when Roy’s father read the newspaper report and saw his son’s name he was unimpressed. “Leave that to the Nisei leaders,” he told his son tersely. He felt Roy was too young to be involved in such issues.
Shortly after Roy’s death in 1999, a friend and former colleague wrote that he was a true, courageous, and multi-talented Canadian. No one would disagree that he was all of these and more. For me, the impression of Roy Ito that remains will always be that of a young Nisei, frightened and alone, facing an unfriendly audience and bravely defending the loyalty of the Japanese Canadians. Who of us wouldn’t wish to be remembered this way?