Two Sides of the Pacific: Two Sides of the Coin
by George Sadao Kawabata
The following submission was sent by George Sadao Kawabata, a nisei living in Japan.
The writer/storyteller George Sadao Kawabata (hereinafter partially referred to in the third person) is the holder of dual citizenships – Canadian and Japanese – as his two first names suggests. As to the former, he intentionally did not renounce the legal rights of his Canadian citizenship at the milestone age of 20. That occasion was ten years after having repatriated to his parents’ homeland Japan in 1946 at the end of WWII. This “two-sided coin” privilege subsequently proved to be his habitual way of dealing with various incidents that occurred until a certain stage of his colourful life, lived in two countries across the Pacific from each other.
As an aside to my main story, let me provide a brief glimpse into present-day Japan, which will commemorate this year the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two. While according to the western calendar it is the year 2020 AD, the second decade of the 21st century, Japan with her peculiar history dating back to 2600 BC, last year ushered in the Reiwa Era. Reiwa translates as “beautiful harmony.” Leaving aside the corona virus pandemic that is without a foreseeable end, it marks the beginning of the symbolic reign of the current Emperor Naruhito, age 60. He is the 126th Emperor to have ascended to the traditionally honourable royal throne in Japan.
Getting back to the main point, this is the life story of Sadao, who has experienced life on two sides of the Pacific Ocean, or, in the words of Mr. Yusuke Tanaka, a “trans-Pacific voyage”. Mr. Tanaka is a notable Toronto-based professional writer and columnist who published several articles based on interviews with Sadao. The two-part articles, titled “Trans-Pacific Voyage: Kawabata Family’s 125 years”, were published in 2016 in The Bulletin/Geppo (in Japanese) and in 2017 in Nikkei Images (in English). The articles focused primarily on Sadao’s father Teiichi, with Sadao as a secondary figure in the story, both having experienced the shame of having to live in prison camps and internment camps, respectively. Having been identified as an enemy alien by the Canadian government even though they were Canadian citizens, they were kept in detention for a long four-and-a-half years.
One reason for Sadao being chosen as a suitable interviewee was because of his status as a rare survivor out of the 3,964 Japanese Canadian repatriates or, as the Canadian government called them, evacuees, sent “back” to war-torn Japan in 1946. The intention behind this new story is to share details from the writer’s 84 years of life – a up-and-down “roller-coaster” adventure. How did he, with stubborn determination, survive so many hardships, including narrowly escaping death three times? The adventures that follow are thanks to his “two-sided-coin” tactical measures, if not “double-standard” behaviour.
Whatever else he experienced in his life, perhaps Sadao’s greatest suffering came from the feelings of shame and prejudice during his ordeal at the internment camp at Slocan. The turning point in his life came with Mr. Tanaka’s interview. That’s when Sadao broke his years of silence to discuss his past experiences centred on life in Slocan. This taboo to not disclose this part of their past life was shared by many issei and nisei, including Sadao himself. The opportunity provided by the interview helped to relieve him of the burden of the trauma suffered during those impressionable early years of life that Sadao characterised as an inferiority complex – thus doing away with his “two-sided-coin” double standards.
At this point, he has to frankly confess and admit to what created his inferiority complex and how it may have affected his actions. First, needless to say, was the racial prejudice and treatment experienced during his childhood days in Vancouver when Japanese Nikkei were scorned as “Japs.” When WWII broke out in 1941, Japanese Canadians were all herded off like animals to the so-called internment/concentration camps where they endured prisoner-like detention life for four-plus years. Among Sadao’s school mates in the internment camps were well-known Japanese Canadians like Joy Kogawa and David Suzuki. Japanese Canadians were all victimized by the governmental order declaring “No Japs from the Rockies to the sea”!
The term “two-sided coin” that has become Sadao’s trademark comes from the situation that he had to endure and fight upon returning to Japan as well. He found that he was not welcome by the local Japanese community in his mother Sei’s home village. The correct term may be that the repatriated Sadao was “bullied around”. He was insulted and teased by other children surrounding him and yelling at him, “Yankee go home!”
What a difficult life he had to endure, even upon his return to Japan at the innocent and naive age of 11. He was treated as an ousted criminal from an enemy country, Canada, that was mistaken for America. Surrendering to such unfriendly treatment, Sadao escaped by not attending an unfamiliar Japanese school and instead finding refuge at a nearby US Army Occupation Camp. Because he was still a naive kid of 11 years old, with the language and customs barriers, Sadao was treated like a stranger.
The US Army Occupation Camp is where Sadao experienced his third near-death incidence. At age 11, without thinking, he hopped into a parked army jeep and drove at a high speed through the camp premises. He was saved by a passing GI soldier from a serious crash or even death. Two previous near-death incidents were a serious head injury from a fall at the age of six at the Hastings Park “horse barn refuge” centre in Vancouver, where Japanese Canadians were temporarily housed before being transported to the internment camps; and almost being washed overboard into the Pacific Ocean by huge waves while playing recklessly on the deck of the battleship Marine Angel midway on the voyage to Japan. This was in 1946, with 668 Nikkei repatriates on board the ship. Only by a miracle did he survive.
Taking into account other repatriation ships, there were 1,321 boys and girls under the age of 16 years. Sadao was one of them, now still alive at the ripe age of 84. Together, Sadao and his father Teiichi lived through five Japanese eras – Meiji, Taisho, Showa, Heisei and the present era, Reiwa. Teiichi’s life encompassed the first three and Sadao the latter three. Reiwa, “Beautiful Harmony”, might in a sense be signifying the end of Sadao’s life that was filled with difficulties. May his remaining years be God-blessed, glorified ones.
As noted, the “Trans-Pacific Voyage” to Japan made it possible for Sadao to regain a more positive self-image after suffering from an “inferiority complex” during his lifetime. The resetting of Sadao’s delicate psychological state is also a result of finding a peaceful livelihood here in the nature-blessed northern Japanese island of Hokkaido. The reborn Sadao resides in the land where people co-exist with its native inhabitants, Hokkaido’s Ainu. These original inhabitants correspond to groups like the Cree in Canada, which has many similarities to Hokkaido.
To wind up his life story, written with a great sense of pride, trying not to use the name George in line with efforts to singularize his personality as well, here’s a final thought about the history of Hokkaido he found a reborn life. While the population of Ainu numbered 40,000 in surveys done some 100 years ago, the Cree in Canada are understood to number 800,000. Another historical point, with similarities between the two region/countries, is that the naming of Hokkaido from the original Ezo-chi or Emishi was officially made in 1869, 151 years ago. Canada celebrated her 150th anniversary of becoming a British Commonwealth nation in 2018.
As his final closing remarks, it should be emphasized that the Pacific Ocean is indeed not a partition but an efficient geographic link between Japan and Canada, as well as the United States where the writer, Sadao, still has immediate family members living peacefully with great pride as Japanese Americans. Overriding political barriers, Sadao sends from across the ocean, best wishes to you all on behalf of the not-so-many rare, patriotic Japanese Canadians active as ever after repatriation in 1946, 74 years ago, or should we say three quarters of a century!
Editor’s note: George Sadao Kawabata is relocating to Tokyo, in his words, “crossing this time the Tsugaru Strait south-eastward to Tokyo to challenge a new last experience rich remaining chapter of life.” In a note to Bulletin readers, he adds, “nothing more would be appreciated than the understanding and encouragement from Japanese ancestral-oriented community. Your wonderful, nature-blessed peaceful Canada is indeed hoped to successfully attain the final goal of being proudly called the nation of “racial melting pot.”