We Went to War [Excerpt]
War clouds loomed ominously over the Pacific in November 1941 as the Japanese Canadian Citizens League held its fifth annual conference in Victoria. Obata wrote to the editor of The New Canadian urging the Nisei to move to Ontario, where “war industries are crying out for help . . . Spend the dollars involved in conferences in train fare for ambitious Nisei. Let’s have some action for a change before it’s too late!”
On Sunday morning, December 7, when Obata came down for breakfast in his boarding house on Brunswick Avenue, news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor came over the radio. There was a stunned silence around the table and all eyes came to rest on Obata. It was an uneasy moment, but Obata met no real animosity at the boarding house, nor at his place of work, although there were the inevitable few who made sly insinuations. Obata continued his work at Cansfield Electric in relative harmony.
When the evacuees started to arrive in Toronto, Obata helped many of them to get settled. He was instrumental in organizing the Japanese Canadian Committee for Democracy, which fought threats of deportation of all persons of Japanese origin. The JCCD urged the government to accept the Nisei for service in the army as a demonstration of their loyalty. The Nisei were willing to fight with other Canadians against Japan, if necessary.
In January 1945, when the Canadian government finally agreed to take a limited number into the Army for service with Australian, British, and Canadian armies as linguists, the JCCD held a meeting in the Church of All Nations on Queen Street in Toronto to urge Nisei to enlist now that the opportunity had finally arrived. It was a crowded, noisy meeting, and one that had its ugly moments. Eiji Yatabe was in the chair. Obata, as a member of the executive, spoke from the platform urging enlistment. “If we do our duty as citizens, we will get our rights,” he argued. Each member of the executive followed Obata, supporting enlistment and stating their reasons. Many in the audience had friends in the Angler Internment Camp. Some at Angler had resisted evacuation because they did not want to be separated from their families. Others had merely broken the curfew law; one had punched an RCMP constable in a moment of anger and had been imprisoned without trial. All had been accused of disloyalty. Many in the hall had tried to enlist earlier, but had been curtly refused. They had suffered persecution and loss of home, property, employment, and personal freedom. Some groups in British Columbia were shrilly calling for their deportation to Japan. The government’s call on the Nisei to volunteer was just another slap in the face.
Yatabe, Obata, and George Tanaka were accused of encouraging the younger ones to enlist when, as older men, they had no such intention themselves. They were threatened with violence if they were to appear in the relocation towns of British Columbia encouraging enlistment. The JCCD executive was called upon to resign. It was a meeting when all the bitterness of the Nisei exploded in anger.
The entire JCCD executive, except for Kinzie Tanaka, who was Japan-born, enlisted. Obata’s mother, alone since her husband’s death in 1937, couldn’t understand why Roger was leaving his good position with Cansfield Electric, where he was manager of a division. But Obata and the others who enlisted with him were convinced they had to do their share as Canadians.
On April 25 the first group of thirty men destined for Australia left the Toronto depot for basic training at No. 20 Canadian infantry (Basic) Training Centre at Brantford. Prior to their departure, a reception was held on the 19th for the newly enlisted men. Representing the Metropolitan Issei Bible Class, Mrs. Kane Tanaka expressed her good wishes to the young men. She spoke in Japanese in a clear, firm voice, but her hands were shaking with emotion. On behalf of the older generation, she wished the Nisei soldiers well in the days to come and said that prayers would be with them. Some of her remarks were for the Issei, the parents of the volunteers. She sympathized with the mothers sending their sons to fight in a war against the land of their birth. No matter how right the decision, it was a difficult one to make. She fully understood, because soon her son, George, would be enlisting. There was more than one mother softly weeping as Mrs. Tanaka spoke.
From We Went to War, 1984
By Roy Ito