CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 20 . . . . January 27, 2012
Imagine being born in Vancouver, BC, and growing up doing things like playing tennis and grass hockey, going to Girl Guides and hanging out with three other 12 year old girls who are such good friends that the four of you have been dubbed the Three Musketeers and d’Artagnan. Imagine being part of a large family that is a hive of activity and industry. Among other things, your older brothers taught you how to play tennis; your whole family loves baseball and your brothers play it; your parents and older brothers all have jobs; your older sisters, who are in grades 11 and 12, have summer jobs, and you are about to finish grade 7 and take on your first real summer job so you can pay for your own first bike.
Then imagine that the members of your family lose their employment through no fault of their own; next, a curfew is imposed that makes it almost impossible for you to continue doing activities with your friends; then you, and every student living on the west coast of British Columbia who is the same racial descent as you, are forbidden to continue going to school; and while all this is happening, one by one, the members of other families you know, and your family, are being sent away. Imagine that your beloved grandfather who was sent away dies in exile, alone.
All this happens because a people half a world away, a people who look like you and from whom you are descended, decided to make war on Hong Kong, Southeast Asia, Australia, and the United States. And, as if that weren’t enough, imagine that soon after Japan makes war on the United States, your family and all of the other Japanese Canadians who live on the west coast of Canada are forced to give up most of their belongings, leave their homes, and move to remote ghost towns somewhere in the interior of BC where you will be crowded into tents and cabins with no indoor running water or plumbing, very little space, and no insulation or adequate heat to protect you from the sub zero temperatures of winter.
For those of us who have never experienced anything like this, it is almost impossible to imagine such things happening. For those who lived it, it was impossible to imagine it would happen to them in British Columbia, Canada, in 1941. But it did. The “About the Author” section in Susan Aihoshi’s first book, Torn Apart, The Internment Diary of Mary Kobayashi, tells readers that the book is based on the experiences of her Japanese Canadian parents and grandparents who lived and worked in Vancouver, BC, before World War II began, and who, along with thousands of other Japanese Canadians, were displaced to ghost towns in BC’s interior following the Imperial Japanese Navy’s attack on Pearl Harbor on the morning of December 7, 1941. Though the protagonist is a fictional character, readers can see the influences of that family story throughout the book.
When the story opens, Mary Kobayashi’s large family is well entrenched in the society of pre World War II Vancouver. Her grandfather (Geechan) has been living in Vancouver for 25 years along with her parents, who are both naturalized Canadians. Mary and her five siblings were all born in Vancouver. While her grandfather and parents can still speak and write Japanese, Mary can’t since, to her delight, she was allowed to stop attending Japanese school after regular school when she was in grade four. And even Geechan speaks mainly English at home.
There are reminders of Mary’s heritage when her family celebrates small Japanese ceremonies, such as Girl’s Day and Boy’s Day, and their work ethic is similar to that of many immigrant families. Both her parents work—her mother has two jobs; her two older brothers both work and help with family expenses, her two older sisters both have summer jobs, and Mary, herself, who is the second youngest child, is excited that she will be allowed to go berry picking that summer and thus be able to pay for her own first bike. But Mary’s life is that of any girl who lives in a middle class Canadian family.
She likes school all right and does well both academically and in sports; she loves to read, but what she enjoys most is being with her three best friends, Maggie, Sachiko (Sachi) and Ellen. The four girls live by the Musketeer slogan: “All for one and one for all,” and their support and friendship has never recognized any differences in their colour or race. In fact, such differences have never occurred to them. In their own right, they are a micro United Nations, with Mary and Sachi being of Japanese descent, Ellen Swiss, and Maggie a Caucasian whose ethnic origin readers don’t learn.
However, in BC in 1941, there are serious restrictions on Japanese Canadians because of their race. Those older than 16 must carry registration cards that have their picture, signature, and thumb print on them; Japanese Canadian persons, no matter whether they own property, are naturalized citizens, or were born in Canada, cannot vote. Nor can they aspire to certain professions. They cannot hold public office, become lawyers, pharmacists, architects, chartered accountants or teachers. To practice in British Columbia, Japanese dentists and doctors must obtain degrees from elsewhere in Canada, the U.S. or Japan, but still cannot work in BC hospitals.
And when Japan decides to make war, things in B.C. get much worse for Japanese Canadians.
The indefensible injustices perpetrated on an entire minority population—on Mary’s family’s friends and on Mary’s family—by a government and governing bodies that could not separate fact from fear is an important story. Details of that story, as Aihoshi reveals them through the first and middle sections of the book, are appalling. In places, such as the May 15 and July 29 entries in Mary’s diary, this reader was moved to fury, and tears.
As Aihoshi has Mary tell her story, young readers will readily identify with the 12 year old’s life before Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. The details of her activities, her trials and triumphs, school, and life in a big family before the bombing spins it onto a different plane, are authentic. And some of Mary’s thoughts about her younger brother and oldest sister will bring eye rolling recognition from readers who have siblings. It’s sometimes quite trying being the second youngest in a family of six kids.
That said, when the family is moved to New Denver, the conditions described might have young readers shaking their heads, but they may find this part of Mary’s life much more difficult to identify with. There is more telling than showing in the latter part of the book, and the writer does not explore the relationships of the inhabitants and their reactions to their situation to a depth that will transport young readers to this new place and really allow them to grasp the pain and the hardships that were endured by the people forced to leave their belongings and their homes and live there.
Even though readers have been told the saying “It cannot be helped” is part of the Japanese culture of acceptance, and Mary keeps telling herself she must live by the Girl Guide rule of smiling through adversity, there would surely be some strife between people in the horrid situation they found themselves in, and more between these people and the government who treated them thus.
The most compelling parts of the book are towards the middle, where details of the unjust treatment of the Japanese are revealed through life situations, and that reality is intensified when the crisis escalates unfair treatment to outright criminal treatment for Mary’s friends and family. I cheered when reading that the Japanese men forced to work in the mountains were rebelling. Indeed, the internment, itself, though the title indicates it is the core story of the book, seems anticlimactic.
When I began reading Torn Apart, I felt as if I had read the story before. As I continued to read, I found myself getting more and more impatient with the formulaic unfolding of the plot, from the opening of “It’s my twelfth birthday!” and the listing of Mary’s gifts to explain why the story was going to be in diary form and introduce her family, to matters such as the disappearance and death of Geechan, Mary’s youngest brother, Harry’s, illness, and her father’s disappearance. The disappearance of Mary’s father does not feel credible because all along readers have been told what happened to other fathers and brothers who were sent away, even Mary’s friend’s brother who was sent to a Prisoner of War camp in Ontario—where targets were painted on the backs of the prisoners’ shirts—because he refused to go to a work camp when he was ordered to. In the end, the way the plot has unfolded makes the ending predictable. There are no surprises in store.
The 13 black and white illustrations will serve to give students some historic reference, with the NOTICE TO ALL JAPANESE PERSONS AND PERSONS OF JAPANESE RACIAL ORIGIN, the Game YELLOW PERIL, and the picture of the seized fishing boats perhaps being the most telling. The photograph of the family on page 199, with the caption concerning the unsuitable clothing worn by evacuees, would have been more telling if there had been another showing the conditions they faced in winter.
The “Historic Note” reiterates and somewhat expands what the reader has learned in the story itself. Along the way, these details have served to deepen the story and to enlighten the reader as to just how atrocious and unfair the treatment of Japanese Candians in BC was, both before and during World War II.
Jocelyn Reekie is a writer, editor and publisher in Campbell River, BC.
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