CM . . . . Volume XVIII Number 35 . . . . May 11, 2012
Japanese Canadian Interment in the Second World War. (Righting Canada’s Wrongs).
Pamela Hickman & Masako Fukawa.
Toronto, ON: James Lorimer, 2012.
160 pp., hardcover, $34.95.
Japanese Canadians-Evacuation and relocation, 1942-1945-Juvenile literature.
World War, 1939-1945-Japanese Canadians-Juvenile literature.
World War, 1939-1945-Prisoners and prisons, Canadian-Juvenile literature.
Japanese Canadians-History-20th century-Juvenile literature.
Grades 9 and up / Ages 14 and up.
Review by Joanne Peters.
Beginning in the late 1870s, thousands of Japanese people came to Canada seeking a better future for themselves and their families. They fished, farmed, worked in lumber mills, and opened businesses. Despite widespread anti-Asian feelings in British Columbia, many of these immigrants prospered and raised new generations of Japanese Canadians. But their lives were turned upside down on December 7, 1941, when Canada declared war on Japan following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor.
Overnight, all those of Japanese origin and descent were labeled enemy aliens. In 1942, the Government of Canada ordered the evacuation of all Japanese-Canadian men, women, and children from the west coast. They were stripped of their homes, their businesses, and any possessions they could not carry. Men and boys over sixteen were sent to road camps. The elderly, women, and children were put in internment camps in the interior of BC. Some families chose to stay together and move to the prairies where they were used as cheap farm labour. A few left everything behind and headed to eastern Canada where they could start again.
The children who suffered the internment are seniors today. For more than forty years they lived with the shame that their country had turned on them, treated them like enemies, and taken away their rights – all because of their race. Finally, in 1988 the Canadian government apologized and admitted that its racist policies were wrong.
Co-authored by Pamela Hickman and Masako Fukawa (whose own family was forced to evacuate Steveston, BC, in 1942), Japanese Canadian Internment in the Second World War is the first volume in a new series entitled “Righting Canada’s Wrongs”. This is a story which is multi-generational, ranging from 1877, when the first Japanese immigrant set foot in Canada, to the present, when the sansei (third-generation Japanese-Canadians) seek to preserve their community’s heritage. Notably, the book contains the stories of five Japanese Canadians who were either children or adolescents during the years of World War II and whose lives were changed forever with the bombing of Pearl Harbor. First, the War Measures Act of 1941 labeled all people of Japanese descent as “enemy aliens”, regardless of the fact that “of the 23 000 nikke (a person of Japanese descent) in Canada at the time, over 75 per cent were Canadian citizens. . . “they had no rights to freedom, trial by jury, presumption of innocence, or other rights we take for granted today.” (72) Then, responding to racist pressure from BC political and military figures, Prime Minister Mackenzie King consented to the order which forced the evacuation of Japanese-Canadians living on the British Columbian coast. They packed up their homes, left their properties and businesses, taking with them only what they could carry. Who were these Canadian nikkei, what happened during the war years, and what was the result of this sad episode in their history?
“Coming to Canada” details the “push” and “pull” factors which made immigration to Canada an opportunity to be seized. Not until 1868 was it legal for Japanese citizens to leave their country, and 1877 marks the start date of Japanese immigration to Canada. As is the case with all immigrants, choosing to emigrate took “great courage, a sense of adventure, or a need to escape the land of one’s birth.” (10) And British Columbia was certainly a foreign society, very British and particularly unwelcoming of non-white immigrants. The chapter on “Japanese-Canadians in BC, 1900-1939” depicts both the struggles of the immigrant community to establish itself, despite overt racism, as well as its success in maintaining a strong and vibrant cultural identity.
When Canada entered the Second World War, Japanese-Canadians joined in the war effort, with school children involving themselves in projects supporting Britain and its allies, and adults buying Victory Bonds, or provisioning the Allied fighting forces. One man recalls that “my father’s fishing buddies . . . sent three-and-a-quarter tons of canned salmon to Britain in support of the Allied cause.” (67) But, young Canadian men of Japanese ancestry were “exempted” from military service, perhaps the first inkling of the loss of rights and freedoms detailed in the chapter entitled “Enemy Aliens.” Next, of course, came the government’s decision to intern Japanese-Canadians, along with forcible removal to camps in the British Columbia interior, or the “choice” of forced labour on sugar-beet farms in Alberta. It was a life of incredible difficulty, privation and injustice. Even during the war years, some nikkei spoke out against the seizure and sale of their property, and church groups, civil liberties groups and the CCF (fore-runner of the NDP) challenged the Canadian Government’s actions, but to no avail.
In 1945, with the end of the European War, the focus of Allied military effort turned to the Pacific Theatre. Suddenly, Japanese-speaking soldiers were needed as interpreters, and the British government recruited men from eastern Canada, as well as the internment camps in BC. However, even after the war, these veterans did not receive the same respect or compensations due to them. For those still in the camps, agonizing choices awaited: resettlement in locations east of the Rockies or “voluntary repatriation” to Japan, a “term [that] was misleading: many Japanese Canadians had never been to Japan, and many spoke little or no Japanese. It was deportation, not repatriation.” (124) For those whose families made the choice to leave Canada, it was even worse dislocation than the 1942 evacuation. Post-war Japan was in ruins, and those who had been labeled as “enemy aliens” in Canada were now cultural aliens in Japan: as Mary Ohara stated: “I tried very hard to fit in, but I found that I couldn’t. I was a gaijin (a foreigner) in Japan and a Canadian at heart.” (128)
For those who remained in Canada, life never did normalize. In 1949, Japanese Canadians regained two crucial rights: the right to vote, and the right to live on the BC coast, once again. But, so much had been lost, not the least of which was their sense of community. The fight for redress officially took hold in 1977, the year marking the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrant to Canada, and in 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney signed the agreement which acknowledged the wrongs done, offered monetary compensation to each individual who had suffered under the wartime policies, along with $12 million to the National Association of Japanese Canadians and $24 million earmarked to establish a Canadian Race Relations Foundation. Can any amount of money ever compensate? Perhaps not, but much has been spent on the creation of museums and memorials which tell the story of the Japanese Canadian community.
Japanese Canadian Internment in the Second World War is a phenomenal achievement. More than 300 full-colour and black and white visuals (maps, photos, document facsimiles) powerfully evoke the times they represent, the personal stories give a strong and poignant voice to those who lived the experience, and the combination of historical content and first-person accounts make this a hugely accessible work for high school students in Canadian history and human rights courses. This book has a place, both in high school libraries and as a supplementary text for social studies classrooms. The Introduction states that those who were interned “lived with the shame that their country had turned on them”. They bore this with stoicism; in the Japanese language, it is called shikataganai. These people deserve respect – those who imposed this difficult fate upon them and who profited from their misfortune are the ones who should live with shame.
Joanne Peters, a retired high school teacher-librarian, lives in Winnipeg, MB.
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