Sunday 25 October 2020

Listening to the Ethnic Japanese Internees - While We Still Can

Time seems to go by very quickly when you are old.  I am very surprised to note that it is more than three years since I wrote a blog about my friend, Joyce Hirasawa, and the anger that she was still expressing because in 1942, when she was fifteen years old, she and her family were uprooted from their home on the coast of British Columbia and moved first to Hastings Park in Vancouver and then to New Denver in the interior, with all the family's worldly goods having been confiscated.  She is angry and she makes it clear, with good reason, that she still feels that Canada has not done enough to redress the wrongs that were done at that time.  The United States, the country we originally seem to have been trying to mimic, has done a much better job.

When I first wrote that piece I wrote it largely out of guilt because of my own lack of knowledge before talking to her.  I have since learned that the story is not uncommon in this retirement home, occupied as it is with nonagenarians.  There are other people with Japanese ancestry who can tell similar stories and I sense that they want to get them out before it is too late for the rest of us to hear them first-hand.  I have chosen to talk to two of them.

The first is Jean Tokiwa, an only child who was uprooted at the age of ten and moved with her parents to Hastings Park, a staging facility in Vancouver.  The corner store that her parents had been running, which was a social centre of her life, had been ripped away from the family.  They were sent to Hastings Park with merely the clothes on their back as everything that they owned was claimed by white citizens.  She was allowed to bring her cat, the saving grace for a ten-year-old girl.

In the summer of 1942 they were sent toTashme, one of the larger internment camps near the town of Hope, BC.  She was one of more than 2600 internees in Tashme.  The adults constructed small tarpaper shacks with lumber from the surrounding forests.  The identical shacks were about 14 x 24' and, as interior doors were not permitted, curtains provided privacy.  Kerosene lamps were the only source of indoor light, there was no indoor plumbing, and the privy was shared with three other families.

Perhaps because of her age, five years younger than Joyce, Jean no longer concerns herrself with what her family went through.  Communal "teachers" taught her and they taught her so well that they set an example for her to become a teacher herself.  She eventually ended up as a grade 2 teacher in Hamilton.  She married a lawyer and they raised three boys who are all now professionals – one an accountant, another a veterinarian, and the third genealogist.

At eighty-nine, Jean seems on the surface to be a very happy contented lady.  She certainly tries to let us believe that.  Unfortunately, however, she clearly has been scarred. For more than a year I had the honour to be sitting with her for dinner in the dining room at our retirement residence.  I don't think it is an exaggeration to say that while we had pleasant conversations, the four years she spent in Tashme was raised at 99% of the meals.  She would tell us about the happy times in Vancouver and then say about the internment "I wonder why they did that to us?"  After a few meals, apologizing on behalf of white people seemed to become redundant.

I am no psychologist but it is clear that the trauma facing this young girl permanently etched itself on her for the rest of her life even right up until today.  In those days, there were no facilities for treating post traumatic stress.

The second person I chose to it interview is my new neighbour, Stony Nakano.  Now, remember, when the internment occurred, Jean was a happy-go-lucky ten and Joyce, with good reason, became an angry fifteen-year-old.  Stony turned twenty-one on March 29th, 1942.  He had been spending his early adult life working on his father's farm.  The family was very close and the need for his work was overwhelming.  Yet, as a strapping young man, he yearned to move out and see the outside world.

In retrospect, he sees the internment as an opportunity he welcomed in order to escape from home.  All young people have such yearnings and he was no exception.  He was sent to a camp along with 500 other young men to build a highway between Revelstoke and Sicamous, 44.5 miles of what was to become part of the TransCanada Highway.  Documents indicate that there was low morale, harsh work conditions and bouts of dysentery, and work stoppages to protest the pay of twenty cents a day.

Stony is now a very happy man.  He is ninety-nine years old, has all his wits about him including an immaculate memory, and can walk without assistance.  After spending some time in Lethbridge he married and settled down in Hamilton, eventually working at the White Motor Company.  In 2012, he returned and visited many of the places where he had lived out west, including the gravesites of his parents.  In 2018, at the age of ninety-seven, he returned to his campsite at Griffin Lake where a plaque was being unveiled to commemorate the road crews.  He was a guest speaker.  Now he has all kinds of children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who celebrate his presence on earth.

Needless to say, despite quoting documents to him, I could not get Stony to say anything negative about the internment.

So where can we go with the story?  I think a lot has to do with the age of the young people when they were faced with the problem and where they were in the course of their lives.  Don't get me wrong.. I feel badly for Joyce and Jean but this particular essay does not leave me on the high horse, where I expected to be, with more evidence to back up a demand for more justice.

I guess that is just the way life is.

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