Surviving the Politics of Racism: A Photo Essay
This photo essay pays homage to the Japanese Canadian women, like my mother-in-law, Marion Miwa Hoshino Sunahara, who bore the brunt of the political decisions described in the Politics of Racism – decisions that ignored the devastating effect they must have on the people who had to survive their consequences.
In 1942, the lives of Japanese Canadian women were ripped apart. The experience of Marion, a Nisei born in 1912, was typical. Like many women, she first had to cope with the extreme stress and uncertainty of being abandoned in Vancouver when her husband Tamotsu, a 40-year old Issei, was shipped to a road camp near Jasper, and her Nisei brothers to the camp at Schreiber, Ontario.
Yellowhead Highway road camp #1 at Blue River, B.C. 1942. The Japanese road camps, while rough and generally healthy physically, were very unhealthy psychologically and emotionally. Fears of impoverishment and worry over the fate of their families plagued the road camp inmates and led to strikes. “You cannot forcibly separate a man from his family and expect him to be a willing worker. When these men are separated from their families they cannot help but worry about them, it would not be human otherwise. And you must realize that men cannot work with any degree of efficiency when under such mental duress”: (Kinzie Tanaka to Austin Taylor, May 26, 1942. Ian Mackenzie Papers, MG27111B5, vol.24, file 67‑28, LAC). Photo by Ando. Source: NNM 19188.8.131.52 Japanese Canadian Archives Photographic Collection.
Stress and Uncertainty
The next trial for women like Marion – who were often ignorant of their husband’s whereabouts or fate – was moving into the holding facility at Hastings Park in Vancouver. Because they did not know what fate awaited them, some women – including Marion – sat for a family portrait with their children. Copies were sent to absent husbands and other family members just in case they never saw each other again. Marina Yoshida, whose husband had been shipped out to a road camp on March 7th, 1942 wrote in Japanese on the back of her family portrait: “For remembrance of the time I am living with indescribable emotion while wishing for peaceful days to arrive as soon as possible.”
Left: Yoshida Family, April 1, 1942. From left to right: Hiroshi (aged 5), Fumie (aged 7), Murako and Tadao (aged 3). Source: NNM 2020.1.1.1.1 Marina Yoshida Collection. Right: Sunahara family, June 1942. From left to right: Miki Horita Hoshino, Reginald Yasuo Sunahara, Setsuko Joane Sunahara, Marion Hoshino Sunahara, Michiko Jane Sunahara. Source: NNM 2018.16.6.1.1 Sunahara Collection.
The Hastings Park Manning Pool was a holding pen for human beings. A fairground for agricultural exhibitions, Hastings Park was converted from animal use to human use in 7 days. Arriving still dazed from the task of reducing the accumulations of a lifetime to 150 pounds of baggage per adult and 75 pounds per child, families who still had their male members were physically separated. The women and their children under 12 were confined in the Livestock barns; the men and their teenaged sons in Building H, pending shipment of the men to a road camp. Once their fathers had been shipped to road camp, male teens over 12 were held in Building F. Males over 12 were prohibited from entering the building housing the women and children. Marion entered Hastings Park in June with three children: a girl aged 6, a boy aged 4, and a new-born baby.
Living in the Livestock barns was a degrading experience. It was a world of upset children, distraught adults, nervous tension, prying eyes and the stink of animals. There was no privacy. Muriel Kitagawa, a reporter for the New Canadian, described the conditions in April 1942:
As for the bunks, they were the most tragic things there. Steel and wooden frames with a thin lumpy straw tick, a bolster, and three army blankets... no sheets unless you bring your own. These are the "homes" of the women I saw.... These bunks were hung with sheets and blankets and clothes of every hue and variety — a regular gypsy tent of colours, age and cleanliness — all hung in a pathetic attempt at privacy…. There are ten showers for 1,500 women. (Kitagawa to Fujiwara, 20 April 1942, Muriel Kitagawa Papers, MG31E26, LAC)
There were two hospitals in Building A (the Livestock Building): a 60-bed tuberculosis ward and 180-bed general hospital, staffed largely by Japanese-Canadian doctors, nurses and aides, with wards for communicable childhood diseases, new mothers, and male and female patients. Source: NNM 19184.108.40.206 Alex Eastwood Collection. Photographer: Leonard Frank.
The “school” in Hastings Park was a make-shift classroom under the bleachers in Building L where uprooted high school students trying to complete their school year were tutored by voluntary teachers from the Vancouver school system. Source: NNM 19220.127.116.11 Alex Eastwood Collection. Photographer: Leonard Frank.
For many high school students, the uprooting threaten to abruptly end to their education. Some met that challenge by leaving BC. In 1942, eight young Nisei travelled to Alma College in St. Thomas, Ontario. The Nisei worked as domestics at the college to finance their academic studies. Left to right: Sachi Hamaguchi, Rita Kameda, Beth Omura (Mizusawa), Maude Okumura, Nikki Nakamura (Tamura), Betty Naruse (Namba), Norie (Arikado) (Kasugi), Etsuko Toguri and Sachi Oue (Takimoto). Etsuko Toguri went on to a distinguished career in medicine. Source: JCCC 2001.12.8 JCCC Original Photographic collection.
The women who avoided Hasting Park and separation from their husbands, sons and brothers paid for that privilege with hard labour in the sugar beet fields of Alberta and Manitoba, or with isolation in self-support settlements in the Interior.To avoid family separation entire Japanese communities in the Fraser Valley volunteered en masse for sugar beet work in Alberta and Manitoba or, after June 1942, for shipment directly to a camp or ghost town in the BC Interior.
Promised decent housing, a reasonable standard of living, relative freedom of movement, and placement on farms in close proximity to one another, the reality proved very different. The beet workers arrived in Alberta and Manitoba to find that they were expected to live in old, un-insulated granaries and chicken coops, to wash in and drink alkaline water from the sloughs and irrigation ditches, and to perform stoop labour far more strenuous than that to which they had been accustomed on their fruit farms in the Frazer Valley. Sometimes they also had to work for growers who regarded the B.C. Japanese as prisoners of war or slave labour, and treated them accordingly.
Interior Ghost Towns
When the Cabinet ordered the uprooting of all Japanese Canadians on February 24, 1942, it did so without considering where to put the women and children after their men were sent to road camps. BC politicians wanted them held in Hastings Park “until a more permanent solution” could be worked out. The first practical solution was to house them in five under-populated, semi-derelict remnants of BC’s silver boom — Greenwood, Slocan, New Denver, Sandon and Kaslo. Called “ghost-towns” by the uprooted Japanese Canadians, they were very much in need of rehabilitation. On arrival, the women and children were crowded into any available space, including, in one case, the local dance hall. In June 1942, Chiyo Umezaki describe the dance hall she shared with thirteen children and three other women: “Everybody who saw the place… name[s] it No. 2 Hastings Park and it is worse than Hastings Park as we have to cook our own meals in [the] same room we sleep in and we can see the people in the toilet while we cook and eat as said toilet is right at the back of our so‑called kitchen.” (Takaichi Umezaki Collection, 17-4 UBC Archives, 25 June 1942.)
Ghost town accommodation, 1942. Source: NNM 2010.23.2.4.724 Canadian Centennial Project Fonds.
After the government was forced to allow family reunification in late June 1942, the women and children in the ghost towns were joined by families being shipped directly from their Fraser Valley communities. Ken Hibi, a social worker, recalled: “A person never picked his ghost town. The United church people went to Kaslo, the Buddhists to Sandon, and the self‑supporting to Minto”. (Interview tape, NNM Sunahara Collection).
In the summer of 1942, large camps were built on rented farmland in the Slocan Valley and near Hope. Built from green wood, there were two types: small shacks, sixteen feet by sixteen feet, divided into a common room and two bedrooms; and large shacks, sixteen feet by twenty‑four feet, divided into four bedrooms and a common room. The small shacks were to house a minimum of four people; the large ones, a minimum of eight. Where families had less than the quota of four or eight members, they were expected to share with strangers.
The construction was simple and un-insulated: stud walls with one layer of green wood and a single sheet of tar paper for protection from the elements. Additional wood was supplied to the occupants to build beds, tables and benches. Since it was green wood, the furniture quickly warped, and moisture from the bed slats seeped into the mattresses. Apart from that green wood and a small stove, the inmates were to supply everything else themselves.
Marion and her children were shipped to the Slocan Valley in July 1942. They lived in a tent on the Popoff farm until allotted a cabin in the Lemon Creek Camp in September. Marion was lucky. She and her three children were assigned to one-half of a duplex of small shacks, while her Issei parents and teenaged siblings got the other half. Tamotsu did not rejoin them until the Yellowhead road camps to which the Issei had been sent were closed in November 1942.
In the summer of 1942, the Oda-Kohara family moved into their new-built shack, probably from the tent on the left. Left to right: Akihei Kohara, Toshio Oda, Chika Kohara, Yasuko Marge Kamiya, nee Kohara, Betty Kagayama, June Hubert, nee Oda, Deanna Oda, Ayako Kohara nee Yasui, Mizue Mimi Woods, nee Oda. Source: NNM 1918.104.22.168 Alex Eastwood Collection. Photographer: Leonard Frank.
The winter of 1942 was the next challenge the women faced. The intense cold penetrated their un-insulated cabins built of green wood. June Hirai Tanaka recalled: In Slocan we had this house, but there was no windows in the winter [because of the ice], and for fuel we had these ice‑covered logs we had to melt first. It wouldn't burn. It just smoked... My job all day was to get enough heat to dry mattresses for the night. That was an all‑day job.... It was just dreadful.... In order to survive, just to be able to sleep, just those basic things, you worked all day at it. (Interview tape, NNM Sunahara Collection).
The arrival of winter marked the awakening of the community spirit of the inmates. The Nisei housing coordinator at Kaslo, Katsuko Hideka Halfhide remembered:
“One of the reasons the Japanese people were able to adapt... was that they always had this tradition of working in groups.... They did this in Japan. Every little village had its council.... This was the whole background they could draw from: a great stability and a great sense of social values.... Mind you, they had their cliques. They had their divisions. Sometimes you could tear your hair out.... But underlying it all was the old tradition [of working together, tonarigumi].”(Interview tape, NNM Sunahara Collection).
In short order, committees formed within the camps to petition for increases in the relief allowance, for materials to winterize the cabins, for water systems and electricity, for the release of the interned men, for the dismissal of unsympathetic Caucasian workers, for improved recreation facilities and, perhaps most importantly, for schools for their children.
A Street in the Tashme Camp near Hope B.C. July 1943. All improvements to the housing were made by the occupants. Source: University of British Columbia Library. Rare Books and Special Collections. Japanese Canadian Research Collection. JCPC_30_013.
From the beginning, schooling was an issue. BC refused to educate Japanese Canadian children and, since education was a provincial responsibility, the federal government also refused to pay for schools. The problem was compounded by the fact that BC had banned Asians from teaching in the late 1920s. Only one woman, Hide Hyodo, had qualified as a primary school teacher before the ban.
On this issue help came from the outside. The Women's Missionary Society and the Roman Catholic, Anglican and United churches all set up stopgap schools in the camps and ghost-towns. In the spring of 1943 the federal government finally agreed to fund primary schools in the camps. High school students would have to make do with correspondence courses and the tutoring of teachers from the churches and the Women's Missionary Society.
The 1943 class of teacher trainees for the Tashme camp. Each summer volunteer teachers from the Vancouver School Board came to New Denver to train high school graduates to teach in the primary schools in the camps. Camp administrators regarded the schools as an impediment to moving young men, like those in this photo, to employment east of Alberta. Source: NNM 2001.5.1.10.1 Marie Katsuno Fonds.
Grade 4 Students of the Pine Crescent School; Bay Farm, Slocan, BC. 1945. Teacher: Mitsue Ishii (Sawada). Identified students include: Joy Kogawa (front row, far right). David Suzuki (top row, far left) and George Kawabata (back row, third from the left). Source: NNM 1922.214.171.124 Miki Family Fonds.
By the spring of 1943, reunited with their husbands, most women thought that the worst was over and that they would soon return to their homes on the coast. In May, they learned that there would be no home to return to. Throughout 1943 and 1944, Japanese Canadian women faced the demoralizing loss of their personal belongings and their family’s homes, fishing boats, farms, and businesses.
Prospective buyers looking over "gill-netters"; Fraser River, B.C. 1942. The Japanese Canadian fishing fleet was sold off, mostly to canning interests in BC, while most Fraser Valley farms were sold off to the federal government for the postwar resettlement of veterans. The commmittee overseeing the sales admitted that their objective was to “get the best price for our boys overseas”, an objective that was met by using depression-era criteria to determine the value of the farms. Source: NNM 2010.4.2.1.15 Kishizo Kimura Fonds.
The Quick Cleaners on Smythe Street in Vancouver, operated in 1940 by Fumiko Saito Ezaki and Kimiko Saito Nasu, met the same fate as the Nakamura florist shop. Source: NNM 19126.96.36.199 Ezaki Family Collection.
Unemployment in the detention camps was high, and the work that was available only paid 25 cents an hour and was denied to anyone with capital. Only married men could work in the camps, principally cutting wood, or be hired for seasonal road-camp work. Single adults were not eligible for relief benefits and could work in the camps only if they were the sole support of their family. As intended, the dispossession policy combined with limited work opportunities in the camps to force single men to move east, seeking employment in Manitoba and Ontario, and leaving their sisters to support and care for their parents in the camps.
Ironically, there were more employment opportunities in the camps and the ghost towns for young women then for young men. Stores, schools, hospitals, and social services all needed Japanese Canadian workers. The policy of forcing young men out of the camps, meant that most of those jobs were filled by women.
Staff of the Slocan City Hospital, 1943. For its time, this was a full-service hospital meeting the needs of the baby boom in the camps. The head nurse, Mrs F.E. Robinson was the attendant nurse/midwife at the birth of Marion’s 4th child in 1944. Source: NNM 1994.60.4 John W Duggan Fonds.
Outside the camps
The demands of war production also opened up employment opportunities for those living in eastern BC outside the camps. To meet the need for building materials, BC was forced to suspend its ban on Asians working in the forest industry. By 1947, 800 Japanese Canadians were working for small companies in the Interior of BC. Similarly, labour shortages in the Okanagan Valley meant fruit growers could no longer follow the prewar custom of paying their Asian workers less than white workers.
In 1945, Britain’s need for Japanese translators in Asia finally overrode the racist opposition of BC politicians to the enlistment of Nisei in the Canadian Army. Men competent in Japanese were sought out by the S-20 Military Intelligence facility in West Vancouver to translate intercepted Japanese transmissions or to serve with the British forces in Asia.
One enlistee was Thomas Kunito Shoyama, the co-founder and editor of the New Canadian newspaper, the only source of reliable information for Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Unable to read Japanese but desperate to enlist, Shoyama memorized 3000 characters before taking – and passing – the entry test.
For the mothers of military-aged Nisei the right to enlist created fears that their sons would be used as cannon fodder. Such fears were reinforced by the reports of high casualty rates in the Japanese American unit that had fought in Italy and France. After three years in government detention camps, the prospect of their sons being drafted to fight against their ancestral homeland disturbed most Issei.
S-20 soldiers during training at the Ambleside Camp, West Vancouver. From left to right: Administrative officer, Lieutenant Bill McPhee; Thomas K. Shoyama; George Tanaka; and Roger Obata. Photo by Minoru Yatabe. Source: NNM 2012.55.2.4 Yatabe Family Collection.
For BC racists, the dispossession of Japanese Canadians was the first step to their eviction from BC. In January 1945, the federal government officially initiated a dispersion policy. The device was a “loyalty survey” in which anyone selecting Japan would be considered “disloyal,” while the loyalty of those selecting Canada was to be further tested by a loyalty commission.
The survey was designed to encourage shipment to Japan. Those who chose Japan could continue to live in their shacks and keep their jobs or receive relief without using up their capital. And they would get free passage to Japan, funds equivalent to the value of their capital in Canada or $200 per adult and $50 per child to sustain them until established in Japan.
In contrast, those who chose Canada must give up their jobs and the shacks that they had improved at their own expense and move to Kaslo, BC. From Kaslo, they would be shipped at an unknown future date to a place east of the Rocky Mountains chosen by the government. Refusal to take the offered employment would disqualify the family from relief benefits. They were warned that the employment in the east might not last longer than a few weeks.
When the survey was administered in May and June 1945, it was thought that the war with Japan would go on for years. Many believed that there was no need for hasty resettlement and chose repatriation to Japan in order to stay where they were, in the homes and jobs they had, until peace could bring normal conditions again. The sick, the disabled, the unemployable and the elderly Issei with dependent children who has lost everything could not move east. In the end 6,844 persons aged 16 and over signed for “repatriation. With their 3,500 dependant children, the number of potential deportees was 10,347.
The sudden end of the Pacific War in August 1945 surprised both the federal government and those who had selected “repatriation”. With Japan's capitulation, those who had signed under family, religious or neighbourhood pressure, in anger, or to keep their jobs, soon sought to revoke their signatures. By April 1946, 4,527 of the 6,844 adult repatriates had applied to remain in Canada.
The federal government, however, was determined to deport as many Japanese Canadians as possible. When Parliament refused to give it a power to deport in postwar legislation, the Cabinet misled Parliament about its deportation plans and ordered the deportation of all those who signed for “repartiation” and their children on December 15, 1945.
Opposition to the deportation orders was immediate. The resulting battle was fought on two fronts: a public education campaign and a legal challenge.
With the end of wartime censorship on January 1,1946, Japanese Canadians and their allies across Canada were finally able to use the press and the pulpit to campaign against deportation. With many of the male Nisei leaders serving in the armed forces, much of the opposition from outside the camps fell to the Nisei women living east of Alberta. With their Caucasian allies, they raised money, distributed pamphlets, organized public meetings, delivered sermons, talked to any individual or group who would listen, wrote Prime Minister King and their Members of Parliament, and sought and received the wholehearted support of the Canadian press. Their message was simple. The deportation of Japanese Canadians was an assault on Canadian democracy and must not be allowed to occur. The Canadian public agreed.
The Legal Challenge
During the “repatriation” survey in 1945, twenty-two married Nisei women – Marion among them – refused to sign for “repatriation” to Japan when their Issei husbands did. In the face of their refusals, five of the nine Justices on the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the government could not legally deport the unwilling dependents of the men who had signed repatriation requests.
The front cover and back page of the pamphlet “From Citizens to Refugees, It’s Happening Here”. This is one of the pamphlets used to educate Canadians about the attempt to deport Japanese Canadians in 1946. Source: NNM 2001.1.2.1.1.14 Kunio Hidaka Fonds.
Since deporting men without their wives or children was politically unwise, the federal government moved to rapidly disperse Japanese Canadians across Canada. Throughout the summer of 1946, Japanese Canadian underwent a second uprooting. The choices imposed on them were to go “voluntarily” to Japan or to a location to east of Alberta. Only the sick, the unemployable, the veterans, their families and those who lived in self‑supporting communities or were never uprooted because they lived east of the 100 mile “protected area” were free to remain in British Columbia and keep their jobs. Those who chose to remain in Canada were to be sent immediately to a hostel on a decommissioned air-base or POW camp in Saskatchewan, Manitoba, Ontario or Quebec from which they were to be channelled into uncertain employment and housing.
The camps in B.C. contributed 4,700 to the flow east, while several hundred others left unfriendly Alberta for the fruit‑growing districts of Ontario. Like many families, Marion and her family, including her Issei parents, moved through the former POW camp at Neys, Ontario into a logging camp near Geraldton.
While most Japanese Canadians moved east through the hostels into new jobs and communities, five ships left Vancouver for Japan. The 3,964 people on those ships – 1300 of them children under age 16 – ostensibly went voluntarily. In fact, most went because they felt that they had no alternative. The aging Issei, who had lost everything, despaired of re-establishing themselves in Canada. Their Nisei children might have preferred to remain in Canada but could not legally or morally desert their aging parents to an unknown fate in war-torn Japan.
Mary Ohara with her mother and brother leaving Slocan City for Japan after the death of her father. "My Mother wanted to see her own mother, who was living in a remote village in Japan. She had not returned to her to visit her birthplace since she came as a picture bride in the 1920s. Furthermore she was a penniless widow with five teenage children, one of whom was mentally challenged. She found the prospect of going east, to yet another unknown and hostile place, too frightening. We had no choice in the matter. We had to abide by our mother's decision". Source: NNM 1994.76.3 Tak Toyota Fonds.
An RCMP officer escorts persons being shipped to Japan beside the Immigration Building at the foot of Burrard Street in Vancouver in 1946. Photo by Hukazawa Ebaki. Source: NNM 19188.8.131.52 Ezaki Family Collection.
On September 22, 1988, the government of Prime Minister Brian Mulroney acknowledged that the human and civil rights of Japanese Canadians had been abused by the federal government between 1941 and 1949. The Redress Agreement gave compensation of $21,000 for each individual wronged, a community fund to rebuild the destroyed community, pardons for those convicted of disobeying Orders made under the War Measures Act, Canadian citizenship for those wrongfully deported to Japan in 1946 and for their descendants, and $24 million in funding for a Canadian Race Relations Foundation.
Redress was achieved after a long campaign by the National Association of Japanese Canadians. Between 1984 and 1988, the NAJC held seminars, house meetings and conferences; lobbied and petitioned the government and ethnic, religious and human rights groups; and composed and distributed studies, publications and press materials. Much of the material was compelling. Running the gamut from emotional personal recollections to cold academic studies, the material documented the price of the uprooting and the need for redress.
The campaign was successful because it was a principled campaign. It was not just a cry that Japanese Canadians had been victimized by nasty politicians and inept bureaucrats—although that was very true. Rather, it was a campaign that resonated with Canadians because its fundamental message was that Canadian democracy had been undermined by preventable abuses of power.
The Japanese Canadian Redress Rally on Parliament Hill, 1988. The placards are held by leaders of the redress campaign including from left to right: Mary Obata (streamers); Roger Obata ("WWII VETS FOR REDRESS"); Mas Kawanami; Bill Kobayashi, ("ENEMY THAT NEVER WAS"); Dave Murakami ("HOME '42"); Kiyoshi Shimizu (Streamers); Charles Kadota ("LIFE IN EXILE"). Source: NNM 2010.32.124 Gordon King Collection.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and Art Miki signing the Japanese Canadian Redress documents on Parliament Hill, Ottawa on September 22, 1988. Behind them are Redress leaders and federal officials, left to right: Rick Cunningham; Roger Obata; Secretary of State for Canada, Lucien Bouchard; Audrey Kobayashi; Minister of State (Multiculturalism and Citizenship), Gerry Weiner; Maryka Omatsu; Roy Miki; Cassandra Kobayashi; and Mas Takahashi. Source: NNM 2010.32.56 Gordon King Collection.