Sachiko Okuda, interviewed by Josh Labove, 23 January 2016

Sachiko Okuda, interviewed by Josh Labove, 23 January 2016

Abstract
Sachiko Okuda reflects on her parents’ experiences and positions regarding the periods of internment, dispossession, and redress. She talks about the importance of the personal items that her parents took with them to the internment camps as well as how they felt about British Columbia after internment had come to an end. Sachiko then marvels at the bravery of the senior Japanese Canadian community as they marched on Parliament Hill demanding justice. Later, Sachiko explains her visit to British Columbia and how, by chance, she met a woman who knew her mother during their younger years. Sachiko then moves on to describe who her parents were, what they did for work and fun, and how they dressed. She tells the story of how she got involved in the Japanese Canadian Redress movement as well as the factors which continue to motivate her work as the president of the Ottawa Japanese Canadian Association.
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Labove Joshua (LJ)
Getting set up and situated with the recorder. January 23rd Josh Labove in Ottawa Ontario with Sachiko Okuda. We're talking about you and your earliest childhood memories. Where do we begin?
Sachiko Okuda (SO)
I was born in 1958 in Verdun Quebec. I'm the youngest of three girls born to my parents Hiroshi Rosie Okuda and Shima Okuda, whose maiden name is Umemoto. My parents were from Vancouver Island they ended up in Verdun after what they call the evacuation and they never went back to BC ever. Although, I've been able to go to BC and, in fact, participate in a wonderful tour of former Japanese Canadian internment camps which was very revealing and very moving. You asked about my earliest childhood memories. Okay, um, well in those days it was very hard to get Japanese groceries in Montreal. We did have one purveyor of Japanese goods so it was kind of a big event to get the delivery of the Japanese goods. Mr. Miyamoto would come with a fifty pound or one hundred pound bag of rice on his back and my father would dump it into this big old tin. We got the Shoyu, the soy sauce, in the big cans. My parents would collaborate on the making of certain Japanese meals because some of them were quite difficult to prepare. I remember my father would roll up the udon noodles which took up a lot of force. He'd roll out the dough with a big rolling pin that somebody had made and he'd do it on our zinc covered kitchen table set and then get out a knife and cut the noodles and my mother would improvise for the broth. She'd use Lipton's chicken noodle soup and take out the noodles and just use the soup, sort of power, and make udon. Yeah, those were delicious meals but I'm sure that people would just laugh at them now because they're not Japanese. I guess you have to say Japanese Canadian because we made due with what we had.
LJ
Well, I guess that's an interesting segue then. So what is Japanese Canadian mean for you?
SO
Okay, good question. I'm a Nikkei sansei of a certain age. So I'm fifty-seven and because immigration was halted from Japan for a generation the Nikkei sansei of my generation, or my demographic, do share some of the same characteristics. We don't speak Japanese typically well, or perhaps, at all. We profess not to speak it or we're embarrassed by our inability to speak Japanese.
00:05:08.000
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SO
Unless, of course, the grandparents lived with us. In my case they did not. We know about the Japanese Canadian internment, often not through our parents but through books and movies and then circling back and extracting information from our parents. Typically, we like Japanese things. We love Japanese foods as do many, many people. But there is a distance between us and Japan. Mainly, I would say, because of our lack of linguistic ability. We don't marry Japanese or Nikkei people. In fact, the sansei of my generation have a very, very high marriage outside of our ethnic group. What can I say? We were brought up with certain Japanese values. Not everybody but, in my case, it's a generational thing too, we're told not to waste things, not to be loud in public, not to call attention to ourselves. In my case that has translated into difficulties in being assertive which was not the intention but it's just the spirit of Gaman, or endure, and Shikata Ga Nai, it can't be helped. I certainly have not been assertive in the past.
LJ
What do you think that you haven't been assertive about?
SO
Well, okay this is a silly example but, for example if I didn't think I got a mark that I deserved on a paper I didn't advocate I'd just say “oh, good enough. I'm just going to endure and not say anything.” That type of thing. Yeah.
LJ
Now, thinking back on that is that a value that you've passed along in parenting your own children? When they got lousy marks did you storm into school?
SO
No, no storming into school from this parent. However, I am proud when they advocate for themselves and I think that is a very good quality in anyone. What do you do when you're faced with something that you think is unjust, right? Shikata Ga Nai, that's, I think, that maybe something that the Japanese Canadian community hid behind. This is, perhaps, a bit too strong but it, perhaps, justified a lot things but thankfully there were leaders in our community who were able to advocate and rally up enough support within our community and, very importantly, outside the Japanese community to lead the redress movement which culminated in the redress agreement in 1988.
LJ
Maybe we can go back to when you were in college and, sort of, came to appreciating and understanding your own Japanese Canadian identity a little bit and how that has guided you, or not, to the present day.
00:10:07.000
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SO
Okay. First of all, I do self-identify as Japanese Canadian because as a young adult, coming into contact with other people, and when Japanese culture was on the rise as a very popular international kind of culture, people would automatically assume I was Japanese or that I spoke Japanese or that I knew flower arrangements and what not. That wasn't my upbringing, you know, my forte. Josh, I've sort of gone around in circles. What was your question again?
LJ
Yeah, you said that it wasn't your upbringing or your forte. How did you get there? What did your process look like to, maybe, get to a point where, not that you're doing flower arrangements but that you're now the president of the Ottawa Japanese Canadian Association, so there's a movement there, how does that happen?
SO
For me, I'd have to say Joy Kogawa's novel, Obasan, was a really important book for me. I read it in the early eighties. Not only was it very lyrical and a beautifully written story but it was our story and it was based on real people and by that time, in the early 1980s, I had weaseled out of my parents some tidbits of their own history. I didn't know my parents had been interned. I hadn't even heard of the Japanese Canadian internment until I was quite old, maybe twelve years old, when, at school, we were starting to study about Nazi Germany and concentration camps and then my mom let slip that she had been in a camp, too, and all her brother and her sisters and her parents and my dad and all of his brothers and sisters and parents and I didn't believe it. But when Joy Kogawa's book came out, same story told very forcefully, and it was the emergence of that story I think that made me feel Japanese Canadian. I started to study Japanese at McGill University in Montreal because it was possible. Japan was on the rise economically and culturally. It was suddenly cool to be ethnic and even cooler still to be Japanese ethnic but I really couldn't claim to be Japanese, okay. So Japanese Canadian was the truth. And then, because there was a hiatus in immigration from Japan the community sort of aged and there was not a lot of young blood coming in for a period of time. I guess I started helping out at the cultural center in Montreal doing things that, perhaps, older people had more difficulty doing. I read texts and I summarized them in English; Japanese Canadian stories or stories in translation, or Japanese literature in translation.
00:15:00.000
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SO
Definitely when the Japanese Canadian redress movement came into being and gained momentum, certainly I was, at that time, into helping older people and I remember very clearly, my sister in Montreal invited me to this fundraiser for seniors to redress, or Issei to Ottawa, that's what it was called. So this was in the late eighties and I was already living in Ottawa by that time and she called me and said “you have to help out at this fundraiser. We're serving chow mein and spareribs and we're trying to raise money to get chartered buses to send the Issei, the first generation, quite elderly, to Ottawa for this rally, this political rally.” I was so impressed by the people who came out to that event because they were so elderly and I thought “wow, they're Japanese Canadian. They know something unjust happened to them and they're ready to rally for their cause and go to Ottawa.” I was very impressed that they'd, you know, even venture out for a sparerib dinner let alone get on a bus and go to a strange city and do something that they weren't used to doing which is carrying placards, walking on Parliament Hill, calling attention to themselves, and that was amazing, really.
LJ
So you were here?
SO
Yes, I was in Ottawa
LJ
and this busload of folks came into town?
SO
Yup, busloads came from other communities as well; Toronto, Hamilton, Montreal.
LJ
And you just, kind of, had a window to it all, I suppose, being in this city watching the Japanese Canadian community sort of coalesce onto Ottawa at that moment.
SO
Yes, it was perhaps the first time, how can I put it? Until that time, which is again the late 1980s, I'd known my own home community of Montreal, the Montreal Japanese community, and I was just coming to know the Ottawa community. Actually, I hadn't known them at all. I'd been here for six years, I came in 1982, so by the late eighties I still didn't know anybody. It was that rally, actually, that brought me into contact with the local community here who was welcoming all these guests from other centers and it was then that all these stories started to spill out. I remember the night before the rally, we were in this community center making up placards, you know, magic markers, and putting up the ... stapling the signs to the stakes and all these stories came spilling out and by then my parents were dead so I didn't have their stories but it was just great to hear other stories, stories that corroborated, parts of my parents' stories, people who knew my parents, who knew them when they were in camp, who knew them when my father was in Montreal in the fifties and sixties because my father was active in the Japanese Canadian Citizens Association helping people reestablish themselves, making presentations before the Bird Commission for example about lost property. He tried to help people. and all these stories came spilling out and by then my parents were dead so I didn't have their stories but it was just great to hear other stories, stories that corroborated, parts of my parents' stories, people who knew my parents, who knew them when they were in camp, who knew them when my father was in Montreal in the fifties and sixties because my father was active in the Japanese Canadian Citizens Association helping people reestablish themselves, making presentations before the Bird Commission for example about lost property. He tried to help people. Yeah, that was great. And Japanese Canadian elderly people are really a force to be reckoned with. They're really quite astonishing.
00:20:10.000
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LJ
Why do you think that is?
SO
They give of themselves and they're of an age where they could be just relaxing or, you know, looking after their gardens, which they do and they golf or whatever, but they're very good at coming out particularly if there's a crisis or if there's something important happening they're willing to give of themselves.
LJ
So let's go back to another point in time. I want to talk about your parents in Montreal growing up as you remember them. What kept them busy, what sorts of activities did they get up to, what brought them to Montreal in the first place?
SO
I'm glad that you're giving me an opportunity to talk about my parents because it's a great thing to be able to talk about people you loved but perhaps weren't very good at showing it when they were alive. My father went to Montreal first and my understanding is that he was fired from his job in Tashme as the school principal under a cloak of secrecy or something odd happened. I don't think it was a reflection on him, okay, something political. So he arrived in Montreal before the end of the war and my understanding is he had great difficulty finding a job because he was of Japanese origin and that the Jewish community was welcoming and they helped him out by giving him a job. A Jewish owned family business gave my father a job until he was well passed the age of retirement. Somewhere along the line though he also went into business for himself so it must have been before the Jewish company hired him but I suspect because it was in the rag trade that there was some Jewish connection. In any case he was part owner of a ribbon factory in Valleyfield Quebec, which is south of Montreal. It wasn't close to where he lived and this is all way before I was born. He had difficulty financially in the early years of his marriage to my mother, whom he married in the early fifties. I know the ribbon factory went bankrupt. He claimed it was because the Pope had decreed that women no longer had to wear hats in church and therefore there wasn't as much demand for ribbon but according to my mother it was because he cosigned a loan with someone and the person defaulted so he ended up in debt in order to pay off this loan. Then he also tried at one point some sort of novelty business. I remember because one time I saw these pieces of clear acrylic that had a, sort of, carving in them and you paint it and it looks like a flower. Since that time I have seen this type of artwork in shows and in shops but, at that time it was ... my father had made these crude attempts at doing these acrylic novelties. When I asked my mother what this was she said, “Oh, it was something your father was into.” She was not very ... she was dismissive of that attempt. I'm sure they had a difficult time economically. Can you imagine? Here they are in a city very, very far away from where they grew up. I don't know their financial situation before the war but my mother's family had owned a ten acre berry farm in Qualicum Beach and my father had all these shares in some sort of mining venture which were all lost.
00:25:15.000
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SO
I'm sure that they were, their stock was rising before the war but after the war they had a lot of difficulties in getting established. But my father did have, then, a steady employment with this Jewish firm and it was work sort of in his field. He did the bookkeeping and inventory control and whatnot of this small business. My father had a Bachelor of Commerce and a Bachelor of Arts so, you know, it was pretty much in his field. I know in the fifties he was involved in assisting newcomers to Montreal as was his parents. His parents, who lived in Verdun with their other adult children because my grandfather had been a cook before the war. He had been a cook in a lumber camp, among other things. You know, people had many jobs but he must've been a good cook because he taught cooking, not to us, but to other Japanese Canadians who had come to Montreal and it wasn't Japanese food but it was Western food, or his take on it. So I know he had this chicken where you put the broth inside the chicken and then you sew up the chicken and cook it. Anyways, so that was one of his prime tickets. My grandparents and my father were involved in helping Japanese Canadian people coming to Montreal but this was before I was born. When I was a young child, my father, I believe, was still a bowler, bowled but I think his heyday of bowling was before I was born and I know he was a very good bowler. He must've bowled with other Japanese Canadians. He had a perfect game at one point and he wore the bowling ring with the perfect game score on his wedding finger so, in lieu of a wedding band, so that was something that kept him busy. My mother went to school as an adult. In fact, she started her university degree when she was fifty-five. My mother was very smart. In fact, I think she was the smartest one of us all even though my father had gone to university at a time where it was quite difficult for Japanese Canadians to go to university and he had two degrees. My mother had finished school at the age of fifteen. Although she had graduated from high school, she was very, very smart but didn't have an outlet nor the opportunity to further her education so when the children were old enough she went back to school and got an undergraduate degree at Concordia University. She must have been really, quite something, quite determined because at that time it wasn't for adults to go to university and because she had done her high school in BC and didn't have a Quebec education she had to do her high school French exams and she passed and everything and she was able to go on and do a degree at Concordia. I wouldn't say that my parents socialized a lot and they socialized with Japanese Canadians, but rarely.
00:30:00.000
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SO
I'd have to say they're ties to Japanese Canadian friends and family were from prewar days. Occasionally, people would pass through. They'd stay at our house. I remember a family pulling up in a camper van and they parked it in our driveway and these were people whom they had known from before the war. I think it must have been people whom they were very close to and not just because they were Japanese Canadian. By way of illustration, when I was a young adolescent I remember I went to a department store with my mother and there was this other Japanese Canadian family in the store who spoke to my mother in Japanese and it was an extended family so the grandma was there and the kids and what not and my mother's face turned like . She spoke with them but I couldn't understand everything but I could understand that she wasn't really happy to see them and her answers were very short. So then, afterwards, I said “well, who are those people?” She didn't even introduce them to me. She said, “oh, these people from camp. I don't like to talk about those times.” You would think that if you hadn't seen someone for, I don't know, thirty years or whatever and you met them in a store you might want to catch up or engage in conversation but she just didn't want to, bring up those times again.
LJ
Did you get more about those times from your father or, really, from neither?
SO
I got different things from my parents about the Japanese Canadian experience of World War Two and I must say that my mom died before the redress agreement and my father lived until shortly after the redress agreement. Actually, my father lived until the early '90s so it was quite a few years but my recollection of what he told me sort of ended shortly after redress. It's as if he didn't talk about it too much anymore. My mom associated what happened to the Japanese Canadian community and to her and to her entire family with great shame and she was very much “let us not expose ourselves to that kind of vulnerability, let us not show ourselves to be different, let us not stay in an ethnic enclave and just speak Japanese, and let us not be too visible, and let us not appear different in public.” So she was very much of that mindset and she was not in favour Japanese Canadian redress. Although she died in the early '80s so at that point the movement was still not, shall we say, well established across the country. The reason she was not in favour of redress was because of the financial aspect and the attention that that would put on the Japanese Canadian community again. There would be criticism and there would be detractors and she said “you can't put a dollar value on suffering.” As well, she was deeply, shall we say, adverse to criticism of our community and she felt that the Japanese Imperial armies' activities, particularly in Hong Kong, reflected badly on the Japanese Canadian community which I certainly don't see the link but she was of a time where, as long as you looked Asian you were suspect to begin with so she was hypersensitive about that.
00:35:27.000
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SO
I respect her point of view although I don't share it. With my father, my father was more anecdotal, very random, he would let drop sort of things and I didn't always believe what he said but now, having spoken to other people, having met other people who knew my father at the time and, you know, reading books such as Asahi or the book 'Teaching in Canadian Exile' I know what he said was true about his activities in Tashme and educating Japanese interned children. After my mother died my father stayed inside the home for a couple years and the dynamic was very different and maybe for the first time I really paid attention to what he said. When I would go over for dinner he'd sometimes talk about the past and, yeah, suddenly I'd pay attention but sadly I didn't ask for more. I mean, he told me about what it was like before the war. For example, going to the Gulf Islands and missing the ferry on the way back and noticing a line of shacks and the last shack had smoke coming out of the chimney so he went there and it was a Japanese Canadian family so, wow, he was taken in and they let him stay overnight and they fed him and then he was able to go on his way. So I did get a sense of the spirit of community that existed before the war, a little bit about what it was like in internment, just random details such as he had the same blanket for eighteen months when he was in Tashme and it never got laundered and I don't know why but it was, kind of, Spartan conditions. And then, I also got a little bit of a sense from him about what it was like in the 1950s in Montreal, or the '40s and '50s, trying to reestablish himself but not a lot.
LJ
Did you get a sense that there may have been valuable or prized things that your mother, or your father, would have gone to tashme with? Were there things that he held onto and clutched carefully, brought with him?
SO
Yes, my father was very attached to a sweater that he had won at UBC. It was a sports sweater. He called it a big block. It had raised letters on it. It was apparently a very big honor to receive this sweater. I think they gave two out a year or something like that and he had won it for his sport. I know he was a sprinter but this was a time that I was still not paying attention to his stories. I'm not sure, he had another sport and I'm not sure what it was but that sweater traveled with him and it reappeared even when I was a teenager. I remember he brought it out for some event and wore it.
00:40:00.000
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SO
My mother, did have one small Japanese doll. Just a tiny one, maybe about eight inches long, that she must have had since childhood and she had it after the war so I assume it was at camp with her and it wasn't a rare doll at all. We were allowed to play with it but she loved the face of it, she thought it was a beautiful face so it was important to her and I guess it was small enough for her to be able to carry it with her.
LJ
That UBC sweater raises the question about how they thought about or talked about BC about the place that they had to leave. Did they ever go back? Did they want to go back?
SO
My parents never went back to BC and my mother, I feel, had a real resentment or she just wanted it to be behind her and yet she certainly touted the virtues of having a BC education because her English was very good, her penmanship was beautiful. She was very strict about grammar, spelling, and penmanship with us, her daughters. She deplored the English that was used in Verdun, very riddled with grammatical errors and improper usage. So that's interesting, she told me that when she grew up BC was very British and whatnot but it had virtues, the British side had virtues whereas she'd never went back and she would never consider going back. My father, I'm, perhaps connecting dots that he would not connect in the same way but I think he was very proud of having gone to university and I think his love of that time is normal when you think of the freedom and potential that youth have at that time so he had, you know, his life before him so I think that was the charm and the nostalgia for that time. He had achievements in university, in sports, and whatnot. So, yeah, I think it was a source of pride. He did not talk about BC with the anger and the bitterness that my mom did but he never went back.
LJ
Yeah, I realized now, being out here, there are these virtues, some of which you've mentioned, but also the environment, the nature, did they ... it certainly doesn't look like Montreal.
SO
For sure. My mother grew up in Qualicum Beach, a very beautiful part of the country. So certainly, and when we lived in Verdun I'm sure she had a very difficult time. The first place they lived in was a tenement flat and the neighbours were not nice to them and it was not ... it was urban, grey, not very nice housing whereas she was used to fresh air and she always said that the water in BC was wonderful to drink and also to wash in, soft water, the air was pure and she would never allow us to have a dog because “no, no, no dog in the city. It wouldn't be fair to the dog. I'm used to space” and whatnot.
LJ
You're going to make me miss it. So when did you first go to BC? Were they still alive when you first got out to the place that your parents had called home?
00:44:38.000
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SO
Yes, I went to BC before my mother's illness and before the redress movement so it must've been in the early '80s and I went on a little trip on the inside passage on one of those ferries. In fact, it's the ferry I think that eventually sank ten years ago or so but I ended up in Qualicum Beach and I definitely wanted just to hang out in this town where my mother had grown up. There I was with a thirty-five millimeter SLR and I wasn't used to using it and I was fiddling with it and this lady came up to me and said welcome to Qualicum Beach, Dear. I just thought she was so lovely and it turned out she was somebody who knew my mom and knew my mom's family. I spent an extraordinary afternoon with this woman who took me around in her twenty year old car and drove me to different places that would be of interest to my mom and I took pictures or, I thought I had taken pictures, but in fact I didn't roll the film correctly into the camera so none of the pictures came out and when I came home my mother was so excited to hear about this little visit with this woman whose name escapes me, although I can see her in her long red hair. My mom certainly didn't bear resentment to individual people in Qualicum Beach or in BC but she wasn't about to go there and I can understand because it was emotional for me and I hadn't lived anything traumatic. I was just connecting with something from the pats and I was moved by that and I can imagine my mother would have been on a high state of alert and emotionally exhausted by a trip back to the island, Vancouver Island. My mother's name Shima, means island. I think it was sort of a nod to Vancouver Island that she was named Shima.
LJ
You've now been to Tashme?
SO
Tashme, Slocan Valley, Bay Farm where my mom was interned, yup.
LJ
What was that trip like? I mean, certainly it was an organized trip but what was that trip like for you?
SO
That trip was extraordinary and it wasn't dark, it wasn't unhappy, it just made you imagine. It just made you think, and it's something to see artifacts and see the surroundings. At New Denver, for example, they have displays of actual internment shacks. It was just, how can I put it, it ... it took you to a time and a place that you knew your parents and their siblings and their parents had been and had really lived there and it confirmed what I'd read in books but it's different to see it. I have photos of my father's younger brother and sisters in Popoff in a field of strawberries and it was beautiful.
00:50:00.000
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SO
There's no building there anymore but the location is beautiful. You think how could they have a camp in such a beautiful place? Under other circumstances these are places you'd enjoy being at but when your freedom and freedom of movement and opportunities are taken away from you, when it's very artificial it must have been something very different.
LJ
So your dad would have been in his late thirties I suppose, late thirties, early forties?
SO
In camp? No, not that old. Let's do the math. So, yeah late twenties.
LJ
Oh, okay, because he was born in 1914, so late twenties, okay.
SO
Correct.
LJ
But very keenly aware of where he was and what was going on and active as a teacher. You said your mom was about the same age?
SO
My mother was born in 1919 so she was a young, early twenties, when she landed in Bay Farm and my mom, I know she worked at the post office there because when we were kids whenever we were addressing an envelope she'd say “you make that five look like a five, it looks like an S” or “you make that seven look like a seven, because it looks like a one” because, I think, she must have had her fill of badly written addresses to deal with in a little country post office. She had told us about being in the post office. In order to justify her criticism of our handwriting but she was always very cagey about where this post office was, which was in Bay Farm, and actually, during the internment camp tour that was organized by the Nikkei National Museum, in Bay Farm we were met by this Stetson-wearing Doukhobor farmer who had been a child at the time and his father had actually bought the post office building after the camp was disbanded and they hauled it off to their field intending to use the building for something. He said, “oh, yes. The slots, we had all the mail slots were there with all the Japanese names on it.” So, that was, um, that was a bit startling for me that a post office lived on in some farmer's field for years after the war. I think my mom and my dad both had opportunity taken away from them. I just think my mom was so smart and didn't have outlets. I mean, certainly, lots of women did not have outlets for their own talents and intelligence and abilities but my mom had definite limitations put on her and after the war she ended up in Toronto with her mom. Her sisters and her brother were married by this time so they had their own households but my mom looked after her mom and her father had died in Tashme of some communicable disease. I'm not sure which, TB or Cholera, I'm not sure. So, my mom ... well you wonder what would have been, you know. And how she met my father was, I believe, because my 101 year old aunt who was alive and well married my mother's brother but also went to school with my father because for their senior year, their last year of high school, there was not senior metric year in their community of Cumberland so my aunt and my father and a few other students had to commute to another town. So I think it's through that connection that my father knew my mother and they got married in the early '50s in Montreal and my mother had to leave Toronto, so she had to leave her mom behind, and come to Montreal.
00:55:42.000
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LJ
I think you mentioned along the way that your dad was a bit of a baseball player.
SO
Ah, he was the manager of one of the farm teams for the Asahi, the Vancouver Asahi and, yeah, as a young man he was into a lot of things. I have very few family photos from that time. They just were not taken along to camp or they would just disappear, went the way of all things but the photos that I have of my father are ... he's very handsome, he's very well dressed, very beautiful wavy hair, a real catch which is a stark comparison to how I felt about my father when I was growing up. He wasn't one of the older fathers as was my mother. I was born when my mother was in her late thirties or possibly forties, even, which was uncommon at the time. I think there was a certain amount of embarrassment about that as well. My parents got off to such a late start in their household, which is understandable because of the war and my father was no longer this dapper dashing eligible bachelor type at all, you know.
LJ
It must be exciting, funny, strange at first to discover this part of their life. You know, eligible bachelor, very well dressed, different parts of them that you didn't know.
SO
Very much so, and it's only in talking with other people or, in my father's case, reading about him in various Japanese Canadian books that, you know, I found out about these things. A woman in our community here in Ottawa who lived in Bay Farm knew my mom and her sister. They were older. The member of our community was a child at the time and my mom was already in her twenties and she, the woman in our community, said “oh, the Umemoto girls were so pretty” and another lady in our community also said “oh, yes the umemeoto sisters, well known for their beauty.” I knew that when they were young they were known for being very lovely, physically. My mom I felt, as I reflect on her, had a difficult time in Montreal. I don't think she was a happy person in Montreal. I think the fact that she went back to university at the age of fifty-five and, you know, to get her degree before she became ill and passed away, I think that was a real source of pride and I'm glad she did it and I was happy for her. I knew when she took a course in Japanese Canadian history, she was a political science major but she took a history course, and they talked about the internment I know she couldn't bring herself to talk about it in class and the only thing she did do was she corrected a piece of misinformation that the professor gave out because he attributed something to the RCMP and she said “no, it was the custodian of enemy alien property.” He didn't probe and she didn't offer any information.
01:00:32.000
01:00:32.000
LJ
Did they, either of your parents, talk much about things that they lost? Property, shares in the mining business, land in Qualicum Beach, stuff that was taken from them and never seen again?
SO
My parents did mention in passing, things that they lost. My mother did mention the berry farm that her family had. My father did mention the shares that he had in some mining syndicate and something shares in standing timber but they didn't dwell upon it they never monetized it. They never gave a dollar value, “Oh, I'd be a millionaire, we'd all be millionaires today.” It just was something that was taken away and they, you know, Gaman Shimashita, endured.
LJ
When you heard this, or when you hear this now, was there ever anger? Either on your part or their part?
SO
I think, I have to respect the way my parents dealt with their past which, in my mother's case was to put it behind her and, in my father's case just to have his past as a series of unconnected anecdotes and not to seek out any compensation or to call attention. I think I have to respect that. I don't feel anger but I feel a bit of sorrow, particularly in my mother's case, because I think the difficult time that she had during and after the war landing up in the alien landscape that was the inner city of Montreal I think that was sad. That was very sad, but no it's not so much anger that I feel and it's definitely not frustration with my parents for not having, you know, stood up for themselves or advocated or whatnot. I think it was ... they were very much a product of the times and their upbringing.
LJ
You've gotten to learn a lot about your parents since they've passed.
SO
That's right.
LJ
Have you thought about questions you would ask them if you could?
SO
The questions that I would ask them are not the big question but it's more the small questions about their daily lives in camp, what they ate, how did they buy things, how did they earn money, what did my mom feel about the job in the post office, did she get any satisfaction, maybe these are the big questions then? Certainly they are the personal questions. I would love to know how they felt, what their emotions were, what gave them joy, what was the particular sadness that they felt?
01:05:00.000
01:05:00.000
SO
I'd like to know more about what it was like in the early days in Montreal. Yeah, I learned more about my parents after they died but I do have an article from an newspaper in Montreal that published a little profile of my family in 1960. It was an attempt, and I think a very good attempt, of a francophone newspaper to put a spotlight on different cultural communities and my parents were chosen as the representatives of the Japanese Canadian community and it was a very good article. They were able to speak. They were able to talk about the internment. There were pictures of these three adorable Japanese little girls and one wearing a kimono and whatnot. In that article, it cast a positive light or, there was a positive spin on their lives. “Oh, my husband is now able to have a bit of a Japanese garden in our backyard.” And, “Oh, we have come through this.” And that's great that they came through and were as strong as they were but I'd like to know, I'd like to scratch below the surface and find out how they felt on a day to day basis.
LJ
Are you calling their bluff, a little bit? Or do you think there is just more to it than that?
SO
More to it than the “we moved on and ...”
LJ
Yeah.
SO
Yeah, definitely because a life lived is a whole string of ups and downs and maybe its healthier to hear about the ups but in order to understand their lives I'd like to know a little bit more about the tough times and how they felt about it. But I have to say both of my parents did espouse the Shikata Ga Nai, the “it can't be helped” the fatalistic “it was destiny.”
LJ
I can't imagine as a kid, how you make sense of that when you hear of some of the things that, allegedly, couldn't be helped.
SO
Except I didn't know as a kid, I only knew when I was quite a bit older. Yeah.
LJ
So jumping ahead for a minute or however long this takes us but we're in Ottawa now. You're the president of the OJCA and we've talked a little bit about your coming to appreciating and feeling Japanese Canadian, what does Japanese Canadian identity mean in the capital here in Ottawa?
SO
Well, perhaps, in order to answer that question I can point to initiatives which are underway or are at least, you know ,we hope to undertake. For example, the Syrian refugees who are beginning to come to Ottawa, I would like our community association to be welcoming and to have some ... encourage individuals and have a community event, too, like a friendship event or some sort of welcoming, an outreach. Individuals could volunteer, for example, to help accompany newcomers, particularly refugees, to their appointments to help get them settled and whatnot because our community, the Japanese Canadian community ended up in very different circumstances outside BC after the war. I mentioned that the Jewish community in Montreal certainly helped my family and we can learn from that experience and be welcoming to other communities.
01:10:32.000
01:10:32.000
LJ
I guess I wonder, too, I mean, you know, you mention that your folks wouldn't go back to BC or were not keen to go back to BC, I wonder ... this is a company town here and the company is government and I wonder how that affects the tenor or the way in which people come here and the Japanese Canadian community that's here. You know, in the BC case folks feel a direct relationship to things that happened in places like Tashme. Here they may feel a direct relationship to the redress movement or to years of not having redress and wanting it and promises from prime ministers come and gone. So I guess I'm just wondering your observations on how being Japanese Canadian in this city has changed for you or how you've changed in this city over more than thirty-years here now.
SO
Okay, the Japanese Canadian community in Ottawa and the surrounding area, because there are quite a number of families in Gatineau who have, typically, a Japanese mom and Canadian dad ... Okay, it's a small community but it's very diverse so there are pockets of homogeneity but it's very diverse simply because almost everybody has come from away and people from BC have different experiences and people who are from Alberta, of whom there are quite a number in Ottawa, there are some of us who have come from Montreal, again, a different lived experience. A lot, well, the generation that follows, in my case for example, my children they're of mixed parentage so I'd have to say that younger people in this community are mainly of mixed ethnic origin so it's not a closely knit fabric, shall we say, this community. So there's a lot of diversity which makes it very interesting and kind of exciting because people bring different experiences to events or any meeting. I'd have to say the older members of our community who have come from away they relate a lot to their home communities. They'd talk about what it was like in the past and people come here for very different reasons so it's not as if everybody comes here and becomes a federal public servant. There are entrepreneurs, there are trailing spouses, there are, sure there are some people who come, definitely, to pursue a career in government but not everybody so it's an interesting community. It's very diverse.
LJ
What keeps you busy and keeps you charged in the work of the community. What really gets you going about being active in the community here?
01:15:09.000
01:15:09.000
SO
What gets me going in the Ottawa Japanese Canadian community is the potential. We are at a point in our existence where we have to do new things, find new people, reach out to new people whom we haven't served or serviced. There's no end of possible activities. I think I feel really privileged and proud of the fact that almost thirty years ago I was part of the redress campaign and I was there at the time that this wonderful lifting of a very dark cloud on the Japanese Canadian community happened. I recognize that for many people in the Ottawa Japanese community now, that is something quite foreign because they may have arrived here after, they don't have family members who are directly affected, so we can't always point to that as the tie that binds.
LJ
Sure, maybe let's go back there for a minute to redress. How did you get wrapped up in the redress momentum and how did you get personally involved?
SO
Okay, it was 1988 in the early spring, maybe March, and I had been living in Ottawa for six years. I didn't know any Japanese Canadians here. I knew the Sushi Gardens restaurant and the Japan Foods store on Summerset run by the Nakanishi family and that was about it. My sister in Montreal called me and said, “you have to come this weekend because we're having a fundraiser and I need you to serve the spareribs and the chow mein at this fundraiser, it's called issei to Ottawa. We're raising money to charter a bus or two to take issei to a rally on Parliament Hill that's going to happen in April.” I went and I served the chow mein and the spareribs and I met a minister from Vancouver who was Japanese. He spoke English as well, a young minister and he was involved nationally in the organization of this rally on Parliament Hill. He said “oh, you live in Ottawa! Well, I'm going through your community in a couple of weeks I'll introduce you to some people in Ottawa that are good people.” And then, fast forward two weeks later I'm in a community center because the Japanese community here did not have its own building at the time and I met some people of different generations and other sansei like myself but older people, some nissei who had been interns, and we started getting busy for this rally because I wanted to help these amazing issei people who showed a lot of spirit and a lot of pluck in terms of wanting to rally on Parliament Hill and they were quite elderly and whatnot. Things snowballed after that and I think it's through meeting, particularly, people who had been directly affected by the internment of Japanese Canadians because they had been interned or, in fact the ones whose stories moved me the most were the people who had been sent to Japan after the war or the dying days of the war when Japan was losing, wore torn, and impoverished.
01:20:11.000
01:20:11.000
SO
These people suffered a lot by putting burdens on already overstretched resources of their distant families in Japan and yet these people were lively and engaged in life, full of spirit. I was just impressed by these people who overcome great hardship and were alive and well. Yeah, engaged in life. That's the lesson and the spirit that I see as a legacy of the Japanese Canadian spirit and that's something I'm striving for and hoping to continue in this community. Times are different, issues are different, but adversity and overcoming adversity and being engaged in life and helping other people is still very necessary and very current.
LJ
So, when you got involved in redress was it personal at all? Were you thinking, gosh these people could have known my parents and I need to do this, not just for me, but also for my parents or was it about the people that were in front of you, was it about the stories that you were hearing from ...
SO
Yeah, I see your point. I'd say, initially, it was out of a sense of duty and I was just so impressed by the issei, my parents are nissei, and many Japanese people live to be quite old and these people were quite old and still full of life and whatnot so it was more the people that were in front of me. But, through these people and through the people that I met along the way in the days leading up the rally, at this rally, which was really a turning point in the redress campaign, very effective, very moving. In the months after redress I met people who knew my parents, mainly my father, because of the type of community work that he had done in Montreal and then it became somewhat more personal and, yeah. In honor of my parents and because, particularly, my mother was no longer there for me I felt it was great that through these other people I could still feel her presence and understand her story a bit more.
LJ
Even if she was not really keen on the redress side?
SO
Yes, in fact she was opposed to redress but she died before the movement caught fire. I'm convinced that she would have, if not become a supporter of redress, at least come around to understand that it wasn't just about the money. It was more than that. It was about bringing the story to light and getting out an apology. The sense of shame was lifted by a very public and national recognition that the Japanese Canadians and my mother was not to blame for the situation she found herself in.
LJ
The formal apology and the text that I've seen in so many Japanese Canadian communities is, what you're saying, even more important than the remuneration.
01:25:10.000
01:25:10.000
SO
It was. I had the privilege to be in a house that day and, actually, it's because I was asked by somebody at the House of Commons to go help, to come to question period and help out this group of elderly Japanese Canadians because there are stairs in the visitor's gallery and whatnot, could I come and help out. That is how I knew that there was going to be a public apology. It was kept under wraps. Of course, the agreement had been negotiated several weeks before but it was certainly not of public knowledge. The day before September twenty-second I was called by the House of Commons and was asked to help out, and I knew. It was such a fantastic day, such a fantastic feeling. I was in the gallery with a small group of people who had been interned and the joy and the kind of exuberance that you could read on their faces, it was priceless. It was amazing.
LJ
This was news to them but, in some respects, you had been involved in this for a while so I suspect that this was coming as a bit of a collective surprise in the gallery? Because the idea that this was going to be public was not known, you said, so if ...
SO
Well, you know, I can't speak for the others but it was so ... being in the House of Commons and hearing the honorable Brian Mulroney deliver the apology ... In a way it was surprising because it was like the little group that achieved something big. Of course, the Japanese Canadian community did not achieve redress alone. It had a lot of allies. It had a lot of support and help from other Canadians. What the surprise was that finally the agreement was reached because it was years in the making and I don't know how many ministers of state and cabinet ministers the National Association of Japanese Canadians had to meet with but they prevailed. It wasn't a sense of shock and surprise on the people's faces because they, the people in the gallery that day knew that the apology was to be delivered.
LJ
But there must have been something on their faces.
SO
Oh, golly, I don't think I have told anybody this but Mas Tagashi was one of the people in the gallery at the time and Mas Tagashi is a well-known community member here in Ottawa. He is the co-founder, with his wife, of a very celebrated martial arts dojo. Mas is a very strong guy and I remember he was weeping and I had tissues and I passed them to him and I didn't know if he wanted people to know he was weeping so I was kind of discreet in doing so. Of course, now I realize that's a wonderful thing. That's great. Show your emotion, that is wonderful. But that is a bit of a surprise to me actually because, perhaps, we don't, I'm not used to public displays of such deep-seated emotion so maybe that was the surprise.
01:30:26.000
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LJ
I can't imagine what it would have been like to leave the public gallery like that day. Just the shuffling out.
SO
Well, there was a lot going on because after the apology was delivered there was a press conference to talk about the components of the redress agreement. I remember we were allowed to go into the press conference and I remember seeing Joy Kogawa sitting on the window ledge of this large room because it must have been standing room only because there was no chair for her. She was perched like a little figure on the window ledge and I remember Wendy Mesley was in the room and she told me to be careful of the cables because there were cables on the floor for the cameras and not to trip because we weren't used to being in this kind of room. The visitors in the gallery, Mas Tagashi and other community members, they, I think, were just happy to be privy to this event, to this information.
LJ
Do you ... I have to imagine that you look at the parliament building differently after that.
SO
After the redress agreement I feel that the April 1988 rally on Parliament Hill was really the turning point for the redress agreement and the turning point for me in terms of the way I look at parliament because it was such a beautiful sight that day. I mean, you can't imagine what it looked like for all these Japanese Canadians, some very elderly with these beautiful streamers, they were called ribbons of hope. These ribbons with names of people who are not able to be at the rally, fluttering in the breeze, and these placards that had pictures and mottos and just the people, you know, converging on the hill and then going into the parliament buildings because this rally also had a series of speeches and addresses by allies and people in the community. That really changed things. It was, actually, a source of pride I'd have to say that Parliament Hill and the parliament buildings were so accessible to us. Things have changed, somewhat now, because of events in 2014 but yeah it was very open and that was a big change.
LJ
One could easily have said “1988, we did a lot, job well done” and not feel compelled to continue to serve or work for the Japanese Canadian community. “A lot happened, we got an official apology, the shame is lifted” but that becomes a catalyst for you and not the end point. Maybe you can explain how that invigorated you or energized you to spend a lifetime involved in many different ways on this front.
01:35:04.000
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SO
Well, I have to admit that it was easier to be energized and motivated and fully engaged at the time of the redress campaign because it was a very big thing. It was a very big achievement and it was something worth fighting for, okay? It hasn't been as easy to feel as fully engaged and after redress was achieved then it's more the day to day. It was very easy to be excited and energized but what's kept me in the game, because it's almost thirty years later, is gaps and unfulfilled initiatives or unfulfilled potential. For example, now that a lot of members of our community are downsizing or they've passed away and their heirs are downsizing the big family house and getting rid of parts of the documentary history it's a wakeup call that “oh, my goodness. If we don't grab and preserve and curate and make accessible this part of our history then it can be lost very very quickly” so that's something that ... it's a rescue mission, right?
LJ
What are you rescuing?
SO
I'm rescuing history, or I want to rescue history. I want to rescue really compelling stories that deserve to be part of a legacy.
LJ
So this would stand to reason that you must inundate your children with stories.
SO
Oh my gosh, Josh. That's such an alarming thing. For sure I have a personal work plan and there is a column for legacy activities. Sadly, this column is not being filled up very quickly but I think that the history of the Japanese Canadian community is my history. So even if I don't succeed in documenting my own family's story, if I contribute to the documenting and dissemination of the stories of other people in the community that's good. That's good. But yeah, you're right. I want to document my own family's stories. My children never knew their grandparents so it would ... I'm the only informant that can tell them about their grandparents so, yeah, there's a certain urgency too in those personal pursuits but I think it's really of greater importance to have the community's stories told.
LJ
What worries you about looking ahead in the community and what excites you?
01:40:00.000
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SO
What worries me is if we become too parochial that we will fail to attract and involve newcomers to our community, new generations of Japanese or Nikkei or Japanese Canadians, so we have to be evolving and reach out particularly to Japanese speaking newcomers to Ottawa which I think we have not been very successful in doing. So your question was what is my fear and what excites me? The exciting part is, in fact, the opportunities there are to reach out to new and untapped resources and, you know, new participants in community life.
LJ
There are, as you know, Japanese communities and folks who have come from Japan from recently and sometimes they don't always find an easy home within the Japanese Canadian identity.
SO
Yeah, but won't it be a beautiful thing if we did? If we did come together.
LJ
I was going to ask what do you think are the challenges that hold those two groups apart sometimes?
SO
Language, for sure, and needs. I know that young Japanese women who marry Canadian men their immediate concerns are not Japanese Canadian history or what is the heritage of the Nikkei community. Their concerns are immediate, about education, about how they are going to bring up their children, where they are going to get Japanese food, things like that. The day to day but I'm convinced that once this segment of the community becomes established and knows that they are going to make their lives here in Canada that they will be more interested in curious about what happened before they came.
LJ
That could be a tough conversation right? I would think it could be a tough conversation at times. We wave different flags. They may be still very attached to Japan and some other members of the community may be very attached to Canada. How does that conversation happen for you?
SO
I think, if we are welcoming and willing to embrace different perspective and ensuring that we have programs and services that are of interest to newcomers, that we eventually will expand our reach.
LJ
Yeah, I think for newcomers it's not something they could be implicated in but it's a part of history that implicates people and places that they may be very familiar with. The possibilities for finger pointing feel simple when you start getting people together and saying “you're country did terrible things to my country which did terrible things to me.”
SO
Oh, golly. I don't think we draw those links and definitely we don't blame this generation of new Japanese immigrants for transgressions of the past. I was part of the JET program in the early days of the JET program. In the early '90s I went to Japan as an assistant English teacher and in the English reader, in the junior high school I was at, there was a very small excerpt of a work in English on Manzanar one of the big Japanese American concentration camps in California.
01:45:29.000
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SO
In the line drawings, the illustrations for the little girl who's telling the story, she did not look Japanese at all. In fact, she had as much as in a black and white illustration can have colour, she did not have dark hair. She had light hair and Caucasian features and I thought, wow. I mean, on the one hand it's great that this type of story is being told but what kind of skewed logic is it to have this Japanese American not look Japanese. I think there are opportunities to correct that, sort of, misconception that was perpetuated in this story, that Japanese Americans look Caucasian.
LJ
Laughs. And those are probably challenges that we don't face today as you rightly admit. But it's that sort of thing that I think that is behind the question or the challenge where in that little cartoon the Japanese American has been, sort of, a racialized Caucasian. Or, at least, non-Japanese or blank, if that's possible. Yeah, and to your point that there might be more things that unite than divide.
SO
And this is a small community, there just isn't, you know ... I think the opportunities to come together on collective activities are there and I think it's working with other people on an activity or an event that you get to know them and, you know, if the event is successful everybody is happy.
LJ
Do you ever imagine, when you look at some of the more elderly folks who come up to an event that your parents are here at the Ottawa Japanese Community Association or they are coming to an event that you put on and, if so or if not, can you imagine their participation in some of the events that you've organized, been of part of, and what they might think or how they might appreciate the work that you've done?
SO
Wow, that's quite a set of imaginings. I think that my parents were of a generation where they believed in people doing things out of a sense of duty and that to be overly effusive in your praise or pride ... it was just not done. I think my parents, if they were alive today and if they were coming out to, say, the twenty-fifth anniversary of redress celebration, they would come out. They would feel pride. They would be happy I was involved in such undertakings but they might not say anything.
LJ
Fair enough.
SO
And that's fine. Just like my mother probably knew a heck of a lot more about the Japanese Canadian internment than her Canadian history professor at Concordia, but she chose not to show off, as it were.
01:50:15.000
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LJ
It's a balance though, right, between showing off and sharing.
SO
Correct.
LJ
It's a line to certainly walk and to try to facilitate that out of people and to get those stories without feeling like we've told too much of ourselves.
SO
That is why I think your undertaking is so interesting and the fact that many of your informants are quite pleased to talk about ... well, pleased, they're willing participants in telling stories which don't always reflect well. Perhaps, I don't know. I haven't heard the stories. I'm very interested in ...
LJ
Yeah, I hope that people come willingly because we don't want anyone to be, sort of, dragged against their will to the interview table. I think getting people to reflect, and hopefully folks that are of a certain age are able to do that now and to look back on, as you say, a life lived and more parts to it than simply a war or simply a designation as an enemy alien.
SO
I would like to talk about prejudice in various guises, shall we say, because I've said that mother was not a proponent of Japanese Canadian redress towards the end of her life and that she died before the movement really caught on. I think she felt that other Canadians lumped us all together; Japan, Japanese Canadians. She felt that people didn't make that distinction and if I, as her daughter, couldn't wrap my head around the fact that there could be internment camps within Canada for Canadian citizens, then can you imagine the general population? How could they ... they would think we were liars. I will say that when I was growing up, you know, until I was into my teens basically everyday somebody would say some ethnic slur but rarely call me a Jap. Until I was about the age of ten people would call me ching-chong, chink, all these, you know, “Chinese, dirty knees, look at these” but when I was about ten a child called me a Jap and I stopped in my tracks because that was the first time anybody had gotten the right ethnic group, okay? It's a curious thing. When I grew up in the early '60s, kids were still playing war and still playing, you know, Nazis versus the good guys but perhaps the general awareness in my community of Verdun was not there and it was a bad thing and yet it was a good thing because I wasn't associated with war atrocities or that side. But it was a very curious thing.
LJ
Yeah, I was going to ask you about the Chinese Canadian community, if it existed and whether or not the Caucasian residents around your neighbourhood lumped you all together.
01:55:16.000
01:55:16.000
LJ
You suggested that might have been the case a little bit there with the early slurs but did you find any kinship between the Japanese Canadian community and the Chinese Canadian community?
SO
Well, in fact, no. In fact, I didn't feel so much a kinship with the Japanese Canadian community as a young child because we were so not used to seeing other Asians and that is a direct outcome of the diaspora, of the Japanese Canadian diaspora. We were just not used to seeing other Asians and when I did see another Asian I, sort of, shrank. It was very odd. It was almost as if I'd be made fun of because there was another one in the vicinity. Very, very odd. It took me a long time to get over that and you have to understand that, okay, in 1967, yeah, multiculturalism became to be something positive but in the early '60s, no. So, can you imagine if I felt that way about other Japanese Canadians, how going to another Asian ethnic group, Chinese Canadians, that would be even more difficult to feel any kinship?
LJ
Sure, yeah.
SO
Times are very different now, though.
LJ
So, who were your friends when you were walking to school or having a play date? Were there friends that you can distinctly remember and were they within the Japanese community? Who were they?
SO
In my school there was one other family that was Japanese Canadian and there was probably one or two families that were Chinese Canadian, so the numbers weren't there to have a fully mixed and integrated circle of friends. But I think more telling is the feelings I had towards other Japanese Canadians and I didn't want to associate with them even at group activities, the Buddhist church bazaar. I liked going. I liked going for the food, for the ... just as an outing but I didn't seek out the company of other kids there. That's a contributing factor, I think, to the high out-marriage rate of the Japanese Canadian community. You know, we marry outside our ethnic group. I'm not the only one who felt awkward around other Japanese Canadians until I was in university. Yeah, around that time Obasan came out. In fact, it was at McGill, a social for Japanese Canadians and I did meet other people of my demographic and it was fine. It was fine, but growing up, no.
02:00:00.000
02:00:00.000
LJ
You say it was fine, but it wasn't affirming or validating or fun it was ...
SO
It didn't seem awkward at least, which is a great step forward.
LJ
But this wasn't like you were hitting it off like a house on fire?
SO
No, however, no longer repelled by coming into contact with another Japanese Canadian young person, you know, potential mate.
LJ
What do you think it was that was so challenging about other Japanese Canadians for you?
SO
Of my own age group?
LJ
Sure.
SO
I just felt that they were, perhaps, too much like myself, you know, maybe not very outgoing, a bit too bookish, a bit too, you know, homebodies, a bit awkward. I really do think it was a time where ethnic differences were not embraced and were not encouraged. It's a number of factors and definitely just not being in a Japanese Canadian community. I've heard some very telling stories about being in Hastings Park and people didn't feel discriminated against because there weren't any discriminators at the park so it felt okay and somewhat comforting in a challenging kind of way. But, in Verdun where it was pretty white, yeah, you felt awkward. So I think by the time I was in university community values had changed and there was an opening up of immigration, I would say more immigrants from other countries and, yeah, change is gradual. I'm glad it happened and I'm glad it happened in a natural way, you know?
LJ
When you think about prejudice, is the prejudice coming mostly from the neighbourhood from Caucasian kids and neighbours in Verdun or was this prejudice something more than that, bigger than that versus something that you mostly felt in childhood in Quebec?
SO
I'm going to respond to your question but it's not an answer, okay? It's a response. When I look back at my very early childhood up until grade two or something, it's really hard to believe how much abuse I took every day and it just wouldn't go down that way now because every day I ran the gauntlet of these kids coming out from another school. I would say, within our own school, I didn't get a lot of verbal abuse but my school, which was the protestant elementary school let out at the same time as the Catholic high school and can you imagine?
02:05:09.000
02:05:09.000
LJ
Well that sounds like a recipe for disaster. Yeah but can you imagine high school kids picking on a cute little girl every day. It just seemed to be so funny but it didn't ... maybe there's some deep ... it had some deep impact on me. Maybe that can explain certain character faults or whatever in the adult me but, at the time, my mother was adamant that you held your head up high, you ignored it, and if it got too bad you just said “I am Canadian” as if that would make you invincible. But, I bought it. I bought it. That's what I did. I never told anybody. My mother never called up the principal. It was just something to be endured. Yeah, the old Gaman. I think I emerged unscathed. Maybe there's some deep-rooted psychological trauma there but it was just the way things were. I remember, distinctly, when the first black kid came to our school and “oh!” there was just such a buzz of excitement and we had decided we were going to treat him just like everybody else and one kid said “oh, have you seen the chocolate faced boy” and I knew that was wrong and “where did she get that” and, you know, it was just the way things were.
LJ
And so, fortunately, that level of verbal abuse, that kind of prodding you were taking on the way home from school is not something that you've seen with your own children?
SO
Of course, it's wrong to say that prejudice is dead.
LJ
Well, it's not. It's whatever you think
SO
That type of overt name calling and, you know, no adult ever defended me in the street or anything like that. That would not happen now.
LJ
Is there still prejudice in or out of the Japanese Canadian community? Because you said “I want to talk about prejudice” so I wonder...
SO
Well, I guess, the reason I wanted to talk about prejudice is it's a lived experience that in some regards was a result of being in a community that was not where ... that was an effect of the diaspora. I think it's more, well, there was harm in scattering the Japanese Canadians after the war. There was harm in that but, if you ask my mother, there was good in that because from her perspective it took people out of a ghetto and it forced people to learn better English, speak better English, integrate.
LJ
She spoke pretty good English.
SO
She spoke very good English
LJ
And wrote beautifully, apparently.
SO
She wrote beautifully but this was a, well, it's a double edged sword. From my mother's perspective, and I'm, you know, judging here. I think she would have said that there was more good than harm of taking the Japanese Canadians outside of their communities.
02:10:05.000
02:10:05.000
SO
Myself, I see it a little bit differently and I think it would have happened more gradually. I remember by mother deploring Japanese English because, perhaps, in your other interviews or interactions with informants you've come across the way in which people have used English.
LJ
I don't know. What is Japanese English?
SO
For example, some of my relatives, when they speak in English they'd say “anone” or “ne ne” or “aso” or “asoka”. They would punctuate their English with Japanese phrase endings. My mother, it drove her crazy. “Oh, there's no need to say ne ne so so or yes” or whatever in English. For example, my father's family would say “decko” for the floor. They would be speaking Japanese. They used the word for deck, like the deck of a boat, and to just add a syllable at the end, a vowel at the end to make it Japanese. She was a purist. She felt that you ... she valued English that was English sounding and Japanese that was Japanese and hybrid language was not a good thing.
LJ
It sounds like she had a lot of struggles with hybridity. Not just in language. The idea of a Japanese hyphen Canadian was a bit of a struggle for her.
SO
Oh, okay. That's an interesting point and it's a fine point because my mother didn't reject the Japanese side of her and I can't remember if we said Japanese Canadian but to the bullies we had to be Canadian. It was our birth right to be here like anybody else walking on the sidewalk and nobody should push you off the sidewalk or call you names. Yeah, my mother was a complex individual. I loved her dearly. I admired her but she had a melancholy side that, not knowing anything more, I can only attribute to her very difficult wartime experience as one of the main factors.
LJ
Your dad doesn't sound like a melancholy guy, he sounds like a renaissance man in some respects.
SO
laughs. But my father was not ... my sister and I have had this discussion, a three way discussion with my 101 year old aunt, about my father because he was very smart but he was a bit, as my aunt would say, “rosie was rosie” and I said “was he awkward? Was he sociable?” and she said “no, he just had his own way of doing things” and it didn't translate into financial success or status. Even though people relied on him for a lot of things, help with translation, you know, community work but when you look at other people of his generation who had gone to university, Japanese Canadians, after the war they were able to pull something together and have companies or whatnot. My aunt says that he wasn't a pushy person, he didn't push himself, he didn't promote himself and, you know, success and status ... I can't say I'm so successful or so of, you know, having achieved a certain status so I'm not as caught up in that kind of discussion but he didn't, perhaps, make it but he was not as acutely damaged by the internment as was my mom.
LJ
Well, a phone ringing is sometimes a good sign. We've spent a lot of time so I want to thank you very much for your generosity of time so I'll pause it here.
02:17:07.000

Metadata

Title

Sachiko Okuda, interviewed by Josh Labove, 23 January 2016

Abstract

Sachiko Okuda reflects on her parents’ experiences and positions regarding the periods of internment, dispossession, and redress. She talks about the importance of the personal items that her parents took with them to the internment camps as well as how they felt about British Columbia after internment had come to an end. Sachiko then marvels at the bravery of the senior Japanese Canadian community as they marched on Parliament Hill demanding justice. Later, Sachiko explains her visit to British Columbia and how, by chance, she met a woman who knew her mother during their younger years. Sachiko then moves on to describe who her parents were, what they did for work and fun, and how they dressed. She tells the story of how she got involved in the Japanese Canadian Redress movement as well as the factors which continue to motivate her work as the president of the Ottawa Japanese Canadian Association.

Credits

Interviewer: Josh Labove
Interviewee: Sachiko Okuda
XML Encoder: Stewart Arneil
Publication Information: See Terms of Use for publication and licensing information.
Setting: Ottawa, Ontario
Keywords: House of Commons; National Association of Japanese Canadians ; Brian Mulroney ; Apology; UBC ; Tashme ; Redress ; Joy Kogawa ; Obasan; Qualicum Beach; Montreal ; Toronto ; Ottawa Japanese Canadian Association; Concordia University; Parliament Hill; 1940s – 1990s

Terminology

Readers of these historical materials will encounter derogatory references to Japanese Canadians and euphemisms used to obscure the intent and impacts of the internment and dispossession. While these are important realities of the history, the Landscapes of Injustice Research Collective urges users to carefully consider their own terminological choices in writing and speaking about this topic today as we confront past injustice. See our statement on terminology, and related sources here.