Mark Sakamoto, interviewed by Alexander Pekic, 18 December 2015

Mark Sakamoto, interviewed by Alexander Pekic, 18 December 2015

Abstract
Mark speaks about his grandparents' dispossession and experience of being sent to work on a farm in Taber, Alberta following their removal from Steveston, and his family eventually settling in Medicine Hat. He also discusses his coming to know of their story and its meaning to him personally, as well as his feelings about what their story means to society more broadly.
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Alexander Pekic (AP)
So it's recording. We are interviewing Mark Sakomoto today on December 18th 2015 for the Landscapes of Injustice research project. Mark, thank you very much for speaking with us.
Mark Sakamoto (MS)
Uhuh, my pleasure, thanks Alex.
AP
Thank you. so like I mentioned before you're sort of interested in hearing about how the internment and such - how you came to know of it and what you know about your parents or grandparents and their experience?
MS
Sure, so, I was born in 1977 in Medicine Hat, Alberta. I was born in Medicine Hat Alberta because my grandfather and grandmother were interned in Taber in a sugar beet farm. After the second World War they were allowed to - soon thereafter, months after, they - all Japanese Canadians were, sort of, free to return. But like many of them, because they had lost all of their material possessions, they really were unable to go anywhere. So the war - the war really lingered with my grandparents right up until 1948. So they didn't leave Taber, having been moved out to Taber in '43. The war sort of just continued on, it was really a war of poverty as well as a war of racism and the racist policy that took them out there. I said it was a racist policy because the facts on the ground, the military facts on the ground - and this is from my own research, not listening to my grandparents about this fact, because they actually never spoke about this fact. But in reviewing historical documents, it was the RCMP, it was the Navy, it was the heads of the military, in a Senate hearing stating factually that there is no Japanese threat, either internal or external. The Battle of Midway in 1942 decimated the Japanese Navy. So unless the Japanese Imperial Navy was coming over in rowboats, there was really no possible platform by which Japanese forces could attack North America. And that's what the military brass said. The RCMP - even though all radios were confiscated, all forms of communication were confiscated and all forms of physical communication were dramatically impeded - by way of curfews, by way of not being able to congregate over a certain amount of people. Even though all those things took place, or all of those things took place, even though the RCMP said there was no internal Japanese threat - and I think the statistics in terms of actual arrests certainly speak to that. So this war on poverty, or what started as a racial policy - after the Battle of Midway, even after the Battle of Midway - this policy still continued in Japanese folks were moved at least one hundred miles off the coast. My grandparents, because my grandfather and grandmother were married, they were able, quote unquote able, quote unquote lucky Mark makes the quote signs in the air - in fact, what was shocking is that they actually felt lucky about this in the sense that they got to stay together as a family. So they moved to Taber, or we move to Taber rather and lived on a series of farms where they worked under really grueling conditions for really no money at all. It was essentially slave labor. They were paid but it was essentially slave labor in a series of structures I guess we call home.
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MS
I think the third home, the third family farm home was an actual home. The first home, quote on quote home Mark makes the quote signs in the air was a modified chicken coop. I think that was quite common. Most farmers would have migrants in the summer. So they had summer homes, slash, on the back of a chicken coop where migrant workers would work in the summer. So these were not insulated. There was slots in between the walls and my grandma could see right through. This was a dramatic - my grandparents were second generation Canadians. Both were born in Vancouver, in BC. my great-grandfather being one of the men in the first waves to come over primarily as fishermen. My great-grandfather was actually quite a skilled fisherman and quite entrepreneurial. He managed to receive two licenses. Salmon fishing in the summer the other cod fishing in the winter that required a bigger boat. But because you have the two licenses he could fish year round and make a lot more money for his family. And therefore required two boats and purchased two boats. And he was quite a - Yosuke was his name - and he was quite a - and now I am talking about my maternal great-grandfather, my grandmother's father. He was very, for the 30s, the 20s and 30s - my grandmother was born in 1920 and had four siblings. He was very progressive. My grandmother's sisters received post secondary educations. The youngest whose education was stopped during the internment actually went on and received her Ph.D. So very highly educated people from a background of not extravagant wealth, but wealth. Two fishing boats, waterfront property, living a very vibrant, dual life in Vancouver in the sense that they were integrated into the Canadian education system, but also after public school would come home and do another 2 hours of Japanese classes, and it was very integrated into the Steveston Japanese Canadian community. So very rich vibrant life that had a lot of - luxury is not the right word - but was accustomed to a middle-class lifestyle. So losing everything and being sent on a train into - it might have as well been Mars - was a very traumatic experience for them to go through. They then moved and we can unpack that a little bit as well, but just to sort of take you further into how I got here - my grandparents moved to Medicine Hat. They had never farmed a day in their life outside of the sugar beet farm, but that was the one thing they thought, maybe we'll make a go of farming. Jobs were a little bit hard to come by for Japanese Canadians. Most mayors has said publicly “Japs aren't allowed”. These where editorial comments in most of western Canada. The sentiment was, essentially, it's time to go home. Go back to BC, and in fact old Japanese Canadians nearly dodged being sent right back to Japan after the Second World War, which is just incredible to think about. These are Canadian citizens being sent back as - after two atomic bombs had just been dropped on a country, and the economy was ruined. It's almost unfathomable to think about, but it almost happened. So they moved to Medicine Hat and started farming. Fortunately after a couple of years of farming leased land, there was a banker at the Bank of Nova Scotia who had spent a lot of his career banking in BC and had lent a lot of money to Japanese Canadians, primarily so they could get a license and a boat, but only had good dealings with Japanese Canadians in BC.
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MS
He moved to Medicine Hat and although my grandparents had absolutely no money, he lent them enough - a couple of families enough to scrape together and buy some of their own land. And so my grandparents farmed in Medicine Hat, just outside of Medicine Hat for the rest of their careers. My father was the first Japanese Canadian born in Medicine Hat, Alberta. My dad stayed in Medicine Hat, married a gal who lived in Calgary whose father - this is sort of a sidetrack, but this is why I know so much about this - whose father joined the war effort, wanted to go fight in Europe, was sent to Hong Kong. And of course Hong Kong fell soon after Pearl Harbor as that was part of a broader Japanese Imperial Army campaign that stretched throughout the Philippines and all the way to Hong Kong. He was captured, as all Canadian Forces were during the fall of Hong Kong. If they weren't killed they were captured and he spent the balance of the war as a Japanese POW. So that's an interesting side twist. But my father Stan Sakamoto grew up in Medicine Hat and stayed in Medicine Hat as an entrepreneur. And so I was born in Medicine Hat. After law school I had an opportunity to write a book about my grandparents' experience - both sides of my family' experiences, it's called Forgiveness. So that's how I came to know much more about my grandparents' experience. I'd save growing up - and I now live in Toronto, Canada - I'd say growing up, because I was fascinated with history I did probe quite a bit, and asked, spoke to my grandparents about the war years. I'm sure if you've done one interview, you've heard this, and I know you've done more so I'm sure you've heard this a lot. My grandparents were reluctant to talk about the war years. I think that's twofold. One, there's a universal Japanese sentiment around anything tragic that happens. But certainly this where there is so much out of your control, 'shigatiganay' is what you hear a lot. While there are a couple of translations, at its core it means it cannot be helped, so don't dwell on it. So my grandmother would tell me a little bit about what happened. I knew the skeleton of it. I didn't know the guts of it, the details before writing the book. It would always end on a cup of tea and 'shigatiganay'. I actually had quite a difficult time with that saying for a long time. I thought it was a weak response. I thought it was 'there's nothing we can do so let's just sort of, take the kicks and be polite about it'. as I came to unpack the story more, it dawned on me that it was actually a strength. It's a strength to be able to pivot and to say, “You know what, I'm not going to let” - it's easy to harbor and trade in anger and frustration and resentment. It's much harder, particularly, during that time when they did it, when there was still a lot anti Japanese sentiment. There was still a lot of racism. Both from a personal perspective in these very white towns throughout western Canada and elsewhere.
00:15:01.000
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MS
And from a systemic level, a government level in terms of no apology for a long time - not until Mulroney in the 80s. Certainly no meaning for financial compensation. I think my grandparents received - actually not I think - they received $25.16 and I think that that is quite common. That's two boats, a house. Their entire life possessions on a piece of paper. When my grandpa saw the bill he thought for sure it was a mistake and had to go into Lethbridge to validate the claim within a court. What a juxtaposition to be in a Canadian Court were you are, where the scales of justice are blazed on the front door, and you are there essentially acquiescing to the robbing of your entire life's possession. and to do it because you need the fucking $25.16. That's just terrible. Anyway, so they would not say too much about it because there was almost a philosophy around it. What are going to do, you needed the money, you got the money and things are okay now, they are better now. They live the life of not extreme poverty at all, but they were always very conscious of their spending. So I think there is a I don't think philosophical is the right word to use, but I'm sure it's a universal theme on that front. The other thing is just straight up fear. They didn't want to talk, and this is crazy too, when I was talking to my grandparents about this I was talking to them in the 90s, I'm a teenager talking to them about this particularly my grandmother. My grandfather was born in Canada, but he went back to Japan and was educated in Japan and then spend a lot of time in the lumber camps of BC - late teens, graduated when he was 18. So 18 to like 24 or something like that, while he was still in Canada, you know very much in a Japanese culture, speaking Japanese. So he was very, he was sort of, quite a scholarly man. His English was never very good, it was always very broken English. So I would communicate mostly with my grandmother. And so in the 90s when I was talking to her about it, and her experiences, she would always be very reticent for me - she would tell me things, but she was always very reticent for me to tell other people things. And I think when you go through something like this, because their life seemed so secure in the 30s, even though from an economic point of view there was the Great Depression, they were really insulated from that. They were fishing, and you know there was always anti-Japanese and anti-Chinese sentiment. But my grandma grew up living a really great childhood and things seemed secure. The fish loads would come in, and she was going to school and enjoying her Canadian classes, and then enjoying her Japanese classes. Life was good. And it all changed like that Mark snaps his fingers. And so I think they lived the rest of their lives, not in imminent threat of it happening again, but knowing that it can, changes the way that you think about things. Even though Medicine Hat in the 90s was a great place for me to grow up and all that stuff, I think she was always in the back of her mind and retelling the story, cognizant of us not being seen as whiners or dwelling on it. One, because she didn't want us to be seen as whiners, but I think she also - didn't want you know - to be complicit in a subsequent rise of racism in a way.
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MS
Both the personal stuff that you get, or the government - the macro racist policy. They would talk about the general path, in broad generalities, but she never got into the details until I signed the book deal with Harper Collins in 2011 - which really made, my grandmother was still alive thank goodness. She was 93 when we started doing interviews just like this. And those were some of the most sacred nights of my life, talking to her about - really getting into the details of those injurious years. And you know, that's where the cliché the devil is in the details really came to life. They were subjected to what was, certainly one of the most destructive policies that the federal government has ever committed. The one thing I would say, particularly in 2015 - that is of significance today, is that racism always comes wrapped in the flag. It always does. You never get to a grand policy, like moving thousands of people hundreds of miles and taking all of their possessions - and arresting their lives. It never starts there. It always starts in smaller - always the beginning steps are almost imperceptible. But it escalates, and it escalates, and fear feeds fear, and resentment feeds resentment. And then you get on a path where doing something as horrific as what was done seems like a natural progression. It seems like almost fucking logical. And it's sold as something that is logical. That is a warning that - if there is one thing that my grandparents would warn, it is that. I've dropped two f-bombs in this so far. I apologize for that. Alex and Mark laugh
AP
No problem. Alex and Mark laugh
AP
I'm wondering - you mentioned, they had a house and two boats. Do you know the name of the boats by any chance? Where the house was? Any of that?
MS
It was outside of a cannery.
AP
In Steveston?
MS
Yeah, just outside, exactly. And the boat names, I actually don't know. I have your email address?
AP
Yup.
MS
I can - I'll take a look and see if I can find that.
AP
Sure. Have you ever visited that area?
MS
Yeah, yeah, I did. In fact, both areas. I walked - Steveston actually has a wonderful path that actually has a couple of the homes. Where my grandma lived is not the same anymore, so it is not as accessible. But I have walked through there, I still have a lot of family, and some of my grandmother's siblings were able to move back to Richmond and the surrounding areas. So I do have a lot of family in Steveston. So I actually spend a considerable amount of time there. But I was also able to visit the first site that my grandmother and grandfather lived in, in Alberta. It's not standing anymore but you can see the structure. And that was I think even more moving because it hasn't changed that much, it's still a bald, cold, desolate place.
00:25:05.000
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MS
And you can imagine - the wind sounds the same, the cold air feels the same, and you really - I got a much better sense as to how alienating the land was for her. You can even still see it. I mean she'd lived in Southern Alberta for the rest of her life. I think I visited a specific location with her in '89, or something like that, and I just remember her, even though only a couple miles down the road from where she currently lived, it was so far away. It took her back, just immediately. And it felt like when she landed, when she got off the train in Lethbridge and got on to this - the back of this farmers truck and got out into the middle of this field, she felt like she was on Mars, and she might as well have been on Mars, right? They could only bring - It's not like they could bring a lot, it's not like they had a lot to bring anyway, but even on top of having most of their possessions stripped from them, you could only bring a certain amount of weight with you. So they were forced to make these terrible decisions, like - because they didn't know where they were going, and what the conditions would be like - so they were forced to make these decisions, like do we bring the family kimono, do we bring our wedding pictures. or do we bring rice? Or do we bring water? This is literally what most people did. I still have, actually - my grandfather, Hideo Sakomoto, was a total pack-rat. And if it wasn't for my grandma, he would have been a hoarder. He kept just everything. And so after he died, he lived to be 95 in Medicine Hat, he passed away when he was 95, no sorry, 96. And we cleaned out the garage. And his garage was just packed to the rafters. And at the very back of the garage, probably because it was one of the first things that was put in the garage - in 1952 when he moved into the house - was a tea box. A big tea box about 2 feet by 3 feet. And I actually brought it, shipped it to Toronto and took it to the ROM and cleaned up and fixed up as best they could. But it was tinned. This tea box was tinned because of the small amount of weight that they could bring, they brought a tinned box of rice. It was literally about a quarter of the weight that they could carry. And it was just food, the basic staple of their life. And thank goodness that they did because for the first winter they did not have a lot of food. So --
AP
Do you still have that box?
MS
I do, yeah. It's featured prominently in my house. For me - it's actually the cover of my book -it's an actual picture of the box. For me it's such a wonderful and terrible reminder of the sacrifices that they made during that period. The sacrifices that they were forced into, the dilemmas they were forced into. We don't think about it in today's world because our family photo albums are digital, they are in the cloud somewhere. They were forced to choose between the sentimentality of their life. And that was our Canadian government that did that. And that was our government that was going to war to fight that very same terrible sentiment. And it was happening to Japanese, to Canadians. Not - you know, folks that were born in this country, as their countrymen.
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MS
So it's for me, I kept it because, it shows what they're made of and how they could survive and how strong they were. And how this box is strong too. It's still around, and it can still serve its purpose. There's that in it for me. But it's also kind of getting back to that warning. That kind of -- that things can move quickly. And so only the thing that we as Canadians can do, and what you and Landscapes of Injustice is doing very well, is not remembering for the sake of remembering. I remember many things that are meaningless - what the A-Team van looks like. A whole bunch of things. Who cares? But remembering with a vigilance. Remembering with an eye to the future as much as it is to the past. In today's world, even though we are one of the finest countries in the world - we were one of the finest countries in the world in 1943. We were the good guys in 1943. But even good guys can do bad things and even good guys can make mistakes. But the big mistakes never happen as a one-off. It's never a tripping into a massive mistake. You make 19 small mistakes first. And so we as Canadians need to be very vigilant, that, that first mistake, when it is talked about, if it is talked about, it is seen for what it is. And I do worry about that today. I worry about it a little less, but you know the world right now is - if you were a Muslim Canadian and you were picking up the Globe and Mail or any, you know, newspaper across the country, and certainly watching American television, or reading a French or a British, or Danish newspaper - you are very concerned. And you should be, and we all should be. So these are the kinds of lessons from the past that particularly today, where there is a group of folks that are being put into one sort of big bucket, by some folks. We need to be vigilant, and we need to look to our past. So I wish you guys the best of luck in doing what you are doing.
AP
I know you are pressed for time, so perhaps, that might be a sentiment that you might want to end on? Unless, you want to keep speaking.
MS
That's fine. I would - I mean I think that's what I came to with my book, was really that it's this notion that there is no point of knowing the past if you aren't looking to the future as well. And my grandparents in their lives we're able to take those injurious years and not dwell on them. And appreciate at least that it made them stronger. But certainly refused to pass on those transgressions to their children, and their children grew up loving this country as their grandchildren certainly do. Loving the country in an authentic and knowledgeable way. I know like just any person, nobody is perfect. You don't expect that. This country, although I do believe it is the finest country in the world, and the most compassionate country in the world, it has made mistakes and it can certainly make mistakes in the future. So those folks that are knowledgeable about the mistakes that have been made, should be the first to stand up and say 'I've seen this before. I know where it can lead.' So being vigilant about those first small mistakes that a country can make, I think is very, very important.
00:35:01.000
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MS
So I hope that is something that Landscapes of Injustice can really be a beacon for. To ensure that these things stay in the past as past mistakes, and not repeatable offenses.
AP
Ok, thanks so much Mark.
MS
Yeah, my pleasure. Thanks Alex.
AP
Thank you.
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Metadata

Title

Mark Sakamoto, interviewed by Alexander Pekic, 18 December 2015

Abstract

Mark speaks about his grandparents' dispossession and experience of being sent to work on a farm in Taber, Alberta following their removal from Steveston, and his family eventually settling in Medicine Hat. He also discusses his coming to know of their story and its meaning to him personally, as well as his feelings about what their story means to society more broadly.

Credits

Interviewer: Alexander Pekic
Interviewee: Mark Sakamoto
XML Encoder: Stewart Arneil
Publication Information: See Terms of Use for publication and licensing information.
Setting: Mark Sakamoto's Office, Toronto, ON
Keywords: Medicine Hat; Taber ; Steveston ; Vancouver ; Lethbridge ; Toronto ; fishing; racism; farming; grandparents; 1920s-present

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.