Keo Shibatani, interviewed by Josh Labove, 14 September 2015 (2 of 2)

Keo Shibatani, interviewed by Josh Labove, 14 September 2015 (2 of 2)

Abstract
Keo begins the interview explaining the reason why he chose to participate in a Landscapes of Injustice oral history interview. He then moves on to describe his earliest childhood memories, what life was like at home in Fairview before and during the outbreak of the war, and whether he experienced any racial discrimination. Keo states that his happiest moments came from playing baseball both before and during the war. He also played baseball at the Tashme internment camp. He explains why, unlike other Japanese Canadians, he chose not to volunteer to fight in the war. Keo reflects on his father’s decision to take the family to Japan and also comments on what life was like in that country. Near the end of the interview Keo talks about the most prized possession he kept with him at the internment camp as well as any life lessons from that experience he passed on to his children.
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Labove Joshua (LJ)
It is September 14, 2015, I'm Josh Labove at Ryerson University with the Landscapes of Injustice project with Keo Shibatani.So Keo, the last time we chatted, I think before we even got started, you had mentioned that you haven't always been active in volunteering with the JCCC.
LJ
How did that start?
KS
How did it start?
LJ
Yeah, how did you come to ...
KS
Well, you've heard of the Redress program, right?
LJ
Yeah.
KS
And a whole lot of people put in tons of hours to bring that to a successful fruition. For whatever reason I did not offer one single minute of volunteer time. After the event happened I felt extremely guilty that, here I am recipient of what so many people put hundreds of hours of work in and I didn't contribute one single minute. And yet, I received the benefits of all their hard work. That really bothered me. I figured, “Well, let me see if I could make some amends.” And this is what brought me to the cultural center to volunteer in this archive work. So that's where it got started. Until then, I rarely visited the center, rarely. Again, it's my strange feeling that I didn't want to be too closely tied to the Japanese-Canadian community. I think that's one of the main reasons I did not go to the cultural center. When the redress came to a successful conclusion I realized that “Gee, our community did go through a whole pile of difficult times.” And ... having experienced the difficult times, I did nothing to make any changes. I think by doing this sort of work, I'm accomplishing something that I think will be beneficial to the whole community, looking way ahead. I guess that's the best way I could explain how I got engaged. Previously, I had virtually no interest whatsoever.
LJ
What was your thought process around redress as that was going on? Did you have emotions or feelings about it at the time?
KS
To be honest, no, not a heck of a lot. I knew what was happening, okay? At the same time, I made no attempt to get involved. I just didn't have any desire to get involved. Maybe, yeah, it all comes back to my disinterest or non-involvement with issues with the Japanese Canadian community. It's pretty late in the day, but I feel that by doing something like this I can contribute something worthwhile.
LJ
I would agree. I want to switch gears and talk a little bit about Fairview in Vancouver. I know you said that you grew up quite poor. What do you remember of your home, of life in Fairview, the look, the feel, the stuff of growing up in that community before the war, or right as the war is getting started?
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KS
Short pause. Well, in my daily life you go to school. In my case, I went to two schools. The regular school plus the Japanese language school which I detested going to. My father forced us to go there even though we couldn't afford the small tuition that was required. In order to pay the school for our tuition, my dad volunteered at the school as a janitor, this that, and so on. If he had time to volunteer at the school, I'm thinking that “god, he could have used that money to improve our standard of living” to whatever extent that would have improved it. I guess my dad had very strong feelings about “my children have to be educated in Japanese as well.” I disagreed with that but that was the way it was in our family where the father, and most Japanese families, the father was the commander and chief, the dictator, whatever you want to call it, okay? There was no questioning your father. My mom had very little input, which is traditional in Japanese families. On any given day you could meet with some people who are racist. Fortunately, I didn't encounter that much. Some people may have encountered a lot more than I did and some people may have avoided or were spared the experience of racial discrimination. We were always aware of that. I would play with my white friends and rarely did I ever see the inside of my white Canadian friends' homes. I didn't know what kind of homes they lived in apart from the exterior appearance of the house. I guess, the situation was somewhat different with my Japanese-Canadian friends. I did get to see the inside of their homes. Again, it became evident to me that, yes, we were poorer than the average, much poorer than the average Japanese-Canadian family. The experiences at the Japanese language school, I can't recall anything pleasant at all. Some teachers were extremely hard on us. They wanted us to be pure Japanese as opposed to “well, this is Canada and you were born here so I will cut you some slack” sort of thing, no. Some teachers were extremely strict, very, very authoritarian style. I really can't think of any pleasant experiences going to a Japanese language school. It just prevented me from doing what I wanted to do which was play sports at the regular school and not have to be concerned about marks and so on with another school because you're concerned enough about your regular school marks, right?
LJ
That's true.
00:09:53.000
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KS
And then you have to worry about this other school laughs. So in that sense, I guess it was quite stressful, particularly when report cards came out in the Japanese language school. I wasn't too concerned about report cards from my regular school. I remember, this would be like when I'm in grade three or four, there was a white kid. He was much bigger than I. He would always bully me and I was always trying to avoid him but ... In Vancouver it rains a lot, right? Recess time or lunch periods. Lunch, you could go home and have lunch and still come back with plenty of time to get back into class again. But during recess, I remember we had to play and stay in the basement of the school so there's no place to escape this guy. One day, he cornered me and he started to physically abuse me. In order to defend myself I pushed him away and he fell and he hit his head or whatever. This kid, who's much bigger than I, started to ball his head off. I'd never resisted anything up to that point with the abuse that I was taking. I would always run away and keep running. So the minute he fell and hit his head, or whatever it was that he hit, he started to cry like a big, big baby. From that moment on, he never ever abused me for whatever reason. All I did is try to protect myself. So that was a lesson I learned and I taught that to my two boys. I said “always stand your ground because if somebody abuses you, he'll keep abusing you until he finds somebody else that's an easy target.” So my older guy, Robert, he would get into a fight all the time. He never backed down. It didn't matter how big the guy was. I remember he was one of the star players on the high school football team. He would fight some of the guys on the football team because they were picking on his kid brother who was a year younger than him. My older guy, Robert, he's ... maybe saying that he's physically gifted is maybe saying too much but he's a natural athlete. His kid brother is not. He works and works and works but he's just not up to his brother's standards. So one day this other football player on the same team, during practice, kept picking on him and Robert got into a fight to protect his brother. This is one thing that my brother, who, again, was one year older than I, never ever protected me; never. I remember that. So I was very happy to see that Robert was protecting his kid brother even to the point where they're on the same football team and they're practicing every evening. He would go up and protect his kid brother. That was an experience that has remained with me my whole life, just the idea that I protected myself. I wasn't being aggressive or anything, okay? Maybe that's influenced a lot of my life growing up. There comes a time when you have to stand your ground. There was one Japanese Canadian kid who lived in the neighbourhood. He would always pick on me. He was a year older than I. When you're pre-teenager, a year means a lot mentally, physically, socially, the whole ball of wax.
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KS
So often, I wish that my brother would stand up for me but he never did. So, as we grew into our teens my brother and I became further and further apart. During the four years that we were in Tashme, we were living in a room. Both of us are bunking in this room, maybe half the size of this room. Two years would go by and we wouldn't say a word to each other. He wouldn't say a word to me. I'm trying to break the ice and I'm trying to win him over but he just wouldn't talk to me. He just wouldn't talk to me. So when we went to Japan, we were living in terrible conditions. The whole country and everything connected with it is a new experience to us. It was at that point we had to start to talk to each other otherwise we would have gone through an entire lifetime without speaking to each other. He died when he was fifty-four years old. Fifty-four, that's ... I've outlived him thirty-one years. Our whole family is full of stubborn human beings. I think we get this from our dad, okay? He just would not bend but to his credit, he went to Japan very, very strongly opposed to going to Japan. As the war was winding down, the Canadian government gave us an ultimatum: go east of the Rockies or go to Japan. My dad elected to go to Japan after he won over my sister who was three years older than I. After dinner, we cleared the table and then the discussions would start. My dad worked on my sister. Finally, she agreed to go. Now it came turn for my brother and my dad worked on him. He enlisted the aid of my sister and between the two of them he reluctantly caved in and said “okay.” I'm sixteen at this time. My brother is seventeen and my sister is nineteen. So the nineteen year old and the seventeen year old finally agreed. My brother very, very begrudgingly. So here I am only a year younger than my brother. Nobody ever asked me, nobody. In the Japanese family, the number one son is all important. So my dad figured if he wins him over then the game's over. He's won. That's how it became that our family went to Japan. My brother was miserable because he didn't want to go. Not that I wanted to go nor did anybody else want to go. It was only my dad, really. We'd go to ... While we were working in the city of Kyoto ... Have you been to Kyoto?
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LJ
I have, yeah.
KS
What do you think of it?
LJ
Um, well it's beautiful. That's what I remember about it but it's a different time period I suspect.
KS
Well, Kyoto doesn't change all that much. It's an old historic city. Anyways, I'm working with the US occupation forces. I happened to be working in the finance department where the payrolls are all made by the staff in the finance department. My brother, he got employment at a military hospital, a US military hospital, as a switchboard operator. I thought “my god, that's no place to work for a guy” even in those days. So he stayed with that for three years or whatever it was and then we parted company. I went to live in Kobe and he stayed in Kyoto. Before I knew it, he was going to a Japanese university. Now, he was never one for academics. He was more into radio, that kind of stuff. He was taking a course on making radios and so forth and he graduates from a Japanese university, full four years, as a regular student. A more mature student but, still, a regular student. This gives us an indication as to what did he do with his education. He ended up working for an export-import Japanese firm who sent him to New York for about five years and then he came back to Tokyo. He died at his desk from a massive heart attack. Just to show you how stubborn he is: he was a chain smoker, he drank a lot, ate whatever he wanted to eat. He separated from his wife for, like, twenty-years or so. She financed him through university so there's just no way that he, morally, could divorce her because she financed him through all those tough years. So he separated from his wife and he ate everything he wanted, he chain-smoked, he drank whatever he wanted to drink and so on. With his language capabilities he could have made a fortune in Japan. Every time I would see him ... I had returned in '56. He died in '83, '84 or '83. I would visit him and we would discuss “well, what are you doing” and what I'm doing and so on. I thought “my god, you could be doing so much better. You could be doing so many different things” to cash in on his language abilities because he was completely fluent. He could read and write, he had studied Japanese history. You'd go to a bar, first thing he does is strikes up a conversation with the guy next to him and they start talking politics or start talking history. He'd have these guys wondering “where the hell did this guy come from? He knows so much.” laughs. Another thing my brother did was, he was physically strong. He's about my height but he weighed a lot more than I did. He liked to arm wrestle.
00:25:02.000
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KS
So much that he would challenge anybody at the bar. Whoever won didn't have to pay for the drinks. The guy who lost had to pay for the drinks. So he never bought any drinks laughs. Anyways, I'm getting away from my story but this will give you, maybe, some idea about our family. So I wanted my older brother to give me some protection when people were abusing me and they were always older than I. As I said earlier, I started one year early and I skipped one grade so in that sense I'm physically much younger, smaller. Emotionally, I'm much less secure than my peers in the same class. I really, really wanted my brother to give me some protection which I never, ever got. The happiest moments growing up, pre-war, was participating in sports. That was the happiest moments. I can never forget how I looked forward to every season and the softball season would start, the soccer season would start, and the basketball season would start. I never played hockey in my life even when I moved east. I'm just ... Well, it was an expensive sport. It still is, probably one of the most expensive sports you can participate in, right? Just the skates alone laughs. Every time you break a stick ... How much is a hockey stick going to cost? I haven't a clue. So, the happiest moments of my pre-teen and teenage years was sports. To be on the school team competing against other schools gave you certain privileges and the teachers would find out who's doing what on the school teams. They'd cut you a lot of slack. This carried on in Tashme when we played baseball and basketball. There was a hockey league but I didn't participate in that. Strangely enough, when I went to Japan, I played a lot of baseball in Japan. In Tashme, we had a junior league and a senior league. The junior league was, I don't know, maybe sixteen and under or something like that and the senior league was anybody older or who qualified to join one of four teams. Every season we had four senior teams and we had four junior teams and as your skills improved you moved up to the senior league. I never got that far simply because a) I wasn't good enough because there were a lot of good ball players at the camp. When I went to Japan it was a different story. Now I'm older, I'm bigger, and I ended up pitching in Japan. I worked for Bank of America and I was on their team and I was their first-string pitcher. In Kyoto when I was working for the occupation forces we had this hotel. It was a western style hotel. In the initial stages of the occupation it was occupied by the US Army where officers up to the rank of captain were billeted there. As the occupation started to downsize and very, very rapidly this hotel became available for people such as myself who were called, in those days, foreign nationals.
00:30:03.000
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KS
I'm an enemy alien in Canada and I'm a foreign nation in Japan laughs. So we had all types of nationalities. We had Indonesians, we had Jewish people, we had Portuguese, Spanish, several white Russians and we all worked for the occupation force. We were billeted in this western-style hotel which was previously occupied by US Army officers up to the rank of captain. We had a whole bunch of Canadian niseis and American niseis staying there. This is where I got close to American niseis. They've always intrigued me as to “okay, how different are they from us?” sort of thing. We had a pretty good baseball team. We watched some softball games and I noticed that in Vancouver and in Tashme we didn't have any pitchers that did the windmill deliberately. We all did the sidearm to it. For the first time I saw how American softball pitchers pitched. Later on, in my stay in Japan I worked in Okinawa for ten months for a Japanese construction company. I joined a softball team consisting of civilians working in Okinawa and they're all Americans except me. I'm the only guy that's not American. So I had a lot of fun in Okinawa. My company was building housing, American style housing, for American families that are coming over, families of people in the upper non-commissioned officers' ranks and also the officer ranks. In the prewar days and the wartime years sports played a very, very important part in my life and those were my happiest moments. School was something that I tolerated. I didn't look forward to going to school other than to play sports. So schools in Tashme was okay. There was no, abusing, that kind of stuff. We were all Japanese. The thing that I missed more than anything else was the lack of interaction with white Canadians. For four years, you're totally isolated. The only white face you see is the RCMP officer and the administration people that ran the camp and the high school teachers who, for the most part, were missionaries who had taught English in Japan and had returned to Canada on an exchangeship when Japan and the allies exchanged different personnel during the war. We were fortunate to get them as our teachers. The guy who taught sports was a UofT graduate. His name is Ernie Best. He became the president of UofT later on in his life. He was a wonderful man. He'd be about 5'10 and he weighed maybe 160, 170 pounds. In those days we thought that was fairly big. The first thing he told us was “I was the smallest football player on the UofT varsity team.” He was a wonderful, wonderful man. He graduated and then he became a conscientious objector. You know what that is?
00:35:09.000
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LJ
Mhm.
KS
When I listened to Frank on Friday, Frank Moritsuga, that he volunteered to join the army I was thinking to myself “If I was of military age, I would have been what they called a conchy in those days” a conscientious objector. I wouldn't have gone, I wouldn't have gone. So that's pretty much what I could tell you about my preteen and early teenage years.
LJ
Why do you think you would have been a conscientious objector?
KS
Because when I think back now, maybe I would have thought differently at that age but thinking about the issue today, at my age, I think I wouldn't have. The reason for that is I'm an enemy alien. How could I fight for a country that considers me an enemy alien? Now, Frank had an extremely good reason for going into the army because he wanted to show the neighbours that he's not an enemy alien, he's a Canadian citizen, and he's going to go fight for his country. I'm looking at it in the context of “I'm in a camp.” I don't have to impress my neighbour because they're all Japanese and if I don't volunteer or even get drafted which there was no draft for us, there's no stigma to that, none whatsoever. So that's the reason why I wouldn't. If I had been forced to join I would have resisted by becoming a conscientious objector. So Frank put it extremely well when he said “yeah, well what are my neighbours going to think, if I don't go?”
LJ
I'm wondering if you had a prized possession that you can remember, like a baseball mitt or anything that you distinctly remember holding onto or you can see in your head?
KS
I had very little physical possessions to begin with. I guess, yeah, my most cherished object would be my baseball mitt which I brought to Japan and I used extensively over there. We played a lot of baseball because you could play virtually year-round as opposed to here.
LJ
Because of the weather?
KS
Yeah.
LJ
So you would have gotten this mitt in Vancouver then?
KS
No, in Tashme.
LJ
You got it in Tashme?
KS
Yeah.
LJ
Oh.
KS
We ordered it through a catalogue because we had a general store which sold whatever a general store sells but it was extremely limited. So most of our clothes and stuff like that, you had to order through the Eaton's and Simpsons catalogues. They did booming business, especially at Christmas time. All their clothes were bought through the catalogue, for shoes, okay? Hope, a small whistle stop 100 miles east of Vancouver and fourty miles from Tashme, that town had, maybe, 300 people. We had ten times that many in Tashme. So the merchants in Hope would have welcomed us as new customers starving to buy things which we couldn't get at the camp, right? You had to have a fairly good reason for wanting to go to Hope before the RCMP would give you a pass. You had to get a pass in order to leave camp. There was only one road in and one road out.
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LJ
And how would you get there if you had this pass?
KS
Well, you'd go by truck because they would have trucks going back and forth delivering certain things. Also, we had a sawmill in Tashme. After all the houses were built they continued to operate full steam ahead. The lumber was being sold to the different communities to Vancouver or wherever. So that sawmill was a gold mine as far as the government was concerned because the government owned the sawmill. All the Japanese labourers worked there. They got something like seventeen and a half cents an hour or something like that. I, as a summer student, got fifteen cents an hour. The full-time people were only getting seventeen and a half, like my dad. So that was my most cherished possession. One of the biggest disappointments, in so far as my athletic career is concerned, is we had lined up a baseball game with an American Army team in Kyoto. They were going to supply all the baseballs and so on, the US Army team okay? We played with a hard rubber ball which is what most teams in Japan used outside of the regular organized ... See, we were organized since we all were billeted in one building, right? But all the teams that we played were Japanese teams. They worked for different companies, different plants, that sort of stuff. We had one guy on our team who had connections with all these teams so he would arrange for games every week, different teams all the time. Some were really good and some were not very good laughs. So he lined up this game with this US Army team and I was scheduled to pitch. I hadn't pitched a hardball game since leaving Tashme because in Japan we were playing with these hard rubber balls, same size, same weight, and everything else but there's no comparison when you get a real baseball. The stuff you could put on the ball was quite different from rubber balls.
LJ
These rubber balls wouldn't have stitching on them?
KS
No, no, no. So, game day we're warming up and so on and I'm touching this brand new baseball because the US Army's got all kinds of money laughs. I'm warming up and so on and just before the game is to start we get a torrential downpour and it washed up the game. It just continued to rain and didn't let up after a while which I was hoping and praying it would but it didn't. So that was the biggest disappointment of my baseball career, not being able to play against the American team. They would probably have swamped us 100 to nothing or whatever but I just wanted to experience how good those guys are because I watched a lot of American military teams play baseball. I also watched them play a lot of football and basketball. I saw how different the way that we grew up playing and the way they played. So my cherished ... Well, as I said, I had very, very few physical possessions, articles, items. My baseball glove was it. I had brought my skates to Japan. I never ever used them because there was no ice to speak of and if there was I wouldn't be able to afford to pay for the ice time anyways. There's no organized hockey leagues or anything like that and, as I said earlier, I didn't even play hockey in Tashme when we had ice for four months out of twelve.
00:45:01.000
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LJ
Yeah. What else do you remember bringing with you to Japan?
KS
Photos. That was very important. You know, flipping over the pages, reminiscing about prewar which we had very few pictures of our prewar time but we took a lot of pictures in camp and here we're not supposed to have a camera laughs. Everybody had a camera.
LJ
Really?
KS
We even learned how to develop and print pictures. There was a professional photographer, Japanese Canadian, he was a professional photographer before the war and he happened to be in our camp. He taught all of us because just about every family had a camera laughs.
LJ
Even your family?
KS
Yeah, yeah. So those were, and I still have that album today, those were really cherished photos. It's amazing how some people have changed and others have not. You could be standing right next to your classmate seventy years ago and you wouldn't recognize them whereas others you could spot them right away. Oh, I know who you are, sort of thing. So, yes, that photo album was very important. It went to Japan and it came back from Japan. I can't think of anything else that is really valuable to me today. I've lost my baseball glove laughs. It went to Japan, it came back but I'd lost it. See, having two boys and having played baseball I was really involved in what the Americans would call little league baseball. I was fortunate in my coaching career here in Scarborough where we first lived. My team won two Scarborough championships and my two boys played. My older guy was a star. He could play any position he wanted. He'd say “dad, I want to catch today.” Okay, fine. I didn't know how to catch but he could with the mask and the pads on and there he went. He was my star pitcher, he was my star shortstop, and he's also the best hitter I had. Later on in life he got transferred to the US. He's been down there now like twenty-years in California and he'd go out for the senior league. You know the guys who played college ball, some played semi-pro, pro ball, and he joined the team. He bought uniforms for the whole team, the Toronto Blue Jays uniform, for the whole team. Cap, shirt, pads, everything. So as they're going through their spring training, the coaches would come up to Robert and says “Hey, Rob. Where'd you learn how to play baseball?” because they figured nobody plays baseball in Canada. All they do is play Hockey, right? So he'd paid me the best compliment I could ever receive. He told them “my dad taught me.” I thought that was great. What else can I tell you? Okay, next. laughs.
LJ
Well, speaking of your kids, you've talked a little bit about them and their interest or maybe their slow interest to Japanese Canadian history, what was important for you to offer to them? What did you want their childhoods to be like in relation to your childhood?
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KS
Well, I always thought of my own childhood first that my dad tried to instill in me, Japanese customs. A lot of it is good, like ... and it applies not to Japanese characters but to the whole human race to be nice, to be honest, to study hard, and all that stuff. That's universal. What I wanted was for my children to have the best of both worlds: the Western society that they are growing up in plus some of the characteristics of a Japanese character such as obedience to parents. I guess we put more emphasis on that than, say, most Canadian families. Um, protecting one's reputation, this was extremely important to us because in Vancouver, before the war, we stood out as visible minorities. This country, at that time, was practically all white. So, Asians, they stood out like a sore thumb. If you did anything bad everybody knew about it. If you did something good, very few people knew about it. So what I emphasized to them was “you are what you are. Don't ever bring shame to your family.” My dad emphasized that to me so much. Every time, he says, “don't bring shame to our doorstep because you're going to stand out and if you did something bad our whole family will be ostracized within the Japanese community.” That's something you just can't live with because if the regular Canadian society does not accept you and if you get ostracized within the Japanese community, where on earth are you going to turn? You have only one place to bank on and that is your own community. That's why my dad was so insistent that we behave properly. What I tried to instill on my kids was “look, if you do something bad you're going to stand out. If you do something good, if you excel in certain things, you're also going to stand out. If you're the smartest kid in the class, everybody's going to know you because you're Japanese. If a white kid is at the top of the class, so what? That's the way it is, right? But, if you excel, everybody's going to notice. So the good and the bad, you're going to stand out whether you like it or not. So always be aware of that.” I said “look, when I was growing up I couldn't become a lawyer. I couldn't become an accountant. I couldn't become an engineer. This was dictated by law.” Now, all that's gone. Some of that my generation had a lot to do with, some of it.
00:55:00.000
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KS
So with all that available to you, all these barriers that are down now, the rest is up to you. We had to beat those barriers down. They're down now so the field is wide open. That's another thing that I stress to them all the time because there are no barriers. The only barriers you have are within yourself. If you apply yourself, the sky is the limit and you'll get rewarded for that. So I gave them some examples. We moved into Scarborough, a new subdivision and all that, and we'd go to these neighbourhood parties and ... okay? Asians are becoming more common within Scarborough at this particular time. I told my kids “I go to a party, we go to a party, my wife and I, and everybody's introducing themselves and so on. What do you do John? What do you do Keo? And so on.” This is so strange when you compare with prewar days. They assumed that I'm a professional. I'm either a doctor, an engineer, a lawyer, or an accountant. They say “Keo, are you in medicine?” They don't ask me what I do. They're asking are you in medicine? Or are you a lawyer? Okay? That's unthinkable in prewar days. Just unthinkable because everybody knew you can't become one. So I'm trying to contrast today with yesteryears, see? I said “look, that's how I'm looked at as compared to what my previous generations were looked at. This is the era that you're growing up in, so, please remember that some people worked their bums off to make that possible and I'm benefiting from it and people automatically assume that I'm some kind of a professional.” Not some pencil pusher or something like that. So that's a very nice feeling to have as compared to you're always being looked down upon without knowing who you actually are. So I find that a very pleasant feeling to have in this day. You just need to look at the appointment notices and so on. More and more Asian faces are appearing in the Globe and Mail which I take. I say to my kids “twenty-years from now you might even have a prime minister of Asian background.” There are no limits. The Japanese aren't into politics like the Chinese are. The Chinese are getting into politics and they're becoming more and more successful and more and more experienced and they're networking like crazy. They're already an economic force to be faced with, right? God, they've got the money. All the Mercedes and whatnot are owned by Chinese Canadians. Look at their big mansions in Vancouver. So much so that people are complaining that “hey, they're the reason why the residential prices are so high. Nobody else can afford to buy them.” Look at Shaughnessy Heights an Anglosaxon bastion where there were laws that excluded Asians from owning property there and British properties out in West Van across the inlet there.
01:00:00.000
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KS
So, talk about economic power that the Chinese have everything going for them at this moment, boy. There's just no limit because there's 1.4 billion Chinese and let's say there are 100 million millionaires and maybe 100,000 billionaires laughs. It's just hard to imagine something like that. The numbers are so huge. So I see this country changing quite a bit in the next twenty, thirty years because the Asian population, the business types, the academics, and whatnot are really getting established in this country. The second largest is the East Indian community. I hear there's close to 1 million East Indians in the country and a lot of them are wealthy. All you need to do is go up to Brampton and see they're into politics and the whole bit.
LJ
How important was education for you to impart as a value to your kids?
KS
It was the important thing. I remember talking to my kids when they were pre-kindergarten and in the early public school years. I remember my youngest, David, he's telling his kindergarten teacher “when I grow up, I'm going to university.” He didn't even know what university was all about but we talked about higher education. So here he is telling this teacher “I'm going to university” laughs and he hasn't even started public school yet, he's in kindergarten. So that's how important it was. My wife is a college graduate and she was fortunate to go to a very prestigious private school. I come from an extremely poor background and she comes from the opposite side.
LJ
What was that like? In your courtship days, or ...
KS
Well, I was doing quite well in Tokyo when I was working for a company called AIU which is American International Underwriters. They are the most aggressive and the most well-known insurance company in all of Japan including the Japanese insurance companies because they're always innovative and creative. They're always one step ahead of the competition. So I'm working there as an agent and I'm doing quite well. My partner was an American, he's an ex-GI. He got married in Japan, went back to the states, got discharged, and he came back to Japan because his wife and family were already there. He and I worked together in the finance department in Kyoto. That's where I got to know him. So later on we hooked up and I became a sub-agent of his. We worked together for three years and then he decided to go back to the US. By then he had two kids. So he left and I bought him out and then I operated on my own for two years and then I came back. So in those days I was making, tax free, 500 a month US which is six grand, which was about ten times what the average Japanese was making, ten times.
01:05:20.000
01:05:20.000
KS
So when we got married we could hold a reception at Tokyo Industrial Club, which is a very prestigious business club, which we got through my wife's relatives because you just couldn't get a reception because you were willing to pay the money. You had to have some introduction, okay? I don't know whether I told you earlier or not but my wife's cousin is the co-founder of Sony Corporation. Now, you talk about wealth laughs. My mother-in-law comes from that family, the Murrieta family. So she's used to all this good life. So I'm making ten times more than the average worker so I can afford a private nurse when my daughter's born. She comes five days a week to our house so my wife doesn't have to do all that stuff that a private nurse does. I wasn't on par with her relatives but I'm not all that far away either. Not everybody is as wealthy as the Murrieta family but they are wealthy. Like my sister-in-law, her family, she was married to the oldest son of his family and they had a booming automotive truck business. You know servicing, repairing, and that. They didn't sell it but they serviced it all. My sister-in-law, my wife's older sister, was married to the president of a company that my father-in-law started. He was in the lumbering business, okay? Before he got married he went all around the world, we're talking early 1900s now, okay? He experienced the states, Bombay India, in all sorts of places, he's been to Russia. So he married the oldest daughter which is my sister-in-law and when my father-in-law passed away, before he passed away, he appointed my wife's brother-in-law to be the president. He's not exactly poor either laughs. I had a very, very charming life, if you will, as compared to my early childhood years. We could do almost anything we wanted. Before I got married there was one bowling alley in Japan, in Tokyo, and I used to go there with a couple of my Japanese friends and, again, these guys were very, very wealthy. At the bowling alley, because it's the only one in Japan, it's very expensive to bowl. We used to meet movie stars, young movie stars and so on. When I was in Kyoto I used to get invited to one of the movie studios. We would watch these classic Japanese samurai movies being made.
01:10:00.000
01:10:00.000
KS
By being a so called foreigner in Japan, if you played your cards right, you could get all kinds of experiences, go to places that the average person wouldn't dream of being able to go to, that kind of stuff. My four years in Tokyo with AIU was really the start of my insurance career, for one thing, and the opportunity to get involved with different clients that, growing up, I wouldn't have even imagined possible. I'm talking about when I came back here now.
LJ
Yeah.
KS
All my clientele in Japan was non-Japanese and most in the military and then I had quite a few foreign businesses, non-Japanese businesses. I've always been, for whatever reason, I've done well with Jewish clientele. I had the Israel delegation. They didn't have an embassy in those days. They protected me against all competition. They wanted to deal with me and nobody else. When I came back here and got into the agency side of the business as opposed to the underwriting side of the business my largest clientele were Jewish builders in Toronto here and, again, they protected me. I think I had the advantage of being non-Jewish because there's quite a large number of Jewish people in the insurance business and they have their networks. Well, if you give your ... Let's say I'm a builder. If I give my business to John, who' Jewish, then how about all these other Jewish people that I deal with socially and every other which way? But if they select somebody who is a non-Jew you don't have to go through all that explanation. I think that worked in my favour. We had a Jewish appreciation day at the cultural center because the people who helped the Japanese Canadians when they first came east were mostly Jewish people, Jewish landlords. Jewish businesses gave jobs to Japanese Canadians when other companies would not so we had an appreciation day just to show “hey, we remembered.” I thought that was a heck of a good thing to do because I benefited. They really helped me in my business. So ...
LJ
How important ... or did you get the chance at all to show your parents that you had made it, to use that expression?
KS
Only to my mother. My dad had passed away before I started to really make a success in business here. My mother, she was extremely appreciative. This is what I heard from my sisters who are still in Japan. I've got two sisters and a kid brother still living in Japan. One of my sisters told me that I was the favourite son laughs. I really loved my mom. My dad and I just could not get on the same level, okay? Unfortunately, I never got any encouragement from my dad. When I told him that I was going into the insurance business, like so many other things he poo-pooed it.
01:15:04.000
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KS
He did not give me one single word of encouragement. My mom was always supportive, was always supportive. Looking back, I don't think my mom had one single day that she could say she was really happy from a economic viewpoint. All she could remember was hardship and poverty. She never ever complained, never, which is typical of a Japanese mom or wife. I sure would have liked to have brought her back here and have her stay with us so that she can see that I turned out not too badly.
LJ
She got to see some of that?
KS
No, no, because most of my successes have been here but, my dad, it wasn't in him to give me support or encouragement. He didn't think I had it in me. His investment was all in my brother, number one son. Number two doesn't come into the picture. That's what motivated me when I look back. Maybe that's what was a big drawback for my brother. You know, like, dad is investing everything in him and nothing in me and, as siblings, I'm sure you've got to recognize that, right? But if only I could have brought my mom back and have her live with us. She could stay and not have one single thing to worry about and have grandchildren all around her, sort of thing. She was a very, very kind lady and so was my mother-in-law but they're coming from a night and day difference, you know? My mother-in-law, her husband died and she was, like, fifty or something so she's very young. My mother-in-law was an extremely attractive person. She was the baby in her family. She was coddled like you wouldn't believe. No financial worries whatsoever. When the war came and most things got turned upside down, she still managed to maintain a very good lifestyle because her husband left her with a business that was going great. My wife's brother-in-law who took over the company, he did a pretty good job. He used to come over every second year or third year on a so called 'business trip' and we knew he was just using his position as president of the company to come over here and relax and enjoy not only our company but the experience of Canada itself.
01:20:00.000
01:20:00.000
KS
He'd ask me “let's go to a construction project site” just so he could justify it back at his company writing off all these personal expenses. That's quite a science in Japan. The expense account living. With the recession that Japan has been in for the past twenty years, this has changed dramatically. I used to have a client, he worked for Mitsubishi Electric, and he used to tell me “I've got so much money to spend out of my expense account otherwise I'm going to catch hell.” I said “what are you doing? You're supposed to spread that money around to your clients and contacts and so on.” Well that came as a shock to me. He says “I got all this money I've got to spend before the year ends!” laughs. Things have changed since the recession though. I mean, really clamped down.
LJ
Yeah. I'm wondering about that though, about just that ... You also talked about some of those cultural differences the other day about going to Japan, certainly, um, marrying into a fairly wealthy family ... How did you process the distinction between being there and being back in the Canada, the Vancouver that you had left, and the Tashme that you had left? Did Japan seem like a world away in that regard?
KS
Oh, yeah. Oh, yeah. One thing that I had in mind, I believe I mentioned this before, that is when I grew up I wasn't going to be poor. I may not ever be rich but I was not going to be poor. That was one of the strongest motivations as far as I'm concerned. Plus the fact that I married my wife who comes from a completely different social level was also a motivator. I didn't want to embarrass her. She's got three sisters. I didn't want her to be embarrassed by marrying the black sheep in the family sort of stuff. I wanted her to hold her head high every time the family got together, that she was independent, and didn't need to kowtow to anybody else regardless of how well-off the other sisters were or weren't. In that sense I think we've done quite well. We can go over there and be on par with any of those people. One of the ways that I measure respect is the cofounder of Sony Corporation, for example, he would never lend his condo to anybody. He loaned it to us. A beautiful place in Honolulu. Oh, man.
LJ
What's that like? Going into a place like that in Honolulu? For your wife and for your kids that's probably what they're used to but you've come so far. What's it like turning the key into that place?
KS
Well, it's just another affirmation of “hey, I'm not that poor kid that grew up in the depression era in Vancouver.” It's a wonderful feeling. They say money equals power. Well there's evidence. God, the kind of place that he's able to have and that he's willing to loan to us, to me it just verifies his confidence in me that we will respect his property for what it is and we will respect him for what he is. In Japan, it's common courtesy to address people by rank. It's not very nice but that's the way it is.
01:25:18.000
01:25:18.000
LJ
So what's a rank? What kind of rank?
KS
Well, your social standing, your financial standing, that's your rank by reputation. Your reputation is what you have done and that is “hey, you cofounded one of the major corporations in the world.” He is a very unique person when you come to think about it in that he's, in many ways, a non-traditional Japanese person. I think this is what made him so successful. He always thought outside the box. He did many things that are non-traditional in Japanese society. He hobnobbed with Kissinger and guys like that. So he has a very broad view of what society is all about worldwide not just in his own country but through his business connections. He insisted that I call him by his first name which is totally, totally unheard of in Japan. Whether you're at this level or at that level or at that level you do not address a person by their first name, always last name and you put a san after that. Like Josh-san. He insisted I call him by his first name which startled everybody else. When we go to a party or something we are addressing the president of Sony Corporation by his first name and people are probably crapping in their pants “what's this guy doing?” sort of thing but that's his insistence that I call him by his first name, not me. Yes, and he introduced us to lots of people. He would come every year to Toronto and we would take him out to dinner. My wife used to say “I bet you he's more relaxed now than he's been all year when he visits with us” because he just wants to eat regular food. After we go to a restaurant we come back and we chat at our place, sort of thing. In those days I am very, very conscious about cars. Anything physical. So I'd always have good cars. I'd take him out to dinner in my Cadillac. I've owned two Mercedes, the big ones, the S models. I've had two Cadillacs. I've owned a Jaguar. I've owned, which was the most stylish car I've owned.
LJ
The Jaguar?
KS
Yeah, but also the most troublesome car. Oh, it was terrible. But, boy, style-wise. As a kid growing up we used to think “God, I wonder what it feels like to own a Cadillac.” So I've owned two. I've owned a Lexus. I would say the best car I ever owned was a Lexus, bar none. You just feel so confident that nothing is going to happen to this car. Cadillacs, oh, big, big disappointment.
01:30:11.000
01:30:11.000
LJ
Really?
KS
Yeah. I remember coming home from a dealer ... I bought the top model of the Cadillac, and I'm coming home. I didn't intend to buy that Cadillac. I intended to buy a Lincoln because all my life I had been a GM person. So one day I'm driving up to the Lincoln dealer on Bay Street which was about a block away from the Cadillac dealer on Addison on Bay. So I'm dressed in scruffy clothes. My youngest son and I, we walk in and nobody wants to deal with us. This is what I told my son “never, ever judge a person by how he looks. Never.” Nobody was paying any attention to us. I learned that the salesmen are all on a rotation basis. If I get that customer then you get the next customer sort of thing. It's up to you whether you sell this guy or not but ... So they didn't want to take a chance on me because I'm dressed in scruffy clothes, right? So I told my son “there's a lesson for you.” He just lost a deal. I came in here to buy a Lincoln. So I go across the street where everybody knows me and I end up getting a Cadillac. So here these guys are on commission, they lost a deal.
LJ
Do you remember buying your first car?
KS
Yeah, 1962, a Volkswagen.
LJ
I had a Volkswagen for my first car as well.
KS
Really?
LJ
Yeah.
KS
I paid 1100 dollars for this. It was one year old and it had no radio, no gas gauge, no nothing.
LJ
No gas gauge? That's trouble.
KS
When you ran out of gas you reached under the dashboard and you flipped the switch and you just kept going for another thirty, fourty miles or so. And the heater wouldn't work unless the car was running. At the time we had three kids and the inside windows in the wintertime would all fog up so the kids had to keep clearing it with their hands. So that was my first car. When my mother-in-law came over for a visit for a couple of months, yeah, we took her all over. Six people in a Volkswagen.
LJ
That's packed.
KS
Two boys would be in that, you know that box there behind the back seat?
LJ
Yeah, yeah.
KS
What year was your Volkswagen?
LJ
Um, so I didn't start driving until I was very late. I guess mine would have been like a 2000 something.
KS
Well, so totally different. This was a '61 Volkswagen.
LJ
Yeah, with the seat and like the back hatch right?
KS
So the two boys would jump in the back there ...
LJ
I liked that seat though, that was always the fun spot.
KS
I wore out so many clutches. God, used to wear out clutches. But, yes, that was my first car and then we went into the Pontiacs and we stayed with the Pontiacs for years, then we went to two cars, my wife and myself. But, no, I always felt that a car defines a person particularly if they're in sales like I was. I used to think, correctly or incorrectly, that most clients liked to deal with people who look successful.
01:35:13.000
01:35:13.000
KS
If you have a nice car I think that kind of tells a story. Whether it's a complete story or not that's another story but, no, I've always had good cars. This defined me as a person. When I was growing up I didn't want to be poor because everybody else had things that I did not have.
LJ
That was in Vancouver so I guess that leads me into, maybe, my last question for today which is: you've been back to Vancouver a lot but when you were there your time was defined by growing up poor so I wonder what it's like to go back to Vancouver and not be that guy anymore. Do you see that guy? Do you see that kid that you were those years ago?
KS
Well, I don't think of it in those terms. I think of it in terms of “gee, I went to that school.” All that negative stuff doesn't show up. It can if I want it to but I prefer not to.
LJ
Fair enough.
KS
And I look at places that I lived in that are no longer there because the city has developed so much and I've been here eighty-five years now, right? So in way back in the '30s when I was born some of those residences were quite old even at that stage. So when you add on fifty years or whatever chances are, more often than not, that structure is no longer there and it's been replaced with new condominiums or whatever. I was born on Commercial Drive and when I first came back to Canada and I came east, I didn't go back out west until quite a number of years but I was fortunate enough to take a picture of the place that I was born. It was still there. It was a store and we lived in the back. When I took that picture I could see, yes, the building had aged quite a bit so it's not strange to me at all that it's no longer there because it looked like it was on its last legs way back when I took that picture so I'm glad I was able to take that picture. The other places that we lived in are no longer there and so I can't take pictures of something that's no longer there. In those days, we didn't own a camera and I had very, very few pictures of prewar days in Vancouver because we had to have a family picture taken from somebody who owned a camera and we certainly didn't own one. So that's the part I miss is that very, very few pictures of prewar Vancouver. One of the ones that I cherish more than anything else is the last class picture at the school called Model School that I went to and I was in grade seven at the time. So that is one of my most cherished photos because we have so few in prewar days.
LJ
Okay, I think that's been a lot of ground covered today. I think we'll leave it there for now and say thank you very much for ...
KS
Well, you're welcome.
LJ
It was a pleasure to hear more and more of your story.
KS
I wish it was full of happy stories but it's not necessarily that way.
LJ
Well, they're real stories, right?
KS
Yeah.
01:39:29.000

Metadata

Title

Keo Shibatani, interviewed by Josh Labove, 14 September 2015 (2 of 2)

Abstract

Keo begins the interview explaining the reason why he chose to participate in a Landscapes of Injustice oral history interview. He then moves on to describe his earliest childhood memories, what life was like at home in Fairview before and during the outbreak of the war, and whether he experienced any racial discrimination. Keo states that his happiest moments came from playing baseball both before and during the war. He also played baseball at the Tashme internment camp. He explains why, unlike other Japanese Canadians, he chose not to volunteer to fight in the war. Keo reflects on his father’s decision to take the family to Japan and also comments on what life was like in that country. Near the end of the interview Keo talks about the most prized possession he kept with him at the internment camp as well as any life lessons from that experience he passed on to his children.

Credits

Interviewer: Josh Labove
Interviewee: Keo Shibatani
XML Encoder: Stewart Arneil
Publication Information: See Terms of Use for publication and licensing information.
Setting: Ryerson University, Toronto
Keywords: Fairview; Vancouver ; Japanese Canadian Cultural Center ; Racial Discrimination; Bullying; Self-Defense; Tashme ; Japan ; Tokyo ; Kyoto ; Kobe; Baseball; Basketball; US Army; Occupation Forces; Sony Corporation; Murrieta Family; American International Underwriters; Poverty; Baseball Glove; Education; Conscientious Objector; Prewar Photos; Military Volunteerism; 1940s – 1960s

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.