Jean Anne Wightman, interviewed by Josh Labove, 09 January 2017

Jean Anne Wightman, interviewed by Josh Labove, 09 January 2017

Abstract
Jean begins the interview by describing a tea set that a Japanese-Canadian family left in her grandmother’s care. Jean also mentions the preliminary research she conducted to try and find the family that gave the tea set to her grandmother. She relays what her father told her about his experiences as a soldier in the Second World War as well as his opinions on the politics surrounding the internment and dispossession of Japanese Canadians. Jean moves on to show the interviewer the various other items that were left in her family’s care and explains their significance. Near the end of the interview Jean reflects on what her father thought about the community in Haney, British Columbia.
00:00:00.000
Labove Joshua (LJ)
It is January 9th, 2017, Josh Labove in Victoria, BC with Jean Anne Wightman for the Landscapes of Injustice project. So, you were telling me a little bit about your dad and his upbringing in Maple Ridge.
Jean Anne Wightman (JW)
Yeah, dad grew up in Maple Ridge through his whole school years and the school pictures of my dad show that a large number of kids in his classes were Japanese. We have some china and other items that may be from Japanese families in the Maple Ridge area; a Japanese family that were neighbors of my grandparents. My dad told us that the way that he came to have this stuff was that, um, when the Japanese families were moved out of Maple Ridge into internment camps in the Second World War that a neighbor friend of my grandma’s came to her house in the middle of the night and had this stuff with her and asked my grandmother if she would keep it in safety for her until such time as they came back. So, um, and they didn’t. I don’t know who the family was. I don’t think dad ever told us. So the stuff was just in the cupboard mixed in with family china. The whole time we grew up, occasionally, we drank tea out of the little cups and then when my dad passed away five years ago my sisters and I have this stuff and we thought, at the time, that it would be ... Was there any way that it could go back to the families that it belonged to? So I did a little bit of preliminary looking around online but didn’t come up with anything solid. That is something that we would like to do. We would like to give it back to the families that lost this in the war.
LJ
Did your dad ever reflect on the politics of the war or internment or how they came to this stuff?
JW
Not a lot, um, dad was in the war himself. He was on the east coast in a corvette ship keeping German submarines and so forth away and going through his war experiences and I mentioned that cause it wasn’t his habit to share with us stuff about the war at all. I mean, I think it was really difficult for him. Politically, my dad has always voted NDP, always supported workers parties and more liberal kinds of ideas. He had a friend in school, actually, there are school pictures of his friend Seto. He went through school with him and I think that after high school the two of them made a plan that they wanted to, or one of them, maybe Seto was the one who identified UCLA as a place that they wanted to go and study. My dad spent some time getting some money together. I think Seto went there first and then my dad went down and joined him later and over many, many years Seto stayed there and worked as a minister. Over many, many years he would send my dad cards for Christmas. Dad, no, dad never commented about the politics of it. I’ve done some reading since, you know, online about the Japanese farms. My dad would mention in passing, the farms and so on, but not in a lot of detail. I was aware that there were berry farmers but my grandfather and my dad’s family were, you know, kind of living the same way. They were trying to make a living in a place where times were tough through the depression and so on. So, yeah.
LJ
Haney changed quite a bit, somewhat, overnight.
00:05:00.000
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JW
Yes, it would have with a lot of people gone. It certainly did but the first real comprehension I had about the loss of property was one day, ten years ago, I was driving in Vancouver and heard on the radio about some investigations into the legalities and so forth of what had happened and how there had been, how the property had been seized, resold, and ... But dad never mentioned any of that. Yeah.
LJ
But he held on to the stuff carefully.
JW
Oh, yeah he did. Yeah, yeah. Yeah, and so, I mean, you have to assume, well, the school photographs have got the names of all the kids and dad knew everybody’s name whether they were Japanese or non-Japanese. Their names are there; their first names and their last names. So you get the impression that for the children, at least, it was just part of, to a degree ... Who knows to what extent but it was part of life just to have Japanese friends.
LJ
And also part of his life to hold onto their stuff.
JW
Yeah, yeah, that’s true. It’s always been obvious that it didn’t belong to us. So that’s why when dad passed away it was just something to be taken care of and just to continue to take care of it until such time. I guess it’s some promise my grandma made to her neighbor and it would be pretty neat to know who that person was but I don’t know if there’s any clues anywhere.
LJ
So what was left?
JW
Well, there’s an assortment of china. A set. I guess these are all made in Japan.
LJ
Oh, wow.
JW
Well, they’re unmarked too so there’s no mark on it to say that it’s made in Japan. At that time I think Japanese porcelain wasn’t marked. These little bowls. I think those are sake cups. There’s a set of those.
LJ
This does say made in Japan on the bottom.
JW
Oh, does it?
LJ
Yeah.
JW
Okay.
LJ
This is not very big. Yup.
JW
Yeah.
LJ
But it would stand to reason that these things go together as sets.
JW
This, I’m not sure, this may be related or non-related. I’m not sure about that. I’m not sure about that piece there. This is kind of a tea set. I don’t know why it’s packed with this stuff.
LJ
It’s so light.
JW
Yeah, this is made in Japan so that’s possibly why it’s put together. I don’t think that was something that belonged to my grandma. They wouldn’t have it. Here’s the rice bowls. Aren’t they sweet? Yeah, they’re really nice.
LJ
So you were saying that you remember seeing these as a kid.
JW
Yeah, they were just sitting in the cabinet in a, sort of a, you know, one of those old stuffy old Victorian china cabinet things sitting alongside the cups and saucers. The made in England cups and saucers and that sort of stuff.
LJ
So a real kind of culture clash; the made in England and the made in Japan.
JW
Yeah.
LJ
So they were part of the kitchen rotation? Did they get used?
JW
No, they weren’t. For the most part they just sat as sort of a semi-display as a lot of that stuff tends to. There may have been one time that we might have, as kids, one afternoon with my mom got out the little cups and possibly had tea out of them but they weren’t part of the, you know, the turnover, the hustle bustle or anything like that.
LJ
So they were marked in some way and you understood them to be special?
00:10:00.000
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JW
Yeah, they were. Yeah, because of that story which is pretty ... We didn’t have my grandma. My grandma passed away when I was five so stories about my grandma really stuck, first off, but, yeah. I guess that information from my dad was, yeah, it was pretty, uh ... I think that’s all different sorts that are in there.
LJ
Yeah.
JW
The rest of it is all more the same kind of stuff.
LJ
Okay. So, one would imagine that this is not a big family but maybe a small set of things.
JW
My sisters actually have, because it was my dad’s estate and we divided stuff they took pieces out as well but, given that, that’s just part of the thing of when someone passes away, you just hang onto things. At the time, and short after, we talked about ... It may have been ... The project has been in the works for a long time and maybe when I first heard about the project but I think maybe even prior to that I had gone online to see if there was any way of contacting or tracing who this belongs to and Diana, my sisters Diana and Janice also would like to see this go back to the people it belonged to. It would be ... Yeah.
LJ
Is there any sense of or memory of who your grandparents lived next to or ...
JW
Well, unfortunately, the person who could have told us would have been my dad. It’s really unfortunate. My grandfather was a person who moved around a lot because he went and renovated houses and moved to a different spot and moved to a different spot. So he did that several times. So, no, there isn’t really. The only record of the people that were living near dad would be on those photographs, on the school pictures, with the names of all the kids on the back but I don’t know if there’s any way of finding out where those families lived at any given time.
LJ
Right.
JW
Yeah, well, maybe there is.
LJ
Possibly.
JW
Yeah, yeah, because they shared a school room so maybe they all walked there laughs. Yeah, yeah.
LJ
And there’s this clock.
JW
Yeah, made in, um, made in ... What’s it say on the inside of it? Made in Japan?
LJ
Well, it says that it’s made in Tokyo.
JW
Yeah, so I don’t ... It may have been part of the stuff. I should have checked with my sisters to find out. It seems likely in a way that it would have been because I don’t know that if my grandparents had owned a clock like this would they have purchased a Japanese clock to be ... I don’t know how much this stuff was part of what people accumulated in those days. It might have been more likely it was part of what was brought over to my grandma.
LJ
Well, there’s a claim cheque here for ... It looks like it sat somewhere for two years from 1940 to 1942.
JW
Yeah.
LJ
But ...
JW
Maybe from being repaired or possibly pawned I suppose.
LJ
Yeah.
JW
There was also a barrel, a nail barrel, about two feet high. I still have it. It’s just one of those things I just, I liked it. I said my grandfather was a builder so initially I thought “Oh, well this might have been a barrel that he might have stored nails in or that he bought nails in” but darned if it doesn’t say on this wooden barrel, which is with the staves have all fallen out of their round rings that hold it together, if it doesn’t say it on this barrel 'product of Japan’ laughs, which makes me think, well, it’s possible that the china may have come to my grandma packed in that barrel because that was a common way to protect things. Barrels were, you know, filled up with sawdust or shavings and that sort of thing. So that’s possible. Yeah.
LJ
So everything could have been packed up like a trunk?
JW
Maybe, it’s possible but i don’t know. Or also that the barrel was just ... Yeah, I read online about building houses in Haney in those days and that the Japanese people who, everyone there who got land, could build a house for the cost of the windows and the nails. So it occurred to me “Oh, heck yeah. Some person built their house by cutting down the trees and nailing it right there and buying the windows.” Maybe the nails they used came from Japan?
00:15:19.000
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LJ
Hmm. Wow, yeah, it’s really ... This is a project where we talk about Japanese Canadian property but it’s a whole other thing altogether to actually see Japanese Canadian property.
JW
Yeah.
LJ
And to think about this is stuff that they wanted to save and the efforts that were made to try to keep it safe.
JW
Yeah and what other families did with their stuff, too. It’s quite remarkable.
LJ
Yeah, I guess that’s a good question. Did you or anyone in your family talk about receiving requests to hold things for other folks or do you know of other folks in Haney who were ...
JW
I don’t think so. My dad never mentioned anything like that. He would have been, of course, the person to talk to. We’re talking about ten years too late because my dad had phenomenal memory. I think he wrote some of those names on those pictures, you know, twenty years ago. Most of them were done at the time when he was a kid and then later but he could probably look at a map and point to where people lived, you know, so, it is a shame that he wasn’t part of that.
LJ
Yeah, you do have some photos and papers down there.
JW
Yeah, these are the school pictures and it’s actually ... I don’t think the set is quite complete but it does show my dad and kids in his class from an early age and right through to high school and a number of them the names are written on the back, the names of the Japanese and non-Japanese students. This one’s got my dad and I’m looking for his friend, for his friend Seto. If you could find Seto’s name on the back and then we’ll see if we can see him. Some of these are his sister’s classes. My dad, the only kind of political or politically incorrect thing, I guess, that I ever heard my dad say, he did refer to Japanese as Japs but ... He would talk about the farms and stuff. “Oh, the Japs would do it this way.” It would just sort of be followed, this is the way. Dad never spoke about them in a racist way, yeah.
LJ
Do you think ... It seems that everything has stood the test of time. Do you think he took pride in being asked to hold this stuff?
JW
That his mother was?
LJ
Yeah.
JW
Oh, quite ... I would think that, yeah, that he was impressed at the time and maybe more and more impressed as years went on that my grandmother was the quality of person who would have been a friend and someone to trust and someone to turn to in a time of absolute terrible trouble. He would have known that about her, of course, but would have taken this as a privilege for her and thought my grandma was somebody who, yeah. That didn’t surprise him that that was who she was.
LJ
And this really was more of a request to your grandmother than to your ...
JW
Yes, to my grandmother, yeah. My goodness, you know, I wonder, I think, actually, my dad must have got this stuff, he did get this stuff when my grandmother died. Not when my grandfather died many, you know, like decades or more later. If it was in our home when I was young, which is what I remember, hm, maybe, I could be remembering that wrong. Yeah, I can’t see it being part of my granddad’s kind of continuing itinerant life.
00:20:15.000
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JW
It would be interesting to check that with my sisters though because it was possible. Possibly when granddad moved he gave it to dad or when my grandmother died dad got it but I’m pretty sure that we ... because my grandfather didn’t die until I was in my twenties and I know this stuff was in our home when I was in my teens and, how much earlier than that I’m not sure.
LJ
Yeah.
JW
Yeah, I’m not absolutely sure. I think I maybe won the medal there. Hm. It’s really too bad how the information gets lost, isn’t it? This is amazing. I love these pictures with all the names of the kids on it laughs. I mean, my school pictures aren’t like that.
LJ
It’s incredibly detailed.
JW
It is and they’re great pictures. The resolution on these is just phenomenal. When you scan them they come out fabulous. I should have found dad’s friend for you before you came. Nishiyama, oh, there he is. Suzumo Seto, number three in the fourth row but from which side? I think, well, if this is the fourth row, yeah, that’s it. That’s Seto in the middle, at the bottom.
LJ
Oh, okay.
JW
Yeah.
LJ
And this would have been 1927?
JW
Yeah. So dad was eight at that time. He was born in 1919.
LJ
It says here there’s a tip. It says “Tip: write the names of your classmates in ink on the back of your picture. You will be glad of it someday.”
JW
Isn’t that funny laughing?
LJ
Yeah.
JW
I think that may be Seto in the top corner there. Of course you can ... If it’s the same kids going through you can go from picture to picture too and find them in another one as well even without the names. Oh, here he is again. Number 20 in the top row. No, that’s not, second row, on the end. Oh, and here in this picture they’re really small. There he is laughs. At the end of that row laughs.
LJ
Oh.
JW
It’s the same guy. Isn’t it?
LJ
Yeah, maybe they’re just taken from a further distance? Let’s see Seto ...
JW
This was not dated but I think they’re younger.
LJ
They look younger here I think.
JW
Yeah.
LJ
The, um, the dusty ground underneath their feet is notable too. There’s not a patch of grass.
JW
No, well schoolyards were like that when I was a kid too. And, actually, their shoes, you know, their clothing, you can see that the kids were living in ... I know at the time there was not a lot of money.
LJ
Now, did you grow up in Maple Ridge as well?
JW
No, I grew up in North Van. Dad was actually born in North Van and dad was the youngest in the family. They moved to Haney, I don’t know, when my dad had been three or four? That’s where dad went to school. That’s where dad went to high school. Yeah, here’s Seto again. Number one. Is this one dated? No, it’s funny they don’t put the date on and then dad is in there at the end of the row. Actually, this might be a good one to send for the ... Seto’s on the end and my dad is there.
00:25:04.000
00:25:04.000
LJ
They seem older here.
JW
Yeah.
LJ
Hard to say.
JW
Yeah.
LJ
Yeah, so many of these kids would have been going to school together for quite a long time.
JW
Yeah, yeah.
LJ
And, do you know ... Has anyone kept in touch or heard from Seto over the years?
JW
Well, there was just those Christmas cards every year and, um, I don’t know, I imagine it’s likely that he’s passed away. He and my dad were born in 1919 so, you know, they’re well into the 90s and beyond. It would be easier to find out more about his family because I think he had a fairly prominent job, you know, he worked in the church and so on and probably there’s addresses and stuff down in Los Angeles that we could find him or other people in his family.
LJ
You said that your sister took some of the stuff to hold on to some of the bowls and ...
JW
Yeah, it was just a case of taking all the stuff, household stuff out of my dad’s and just making three piles. They’re pretty much the same. It’s the same kind of thing. Other than that, no, the clock and the photographs. What they have is just more of the dishes. Just some more of those dishes. We could make those back into a full set and give them to whomever had brought them.
LJ
Yeah.
JW
What do you think the possibility is of finding the person?
LJ
Oh, gosh, I don’t know. It sounds like you’ve done some work to no avail though.
JW
Well, I didn’t really take it very far. I just found out, you know, the names of some organizations that ... This was a few years, six, or seven, or eight years ago.
LJ
Yeah, it’s hard to say.
JW
Yeah, you never know.
LJ
Folks may have come back to Haney and Maple Ridge but it’s hard to say who left this stuff with your grandma to begin with.
JW
Yeah, in some ways it wouldn’t matter if it was specifically the same person. It belonged to a community and, sort of, a way of life and I would imagine any Japanese person in Haney might be interested or feel a sense of, you know, yeah, I think it might be interesting to anybody. It might not matter if it was the same people. I’m sure it wouldn’t. It wouldn’t to me. It belongs to them. It belongs to their story. Yeah. Quite a coincidence.
LJ
It’s, yeah, it’s a very interesting coincidence to say the least. I mean, you know, we say that this history is ongoing and it literally is right here. Yeah, so it’s perhaps, it was a strange coincidence but hopefully from this is an opportunity to help it finds its way.
JW
It’s an enriching experience, too, to have this kind of information about that history. It’s really important and I think it’s very, very helpful. Yeah.
LJ
Was it always well known for you? I don’t think it was well documented or discussed in school.
JW
No, no, no, nothing other than what my dad had told me about it but it actually happened to his family in Haney, it happened to his friends, and the origin of this stuff, where it came from. As I say, I didn’t know some of the machinations of the way in which the property was actually seized and sold illegally until I heard that piece on the radio. That was pre-project. It was at least a decade ago. I heard it on the afternoon show one day.
00:30:08.000
00:30:08.000
LJ
Yeah. So, this stuff and the project helped you get a greater sense of, a deeper sense of what happened to families like the family that left it with your grandma?
JW
Well, it prompted me to be careful with these pictures and get them all out, get them organized. I also, I haven’t seen work come out of the project yet but I did go online and read some interesting things about Japanese farming and a book from scholars in Washington from a few years ago about the Haney area. Yes, it has prompted me to look at my dad’s past, to look at, you know, I’ve always liked Haney. I guess, sort of the traditions of farming and all of that kind of stuff. The lifestyle that my dad had as a kid and the way he grew up, those are things that I still have in my own life and, yeah, the more complete his picture is in that place. It’s a good experience. It’s good to understand it better and to sort of bring it into the present, for sure.
LJ
I’m assuming he talked a lot about Haney, about the place.
JW
Yes. Yes. Hm. As I say, he wasn’t hugely forthcoming about the war and not a lot forthcoming about his own life but yeah he did talk about Haney. I think my granddad, when they moved there, they lived basically in a shack which, according to the stuff I read, Japanese people moving here to take on land as well, that’s how it was until they managed to get their house built. It was a very basic way to live.
LJ
What sorts of things would he or reflections did he have about Haney?
JW
The work they did as kids, they were ... My granddad was a builder. He remodeled houses but they always grew something on the land to make money. They, I believe they grew strawberries. He talked about having fun swimming in the river. He talked about his dad being a brutal disciplinarian; a mean old guy. That’s what I knew of him later myself. That was my impression as well but I found out about ... I’m just beginning to find out about the tensions in the community to do with the Japanese farmers and perceptions that they were taking over the economy or this or that or the other thing. Those things I found out from the reading I did from the articles from Washington. Dad never mentioned anything about that. Maybe it just wasn’t something that impressed his family or that his family ... I mean, his father was an immigrant from Scotland so how is their situation really any different? Except that it was different. They weren’t Japanese but, still, their day to day living and how they were trying to get along and have a life in Haney was very similar. Their economics were very, very similar. Yeah, so, maybe that gave my grandmother more empathy. Those were her origins. I know that she had regrets about coming to Canada and, in fact, when my dad was very young, had actually gone back to Scotland for a period of time but then had decided, this is what my dad did tell me later that she had decided, well, there was really no good choice and the choice she would make would be to come back to Canada with the family and stay with my grandfather.
00:35:30.000
00:35:30.000
LJ
Why was she ...
JW
Why was she torn?
LJ
Yeah.
JW
I think there were tensions in the marriage. I think it was my granddad. My grandfather, this would have been later, he had a real struggle during the depression. When he had absolutely no money the story is that he basically sat at the kitchen table doing absolutely nothing for a whole year until someone finally, this was in the 1930s, until someone actually offered, a friend, found him a job in a sawmill down in, where is that spot, I forget the name, but yeah. So their economics and their life was hard for sure. But, for my dad and his brother, you know, they always, it seemed like with school and work and education and going to university, it seems the stepping stones were there for them regardless.
LJ
And your father did?
JW
Yeah, he went to UCLA. He left UCLA just in the nick of time to not be drafted into the American Forces and came back and joined the Canadian Forces and went into the war and then went into UBC when he came back after the war.
LJ
Where did he end up fighting?
JW
He was in the east coast of Canada, in the navy. I don’t know other than that correspondence, I don’t know if he was ever in touch with Seto after that. I don’t think so. Yeah. He had friends killed in the war. His best friend was killed in the war and I have letters from my grandmother to him about that, so, yeah. Well ...
LJ
That’s auspicious timing.
JW
Yeah, okay.
LJ
Yeah. Alright.
00:38:02.000

Metadata

Title

Jean Anne Wightman, interviewed by Josh Labove, 09 January 2017

Abstract

Jean begins the interview by describing a tea set that a Japanese-Canadian family left in her grandmother’s care. Jean also mentions the preliminary research she conducted to try and find the family that gave the tea set to her grandmother. She relays what her father told her about his experiences as a soldier in the Second World War as well as his opinions on the politics surrounding the internment and dispossession of Japanese Canadians. Jean moves on to show the interviewer the various other items that were left in her family’s care and explains their significance. Near the end of the interview Jean reflects on what her father thought about the community in Haney, British Columbia.

Credits

Interviewer: Josh Labove
Interviewee: Jean Anne Wightman
Publication Information: See Terms of Use for publication and licensing information.
Setting: Victoria, BC
Keywords: Maple Ridge ; Haney ; China Tea Set; UCLA; German; East Coast; Second World War.; 1920s – 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.