Sam Yamamoto, interviewed by Josh Labove, 06 January 2017

Sam Yamamoto, interviewed by Josh Labove, 06 January 2017

Abstract
Sam begins the interview describing his earliest childhood memories in British Columbia. He explains the various careers he had as well as the story about the beginnings of his construction company. He reflects on his experiences of and feelings toward the period of internment and dispossession, what his family had gone through, and what he thought about the unfolding events. He also describes how he feels about the policymakers who enacted the laws impacting Japanese Canadians at that time. Sam also describes whether he experienced any discrimination while living in the province. Near the end of the interview he tries to remember his friends who were ‘relocated’ away from the coast during the war’s outbreak.
00:00:22.000
Labove Joshua (LJ)
Sam maybe we can just begin you can tell me a little bit about your earliest childhood memories.
Sam Yamamoto (SY)
Well, um, I was born on Sea Island which is presently the Vancouver International Airport location. I went to public school there, English public school as well as Japanese language school. I stayed there until I was about fifteen or sixteen years old and because of the prevalence of tuberculosis, the disease called tuberculosis happening, we wanted to get away from that particular village and we moved to Marpole in the south west of Marine Drive and I finished attending school, Richmond High School, from there. I graduated, oh, back in 1939. So that's my quick, shall we say, short, um, words on my life until the Second War came. On Powell Street there was a little store and I still remember the address, 469 Powell Street, a place called Union Fish Company and I started working there. When I was working there in 1941 my father actually died while fishing on Vancouver Island near Courtenay, BC. This was in July 1941. Of course, I had to leave the store. I left the store and started taking over the fishing from my father. In 1941 November or December, November I would say, I was helping my uncle, my cousin or uncle, a relative anyway, from Steveston fishing for dogfish liver. The liver was being used, at that time, to extract oil and to coat the wings of the airplane for de-icing. We heard at the time in November that the war, at December, the war started if I recall. We were ordered to get back to the fishing village where we came from. In my case that would have been Sea Island, Vancouver Canada where I had left my gillnetter and this party went back to Steveston. So I left my boat on the wharf of Vancouver Island and went back home to Maripol. It's the last time I saw the boat because a few days later I heard that it was towed away and stored in a little, what do you call them, shelter cannery. It had a little merge area there that they probably brought in maybe about a couple of hundred boats, I guess. So that's the last time I saw my boat, in fact. From there on in the spring of 1942, five or six months later, an order came that, you know, uh, that we would be, oh, that they were evacuating these people slowly and they were picking up the younger group which is the young group between eighteen, nineteen, twenty. These males were sent to road camps and because one of the families didn't want to have their eldest son, who just came from Japan in fact, he couldn't understand a word of English at all, wanted somebody to come with his family to go to McGilby Falls as a self-supporting project. This is where I ended up in 1942, in a self-supporting project.
LJ
And what were you doing up there?
SY
This self-supporting project that the people who were able to afford to lease a place for a couple of years, um, McGilby Falls was one of them and Minto was one of them, Ridge River was one of them, and Lithwick was one of them. So less people than that were able to afford to move their families for a couple of years. They opted for that instead of being in the center, Hastings Park to the, you know, relocation camp. That's what the self-supporting project was.
LJ
How old were you by the time you ...
SY
I was, by that time I was probably about twenty-one I would say, yeah.
LJ
Yeah.
SY
And, you know, staying in the self-supporting project you need work and my family's been, in the meantime, have been moved into the relocation camp in Lemon Creek. This is I think in November of 1942 if I recall. They moved in there. Of course, you know, my intention was just to go there to McGilby Falls and stay maybe six months or so and then move out of there but, in the meantime, you know, you're going to need money to survive. So there were a few ... Work came up. They were building a sawmill in a place called D'Arcy which I worked over there for three or four months and then when you realize that the check has bounced so we had to leave that. There were three or four young people in McGilby Falls who went there which is only really four or five miles inwards to the coast but, anyway, I'm realizing I'm getting short on money so then I've got to get out of here. Fortunately, I had a chance to go to Kamloops through a family friend of ours. I stayed in Kamloops for about, oh, maybe about a year or so. Then back in 19 , yeah, um, yeah in 1940, that's 1942 so later in 1943 I left for work in Kamloops, that's right. In 1942 we were relocated and then in 1943 I left for work in Kamloops. I was working in the logging camp. In 1943 by working there it gave me some sort of funds. I was able to go and visit my family at the winter of 1943. We went back, uh, yeah, somehow I had overstayed my permit that I had and when I got back to Revelstoke after visiting my family in Lemon Creek Camp and rejoining Kamloops I stayed in a hotel in Revelstoke and when I got out in the morning I got up and came down the stairs from the upper floor and there was a plain clothed man asking me “Are you Sam Yamamoto?” I said, “Yeah.” He introduced himself, he said “I'm an RCMP.” laughs. “So, I'm here to escort you back to Kamloops because you overstayed the permit, you see.” laughs. He never did accompany me but I'm sure he was there somewhere making sure that I'd get off at Kamloops and report to the BC Security Commission. So the BC Security Commission ordered me back to McGilby Falls where I came from. During the time I was staying there waiting, “Oh, god, I've got to wait six months before they give me a permit.” In the meantime there was a change in authority from BC Security Commission to the RCMP. Now, when I heard that I immediately applied for a permit to go to Revelstoke and, believe it or not, the permit came. So I took off to Revelstoke and in Revelstoke I stayed a total of almost probably about four years doing all sorts of work working in the logging camp and the sawmill and the icehouse manufacturing ice at Revelstoke for the fruits and vegetables grown in the Okanagan. They were loading this crushed ice onto the refrigerated cars, you see. I then worked in the Fred and Indy Brothers who had a sort of hardware store plus a mill-ware store and also had a construction company. So because of my little bit of experience in McGilby Falls building houses, cabins, for the relocated families I was able to get a job in the construction end of it. That only lasted a few months. Anyways, I heard that there was an opportunity to work in the sawmill. The reason for that opportunity to work in the sawmill is because of the fact that the lady that was working there happened to be the daughter of the person who owned and operated the Union Fish Company in Powell Street, you see. So, anyway, the only condition was that, okay, I'll work for this particular sawmill provided that they give me enough lumber to build myself a shack or shed, you know, a little twelve by twenty shack so I could stay there instead of commuting for, well, three or four miles to this. At least I'm there. Well, that's fine. The lumber yard has lots of free lumber, shall we say.
00:12:39.000
00:12:39.000
LJ
Mhm.
SY
laughs. I got myself lumber. I stayed there for about maybe, um, about a year or so I suppose. Back in 1946, that's right, I'd say about three or four years in at 1946 there was a movement by the government to close the camps that the Japanese people were relocated into like Lemon Creek Camp and Popoff Bay Farm, Slocan City, quite a few went to Rosebery. The people living in these camps were asked, forced to leave the camp and go outside of British Columbia. They had no chance of coming back or going back to the coast again. Or, if you don't want to go east you had the option of going back to Japan. Well, I for one didn't want to go back to Japan by the end of it so I decided that I better move the family which would have been seven in the family including myself at the time. They were in Lemon Creek Camp and thinking that I had to move them quickly I decided to go to the Okanagan, Oyama, where an acquaintance of mine that I met in McGilby Falls had moved into that area because they had two years, as I was saying, the least was up and they had to move away from there. They had moved years before I was thinking about it. They had already moved into the Okanagan and the place that one particular family moved into was a small place called Oyama. I went to see him and fortunately he said yes. It's a Japanese family. I know that they used to work for this orchardist, Mr. Grey, he just left, his family just left to Japan for repatriation. In other words, oh, that's fine then we went to look at it and sure enough the house arrives now and, you know, for me to move the family over. So I went back to Revelstoke and told the family we better move, you know. I said, it's a good opportunity. There's a vacant house there large enough to accommodate you if you move, you see. So at the same time that I'm talking to Mr. Grey I said “By the way, you know, there's enough room for my family and the rest of the family but for myself there's no room. Is there another place another person who may be looking for help.” He said “Well, Mr. Hayword is looking for just one person. Maybe you can go and ask him.” I actually went to ask him and he said yes. He provided me a little shack which was renovated from a chicken shed, you know, but then you had two rooms. I moved in there and then I moved the family over. That's my life in the Okanagan. We stayed there, oh, for about, I would say about three to four years and looking at the dates given to me, uh, my family moved, except for myself. The family moved into, uh, the Surrey area and purchased a place in Surrey in 1951. Yeah. I, myself, stayed another year in the Okanagan because I had a small family, too, myself with a little boy. I decided to myself I better, kind of, stay another year. At least there's employment there anyway. Then I decided, well, okay, no, I'd better be with the family close to the family. I moved over into the Surrey area in 1952. So we settled over there. In the meantime I'm doing a lot of work with an acquaintance of mine that was an accountant for a construction company and he said to me “Sam, you have a fair amount of knowledge in construction and railroading as well, too.” He said “I have contact with the engineers and the key people in the CP and CN and the BC Electric Railway, at that time it was called. Why don't we, sort of, form a company and start bidding on this job?” He has connections and I have the experience and everything. I said, “Okay.” So back in 1955 we formed a company. Since then we never looked back, shall we say, until I retired in 2010. In short, that's kind of the life that I spent.
LJ
You only retired in 2010?
SY
I was very fortunate that I met this particular person. I think a person in a person's life there's something that clicks and something that makes you take off in a different direction and this is the person to take you down that road. He's long gone, mind you. He passed away, you know. Anyway, there's one person, normally, there's something that clicks with you in your life that changes your lifestyle totally and this is a person that I really appreciated.
LJ
Can you tell me more about him?
SY
Pardon?
LJ
Can you tell me more about him?
SY
Silence.
LJ
Can you tell me more about him?
SY
Well, he was English, English, Welsh, English descent, you know? He was about ten years older than I was, yeah. He used to work for Costco Brothers. They were more into the railway and, shall we say, renovation-reconstruction, shall we say. Then he worked for Jay and Yonge who were more into building. This is how I got to know him. He was a great person, really. So he and I started to renovate this until he retired.
LJ
And what sorts of things did your company do?
SY
Well, actually, we started doing well obviously because of the railway because, initially, we were involved in the railway and I used to work for the company that he was representing, you see. He was an accountant, in fact. So, we got introduced to these CP engineers, regional engineers, divisional engineers of Vancouver. They treated me very well, in fact. There was absolutely no discrimination at all because of the race of all. It was the same thing with BC Electric. Absolutely no discrimination I faced which was good. I was very fortunate. Is it because they're gentlemen? I don't know what it is but I've been treated very well. Carrying on beyond that railway company we started looking into building on provincial work and federal work like, uh, the BC Public Works for Canada or Public Works British Columbia and Public Works Canada. That's the wording for these building jobs you get to building these things. We built a lot for the federal government. We started with the RCMP headquarters. We did a lot of prison work for a number of years, you know, but it comes in a cycle. With telecommunication we were in Beverley and then for prison work we were in there for three or four years. Oh, you name it, we did everything. We were highly respected by these departments. We were fortunate. I would say, discrimination, I've never felt.
LJ
No?
00:22:50.000
00:22:50.000
SY
I feel that maybe I was given a certain amount of respect because I was doing work for the Children's Hospital where this particular, what do you call it, maintenance manager told me, he says, “Sam.” He says, “You're the only Japanese Canadian general contractor west of Winnipeg.” I said, “Well, thank you very much.” I didn't even thank him. “Oh, that's fine.” You know, thank you very much. I think I was real respected too, you know? I was rather very fortunate, I guess, that I met this particular person Ted Jenkins. Because of him I was able to meet all these different people, you see.
LJ
Was it weird at all or strange ... You talked about a couple of years earlier the RCMP was escorting you back to Kamloops and now you're building their new headquarters.
SY
laughing. Well, uh, I don't know. I guess, uh, I didn't feel pressure or anything like that. I can't remember suffering from pressure or that. I don't know, maybe I did. In a sense that they're police, I suppose but I think I was very fortunate, you know, meeting these people and how they treated me I just can't think of anything. All I can think of is probably that there's more respect shown to me by these senior officials. I think I was very fortunate, yeah. Maybe I have met the wrong type of person but they were very good to me. A very, very fortunate type of thing.
LJ
You never left the province during the war or even after the war.
SY
Pardon?
LJ
You never left the province during the war or after the war.
SY
No, no, I never. People asked “How were you able to travel?” “Oh, I asked for a traveling permit.” Of course, if you overstayed you get caught mind you but, no, I think I didn't. Even in the war years I think I was very well treated in the Okanagan.
LJ
So can you tell me a little bit more about the traveling permit that you had? I mean, you overstayed it once but ...
SY
Well, I don't know. It was just a small occurrence anyway, I think, you know? That's at the end of it. I know that when the BC Security Commission handed the powers to the RCMP I thought well, I'll take a chance because the Security Commission said I won't get another permit for another six months or so, you know. When I heard a month or two later that the Security Commission had handed the power over to the RCPM I said, well, why not try a different organization, shall we say. Boom, here comes the permit to go to Revelstoke.
LJ
Yeah.
SY
Yeah.
LJ
Did you pick Revelstoke or did they tell you you were going?
SY
No, I picked Revelstoke because I had already friends living in Revelstoke, you see. During my trip to the Okanagan I would drop in to say hi and they would say “well, why don't you come to Revelstoke?” The fact that I used to work with the Maruno family who owns and operated the Union Fish Company I was able to, you know, uh, talk to these people and they told me to come over. “We have a cabin behind our place that you could stay in when you move over and work in the logging camp, you know, for a start, you see, until you find yourself a stable job over here.” This is how I, yeah, so, I don't know. It's just a small incident. I think the RCMP was happy to get rid of me, I'm sure laughs. By then, you know, I think people were traveling quite freely anyway within British Columbia. Not to the coast but within the Okanagan and on the Kootenays I've seen people traveling quite freely.
LJ
You had lived on the coast, you had lived on the island, did you ever miss that? Did you ever miss your boat?
SY
You know, I guess, you know, I didn't even think about that. I know when I was in Oyama there and when they opened up the fishing industry again to the Japanese, you know, they looked at my record. I guess BC Packers looked at my record and said “Hey, in 1941 you were a high liner. Here's an offer. Do you want to come back to us and work and we'll provide you with a boat, gillnet, and everything, you know? Come back and, you know, start fishing for us?” I thought to myself “I'm married now and the fishing life is not the life that I would like. So, no, no. I think I'll just stay here.” So I declined but at that time I'm sure most of the fishermen that were fishing had gone back fishing and settled in the Richmond area, yeah, but I said “No, thank you.”
LJ
You seem pretty comfortable picking up a whole lot of different careers in different geographies.
SY
I guess, um, I don't know, it's because of the fact that, probably, I didn't face racial discrimination as such, you see. Even going to high school, Richmond High School, in the last two years I was traveling from Marpole with a Caucasian friend of mine, you see. Mind you, in Richmond High School, I would say about at least thirty percent were Japanese from Steveston, you see, and because I wasn't in with the group in Steveston or whatever I've never been discriminated, I guess, because my association with the Caucasians, I guess, more than anything else but in Revelstoke it was a different thing. People in Revelstoke were mostly of Italian descent and, uh, they were very kind to the Japanese and they realized the problems we were having. They were very good to the Japanese. In fact, this particular person Mr. Shoji, uh, after I left he became, I think, the mayor of Revelstoke laughs. There was a baseball player, Asahi baseball player, Mike Maruno which I used to work with him and stayed in the same, sort of, boarding house with him, you know. He was a star and put together the Revelstoke Spikes they called it. So, all that, I think, helped the Japanese. The Japanese were very well treated in Revelstoke more than any other place that I know.
LJ
Why do you think that is?
SY
I think because of the Italians because of the Mussolini area that they had a problem, you know? Yeah. They, sort of, faced the same discrimination. I think that's probably it. They understood what that feeling is. You know? So I was kind of fortunate when I moved back to Surrey there was no Japanese around my area, mind you, but a person across the street was Ukrainian and on the first night they'd come over, knock on the door, and introduced himself. “I live next door.” You know? “Welcome to this area.” Then there was a chap behind that. He was of German descent but he's a second generation German. His family came over and welcomed us back to the area, you see. So everything turned out very, shall we say, fortunate that it turned out very well. There was no discrimination at all. So, when you think about being discriminated against, you're talking to the wrong person laughs.
00:32:22.000
00:32:22.000
LJ
You must hear from people who are surprised, though, by that.
SY
Pardon?
LJ
You must hear from people who are surprised by that, no? That think that or who have stories or who have shared stories with you.
SY
That's right. I couldn't understand why they were talking about this discrimination. That I haven't felt, you see. So, yeah.
LJ
But what did you think about the idea of having to get a permit or having to register with the RCMP?
SY
Well, actually, what it means is 'so be it.' Yeah, so that's the regulation. So be it. Okay? It's not going to last forever.
LJ
You didn't think it was going to last forever?
SY
No, no, no, no, no. Better times are going to come. Yeah. These are only temporary measures. So I thought the relocation was just a temporary measure. I felt sorry for the people who had been ... Had to live through ... My mother and father ... My mother and the kids had to live in a tent in November when they were first relocated because their cabin wasn't ready so they had to live in a tent for a month or so in the cold November weather, you know? I mean, I felt, you know. The thing is that, well, what can you do?
LJ
And the politicians at the BC Security Commission who would have devised these rules, they were just, uh, what would you say to them? To the folks, the Caucasian lawmakers who would have put these restrictions ...
SY
At the time, you have to remember at the time what they were faced with. Oh, no. They had pressure. They had to put in laws that were issued by the government, you know? What can you say? Really? Why worry about those things? Why fight those things? Well, you know, live with it for a while. Nothing is permanent. It's definitely not going to be a permanent thing, you know? So my outlook is a lot different from ... because I was roaming around freely, maybe, not confined in one particular area. Not with the family, alone, living, and traveling. I don't know. If you're thinking about somebody that has suffered and want to hear all these stories, you know, sad stories you're talking to the wrong guy. I told Mike about this. You're talking to the wrong guy. I said “No, no, no, no, no. My feeling toward this is totally different.” I said, you know. I haven't faced that type of discrimination people talk about.
LJ
No, I ...
SY
You have to accept the fact that, okay, so this happened but you've got to look forward. At least I could say this, mind you, but people who suffered have different stories.
LJ
Yeah, it sounds like your family had a different circumstance.
SY
Yeah, right, different, definitely. In the meantime, you know, people ask me “Where did the government get the money to feed us?” “Well, they probably sold the property and put whatever money they had, you know, probably, I don't know. They used that money to feed us I suppose.” So right now I'm just kind of ... because of the fact that, uh, there had been an inquiry of what happened to our house so I got interested in looking into, right now, trying to find out. It was handed over to the custodian and the property it's probably in my mother's name. They found out that it was in my mother's name because my father died in 1941 and that particular house that we lived in Marpole, uh, probably the name has been transferred over to my mother's name, you see. They have a record of my mother's name on that particular property. So I don't know what happened to that property. Who bought it, I don't know.
LJ
But the house still exists? It's still there?
SY
No, it's gone because it was there before they built the Marpole, I call it the Marpole bridge, but it's the Oak Street Bridge. Yeah.
LJ
Oh.
SY
It was at the foot of Oak Street at that time and I'm sure it became part of the reconstruction of building the Oak Street Bridge.
LJ
Very close to Sea Island.
SY
Pardon?
LJ
Very close to Sea Island.
SY
That's right, yeah.
LJ
So is that how you ended up in Richmond schools?
SY
That's right. Richmond school is just across the river on the other side, you see.
LJ
Yeah, and very different, um, than Marpole I would think in some ways, right? Wasn't Richmond, you know, more active ...
SY
Richmond is farmland.
LJ
Right.
SY
And Marpole at that time was sawmill land.
LJ
Right. So how did your family end up in Marpole?
SY
Well, as I say, we had to leave. We were quite concerned of the prevalence of the tuberculosis disease that started from the lower part of the river and was moving toward family after family, you know? We were on the upper side. My father and mother said “Oh, we'd better move out of here.” Yeah, there's no such thing as an occasion to treat tuberculosis at that time. You ended up in a hospital somewhere, you know. So, that's the reason. So I spent a year and a half there and then in Richmond, as I said, they gave us permission both Donna, Ross, and myself to finish schooling in Richmond high school. There was a year and a half left. They gave us permission to attend there. Otherwise I would have had to have gone to McGill High.
LJ
Right, in Vancouver.
SY
That's right, yeah.
LJ
So a lot of your classmates, um, they would have been relocated to camps, no?
SY
Yup, they were ... Most of the young people my age spent their time, about a year and a half or so, in road camps. They couldn't accompany ... They were the first to move. In other words, families were the last to move out. The easiest to move was the people over eighteen years old, unmarried, whatever, you know. They were sent to the road camps.
LJ
Young men.
SY
Young men, yeah.
LJ
Yeah. So you mentioned that fishing was good as a young man but not sustainable when you had a family.
SY
Family, yeah. This is the life I've seen, you know.
LJ
So when did you settle down and start a family? Was that in Surrey?
SY
No, it's in ... I got married in Oyama and, you know, a year and a half later I had a child. I said to myself, this is when I thought “No, this is not for the family. Fishing is not for myself. No.”
LJ
And then you moved down to Surrey after that?
SY
That's right, yeah. I stayed in the Okanagan for about five years I guess. Maybe six years. Yeah, I became very good friends, too. The owner had retired and a couple of years later I went to look for him and he was in a seniors home in Vernon and I went to look for him to say hello to him and he was so happy, you know laughs. I dropped into a few of my friends' ...
00:41:06.000

Metadata

Title

Sam Yamamoto, interviewed by Josh Labove, 06 January 2017

Abstract

Sam begins the interview describing his earliest childhood memories in British Columbia. He explains the various careers he had as well as the story about the beginnings of his construction company. He reflects on his experiences of and feelings toward the period of internment and dispossession, what his family had gone through, and what he thought about the unfolding events. He also describes how he feels about the policymakers who enacted the laws impacting Japanese Canadians at that time. Sam also describes whether he experienced any discrimination while living in the province. Near the end of the interview he tries to remember his friends who were ‘relocated’ away from the coast during the war’s outbreak.

Credits

Interviewer: Josh Labove
Interviewee: Sam Yamamoto
Publication Information: See Terms of Use for publication and licensing information.
Setting: Delta, BC
Keywords: Lemon Creek ; RCMP ; Kamloops ; Logging Camp; Hastings Park ; Union Fish Company ; Powell Street ; Public Works Canada ; Infrastructure; Revelstoke ; Kootenays ; BC Security Commission ; Travel Permit; Racial Discrimination; Fishing Industry; Marpole ; Italian; Richmond ; Oak Street Bridge; Oyama ; 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.