THE EARLY YEARS – THE ISSEI
Manzo Nagano arrived in Canada in 1877. He was the first known immigrant from Japan and was followed by thousands who came to Canada seeking to settle or to improve their circumstances in Japan. Most of the issei (ees-say), first generation or immigrants, arrived in the first decade of the 20th century. They came from fishing villages and farms in Japan and settled in Vancouver, Victoria, and in the surrounding towns. Others settled on farms in the Fraser Valley and in the fishing villages, mining, sawmill, and pulp mill towns scattered along the Pacific coast. The first migrants were single males, but soon they were joined by young women and started families. Japanese Canadians had to struggle against prejudice and win a respected place in Canadian society through hard work and perseverance.
During this era, racism was a widely accepted part of social and political life. A strident anti-Asian element in BC society did its best to force the issei to leave Canada. In 1907, a white mob rampaged through the Chinese and Japanese sections of Vancouver to protest the presence of Asian workers who they perceived as threatening white livelihoods. Anti-Asian Canadians lobbied the federal government to stop immigration from Asia. The prejudices were also institutionalized into law. Asian Canadians were denied the vote; were excluded from most professions, the civil service, and teaching; and were paid much less than their white counterparts. During the next four decades, BC politicians – with the exception of the Co-operative Commonwealth Federation (CCF) – catered to the white supremacists of the province and fueled the flames of racism to win elections.
To counteract the negative impacts of prejudice and their limited English ability, the Japanese, like many immigrants, gathered in enclaves (the two main ones were Powell Street in Vancouver and the fishing village of Steveston) and developed their own institutions: schools, hospitals, temples, churches, unions, cooperatives, and self-help groups. The issei’s contact with white society was primarily economic but the nisei (nee-say), second generation, were Canadian-born and more attuned to life in the wider Canadian community. They were fluent in English, well-educated, and ready to participate as equals, but they often faced the same prejudices experienced by their parents. Their demand in 1936 for the franchise as Canadian-born people was denied because of opposition from politicians in British Columbia. They had to wait another 13 years before they were given the right to vote.
THE WAR YEARS AND BEYOND – YEARS OF SORROW AND SHAME
Shortly after Canada’s declaration of war with Japan on December 7, 1941, Japanese Canadians were removed from the West Coast. “Military necessity” was used as a justification for their mass removal and incarceration despite the fact that senior members of Canada’s military and the RCMP had opposed the action, arguing that Japanese Canadians posed no threat to security. Their expulsion from the West Coast continued to 1949, through the war and for an additional four years after its end. injustice was the culmination of the movement to eliminate Asians Canadians from the West Coast begun decades earlier in British Columbia.
The 1942 order to leave the “restricted area” and move 100 miles (160 km) inland from the West Coast, was made under the authority of the War Measures Act. This order affected more than 21,000 Japanese Canadians. Many were first held in the livestock barns of Hastings Park (Vancouver’s Pacific National Exhibition grounds) and then were moved to hastily built camps in the BC interior. At first, many men were separated from their families and sent to road camps in Ontario and on the BC/Alberta border. Small towns in the BC interior – such as Greenwood, Sandon, New Denver, and Slocan – became internment quarters mainly for women, children, and the aged. To stay together, some families agreed to work on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba, where there were labour shortages. Those who resisted and challenged the orders of the Canadian government were rounded up by the RCMP and incarcerated in barbed-wire prisoner-of-war camps in Angler and Petawawa, Ontario.
Despite earlier government promises to the contrary, the “Custodian of Enemy Alien Property” sold properties confiscated from Japanese Canadians. The proceeds were used to pay auctioneers and realtors, and to cover storage and handling fees. The remainder paid for the small allowances given to those in internment camps. Unlike prisoners of war of enemy nations who were protected by the Geneva Convention, Japanese Canadians were forced to pay for their own internment. Their movements were restricted and their mail censored.
As World War II drew to a close, Japanese Canadians in government camps were required to sign papers agreeing to be “repatriated” to Japan or to prove their “loyalty to Canada” by “moving east of the Rockies” immediately. Many moved to the prairie provinces, others moved to Ontario and Quebec. In 1946 about 4,000, half of them Canadian-born, one third of whom were dependent children under 16 years of age, were exiled to Japan.
On April 1, 1949, four years after the war was over, all restrictions were lifted, and Japanese Canadians were given full citizenship rights, including the right to vote and the right to return to the West Coast. But there was no home to return to. The Japanese Canadian community in British Columbia was virtually destroyed.
1950s TO PRESENT – REBUILDING AND REVIVAL
Reconstructing their lives was not easy, and for some it was too late. Elderly issei had lost everything they worked for all their lives and were too old to start anew. Many nisei had their education disrupted and could no longer afford to go to college or university. Many had to become breadwinners for their families. Property losses were compounded by long lasting psychological damage. Victimized, labelled “enemy aliens,” imprisoned, dispossessed, and homeless, people lost their sense of self-esteem and pride in their heritage. Fear of resurgence of racial discrimination and the stoic attitude of “shikataga nai” (it can’t be helped) bred silence. The sansei (sun-say), third generation, grew up speaking English but little or no Japanese. Today, most are unfamiliar with their cultural heritage and their contact with other Japanese Canadians outside their immediate family is limited. The rate of intermarriage is very high – almost 90% according to the 1996 census.
With changes to the immigration laws in 1967, Japanese immigrants began, once again, to arrive in Canada. The “shin” issei (“new” meaning the post-World War II immigrant generation) came from Japan’s urban middle class. The culture they brought was different from the rural culture brought by the issei. Many of the cultural traditions – tea ceremony, ikebana, origami, odori (dance) – and the growing interest of the larger community in things Japanese such as the martial arts, revitalized the Japanese Canadian community. At the same time, a gradual awareness of wartime injustices was emerging as sansei entered professional life and restrictions on access to government documents were lifted.
1980s – REDRESS MOVEMENT
In the 1980s, Japanese Canadians sought redress for the wrongs committed in the 1940s. In January 1984, the National Association of Japanese Canadians officially resolved to seek an acknowledgement of the injustices endured during and after World War II, financial compensation for those injustices, and a review and amendment of the War Measures Act and relevant sections of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms so that no Canadian would ever again be subjected to such wrongs. With the formation of the National Coalition for Japanese Canadian Redress – which included representation from unions, churches, ethnic, multicultural and civil liberties groups – the community’s struggle became a Canadian movement for justice. They wrote letters of support and participated at rallies and meetings. A number of politicians also lent their support and advice.
The achievement of redress in September of 1988 is a prime example of a small minority’s struggle to overcome racism and to reaffirm the rights of all individuals in a democracy.
I know that I speak for Members on all sides of the House today in offering to Japanese Canadians the formal and sincere apology of this Parliament for those past injustices against them, against their families, and against their heritage, and our solemn commitment and undertaking to Canadians of every origin that such violations will never again in this country be countenanced or repeated.
Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s remarks
to the House of Commons, Sept. 22, 1988