General Articles


Mass exile from B. C. is just a bad memory to Canada’s Japanese — a memory they try to forget as they begin life anew

PIERRE BERTON February 1 1948
General Articles


Mass exile from B. C. is just a bad memory to Canada’s Japanese — a memory they try to forget as they begin life anew

PIERRE BERTON February 1 1948

KEN KITAMURA, a cheerful, voluble Japanese Canadian who runs a lunch counter on Yonge Street, Toronto, thinks of the exodus of 23,000 of his people from the West Coast as an Act of God. To him, the largest enforced mass evacuation in Canadian history is “a calamity—like a fire or a big storm or an earthquake.”

Mr. Kitamura was once one of the richest men in Vancouver’s Japanese community. “Now,” he says, “I’m just a dishwasher.”

His $50,000 all-granite home on the borders of Vancouver’s swank Shaughnessy district, his new Packard car and his big merchandising business have all been sold. Now he serves coflee to his customers and tries to forget the past.

“I do not discuss it,” says Mr. Kitamura. “I could discuss it for two whole days but I am starting out again. It is all forgotten.”

Not all of Mr. Kitamura's compatriots are as philosophical; some are very bitter at the treatment they’ve received in their native or adopted country. Before the war all but a handful of the Japanese in Canada—alien, naturalized and Canadian-born—lived in the coastal strip of British Columbia. After Pearl Harbor they were uprooted and are now scattered from Japan to the Maritimes. With a few exceptions, no Japanese, no matter what his allegiance or birth, has been allowed to live within 100 miles of the Pacific. The property they left behind has been sold, often at ridiculously low prices.

Second-class Citizens

SOME 4,000 have been shipped back to Japan. Another three or four thousand live in interior British Columbia; they cannot move 50 miles without an RCMP permit, nor can they change their domicile without permission. If they move out of the province they can’t come back, nor can the Japanese who left earlier to settle in the eastern communities that would have them.

Because of a clause slipped into the Dominion Elections Act in 1945, no Canadian of Japanese origin may vote in a federal election, unless, he voted in 1938. Since most of them then lived in B. C., where they never did have a vote, this denies the federal franchise to all but a few. No Japanese can take out a commercial fishing license in Canada and until a short time ago none could hunt or fish for pleasure.

In B. C., as always, those of Japanese origin cannot work on crown lands or on roads or in the mines or take up certain professions such as optometry and law. Alberta still regards them as transients and so denies them the vote. Both Alberta and B. C. refuse to pay for education, hospital benefits or old-age pensions.

Existing restrictions on Japanese Canadians are the remnants of a wartime flood of complicated orders-in-council, departmental regulations, rulings by the Custodian of Enemy Property and Department of Justice decisions. Some of these legal strings on their freedom have been removed, but many remain. Right now the Japanese are holding their breaths until March 31, when the Government’s extension of the Emergency Powers Act lapses. Although they think it’s impossible for Canada to have two sets of laws for native-born sons, many of them have been shoved around so much in the last six years that they do not expect to receive full citizenship for some time.

On one point most Japanese Canadians agree: they do not wish to return to British Columbia. Bitter as they may be about the methods used to force them out of the province, most of them have found that there is more opportunity, less intolerance, in Eastern Canada.

Take Frank Tabuchi, who operates a small radio repair shop in North Toronto. Last summer he got an RCMP permit to visit Woodfibre, near Vancouver, where he and 300 of his race once worked in a pulp and paper mill. The boss said he’d be glad to have them all back again if he could but Frank said no thanks, he was doing better where he was.

It hasn’t been easy for Frank. When he first started business in Toronto in 1943 his friends told him he was crazy. Local businessmen got the city to refuse him a license. “You write and tell the holy father in Japan to call off the war and we will grant a license,” the magistrate told him. But Frank’s lawyer found that if he got the former tenant’s business tax transferred to him he didn’t need a license. He has stayed open, done a thriving trade and is accepted as part of the community. For a while he had operated a similar shop on the coast under a trade name, but when he called at occidental homes to do repair jobs the door was oflen slammed in his face. That’s why he became a paper worker.

Opportunity in the East

ALL ACROSS the Dominion the Japanese are slowly fitting together the scattered jigsaw-puzzle pieces of their lives.

In Alberta, Sadayoshi Aoki, onetime principal of Vancouver’s Japanese language school, now harvests sugar beets. His oldest son, Tetsuo, and his daughter, Judy, have schoolteaching jobs which they would have been denied in B. C. Second son Hiro sells life insurance.

In Winnipeg, Harold Hirose, who left his B. C. job as secretary of a farmer’s co-operative to take domestic work with his wife during the war, has opened up his own accounting firm. A veteran of World War II, he served in Malaya in 1945. He couldn’t have been an accountant in B. C., except among his own people.

In Toronto, Art Tateishi, who was earning 25 cents a day in an Ontario work camp in 1942, now employs 70 people at his phonograph plant. Tateishi was sent out to Ontario in a day coach in 1942. When he went back on a visit to Vancouver, last summer, he flew his own plane.

The seeds of racial hatred which blew from the coast in 1942 in most cases have failed to take root in Eastern Canada. Those citizens of Chatham, Ont., who once tried to bar all Japanese from their town, have discovered that no women have been raped and none of the good burghers knifed. Japanese Canadians are good spenders in Chatham stores and the Chatham hospital now has 25 employees of Japanese ancestry.

Eastern dance halls admit Nisei (Japanese of Canadian birth) freely, though one Toronto dance spot tried to bar Bruce Inouye because they thought he was a Negro, and it is easier for the Japanese to get rooms and apartments. (One landlady told Wesley Fujiwara he could have a room as long as he wasn’t a Chinese.) But some employers still won’t hire Japanese labor: last summer a high-school boy named “Sock” Shintani answered an ad in person and was told the job was filled. When he got home he phoned back to see if it was still open. It was. Despite setbacks of this sort, the Japanese Canadians in Eastern Canada have reason to believe that the community is becoming more tolerant of them.

The Japanese in interior B. C. are the most unsettled group in Canada today. Most of the young people bave already moved East, but the older ones stay on for a variety of reasons: Tokutaro Tsuyuki, for example, who has built himself a successful tomato farm near Lillooet on the upper Fraser, hopes eventually to return to his old home at Haney near Vancouver. The fishermen who form a large part of the population of Greenwood in the Kootenays are staying close to home for the same reason. Some men, like Edward Cuchi, a combination farmer-insurance salesman in the Vernon district, just cannot afford to move their large families east and go through the weary business of resettling again.

The Japanese in B. C. can be divided into two groups. In the Kootenays, where the Government transported them in 1942, they have given five old ghost towns a financial shot in the arm, and the white residents would be sorry to see them go. The white citizens of the old mining town of Kaslo strongly protested their arrival in May, 1942. But, in the fall of 1944, they petitioned Ottawa to allow them to stay. In Greenwood, another ghost town that served as a wartime relocation centre, the population has jumped from 300 to 1,000 and business is thriving thanks to a new logging company, sawmill, box factory and many poultry farms and small businesses. Greenwood, too, had protested the influx of the Japanese, but recently a spokesman for the mayor said: “We love these people.”

The second group in the more prosperous Okanagan area (Kamloops, Vernon, Kelowna) are merely tolerated. The Nisei find it virtually impossible to set up new businesses inside these towns. Even Shige Brown, a World War II veteran with a white wife, was denied a business license and had to set up his grocery store outside the Vernon limits.

Brown is one of the 125 Japanese-Canadian veterans who are exempt from some of the restrictions on their people. Sgt. “Buck” Suzuki, for instance, was allowed to return to the forbidden strip on the coast last summer, but was still refused a commercial fishing license to go back to his old job. He and Brown and the others were recruited in 1945 for the Canadian Intelligence Corps only after long and repeated requests from the British Army.

Japanese evacuees on the Prairies are faring somewhat better than those in B. C. Although as late as last spring the Alberta Government urged the removal of the 3,500 Japanese in the province, most of whom work on beet farms around Lethbridge, the Sugar Beet Growers Association is now asking that they be allowed to stay and that all prejudice be forgotten.

Despite Saskatchewan’s liberal attitude, climate and scarcity of jobs have discouraged Nisei. There are about 1,200 in Manitoba, most of whom arrived in 1942 for sugar beet work. Now they’re mainly centred around Winnipeg. At first the Government tried to discourage them from moving into the city because the Winnipeg Grenadiers were at Hong Kong, but the city has been one of the most tolerant, thanks at least in part to the attitude of the Winnipeg Free Press.

Toronto, with 3,500 of Ontario’s 7,000 Japanese, is now considered the hub of the Japanese-Canadian community and Nisei are continually writing their friends out west that there is more opportunity in Ontario and in Quebec (where there are some 3,000). So far only a handful have drifted as far East as the Maritimes, but the evacuation, now voluntary, is still going on. There has been nothing like it in Canada since the days of Evangeline, when 10,000 Acadians were scattered along the U. S. coastline.

The Race Cry in B. C.

The big move was made in the spring and summer of 1942. Pearl Harbor started it. From that day B. C.’s “Oriental problem” became simply the “Japanese problem.”

On Dec. 7, 1941, a young Vancouver girl named Yoshiko Kurita was walking home when an old man came up to her and spat full in her face.

“I ran all the way home and up to my room and knelt down on my bed and prayed,” Yoshiko recounted some time later. “I felt very close to God that day. I asked Him to help us Japanese Canadians. I prayed: ‘O God, we didn’t want this war. We aren’t part of Japan now. We are Canadians. Please help us, God.’ ”

That afternoon, when Yoshiko’s mother boarder a streetcar, a white passenger tore off her hat and stamped on it.

It was this sort of racialism that caused the uprooting of 23,000 persons from their homes and the forced sale of their property. The Government had intended only to move enemy aliens (about one fifth of the total Japanese population). Its hand was forced by an intense racial outburst from the West Coast. G. Ernest Trueman, who now heads the Department of Labor’s Japanese division in Toronto and was on the scene for the Government at the time, has said quite flatly, “The reason for the mass evacuation was not because of the Japanese but because of the whites. The problem was one of mass hysteria and race prejudice.”

It was a prejudice fostered—and still fostered in B. C.—by myths about the Japanese. They were supposed to have taken over the fishing industry, yet in 1939 they held only 14% of commercial fishing licenses, supplied only 10% of the labor and five per cent of the capital. Their birth rate was allegedly sky-high, yet the 1941 census shows the average family of a Canadian-born Japanese woman as 2.75—higher than the national average but lower than some other racial groups. They were said to be lawless, as a group, yet a 1931 survey of 33 B. C. corrective institutions showed only half as many Japanese inmates, per capita, as British. In the Fraser Valley, the Japanese farmers paid less for fertilizer and got longer credit with white companies—simply because their credit rating was better than that of white farmers. It is quite true that the Japanese concentrated in certain economic fields such as farming. They had little choice. The attitude of their white fellow citizens made it virtually impossible for them to go into the professional world.

The evacuation policy was never clear-cut or defined because the federal Government didn’t know what it was going to be pushed into doing next.

This atmosphere of uncertainty hung like a pall over all evacuees. They were told at the outset, for example, that the move from the coast would only be temporary. It turned out to be permanent. Government advertisements assured them that their goods would be “held in trust.” A year later they were sold with or without the owners’ permission.

12,000 Ghosts

The first move came in the spring of 1942 when all able-bodied men, about 1,200 in all, were sent to work camps in the Rockies. The post-office machinery between these camps and the men’s homes on the coast broke down with the result that the monthly $20 allowance cheques to families were delayed for months. One government man, investigating the cause of strikes in these camps, found a stack of cheques two and three months old still unmailed. The attitude, he said, was simply that “they’re Japs so it doesn’t matter.”

By the end of the summer, the Government returned all these men to their families, most of whom were now in the Kootenay ghost towns and desperately needed male help to re-establish themselves.

By the end of 1942 there were close to 12,000 Japanese Canadians living in the ghost towns and in newly built shack towns, such as Tashine. Agnes Suzuki and her parents shut up their cleaning shop in Vancouver and moved to Kaslo where they shared a four-room apartment above a fish-freezing plant with four other families. Those who did not live in old buildings moved into government-built tar-paper shacks, 18 x 24 feet, two families to a three-room hut. The evacuees were expected to pay their own board and those who could not received Government relief, which was deducted from the money received by the Custodian of Enemy Alien Property from the forced sale of their belongings.

Eastern evacuation didn’t start in earnest until 1943, but a good many people who had never done any farming before volunteered for this sort of work on the prairies. Frances Saito, her mother and her six brothers and sisters went straight to the beet fields of southern Alberta in April, 1942, in order to keep their family together (otherwise the women would have been sent to ghost towns, the boys to road camps). Their home was in Cumberland, Vancouver Island, where the elder Saito had been a coal contractor until his death in an industrial accident. There they lived in a trim white and green seven-room frame home, which they owned on the coal company’s property. They had no way of knowing their property would be sold and they fully expected to return within a year, so they left their beds, stove, chinaware, chairs and linoleum in the house. In 1946, the Saitos received the proceeds from the sale of their home: $50 for the house; $8.50 for the furniture.

In Alberta they moved into a three-room unpainted shack with no wallpaper or covering for the floor. There was no plumbing, no toilet facilities. The only furniture was a stove. There wasn’t room for the four boys, who slept in a nearby granary.

All eight Saitos, including the elderly mother who also did the cooking, toiled from May to October thinning, harvesting and hoeing the 48 acres of beets allotted them. For the season’s work, the Saitos got $27 an acre—$1,296 in all. In the winters, Frances and her sisters worked as domestics for $20 a month and the boys went to lumber camps in Northern Alberta. This went on for three years.

Frances came East in November, 1945, after taking some business-college training in Regina (Lethbridge wouldn’t let her inside the city limits). She applied for a job with a large electric company, who turned her down on the grounds that they’d never hired a Japanese before. She got the same answer from another concern. However, two months later, this second employer offered her a job which she turned down in favor of a civil-service position with the Unemployment Insurance Commission. Her brother George, a university graduate who couldn’t get an electrical job in Vancouver, now is an engineer with the electric company she tried first. The Saitos have all come to Ontario and live in York township where brother George bought a home after being refused permission to buy in Toronto proper. (The Government had agreed not to send Japanese to any town where they were not wanted. Toronto, however, now permits Japanese residents.)

It is expected that some 3,000 families will file claims totalling from $10 millions to $12 millions with the Japanese Property Claims Commission. To hear these claims, the Commission expects to sit in all parts of the Dominion—perhaps for as long as three years.

A large percentage of these claims will come from people whose farms were sold by the Secretary of State, acting for the Custodian of Enemy Property, to the Soldiers’ Settlement Board. The land comprised 13,000 acres—more than 700 farms—mainly in the Fraser Valley. The total municipal assessment, usually considered less than the real value, came to $1,250,940. The Soldier’s Seulement Board valued the land at $847,848. The Secretary of State then allowed the board to buy the land at $836.256—two per cent under its own valuation and one third less than the assessment.

There is a good deal of evidence to show that this represented only a fraction of the real value of the land: A few of the faims purchased by the Government did not go to veterans and were therefore sold at a profit which in some instances was as much 700%. One 100-acre farm on Salt Spring Island, which the Government sold to itself for $245, went for $2,000.

The rest of the claims will be taken up with homes and property which evacuees claim were sold at a less or damaged or looted after the evacuation.

A good many people living in isolated coastal points who had as little as 24 hours notice to pack up and get out were especially hard hit. One storekeeper in the Skeena district had to leave his entire stock behind. The Custodian’s representative didn’t arrive to inventory it until a year later. By that time the sugar had spoiled, the tins had rusted and rats had eaten into the rice bags.

The Claims Commission is empowered to deal with only about 75% of the Japanese who incurred losses. Those whose property was left behind or taken over before the Custodian’s office was set up in March, 1942, will not get a hearing. This includes the fishermen whose boats were corralled by the Navy just after Pearl Harbor.

Hope of Freedom

The best of these boats were sold immediately by a special committee. Bill Okada, who now works for a Toronto woodworking plant, never saw his trim white Violet S. after Dec. 7, 1941. The boat had cost him $2,000 three years before and he had converted it, at some expense, from a collector-type into a deep-sea trawler. A floating log or an ice floe sank his boat after the Navy took it over. It was dredged out of the river, repaired and spld for $1,000. Okada, who went into the fishing business so he could make money to go to university, got $800. The rest was charged to expenses, which included, ironically enough, a watchman.

To men like Bill Okada, now trying to earn enough money to open up his own woodworking shop, the trials of the last five years are almost forgotten. But although he would never go back to B. C., his inability to cross the B. C. border irks him. Although he would never go back into fishing, his inability to purchase a license rankles.

Like the Yoneyamas and the Saitos, the Suzukis and the Kitagawas, Bill is waiting to see what will happen on March 31. Then he may gain a full sense of freedom. This is a good feeling, as some Japanese Canadians have already testified. It was perhaps best expressed by George Tanaka who, after toiling all summer long in an RCMP sponsored sugar beet project near Tilbury, Ont., got permission in November, 1942, to seek his own fortune in Toronto. Since Pearl Harbor, Tanaka, a Canadian-born citizen, had been under strict supervision.

“That first day in Toronto, when I was able to walk around as I wished and go where I wanted without having to report to anybody or ask permission or get a permit for anything, I suddenly realized that liberty meant something,” Tanaka said.

“I felt like shouting out: ‘I’m free, I’m free!’ It’s a good word, freedom. You never really know what it means until you lose it.”