How I became an equal

After Pearl Harbor nearly every door was slammed in the face of this Canadian-born Japanese. Yet he bounced back into wealth and universal respect. Here s his own story of how he did it

ARTHUR TATEISHI January 4 1958

How I became an equal

After Pearl Harbor nearly every door was slammed in the face of this Canadian-born Japanese. Yet he bounced back into wealth and universal respect. Here s his own story of how he did it

ARTHUR TATEISHI January 4 1958

On the afternoon of Dec. 7, 1941, I was on a public course in Vancouver doing my best to learn to play golf. I wasn't making much progress and after a couple of hours of duffing I got into my car and started home. I lived then in Steveston, a fishing community at the mouth of the Fraser River just outside Vancouver, where I was the proud owner of the River Radio Sales and Service.

I was in no hurry. It was one of those beautiful early winter days so characteristic of British Columbia. I turned on the radio and coasted along. I couldn’t have been less prepared tor what was to come when, minutes later, the program was interrupted by a news bulletin. "Japanese planes have attacked Pearl Harbor,” the announcer said.

I find it hard now to be precise about my feelings at that moment. When I think of it now I’m only able to recall a kind of numbness, a depression settling in me. There’s an explanation for this.

Both my parents were born in Japan. I was born in Canada and considered myself a loyal Canadian though I knew that neither I nor anybody else of Japanese blood was really free of suspicion in the eyes of our Caucasian fellow citizens.

Now, I wondered, what will they think of us or, worse, what will they do? It was a question that kept turning over and over again in my mind the rest of the trip home.

I was twenty-two years old but I hadn't been living with my parents for close to seven years. I had become a man of the world at an early age. I was born Arthur Katsumi Tateishi March 5, 1919, on a farm five miles from Courtenay on Vancouver Island. There were five children in our family, three boys and two girls, and I was the third born.

Our farm was far from rich—a hundred and sixty acres, less than a quarter under cultivation. When I was twelve my father, who had never known anything in his life but hard work, had a stroke. This was a heavy blow to us. My older brother was already working in a lumber camp but the family needed more help. One of my sisters got a job as a domestic and it was decided that I would have to leave school and help out on the farm.

After doing the chores around home for six or eight months I, too, became a wage earner, as a “whistle punk" or signal boy for a logging outfit. The pay was fifteen cents an hour for an eight hour day, six days a week. I lived twenty miles from the job site.

I was up every morning at 4.45 a.m. and after breakfast pedaled my bicycle five miles to where our donkey engineer lived. He owned an old car and I rode with him the five miles to the saw mill. There I climbed on a rail speeder for the ten-mile lap to where we were cutting. Then I started working.

When I quit at the end of two years my wages had reached twenty-five cents an hour. I’d been helping out at home but I still managed to put aside a hundred and fifty dollars. This money I planned to use for a very special purpose.

I’d done a lot of thinking about my future and I decided that I would be either a pilot or a radio technician. Flying was my first choice. But no matter which it was to be I had to leave home. And so with a battered suitcase and my precious savings tucked securely in my pocket (I had a little extra money for my boat fare and miscellaneous expenses) I said a firm good-by to my family and set out for the great unknown city of Vancouver where I had neither friends nor relatives. I was fifteen years old.

But I was determined and soon got going about my business. A flying career, I learned, was out of the question: I was too young and I didn't have enough cash anyway. I turned to my alternative career.

An institution called the Sprot-Shaw Radio College was offering a six-month course for radio technicians and I promptly enrolled. The tuition fee was twenty-five dollars a month and with barely enough money to pay for the full course my problem was how to live in the meantime. I made a deal with the operator of a boarding house to get free board in return for peeling potatoes, washing dishes and doing other chores.

I couldn't afford tram fare, so I walked the six miles to and from school every day. But I succeeded in getting through the six-month course in four months and they told me that nobody else had ever done it that fast.

I was proud of my feat. I had worked hard and felt well qualified for my new trade. The world, I thought, was more or less my oyster. But I was in for a surprise.

Times were hard in the 1930s and jobs were not easy to find. I soon learned that to be a Japanese hunting for a job was even tougher. The days stretched into weeks and I was still without work. Though I had fortunately continued on at the rooming house under the same arrangement I was rapidly reaching the end of my rope. I had to have money.

Then I heard that a Japanese plastering contractor in Steveston needed a helper. I wasted no time in getting to see him, and he hired me. I stayed at plastering for two months and then went to the Queen Charlotte Islands and spent the season working in a salmon cannery.

I returned to Steveston solvent: I had saved two hundred dollars. What now. I asked myself. Should I again try to find a job as a radio repairman or should I— the idea seemed almost too bold—should I start my own business?

I gave myself the answer I wanted. I hurried to Vancouver and spent what I could on tools and equipment.

Then I went back to Steveston, found a vacant shop and rented it. At 16 I was, I guess, the youngest tradesman in town.

I didn't wait for business. I couldn't afford to. I took my tool kit and went from door to door looking for radios to fix. The majority of the people living in Steveston were Japanese. Many of them spoke little English. Except for a few simple phrases, I spoke no Japanese. But it wasn't long before I'd acquired a fair working knowledge of the language. Not that my business was done exclusively with Japanese. I made a good many customers among the English farmers who came in to Steveston to shop.

“The day our world changed”

Altogether things went well for me. Eventually I moved to a better location. I got a store on Main Street next door to the post office. My apartment was at the rear. I was already handling a line of radios and phonographs and I expanded the stock to include typewriters. I even began selling pianos.

By then the days of lugging my tool kit from door to door were behind me. I owned a truck and had a couple of local boys working for me. I drove a late model car and, at last, I was realizing the second of my dual ambitions—I was taking flying lessons at Sea Island airport.

Then came December 7.

I remember some of the older folks in Steveston, people who listened to the short-wave broadcasts from Japan, predicting trouble but I didn't pay much attention. I had already taken my army medical but, like the other Japanese boys, had been told to wait until I was called.

I never was.

When war did come we expected restrictions. But we didn't expect some of the things that happened. A curfew was imposed and rumors flew wildly. One was that the whole Japanese community, even the Canadian-born, would be sent to Japan.

After a period of confusion during which the authorities issued directives and counter-directives, it was ruled that no Japanese, irrespective of allegiance or birth, could live within a hundred miles of the Pacific. I had about a month to pack up.

It was a hard thing to do for anyone who considered himself a Canadian, but there was no reprieve and I went ahead with the liquidation of my business. I tried to sell at what I thought was a reasonable price but the situation was hopeless. No Japanese could get what his property was worth.

I’d been selling a lot of radios on time and I was told I'd have to make good for them even though they’d been confiscated by the RCMP. I put my business up as collateral to guarantee the payments to the company that supplied them. I tried a couple of times after the war to have some adjustment made on this but I've given up on it now. Anyway, whenever I think of it I start to boil.

My connection with Steveston ended, I gathered up my personal belongings and moved to Hastings Park in Vancouver where able-bodied young men destined for government-sponsored work projects in the east were being mustered. My parents arrived at Hastings Park just as I was preparing to leave and I was able to see them, if only for half an hour and under very difficult circumstances. Their farm had been taken over by the Custodian of Enemy Property (it was later sold for approximately two thousand dollars) and they were being sent, along with other older people, to a ghost-town relocation centre in the interior of British Columbia.

It was in April 1942 that I set out on my trip across the country. We traveled in old day coaches with wicker seats and a stove in the centre of the car. Our diet for the four days was pretty much limited to wieners and buns and eggs.

We were not a happy crew that morning we climbed down from the train at a siding near Jackfish, Ont., a hundred miles northeast of Fort William. It was crisp and clear and as we trudged through snow three feet deep from the railway siding to the cluster of bunkhouses it seemed as though my world had come to an end. There I was a member of a detested race, suspect in my native Canada. my business gone. It was worse than anything I could imagine.

But once established at Jackfish I didn't have much time to brood. I worked first as a pick-and-shovel hand on a road job and later as an orderly in the camp infirmary. It was not an internment camp though our movements and activities were controlled. We reported in and out. I used to go occasionally to the pub in Jackfish three miles away. We were paid, too — twenty-five cents an hour, from which seventy-five cents a day was deducted for board. The room was free.

After I had been at the camp about six months the authorities began moving people out for work elsewhere, mostly to the sugar-beet fields of southern Ontario. I decided to take a bold step and applied for permission to go direct to Toronto and take my chances on finding a job there. I was surprised when only a short time later I was issued an identification card and told that, aside from having to report to the RCMP once a month. I was on my own. I was a new man!

I went straight to Toronto to see Ernest Trueman, who was head of the Japanese division of the Department of Labor and a man who, I think, did more than anybody else to ease the relocation problems of the Japanese in Ontario. Through Trueman’s office I got at least a dozen leads on jobs but none of them panned out. There was a real manpower problem but no matter how desperately people needed help they were not prepared to hire a Japanese. I knew I was in for a hard time.

I thought my luck had changed when one day in London the manager of a small plant engaged in war work said that while he was probably asking for trouble he was prepared to take me on. “Start tomorrow morning,” he said.

I was elated. I rented a room and that night was lying on my bed mulling over my good fortune when the landlady called me to the telephone. It was my boss-to-be.

“Something has come up,” he said. “My employees have found out that I’m hiring you and they’re threatening to strike. It might be rough going but I'm willing to take a chance if you are. What do you say?”

What could I say? I admired his attitude but I could see no point in creating an ugly situation. I thanked him and said I'd try to find something elsewhere.

I went back to Toronto and with two other Japanese boys moved into two cheap rooms in the centre of the city. To save money we took all our meals at the YMCA. (I was living on my small savings from the relocation projects.) In one respect at least I had changed; I was no longer so sensitive to snubs and hostile stares. And a good thing it was because there was a lot of real bitterness in those days.

“We were walking on eggs”

Most people in eastern Canada had never before seen Japanese. We were oddities to them. Their impressions were formed from what they heard or read in the newspapers, so I guess you couldn’t blame them. We were walking on eggs for quite a while.

I combed Toronto in search of work for close to two months. Then one day I went to a fairly large radio sales and service store that I'd heard needed a repairman. I got the job, no questions asked. The pay was twenty dollars a week. That was it! I knew the tide had turned.

I was running their service department when, after eighteen months, I quit to start my own business. It was then 1944.

I rented a small shop on College Street in the west-central part of the city and lived in a one-room apartment upstairs. I did the repair work for several radio stores. That kept me busy enough. But I had something else in mind.

I had always been interested in electric motors and I began designing a phonograph turntable motor suitable for Ontario's 25-cycle current. Phonograph motors weren't being manufactured in Canada and the market was growing. It seemed clear to me that to put myself on easy street I only needed to develop an acceptable product. And it looked so easy. Ignorance, of course, is bliss.

Tools and dies had to be made and I hired a couple of apprentice tool makers to work with me part-time. I repaired radios by day and made tools and dies by night. I worked twenty hours a day more often than I care to remember.

It was a trial-and-error process. We'd build a motor and then have to tear it apart. Sometimes it took as long as two months to produce two satisfactory units. But we finally perfected a motor. Before we could go into production, however, we had to make new tools: the old ones wouldn't stand up and had to be scrapped. But at last we got underway.

I was confident that I had something good; if any doubts lingered they were dispelled by a letter I received early in 1946 from a company distributing electronic equipment. They said they were impressed with my product and if I was prepared to join them and supervise its production they would pay me ten thousand dollars a year. This convinced me I was on the right track and I turned them down. It wasn't long after this that I got a telephone call from another company with a similar proposition, which I also rejected. How times had changed.

We were still operating out of the same shop on College Street (by then we had taken over the basement) and I was still living in the apartment upstairs. I had six employees. But my operating capital was so limited that every shipment of a dozen motors had to be cash-on-delivery so that I could make a dozen more. Something had to be done.

I went to see Stanley Honsberger, a lawyer I had heard about. I was scared. He agreed to help and said first I should set up a company. We did and he became a director. He still is. He's been like a father to me.

I was soon selling all the motors I could manufacture. In 1947 when I started making automatic record changers under a cross-licensing arrangement with an American firm I had to move to a bigger location. I now had a working force of seventy people. I branched into electric fans that same year when I found that basically the motor used to power a phonograph turntable would drive a fan. Later I applied the same principle to the electric ironer.

In the meantime I had managed to complete the flying lessons I'd begun years before in Steveston. In the fall of 1947 when I went back to British Columbia for the first time. I was flying my own plane. I didn't consider it a triumph; I was happy to be able to go back at all.

“It’s an asset to be different”

It was some time before I got over my self-consciousness about being Japanese. I think the break came one day when a friend of mine, an executive of a trade-magazine publishing company, asked me why I never attended meetings of the trade associations to which my company belonged.

While I fumbled for an answer, he suggested, “Is it because you're afraid somebody might stare at you?” I agreed that maybe that was the reason. “But don’t you see,” he said, “you've got an asset in being different. Why not use it?”

I took the advice. I don't mean to appear vain but I think I can sit down at a meeting and though I may not say a damn word everybody there will know who I am. And if they don't, they make it a point to find out.

My progress was steady from 1946 on. In 1949 I reached a heady plateau when sales exceeded half a million dollars. But the early part of 1950 had its dark moments. I'd been involved in a car accident and the critical chest injuries I suffered left me bedridden for six months.

Between telephone calls to the office I propped a drawing board on my knees and designed the first direct-drive three-speed record-changer motor. It was patented in both the United States and Canada and is still in use. That year our sales climbed to a record high of $911,000.

Another event, much more important to me, occurred in 1950. I met my wife. Her name then was Gwen Gammon and she was working as a secretary for an electrical manufacturer in Montreal. Flying, with one of my salesmen as a sort of middleman, brought us together.

Gwen was very much interested in airplanes though she wasn’t a pilot herself. Our sales representative in Montreal called regularly at her office and mentioned one day that I was flying in from Toronto and that he could probably arrange a flip.

He was right: he could arrange it; and I don’t think it's inaccurate to say we've been flying a good part of the time ever since. We flew to Nassau on our holidays last spring in our five-place amphibian aircraft. Gwen often joins me on business trips to New York and Chicago and every now and then we hop down to Montreal for Sunday dinner. She's as keen a flying fan as ever though still not a pilot.

Gwen and I worked with the architects in planning our house. It's a long, low, L-shaped place with ten rooms. It overlooks a deep wooded ravine in suburban northwest Toronto.

We have a six-year-old son named Arthur. He’s a lively little fellow and, like most children, extremely curious. That's what gave me the inspiration for one of my more valuable patents.

Little Arthur was playing around the living room one night a couple of years ago, pushing, poking, exploring everything within reach. As I sat there watching him I began to think what a great thing it would be if I could develop a fan that wouldn't be a hazard to children’s fingers.

I sat down at my desk right away and roughed out the design for a fan that proved quite revolutionary. It’s different in a very simple way: the air is channeled by four metal louvers that oscillate back and forth in front of the fan, while the housing remains stationary. The face of the unit is covered by a tight mesh grill. We call it the only completely childproof fan on the market. It won a 1955 award from the National Design Council.

Working from the same idea we then produced a fan heater with a dark element—“no glow to attract the children's fingers” is the way we describe it in our promotional literature. It won another Design Council award.

Fans have always been big with us. In fact, we very nearly dominate the Canadian market, making about sixty thousand a year. We changed the name of the company from the original Phono Motors to Seabreeze Manufacturing, with fan sales in mind. We thought Seabreeze was a more appropriate name for a fan. Now it applies to all our products even though record players have superseded fans as our biggest volume item.

We’re pioneering the manufacture of tape recorders in Canada and we’ve introduced stereophonic sound in our high fidelity equipment. And we’re still the only people in the country making automatic record changers.

Our record players have close to forty percent of the Canadian market. During the peak pre-Christmas rush we produce a thousand a day. Of course, we’ve now graduated to a much bigger factory. We have forty-five thousand square feet of manufacturing space, plus warehousing,

Our volume in 1956 was just under three and a half million dollars. For the first ten months of last year business was up about forty percent. When I point this out I like to stop and think of all the great things that have happened to me in these few years, and, most important, of all the people who have had confidence in me and helped me.

I'm thinking of the bankers and the executives of the big corporations, the hard-cut businessmen we hear so much about. The fact that they opened their doors to me meant an awful lot, especially when you bear in mind that not too long since I would hesitate to ask directions in the street for fear of causing a scene.

There was another important factor. Ottawa, in those days, was as remote as any place could be. I thought of it only as the seat of a government that had brought so much anguish into the lives of me and my people. But as my business picked up it became necessary for me to travel there from time to time. I had to call on ministers and deputy ministers.

I found myself welcome in their offices. I was treated like an equal. And very soon I began to feel like a Canadian.

We're living in a wonderful country. I mean “wonderful” when a guy like me with no background, no ancestors to call on and no education to speak of can accomplish all I have at thirty-eight. I’m in a business with tremendous opportunities. Nobody will tell me what I can or can’t do. It’s all up to me.

I have only one complaint: I’ve never been able to do much with my golf game. ★