The Japanese Internment

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It is one of the darkest chapters in our history, and that history includes the starving of the Indigenous people, so that should tell you something. It was during the Second World War when Canada decided that one of the best courses of action through the use of the War Measures Act was to take Japanese Canadians, many who had never been to Japan, and inter them in camps in the name of national security.

In all, 22,000 Japanese were interred and that comprised 90 per cent of the population of Japanese-Canadians in the country and the vast majority were born in Canada.

This would go far beyond just putting Japanese Canadians in camps. It extended to interrogations, curfews, job loss, property loss and in some cases, forced relocation to Japan and it would last even after the Second World War was over.

Back in 1877, Manzo Nagano became the first Japanese person to immigrate the Canada when he arrived as a 19-year-old sailor. Over the next three decades, the number of Japanese coming to Canada increased and with it, the racism against them by Canadians. One of the biggest issues for the racists was that the Japanese were getting involved in many industries that they saw as industries for white workers. One such industry was fishing and by 1919, there were 3,267 Japanese immigrants holding fishing licences and 50 per cent of the licences issued that year went to Japanese fishermen.

In 1907, the United States began to prohibit Japanese immigrants from accessing America through Hawaii. This would result in 7,000 Japanese immigrants, an increase of three times from the previous year, coming into British Columbia. To combat this, the Asiatic Exclusion League was organized by racist Vancouver labourers. On Sept. 7 of that year, 5,000 of them marched on Vancouver City Hall. By the time the protesters reached city hall, it was estimated they numbered 25,000. The crowd then soon began rioting and marching towards what was called Japantown or Little Tokyo. Chinatown was hit first, with windows broken and stores smashed. The rioters then began to move towards Japantown, but the Japanese Canadians were alerted to the rioting and were able to keep the rioters away without any injury or loss of life. The Asiatic Exclusion League was successful in convincing the government to limit the passports of male Japanese immigrants to 400 per year. Women were not counted towards that quota, so women who married proxy and immigrated to Canada to join their new husbands, a practice that was common after 1908, resulted in a large influx of female immigrants, and with their Canadian-born children, the population went from a temporary workforce to a permanent presence.

While racism and pushes against Japanese Canadians from being involved in various industries would continue, with support from even the Governor General, by 1939 there were 29,000 people of Japanese ancestry living in British Columbia. Of those, 80 per cent were Canadian nationals. Despite this, they were denied the right to vote, barred from certain industries and professions and many Canadians believed that first and second generation Japanese Canadians remained loyal to Japan.

During the first part of the war, discrimination against Japanese Canadians would increase but it was after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December of 1941 when everything changed.

Under the War Measures Act, Japanese Canadians were classified as enemy aliens and their personal rights were removed. On Dec. 8, 1941, 1,200 Japanese-Canadian-owned fishing vessels were impounded as a matter of national security. A month later, on Jan. 14, 1942, the federal government ordered all male Japanese nationals between the age of 18 and 45 to be removed 100 miles from the British Columbia coast. A ban against Japanese-Canadians fishing during the war, using shortwave radios and also controlled the sale of gasoline to them. The Japanese nationals removed from the coast were sent to road camps near Jasper, Alberta.

On Feb. 25, 1942, the government announced Japanese Canadians were being moved for national security. In all, 27,000 people would be relocated or detained.

Now, I want to point out that a lot of Canadians did not believe that Japanese Canadians posed a threat to Canada. In fact, several senior officials in the Royal Canadian Navy, RCMP and other government departments were against the forced removal.

Hugh Keenleyside, the assistant under-secretary of External Affairs advocated heavily against removing Japanese Canadians and he tried to remind the government of the distinction between Japanese foreign nationals and Canadian citizens, but he was unsuccessful.

Frederick Mead, the Assistant Commissioner of the RCMP, used his position to argue against removing Japanese Canadians. Mead had been tasked with implementing the removal of Japanese Canadians from the coast. While he knew he could not stop the order, he slowed it down enough to allow individuals and families to prepare. He did this by following the letter of the law, which required a set of permissions from government ministers, which slowed down the process enough to help various Canadian citizens.

Captain V.C. Best from Salt Spring Island was also on the side of Japanese Canadians and he was not shy of protesting against anti-Japanese sentiment in the press, and he encouraged having Japanese Canadians in the armed forces.

Major General Kenneth Stuart would state, “From the army point of view, I cannot see that Japanese Canadians constitute the slightest menace to national security.”

With the Order-in-Council P.C. 1486 allowing for the removal and detaining of any person, which was used specifically for Japanese Canadians, the government moved swiftly into action. The British Columbia Security Commission was established a week after the order went through and on March 16, the first Japanese Canadians were transported from the British Columbia coast and put in Hastings Park. This was a temporary measure, putting the Japanese Canadians in this Vancouver grounds, before they were sent onwards to internment camps in the interior. Eventually, 8,000 detainees would be at Hastings Park, with women and children living in the livestock building. The men were sent off to work on road camps, leaving their families behind and not by choice.

For those who were forced to leave everything behind after they were removed from their homes, that all went to the government.

Tom Tamagi described living at Hastings Park as such, “I was a 22-year-old Japanese Canadian. A prisoner in my own country of birth. We were confined inside the high wire fence of Hastings Park just like caged animals.”

Shoichi Matsushita would relate what he saw at the park upon arrival.

“They took me to a stall, a stall for animals, and there was this young mother. She couldn’t understand English. She was crying and crying. She was beside herself in a panic. They had taken her kids from her. It was like she was all alone in the world.”

Conditions within the building were terrible. Washroom facilities were crude at best, and waste flowed openly. As can be expected, with so many people crammed into the building, infectious diseases spread quickly. Measles, mumps, chicken pox and more quickly infected hundreds. Mary Ohara would relate, “when I got the mumps, I was secluded for ten days in an underground storage room that was dark and gloomy. There were lots of smaller kids there and I had to babysit and comfort them, even though I was sick too.”

Tuberculosis spread as well, and discarded furniture and equipment was used to build a 180-bed hospital and smaller 60-bed hospital that was set up in the poultry barn.

Rollerland was where the boys, aged 13 to 18, were housed, while also serving as a wash house for everyone. Two large mess halls were also set up, one for men and one for women. According to the B.C. Security Commission, 1.5 million meals were served there.

Tom Tagami would relate regarding the food.

“The food served in tin plates and bowls was terrible and due to unsanitary conditions, everyone in the park suffered with severe cases of diarrhea. One day we protested by staging a one day hunger strike. Everyone went to the mess hall, got their food and dumped it on the table and left. But it didn’t do much good.”

Mary Kitagawa would say, “We were fed in the poultry section at rough tables with tin plates, and our hair, skin and clothes were soon permeated with the stench of animal urine and feces.”

Within the forum building, 1,200 men were housed. While the men waited to be assigned work, most had nothing to do while their wives took care of the children and some of their children attended school on the grounds.

Muriel Kitagawa said of the experience, “The men looked so terribly at loose ends, wandering around the grounds, sticking their noses through the fence watching the golfers, lying on the grass. Going through the place I felt so depressed that I wanted to cry.”

Kiyozo Kazuta had been sent to a road camp but would return to Vancouver after he was told by his wife that she had applied to go to a sugar beet farm. Unfortunately, by the time he got back another family had taken the spot. He was taken to Hastings Park where he would work for 15 cents per hour. He described the atmosphere as such.

“The moral was very low here, teenagers were wild, thieves many.”

Many of the Japanese Canadians brought their cars to the Hastings Park and while there was no barbed wire, there were tall walls and day passes had to be approved to leave. For the vehicle that were parked in the middle of the Hastings Park racetrack, the government department The Custodian of Enemy Property sold their vehicles and all their properties at auction without telling the owners. The irony was that the government paid for the forced internment of the Japanese Canadians by selling their homes, farms, personal property and businesses. The hope of the Canadian government was that by selling their possessions and property, it would deter the Japanese Canadians from settling in British Columbia again. Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King would issue a ruling that all property be removed from Japanese Canadians, but the Japanese Canadians were told that their property was held in trust until they had resettled elsewhere in Canada. The personal property was sold for very low prices, and the government did hold the money in accounts for those in camps, but they were limited to withdrawals of only $100 per month, or $1,541 today. Essentially, the Japanese Canadians were forced to use the funds to pay for their own confinement.

By the end of the fall of 1942, Hastings Park was empty of the people who had been moved there. Many of the men had been moved to work camps, while the women and children moved inland to internment camps.

What about those Japanese Canadians who signed up to fight for Canada during the Second World War? While they were exempt from compulsory military service because they were, and this is in the words of the government, “Oriental racial origin”, many still enlisted. When they were discharged, they discovered that they not only did not have their rights reinstated, but that they could not return to where they had lived on the British Columbia coast.

Japanese detainees were taken by special train to Slocan, New Denver, Karol, Greenwood and Sandon, all empty communities in the interior at the time. For those men that wanted to stay with their families and not be sent to a road crew, they had to option of going to the sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba, where they would be able to live with their families.

Near Lethbridge, several families arrived to begin working at the beet farms. Dick Kanashiro would relate in his history that “they arrived in Alberta with virtually nothing more than the clothing on their backs and a few merger possessions…money among these people was a scarce commodity. Trying to support their families on a limited income coupled with having to adapt t a totally new life in an oft-times hostile environment, created many hardships. My father recalls having to walk seven to ten miles to Coaldale or riding in the back of a truck in sub-zero weather to buy family necessities.”

Those who worked in beet farms were restricted in their movements and the B.C. Security Commission would do occasional checks to ensure the detainees were accounted for.

Kanashiro says of the housing the families would have.

“They often consisted of abandoned buildings quickly cleaned and renovated to house a family. Space was at a premium in these homes. Two or three rooms had to suffice for a family of eight or ten people.”

He continues, “water was always a problem. Lakes and wells provided water for drinking, cooking and washing. Often it had to be carried considerable distance each day. The wells had to be cleaned periodically as the field mice and insects had the habit of drowning themselves.”

For anyone who resisted going to an internment camp, they were sent to prisoner of war camps in Ontario.

With Japanese Canadians being forced into essentially manual labour on roads and farms, the Canadian government continued this effort by creating policies that directed Chinese, Japanese and Indigenous into farming and sectors of the economy that white Canadians were abandoning for more lucrative areas. This would also result in the Japanese Canadian fishing industry being devastated.

In 1942-43, 1,600 men were working in the road camps but this would go down to 200 men in 1943-44 because of the policy to return married men to towns and settlements to rejoin their families. Wages for the workers was 25 cents an hour for labourers. They were also charged 25 cents per meal, one dollar a month for medical and income tax.

Once at the camps, the Japanese Canadians had to adjust themselves to their new reality. Conditions were often poor enough that the Red Cross actually transferred food shipments from civilians to the internees.

For the fathers and husbands who were sent away from their families, conditions were not much better. At one point, 15 men who were working in Slocan Valley protested by refusing to work for four days straight. Their only demand was to be reunited with their families. In response, the men were informed that if they refused to work, they would be sent to the Immigration Building jail. For some of the men, they would later relate that at the time they hoped Japan won the war and Canada would be forced to compensate them.

When families began to arrive at the camps, which were typically ghost towns, there was very little infrastructure to support them. Typically, there was no running water or electricity. Usually, families had to live in houses with several other families, or live outside in tents while shacks were constructed for them. These shacks were often small to begin with and made with damp, green wood. When winter would hit, the wood would make everything damp and with no insulation, the inside of the shack was freezing at night.

Most who came to the camp received nothing except wood to build a shack and a stove. Men could work construction to support their families and since the Japanese Canadians were forced to support themselves, and buy their food, employment was vital.

Kitaguchi Miyagawa would say of life at an internment camp near Hope, B.C.

“Our life in Tashme was ordinary. Nothing too exciting. We did find living quarters crowded as we shared a small kitchen with six others. Each house consisted of four bedrooms and a kitchen, which was really a combination of dining, sitting-room and kitchen. There were about 347 houses, each house held about eight people.”

Despite all of this, the Japanese Canadians began to work together and improve their situation. Since many groups had been removed from the same neighbourhood and put in the same camp, this helped to foster a sense of community and belonging. The preserved communal ties helped them to begin to negotiate better conditions at camps. The Japanese Canadians would build hot and cold showers, improve campsites with gardens and flowers and would win the respect of those who lived in the area. Lloyd Crate of the Yellowhead area would say, “The Japanese people were very honest and would always return a favour.”

Stan Carr, who was a guard at a Japanese Internment Camp, related the following.

“The camp was built by the men themselves and well kept grounds with gardens, foot bridges and a large steam bath made by heating rocks over a wood fire and using river water pulled up by a bucket and a rope.”

It should be noted that the government made sure that the internment camps were not forcing anyone to stay at the camp, they were not legally interned. Anyone could leave the camp, but the problem was that they could not legally work or attend school outside the camps.  

Once the war was over, there was no quick return for the Japanese Canadians. Mackenzie King offered Japanese Canadians two choices. They could move to Japan, or move east of the Rocky Mountain. In 1946, 4,000 former internees sailed back to Japan, with half being first-generation immigrants to Canada and 1,300 being children under the age of 16.

In late-1947 Justice Henry Bird would be tasked with heading a Royal Commission that would look at the claims of Japanese Canadians living in Canada for losses resulting from receiving less than fair market value for their property.

Originally, Bird would hear individual claims but due to the huge amount of people, this was abandoned and a category formula was created instead.

In 1950, the commission would come to the following conclusions.

  • The commission found that claims relating to fishing boats should receive 12.5 per cent of the sale price as compensation. Out of 950 fishing boats seized in 1941, only 75 claims would be processed.
  • Claims relating to fishing nets and gear should receive 25 per cent of the sale price.
  • Claims relating to cars and trucks would receive 25 per cent of the sale price.
  • Claims related to personal belongings were deemed mostly worthless. Claimants would only receive the commission plus 6.8 per cent of the sale price.
  • There were nearly no claims relating to personal real estate.
  • Farmers whose property had been seized would receive a collective payment of $632,226, less than half the total claim.

The biggest claim processed by the commission was $69,950 for the Royston Lumber Company, which had put forward a claim of $268,675. The smallest claim was to Ishina Makino for $2.50 for a claim on a car.

Anyone who took a claim through the Bird Commission were required to sign a form saying they would not press for any further claims.

For those who wanted to get back to their homes and the coast of British Columbia, there was a lot of push back from British Columbia politicians.

Ian Mackenzie, the Minister of Pensions, would say, “It is the government’s plan to get these people out of B.C. As fast as possible. It is my personal intention, as long as I remain in public life, to see they never come back here. Let our slogan be for British Columbia, ‘No Japs from the Rockies to the seas.”

Many Japanese Canadians would move to the east, settling in places like Toronto.

Public protest began to increase and the order-in-council that allowed for the forced deportation was challenged on the basis that it was a crime against humanity and that a citizen could not be deported within their own country. This was eventually referred to the Supreme Court of Canada and in a 5-2 decision, the court found the law was valid. Three justices found that the order was completely valid, and two found that it was valid but that saying women and children were threats to national security was invalid.

After this, academics and some politicians began to protest the decision and the House of Commons revoked the legislation to repatriate the remaining Japanese Canadians to Japan.

It would not be until 1948 that Japanese Canadians would earn the right to vote and it would not be until April 1949 that all restrictions were lifted on Japanese Canadians.

By 1961, Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson stated that the confinement was a black mark on the history of Canada.

On Sept. 22, 1988, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney would apologize in the House of Commons on behalf of the Canadian government for the wrongs it committed against Japanese Canadians. The apology included redress payments of $21,000 to individuals and, amazingly, it would also see the War Measures Act abolished.

Many notable Canadians were interred in Japanese Internment Camps including, and I apologize for mispronouncing any of these.

Robert Ito, who would go on to have a successful career in television on Quincy, M.E. And Falcon Crest.

Joy Kogawa, who would be a noted author and recipient of the Order of Canada.

Shigetaka Sasaki, who would found the first Judo club in Canada and is a member of the Canadian Olympic Hall of Fame.

Masami Tsuruoka, who is considered to be the Father of Canadian Karate and a recipient of the Order of Ontario.

And of course, the aforementioned David Suzuki, who was voted one of the greatest Canadians in history in 2004.

Information comes from, Canadian Encyclopedia, Readymade and District, Wikipedia, Yellowhead Pass and Its People, Stories of Japanese Canadian Pioneers, Under Eight Flags and CBC.

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