Canadian garden of unity and reconciliation


“Hello,” wrote an old Japan buddy back on her native British Columbian soil. “I’ve met a woman — Rumiko Kanesaka — who’s helping build a Japanese garden on Salt Spring Island where I live. Would you like to talk with her?”

This was last summer. The ground-breaking ceremony for what Kanesaka describes as a “garden of unity and reconciliation” took place Sept. 22. Now, thanks to the island’s temperate climate — and the enthusiasm of volunteers like herself — the project is moving ahead.

Kanesaka moved to Canada in 1994 with her husband, Brian, and small child. “We felt our Tokyo era was over. Talking about conservation of environment and sustainability from a little apartment in Shinjuku was crazy. It was time to do what we could do. Also we wanted to raise our son in a better environment.”

They were busy establishing a new life on Salt Spring — the largest, most populated, and most visited of the southern Gulf Islands of British Columbia — when she first heard of its prewar hardworking and vibrant Japanese Canadian community.

“In 1941 there were 77 people of Japanese descent on Salt Spring, mostly Canadian-born children who attended the local school. In March the following year, all the families were ordered off their land and sent to internment camps.”

Among them were Katsuyori and Kimiko Murakami and their five children.

During the war, the Canadian government sold the Murakamis’ 6.9-hectare farm without providing the family with any compensation. Even so, bearing no grudges, they chose to return to the island in 1954 to start again from scratch.

“The story was fascinating because I knew only a little about Japanese pioneers in Canada,” Kanesaka explains. “School never taught me anything about them. Because our own life then was similar to that of the pioneers, I was intrigued; at the same time I was horrified that such intolerance against Asians had existed in British Columbia.”

She talked to Kimiko Murakami by telephone for the first time during a heavy snowfall. “She and her husband were the ones who went through the forced relocation as adults. Impressed by her strong and willful voice, I introduced myself as a newcomer on the island from Japan, promised that I would drop by sometime soon.

“Unable to visit until long after the snow had melted, I was finally able to explain that I was married to a Canadian and had no immediate family left in Japan. Kanesaka also explained about her feeling about the island as our real home. “I wanted to hear her story but I thought I would keep it for the next time,” Kanesaka said of Murakami. “Sadly she died shortly after, in 1997.”

Several years later, while visiting Kootenay Lake in the B.C. interior, Kanesaka heard about the Japanese-Canadian museum in the Slocan Valley. This is where the Japanese internment camp was located. Several old structures — actual cabins that were used by those interned — are located in the compound.

“One of my friends and I went to see it. Being on vacation I was in cheerful mood. But as soon as I stepped into one of the cabins, I was struck hard by what I saw.”

Various small things, kitchen utensils, tins, medicine bottles, and simple wooden furniture jumped into her view. They were so tidily organized, she thought; so Japanese. Though “exhibited” in the cabin, they were “still carrying the air of those days, sitting there, very real and alive.” They also reminded Kanesaka of her grandparents — “or something that I know very well but is buried deep in my memory.”

They made her feel the unspoken pain of the people who had come to Canada with their hopes and dreams, and were betrayed. “Tears came into my eyes and I cried loudly for a long time.”

In the winter of 2005, she got a call from a member of the future Japanese Garden Society and was asked to be a part of the group.

“Naturally, I agreed. I’m glad that I’ve become involved with the society and the work that is being done to construct the garden. My personal story and the connection that I felt at the cabin in the Slocan Valley now have a place for expression.”

At an event organized in April 2006 by the Salt Spring Island Japanese Garden Society, Kanesaka heard Mary Kitagawa — one of the Murakami’s five children and now in her 60s — recalling life and times before incarceration.

She and Kanesaka are not alone in their activism. Kitagawa’s brother Richard Murakami and his wife, Rose, are also the driving force behind a low-cost housing project that took more than two years to win government approval and zoning changes.

Kanesaka says she and her own family are fortunate. “We’ve managed to create a strong life here. I do translation and work as a shiatsu therapist. Brian’s a Web designer and helps me with Japanese-to-English translation. Also, she has the garden.

With permission from the Parks and Recreation Commission, she and other passionate volunteers are working hard to gather pledges toward this garden of unity and understanding, where the history of Japanese-Canadian pioneers is acknowledged and the transforming power of Japanese design is celebrated and can be experienced.

“We want it to be a focal point and place of community spirit for Salt Spring Islanders, where we say ‘never again’ to prejudice and discrimination against any race, religion or creed.”

With many Asian students now attending Gulf Islands Secondary School, Japanese are once again a visible minority on Salt Spring. “It will be marvelous when they have a garden they can call their own as a place to welcome the world.”

Kanesaka recalls the groundbreaking ceremony of last autumn. It included a Shinto priestess conducting jichin-sai (the ceremony of purifying a building site), a karate demonstration by island children, music, food and storytelling by a Japanese-Canadian islander.

Kanesaka says is it her deepest and most fervent hope that the garden will become a truly peaceful place embracing people as they are and where we can all feel hope.

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