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Japanese-Canadians weigh a harsh WWII experience — one that surpassed their U.S. cousins

by Takaki Tominaga

Kyodo

Thirty years after the Canadian government formally apologized over the internment and expulsion of citizens of Japanese ancestry following the outbreak of World War II, those affected still carry painful memories of discrimination and hardship.

Over the years, many have questioned their identity and tried their best to blend in wherever they have finally called home.

Born in Vancouver, Rena Nobuko Nakayama, 86, relocated to New Denver, British Columbia, after the war started but was exiled to Japan with her family in 1946. She has been living here ever since, but had a difficult time adjusting to Japanese society and establishing her own identity.

“I have tried to raise my children to be 100 percent Japanese so they wouldn’t have to live with the trauma of not knowing what country they belonged to and what their mother tongue is, like myself,” she wrote in the book “Honouring Our People: Breaking the Silence,” a collection of testimonies published by the Greater Vancouver Japanese Canadian Citizens Association in 2016.

“Many JCs (Japanese-Canadians) here are torn between Japan and Canada. … A friend calls me a ‘displaced person,'” Nakayama explained further.

Gordon Kadota, 85, a former president of the National Association of Japanese Canadians (NAJC), expressed sympathy for those who were exiled to Japan after the war.

“Many of those who were sent to Japan after the war struggled there, where there was a severe shortage of food and other basic needs,” Kadota said during a recent phone interview from his home in Vancouver.

Someone who knows these stories well is Masako Iino, former president of Tsuda University and professor emeritus, who has interviewed many Japanese-Canadians for her research projects.

“Their experiences, as well as how they coped with them, are very diverse, depending on their age, social status, education level and language skills,” she said.

One of her projects, conducted for the Japan International Cooperation Agency, saw Iino and her colleagues collect oral accounts from Japanese-Canadians, among them Nakayama and Kadota.

Interview subjects include Japanese-Canadians who were sent to Japan in 1946 and remained there, those who were sent to Japan in 1946 but returned to Canada during the 1950s to 1970s, and those who went to Japan before World War II, were stranded there due to the war, and returned to Canada afterward.

Kadota was among the latter group.

“I have been questioning my identity and trying to find out the significance of existence throughout my life,” he said.

It was Kadota who laid the groundwork to form the NAJC, which successfully achieved redress from the Canadian government. The process followed a similar movement in the United States, where 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry were removed from the American West Coast during the war.

On Sept. 22, 1988, Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney offered a formal apology in the House of Commons for the country’s World War II internment of Canadians of Japanese ancestry, including first-generation immigrants.

He also announced financial compensation. Ottawa awarded 21,000 Canadian dollars each to affected individuals and established a community fund as well as the Race Relations Foundation to combat racism, according to the NAJC.

The redress agreement signed between the Canadian government and the NAJC stated “the forced removal and internment of Japanese Canadians during World War II and their deportation and expulsion following the war was unjust.”

It states that government policies of disenfranchisement, detention, confiscation and sale of private and community property, and restriction of movement and expulsion, which continued after the war, were influenced by discriminatory attitudes.

Among many Japanese-Canadians, the action was regarded as exile rather than “repatriation” and “deportation.”

Japan attacked Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, and Britain’s Pacific territories in December 1941, prompting the U.S., Britain and Canada to declare war on Japan.

Around 21,000 people of Japanese descent were removed from Canada’s Pacific coast and sent to rudimentary settlements and work camps, among other places, after the war broke out, according to Iino’s research.

In 1945, Japanese-Canadians were told to choose between going to Japan or heading east of the Rockies. Around 4,000 people were sent to Japan in 1946, according to the study.

Although citizens of Japanese ancestry in both Canada and the U.S. suffered civil rights abuses during the war, their situations differed, with those in Canada apparently facing harsher treatment.

Japanese-Canadians notably had their property seized by the government, were forced to move to Japan after the war, and also saw their full rights — including their freedom to move anywhere in the country — restricted for much longer than their counterparts in the U.S.

“Many Japanese-Americans were able to return to where they used to live. But Japanese-Canadians were not able to return to the British Columbian coast until 1949, and many of them started their new lives elsewhere. That was a big difference,” said Iino, adding that Japanese-Canadians had to pay for their own internment as well.

They were not given the opportunity to prove their loyalty to Canada on World War II battlefields either, unlike their American counterparts, whose sacrifice and service in action — including the feats of the famed 100th Infantry Battalion from Hawaii and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team — helped Japanese-Americans gain status as steadfast citizens of the U.S.

Iino and others pointed out that the difference in the fate of Japanese-Americans and Japanese-Canadians appeared to come from the difference in their Constitutions: the Bill of Rights was enshrined in the U.S. Constitution, whereas the Canadian Constitution did not have an equivalent charter until 1982.

Kadota, joined by colleagues, made relentless efforts to enshrine the Charter of Rights and Freedoms into Canada’s Constitution during his tenure at the NAJC. In November 1980, they delivered passionate presentations before the Special Joint Committee on the Constitution of Canada.

“Our history in Canada is a legacy of racism made legitimate by our political institutions, and we must somehow ensure that no groups of Canadians will be subjected to the whims of political process, as we were,” Kadota told the joint committee.

“We feel that this can only be done by entrenching a charter of rights in our Constitution: Unconditionally entrenching, beyond the reach of Parliament and beyond the reach of provincial legislatures,” he said.

While Kadota did not experience forced removal and exile himself, it was natural for him to take part in the redress movement as a community leader because he believed it was the right thing to do for the entire Japanese-Canadian community.

His older brothers who remained in Canada during the war received compensation for their removal from British Columbia. But Kadota, then age 8, had made a trip to Japan in the summer of 1941 to visit his grandparents. He was still there when war broke out, and had to remain, only returning to Canada in 1952.

When he saw Prime Minister Mulroney and Art Miki, then president of the NAJC, signing the redress agreement 30 years ago, he thought it was “excellent,” but at the same time felt it was only a start.

“I felt we still had a lot of things to work on. Redress was just the beginning, not the end,” Kadota said. “As Canadians who underwent such hardships, we must make sure those things will never happen again,” he said, noting the persistence of prejudice toward certain groups, such as Asian immigrants, indigenous peoples and Muslims, in society.

Asked how he views his Japanese-Canadian identity today, Kadota replied, “I can be as Japanese as I have to be, and I can be as Canadian as I have to be, or wish to be.”