Three hundred protest letters written by Japanese Canadians in the 1940s were recovered from Canada’s vast national archives and have recently been undergoing review. The letters convey the damage of trust betrayed and the courage of everyday people confronting injustice.
Federal officials promised Japanese Canadians that their homes, business, farms, automobiles, fishing boats and personal belongings would be returned at the end of the war. Instead, everything was seized and sold.
In 1944, Aya Suzuki wrote a letter to her government explaining the betrayal that she felt: “Before leaving Vancouver, your men had told us that this process was to protect us and in your assurance we had our business put into our local agents whom we trusted.” Suzuki had discovered that everything she owned had been forcibly sold.
Suzuki joined hundreds of others in forceful protest. “You have gone against our wishes, also without even consulting us… what are we (Canada) fighting for? Not that same treatment the Nazis gave the Jews be practised here in our own country!”
The lives of 22,000 Japanese Canadians were disrupted after Canada entered the Pacific War in December 1941. By autumn 1942, Canada had uprooted, interned and incarcerated all people of Japanese descent living within 160 kilometres of the Pacific Coast.
The majority of the uprooted were Canadian citizens (British subjects of Canada, in the language of the time). Not one was ever found guilty of wrongdoing.
Canada was uniquely racist
Although the racist policies resembled those in other jurisdictions, including the United States, in important respects they were even more severe. Canada was unique in forcing the sale of all property belonging to citizens of Japanese origin.
Also, Canada maintained its internment program until 1949 even though the U.S. had disbanded theirs four years prior. In the U.S., the “approaching end of the Pacific War” hastened the end of restrictions against people of Japanese descent according to historian Greg Robinson in his book Tragedy of Democracy. But in Canada, our government instead implemented the “renewal and reinforcement” of state violence.
Almost 20 per cent of Japanese Canadians, just under 4,000 people, were exiled to Japan, a country that many had never been to.
Ignored by officials 75 years ago, the 300 letters, which protested the forced sale of property, have been brought to light as part of a major research project.
Sharing the story of injustice
Landscapes of Injustice is funded by a $2.5 million grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada and an additional $3 million in funds from partner organizations. It is one of the largest research collaborations in the country. As the project director, I coordinate the efforts of 70 scholars, students, museum workers, teachers and community leaders working together to help tell the history of the dispossession of Japanese Canadians.
The research collective will create a travelling museum exhibit, teaching materials for elementary and secondary schools, educational websites, a digital archive and popular and scholarly publications.
Using the letters, scholars working with the Landscapes of Injustice project have been able to understand the perspectives of Japanese Canadians articulating the value of their lands and belongings and the impacts of the policies that dispossessed them.
The protests of Japanese Canadians illuminate the specific and complex harms of the permanent loss of home. In their letters, Japanese Canadians explained how the loss of their homes and belongings threatened a permanent rupture in their sense of belonging and their faith in their country — in some ways, above and beyond their uprooting and internment.
A life’s work undone
Many Japanese Canadians wrote letters describing the losses as violation of lifelong ambitions.
Rikizo Yoneyama lost his farm in Haney, near Vancouver. Born in 1887 in the Kanagawa Prefecture, southwest of Tokyo, Yoneyama had crossed the Pacific at the age of 20.
In the first decade after his immigration, Yoneyama worked in a sawmill and then a pharmacy, saving enough money to purchase 7.5 acres, where he dug a well by hand so that he could raise chickens and pigs and also cultivate berries, apples, pears, plums and cherries, as well as a variety of vegetables. He married and by the 1930s was a father of four.
Supplementing the family’s farm income with wage-labour, Yoneyama was able in 1935 to purchase additional land, where he built a two-storey chicken coop and an enlarged family home.
In July 1944, Yoneyama received word that his life’s work had been undone. His property had been sold for less than half of the farm’s annual income, he wrote. “I realize that we are the victims of a war emergency and as such are willing to undergo… hardship… to help safeguard the shores of our homeland,” Yoneyama wrote in his letter to the federal government.
Yet he never imagined he would lose everything. “I came to Canada in 1907,” he wrote, “and was allowed the privilege of Canadian Citizenship on December 22, 1914.”
“This was to me,” he continued, “the most gracious opportunity given by the country of my adoption. Through it, I realized an ambition I had desired since landing on this continent, that of being able to raise a family of Canadian sons and daughters.”
The loss of all this, Yoneyama stressed, was more than just economic. His property, he wrote, “To us meant more than just a home. It was to us, the foundation of security and freedom as Canadian citizens.”
The Landscapes of Injustice project is working to ensure that voices like Yoneyama’s are heard today. His letter has been returned to his son, Harold Yoneyama, who had not previously known of its existence.
A virtual exhibit will feature the letters. Our project partner, the Nikkei National Museum, has received a major grant from the Virtual Museum of Canada to create an immersive digital exhibit centred on the letters.
Sherri Kajiwara, curator for the Nikkei National Museum, said the letters are especially important at the 75th anniversary of the dispossession of Japanese Canadians. “It’s a significant glimpse into a difficult and traumatic time for Canadians of Japanese ancestry.”
Susanne Tabata, a digital content creator and filmmaker working on the project, sees the dispossession of Japanese Canadians as “a cautionary tale” closely linked to current events.
“In light of the current rise in public xenophobic discourse, what connections can we make between stories of migration today and the Japanese Canadian experience of the past?” she said. “How do we navigate this discussion? And what is there to learn from this history so it does not repeat itself?”
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