By Mark Forsythe
Lisa Uyeda has the archivist’s touch. The Collections Manager at the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre is wearing white gloves as she gently places a drawing of a POW camp on a table. The scene includes a barracks, a guard holding a rifle, and a Japanese Canadian prisoner with a large circle on his back.
Drawn and coloured onto a piece of birch bark 80 years ago, it’s now showing its age. The bark has ruptured into two pieces, and scotch tape covers small cracks. Why birch bark? “It was very
difficult to have access to paper. It wasn’t until much later in the war that the YMCA started donating paper, pencils and musical instruments,” says Uyeda. The artist is unknown, but the search continues.
The POW camp is thought to be at Angler, located on the northern shore of Lake Superior. It’s also where Uyeda’s great-grandfather, Kamezo Okashimo, was incarcerated in 1942. While Kamezo was behind barbed wire, his wife, Hisayo, and children were interned at the Lemon Creek camp in BC’s Slocan Valley, living in a small, rudimentary shack. They had been rounded up from their Powell Street neighbourhood along with 21,000 other Japanese Canadians living on the coast, then stripped of their rights, goods, and property.
Uyeda says this about life in the camp: “Even though they made a lot of friends, they really felt the oppression that they were living under, and the loss. And we kind of still feel that, generations later.” Kamezo Okashimo would not reunite with Hisayo and their children until late The family never returned to BC.
Uyeda is fourth-generation Japanese Canadian and seventh-generation English/Irish; it wasn’t until her late teens and early 20s that she heard stories about the internment of her father’s family. Determined to uncover more about this part of her heritage, she pursued archival studies, completed a UBC master’s degree, and for seven years has worked at the Nikkei National Museum, the largest repository of Japanese Canadian archival materials in Canada.
“Being able to work here and use my archival degree for the benefit of Japanese Canadian history has been rewarding beyond words. I found my grandmother’s school photo in Lemon Creek. I had never seen her at that age before, let alone in an internment camp. Finding my great-grandfather’s name on the POW list—I had no idea. It was life changing.”
Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2020. The facility is elegant and welcoming, with an emphasis on wood, light, curves, and open space. It is a busy cultural hub, with dozens of community program offerings, exhibit space, a language school, and a summer Nikkei Garden Farmers’ Market.
The breadth of archival holdings is impressive: 43,000 photos and negatives (remarkable, since Japanese Canadians were not allowed to own cameras during the Second World War), films (including Tomojiro Inouye’s home movies that chronicle life before, during and after the Second World War), a reference library, documents, correspondence, and newspaper clippings. (Most material is available digitally online at https://centre.nikkeiplace.org.)
Uyeda reaches for a critical part of the collection—a large fishing boat ledger kept by Kishizo Kimura. He was one of four people on the Japanese Fishing Boat Disposal Committee which illegally sold more than 1,000 Japanese Canadian fishing vessels confiscated by the Canadian Navy.
“We have the original ledger that documents every single boat that was sold and whether or not it was a forced sale, or whether Kimura was able to help proceed with the sale and get consent from the owner,” says Uyeda.
His son offered up a great story: “If his parents were going out for dinner or a friend’s house, and if the kids were going to be home alone with the records, he would actually take them and leave them in trust with his neighbour because Kishizo Kimura knew how important they were.” Today they are invaluable. “Thousands and thousands of people were affected by the forced sale of these vessels. Being able to preserve these records and have them available for family history research or Canadian history research, it’s just a remarkable thing.”
We sometimes forget that Japanese Canadians from BC served Canada with honour during the First World War, and then were later forced into internment camps during the Second World War. By 1945 the British were putting pressure on Canada to enlist able-bodied Japanese Canadians.
Thomas Kunito Shoyama of Kamloops, editor of The New Canadian newspaper, served with the Canadian Army’s S-20 Intelligence Corps. He later distinguished himself as a champion of human rights, helped usher in Medicare in Saskatchewan, served on the Economic Council of Canada, was a federal deputy minister, and eventually helped raise funds to build the Nikkei National Museum. He died in Victoria in 2006. This “enemy alien” would most certainly be proud of what the Nikkei National Museum has achieved: sharing this compelling and essential collection with all Canadians.
Writing Wrongs: Japanese Canadian Protest Letters of the 1940s
Though our journey is a unique one, you might recognize its echoes in today’s headlines. It resonates with continuing stories of dislocation, migration, and struggles to build from fragments an idea of home…Follow the stories of the Japanese Canadian community from Japanese emigration to building communities in Canada, forcible removal from their homes to internment sites, and the legacy of standing up for justice that continues to this day. Japanese Canadians’ letters of protest speak powerfully from the archives about the meaning of citizenship, justice, and equal rights.” — Writing Wrongs website
Writing Wrongs: Japanese Canadian Protest Letters of the 1940s (https://writingwrongs-parolesperdues.ca) is a Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre online exhibit. It was inspired by a file of approximately 300 letters of protest stored at Library and Archives Canada. These letters were written to the Canadian government by dispossessed citizens of Japanese heritage.
Director and curator Sherri Kajiwara notes that she and her team “worked directly with descendants of the letter writers for much of the video content on the site (at https://bit.ly/3hV33Ia). Researching, contacting, and building relationships with them was an important step in our responsibility to our community and for authenticity of narration.”
While the site is narrative for most of the chapters, the final section, which includes the original letters of protest, is accessible to all viewers as primary source material.
This online project was developed with the support of the Digital Museums Canada investment program. Digital Museums Canada is managed by the Canadian Museum of History, with the financial support of the Government of Canada. Creative visual content and videography was developed by Tabata Productions. NGX Interactive was essential in developing the digital exhibit and provided web hosting support.
Mark Forsythe travels through BC and back in time, exploring the unique work of British Columbia Historical Federation members.