Awards Haiku in Tashme: The legacy of Sukeo “Sam” Sameshima

Haiku in Tashme: The legacy of Sukeo “Sam” Sameshima

A street view of Tashme in 1942. Tashme was the largest Japanese internment camp in British Columbia with over 2,600 people incarcerated there at its peak. Nikkei National Museum, 1994.69.4.27

The following story is the winner of the 2020 Anne and Philip Yandle Best Article Award. It appeared in the Spring 2020 edition of British Columbia History magazine.

By Jacqueline Pearce and Jean-Pierre Antonio

Michiko Kihira is the chief translator. Jean-Pierre Antonio is an assistant translator. Jacqueline Pearce of Burnaby is a grant recipient of the 2019 BCHF Centennial Legacy Fund in the amount of $4,300 for her Japanese-Canadian internment camp haiku translation project. The goal of this project is to translate at least 300 of over 600 haiku poems contained in two unpublished documents written in Tashme internment camp as well as to translate a small selection of haiku from other camps. There are few published records of haiku written in internment camps, and the project aims to compile the scattered information and examples into a single collection, so that this very unique part of Canadian literature and history can gain wider recognition.

It took almost three hours to drive to Sunshine Valley from Fort Langley. It is about 22 kilometres past Hope on the Crowsnest Highway. Our destination was the Sunshine Valley Tashme Museum, a relatively new institution dedicated to the memory of life in the Tashme internment camp. Tashme was the largest internment camp in British Columbia for Japanese Canadians. The camp, built on the site of what was previously a working farm, was in operation between October 1942 and August 1946. At its peak, over 2,600 people were incarcerated there.

A large percentage of the Nikkei adults and children had previously lived in Vancouver and smaller communities along the coast, and they were accustomed to urban living and modern amenities such as indoor plumbing, heating, cars, and stores. In Tashme, the majority lived in 347 uninsulated tar paper shacks. Each shack was occupied by a family of at least five people. Smaller families either shared a shack or were housed in an “apartment” building. Barracks housed young, single women and a large barn housed single men. In addition, there was separate housing for the non-Japanese supervisors from the BC Security Commission and for the RCMP officers and teachers, many of the latter sent by churches. No prison walls were needed to keep people inside the camp, since the isolated location, rugged landscape, and the hostile social climate of the province were considered enough of a deterrent to thoughts of escape.

Over the years since the camp closed, few people passing by on the adjacent highway were aware of the site’s internment history. Today however, there is a newly erected Provincial historical marker on Alpine Boulevard, just off the highway, which provides basic information about Tashme and the people who were confined there. Visitors who pull off the highway and step inside the Tashme museum at 14781 Alpine Boulevard will find an opportunity to look through a window into the past and gain a deeper understanding of the harsh realities of the internees’ lives.

On the day we visited, brilliant sunshine was reflecting off a metre of newly-fallen snow, and the entire valley looked deceptively like an idyllic winter postcard. However, after a couple of hours touring the museum and the grounds and listening to the curator, Ryan Ellan, we were left with no illusions about this picturesque place. The museum provides plenty of detailed information about the site’s internment camp years through archival photos, maps, personal artifacts, and the interior of a painstakingly recreated shack that accurately shows visitors what the cramped kitchen and tiny bedrooms were like.

Kitchen utensils and personal items look as if they have been set aside for a moment and will be picked up again when the family returns. Through these tangible details, visitors can begin to understand the dramatically reduced circumstances that the internees endured. At the time of our visit, the cold of winter penetrating the thin walls helped evoke another layer of the internees’ experience.

In addition to the museum, visitors can also see the outside of a cabin used for Tashme primary school classes, a long, barracks-style building used to house unmarried women, the remains of two silos and the massive barn that was used to house single men. All of these buildings are original and in need of restoration after so many years of neglect. Even so, the barn, despite its current condition, is awe-inspiring. The massive ceiling struts, visible from the second-floor loft space, suggest the interior of a cathedral. The comparison, however, relates only to the sense of open space. Standing there for a brief 15 minutes, the icy chill penetrated our layers of winter clothing. There is no insulation in the building, and during the years the internees slept there, sleeping cubicles were separated only by thin curtains.

The Stop of Interest Sign erected in 2017 on Alpine Boulevard, just off the highway. Jacqueline Pearce

At one end of the barn there was a wood burning stove for cooking, but it could not possibly have provided enough heat to warm up the vast space. We had to wonder: What did the internees think about their day-to-day life in Tashme? How did they feel about the deprivations, or about having previous routines and relationships suddenly taken away? How did they manage the hardships?

There is not a great deal of first-hand information available today to let us know the internal thoughts and feelings of those who lived in the camp. Many of the adult internees have passed on, and those who were children in the camps are now entering their 80s and 90s, and the decades have taken away many of the sharper details of their memories. Perhaps, however, some of the emotional insights can be found in the rediscovered haiku poetry of Tashme.

Few examples of personal writing remain from the internment camps. Most were lost, destroyed or discarded over time. This makes the collection of materials recently donated by the Sameshima family to the archives of Nikkei Place, the National Japanese-Canadian Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby, particularly unique and significant. In the collection there are two remarkable volumes called Yamabiko (Mountain Echo) and Reiko (Spiritual Light).

They contain over 600 haiku composed by members of the Tashme Haiku Club during the years of internment. Their existence today is due to the care of one of the club members, Sukeo “Sam” Sameshima. He kept the two mimeographed volumes safe for over 70 years as he moved from home to home after internment, before finally settling in Coaldale, Alberta. It says a great deal about his love of haiku and his determination to not let the life he led in Tashme be forgotten.

Who was Sam Sameshima?
Sukeo “Sam” Sameshima, was born November 23, 1915, in New Westminster. He was the second of six children born to Saichi and Kumi Sameshima. According to the Sameshima family, Saichi most likely came to Canada in 1907, and Kumi arrived in 1913. Saichi repaired shoes and established a business in New Westminster, then later in Nanaimo.

By 1920, with four children, the family returned to Japan for the children’s schooling. In 1931, at age sixteen, Sukeo returned to BC. He apprenticed in New Westminster as a shoe repairman, then returned to Japan again briefly. When he came back to BC, he settled in Port Alberni to open his own shoe repair shop. In a 2002 interview published in Frogpond, the journal of the Haiku Society of America, Sukeo states that it was in Port Alberni that he was introduced to writing haiku. He joined a local haiku club called Kamome (Seagull) in 1940.

After Pearl Harbor was bombed on December 7, 1941, and BC’s 100-mile exclusion zone was created in 1942, Sukeo was sent to Hastings Park in Vancouver to await his internment destination. From there he was sent to Tashme, where he set up another shoe repair shop and also helped to establish Tashibi, the Tashme Haiku Club. It was towards the end of internment that the two haiku volumes, Reiko and Yamabiko, were compiled. In Tashme, Sukeo married Kazue “Kay” Shimozawa, who gave birth to their first child during their incarceration in the camp.

When the Pacific War of the Second World War ended, the internees were released from Tashme, but were not allowed to return to the coast. Sukeo and his young family moved to a Canadian Air Force base in Moose Jaw, Saskatchewan. He had a temporary job there, helping other Nikkei as they traveled across Canada to new homes outside of BC. In 1948, he moved his family to Alberta to be closer to his wife’s relatives, and he opened a shoe repair shop in Coaldale, Alberta in 1949. He worked there until his retirement in 1992. Apart from a ten-year period after the war, Sukeo continued writing haiku until his death on October 5, 2017, a month short of his 102nd birthday.

As well as the publication of ten of Sukeo’s haiku in Frogpond, seven of his translated haiku were published in Paper Doors: An Anthology of Japanese-Canadian Poetry in 1981, and two translated poems appeared in Haïku: Anthologie Canadienne/Canadian Anthology in 1985. His haiku were also included in Japanese-language publications. Thanks to his love of haiku, the two Tashme collections he helped create and safeguard, Reiko and Yamabiko, still exist today.

The publication Yamabiko consists of haiku from numerous authors. Its cover features a handdrawn illustration of the mountains surrounding Tashme and incorporates details of the camp, 1946. Nikkei National Museum, 2017.

Haiku is a short form of poetry that has been popular in Japan for several hundred years. In fact, the word haiku is both singular and plural. It was brought to Canada by Japanese immigrants in the early 20th century. Traditionally, haiku tends to use natural imagery to express ideas and emotions associated with a particular moment of experience.

Many of the haiku in Reiko and Yamabiko draw from the natural setting of the camp, including the gentle agricultural valley and the rugged mountains surrounding it. The internees also used imagery from their own lives, recording both their industrious and their leisure activities. The portrait of life in Tashme that emerges is complex. Their work conveys the beauty of the environment they lived in, but the natural imagery they incorporated also speaks clearly of pain, worry, and loneliness.

For example, the following haiku from Reiko was written by one of the second-generation1 poets, who went by the pen name Kiyoshi. No pronoun is given in the first section, but one might assume the poet is talking about himself, walking alone and perhaps feeling the weight of being cut off from his previous activities and friends, yet, at the same time, beauty is found in the autumn leaves that form a path underfoot.

一人行けば  足音淋し  落葉道     きよし/Kiyoshi
walking alone/a solitary person walks/goes
footsteps sound lonely
fallen leaves path

walking by myself
the lonely sound of footsteps
on a path of fallen leaves

The following eight haiku, also written by second-generation poets, convey a keen sensory awareness of the environment and reflect some of the day to day activities of camp life (the poet’s pen name is given on the right).

ほやほやと  霞につつまれ  冬の川     雪男/Yukio
mist covered
winter river

cover of mist
rising off
the winter river

カチカチと  ハンマーの音  冬の朝   美津子/Mitsuko
hammer’s sound
winter morning

crack crack
the sound of a hammer
winter morning

寝ね足らぬ  目にストーブを  抱きけり    綾子/Ayako
lack of sleep/sleepy
eyes to/on stove
huddle round

feeling sleepy
our eyes on the stove
as we huddle around it

晝の鐘 いてつく路を  かける児等 正茶/Shocha or Seicha
noon bell
frozen road
running children/child

noon bell
children running
on the frozen road

降りしきる 雪の奥から 犬吠えり      きよゑ/Kiyoé
falling heavily
far off snow
dog barking

heavy snowfall
in the distance
a dog barking

クリスマス カード手に手に 子等の笑み  かよ子/Kayoko
Christmas card/cards
holding in his/her hand
children’s smiles

Christmas cards
in every hand
children’s smiles

年惜む 失業の身 家にあり         肇/Hajime
lament/regret the year’s end
still unemployed
sitting at home

regretting the year’s end
I sit at home
still unemployed

床の母 かかへて見せる 雪の街  正茶/Socha or Seicha
Mother in bed
help sit up/hold up in arms
can see snowy town

bed-ridden mother
I hold her up
to see the snowy town

Sameshima’s own haiku show a great sensitivity to the beauty and power of the natural environment surrounding the internment camp, which seems to both reflect and inform his inner state of being. In the following example from Yamabiko, he notices the simple beauty of the pattern of frost that has formed on a discarded bicycle. The haiku describes a direct moment of observation, but at the same time, the image of a bicycle, thoughtlessly dropped and left behind, might also be read as a reflection of Sameshima’s feelings as a Canadian internee, tossed aside and forgotten by his country. Since we cannot confirm with Sameshima himself, we cannot know for sure if this metaphorical meaning was intended.

霜の花 自転車無惨に 放られあり
frost flower
bicycle thoughtlessly
thrown away / left behind

frost flowers
a forgotten bicycle
left behind

In the following haiku (also from Yamabiko), we get a picture of Sameshima walking through the forest, surrounded by trees, their tops rising into the blue sky. His eyes, too, are drawn upward, and there is a sense of his spirit lifted as well.

早春の 梢々が 青空へ
early spring
treetops treetops
to the blue sky

early spring
so many treetops
rising to the blue sky

The following are further examples of Sameshima’s haiku from Yamabiko, with the kanji and direct translation provided. For brevity, we haven’t provided the polished English haiku, but have instead left the interpretation up to the reader.

耕馬帰る 夕日抱きし 並木道
plough horse returns
setting sun embraced
tree-lined road

夏の朝 口笛の子に 出会ひけり
summer morning
whistling children
meet / met

理髪師の 日向に佇てり 長閑なる
barber in the sunlight
tranquil / peaceful is

腕時計 はづし涼しき 夕風に
take off
cool evening wind

秋の燈に 眼鏡のケース そと置かる
autumn lamp-light
glasses case
gently put down

冬の灯に 帽子二三が かかりあり
winter lamplight
hats two or three
are hung

The following haiku of Sameshima’s are from Reiko:

春天へ 警報黒く 吊られたる
spring sky in
warning/alarm bell black
is hung

春水の 溢るるバケツ 持上ぐる
spring water
overflowing bucket
lift/lift up

馬ぴんと 耳を立てたり 雪解の陽
horse straight up
ears stand
snow-melting sunshine

 猫の髭 衣裁つ鋏 置かれけり
cat’s love
fabric/garment scissors
put down

つばめ大きく 舞ひ朝の ビル高き
swallow big looping
in the morning
building high/tall

路地出でて チューリップの陽の ありにけり
lane/alley exit
tulip/s in the sunshine
there is/are

朝空へ 鯉幟なる 風がある
morning sky to
carp banner full
wind blows/enough wind2

荷車の 子等積んで駈く 秋の晴
hand cart/wagon
full of children/loaded with pulled
autumn clear day

雪の朝 牧師の瞳に 触れ合ひぬ
snowy morning
priest’s eyes (glance)
(my eyes) meet/met

凍つる夜の 夜光時計を 見さだめぬ
freezing night
dimly lit clock
checking the time

冬の灯の 棚の古本 見つめゐる
winter lamp light
old books on shelf
gazing at

小さき家 雪の朝日の 煙上ぐる
small house/houses
sunrise in snow
smoke rises

バンの雪 栗毛の馬が 踏み出づる
snow on the carriage/van
chestnut (coloured) horse
steps out into the snow

ひしひしと 路地を通りぬ 星冴ゆる
shuffling through the alley
stars shine bright
look up

“Tashibi” cartouche cropped from the cover of Yamabiko. Nikkei National Museum, 2017.

In his book, Within the Barbed Wire Fence, renowned Nikkei poet Takeo Ujo Nakano talks about his experience interned in Camp Angler in Ontario. This camp was designed to house German prisoners of war captured in Europe, but was pressed into use as a camp for Japanese-Canadians deemed a danger to the state. Nakao noted that “Because of the tedium of camp life, [the haiku club] quickly attracted members.”3

Haiku clubs (as well as other clubs and activities organized in the camps) broke the monotony of camp life. In his online article on the recently created Tashme Historical Project website, independent scholar Eiji Okawa suggests that for the haiku club members, writing haiku was more than a hobby, or leisure activity to fill the days’ empty hours. He says, “It gave them the avenue to express their emotions and visualize their heart and soul during the dreadful internment years.”4

He goes on to say that writing haiku, “facilitated cultural adaptation to the environment of Tashme.”5 Reading even a sample of the Tashme haiku, we can find support for his points. For example, after the tragic drowning of a child in one of the two rivers flowing past the camp, writing haiku may have offered a cathartic experience for a poet known by the pen-name, Koson (Lonely Village). The first haiku below refers to the tower at the edge of camp, which held an emergency bell, or siren. There is the sense of both the sound and the people’s panic rising.

非常警報  人沸きたたせ  夏天へ
emergency bell
people upset/panic/disturbed
to the summer sky

people panicking
the emergency bell rises
to the summer sky

いたいけな  死肢硬直  青草冷ゆる
corpse grown stiff
green grass becomes cold

a sweet child
limbs stiffening
the green grass chills

夏天へ  命奪へる  水音鋭き
to the summer sky
life robbed/stolens
harp sound of water

a life is taken
into the summer sky
the sharp sound of water

In these three haiku, the expression is restrained. The situation and the poet’s emotions are not explicitly stated. Yet, there is an implied sense of sudden deep and painful emotion, which the poet is perhaps coming to terms with through the act of writing.

Within the simple imagery of haiku, the poets were able to give voice to deep emotions they might not otherwise have been able to share. The haiku club used language to quietly reclaim a small, but significant, agency in their lives, presumably unobserved by camp authorities. As with other circumstances of internment, the name of the camp, Tashme, was imposed on the Nikkei. The name was created by the BC Security Commission as a kind of anagram, combining the first two letters of the names of three commissioners — Austin T. Taylor (TA), a prominent Vancouver businessman, John Shirras (SH) of the BC Provincial Police and Frederick John Mead (ME) of the RCMP.

The members of the haiku club, however, reinvented the name Tashme, using Japanese characters. They chose three kanji that can be read with almost the same sounds as the three parts of the name, “ta-shi-mi.” Ta means “many/plenty.” Shi means “strong resolution/will.” Mi means “beauty.” They could have chosen other kanji characters that can be read with the same sounds, but in selecting these particular kanji, the haiku club imbued the name, Tashme, with new meaning. For them, the camp name no longer referred to three BC Security commissioners; instead, it expressed the haiku club’s goal of creating plenty of beauty through their own resolution and will.

Translating Haiku
While haiku are very short and simple, they can be difficult to translate. The Japanese is often intentionally ambiguous, with no pronouns included and no clear indication of whether a subject or object is singular or plural. Each haiku can be interpreted in several different ways. In addition, a single kanji (Japanese character) may have more than one meaning, and some kanji used in the 1940s and earlier are no longer in use today. Sometimes, metaphors and references have been lost to time, or do not translate well. In other cases, the original poem’s rhythm and sound-play can be difficult to convey in English. Keeping these considerations in mind, we have created a rough direct English translation of each Tashme haiku, followed by a more polished English haiku version (for the sake of brevity, we have not included all of the polished versions here).

With the English haiku, we have attempted to keep as close to the Japanese as possible, providing an interpretation that we feel makes sense given what we know about the context in which the poems were written. While the Japanese poems tend to be written in a pattern of 5-7-5 on, or sound units, we have not attempted to translate these into 5-7-5 English syllables. To do so would impose too many extra words on the poems. We have tried to retain the brevity, focused imagery and mood of the original poems.

This re-imagined Tashme can be seen very clearly on the covers of the haiku collections, Yamabiko and Reiko, in the lower left-hand corner in a gourd-shaped cartouche. Its creation was a subtle act of autonomy, an indication that through writing, the Nikkei internees would at least see this new environment in the way that they chose to see it — a way that allowed them to maintain a burning ember of their cultural and human identity. This ember is also kept alive through their haiku. These two collections, Yamabiko and Reiko, are invaluable documents that record the internal lives and the extraordinary endurance of the internees.

The authors would like to thank archivist Linda Kawamoto Reid and collections manager Lisa Kiyomi Uyeda at Nikkei Place for their help and patience during our visits to the Nikkei National Museum archives, Ryan Ellan, curator/owner of the Tashme Museum, for his guided tour of the museum and site, and Rachel Enomoto, haiku poet and translator, for her review of selected translations. We are also grateful to Sam (Sukeo) and Kay (Kazue) Sameshima for their donation of documents and photographs to the Nikkei archives and for the interview we conducted with Sam via correspondence and the help of his wife Kay, shortly before his death.

Yamabiko, Tashme Haiku Club, 1945, Kazue and Sukeo Sameshima fonds 2017., Nikkei National Museum Archives, Burnaby
Reiko, Tashme Haiku Club, 1946, Kazue and Sukeo Sameshima fonds 2017., Nikkei National Museum Archives, Burnaby
“Notes from the Prairie: an interview with and haiku by Sukeo Sameshima” by Bruce Ross in Frogpond: The Journal of the Haiku Society of America 25:2, 2002, pp. 53–56
Paper Doors: Anthology of Japanese-Canadian Poetry, Gerry Osamu Shikatani and David Aylward, eds., Coach House Press, Toronto, 1981
Haïku: Anthologie Canadienne / Canadian Anthology edited by Dorothy Howard and André Duhaime, Editions Asticou, Hull, Quebec, 1985

1. Second generation (Nisei) refers to Japanese-Canadians born in Canada to parents who immigrated to Canada from Japan. The generation born in Japan is the first generation (Issei).
2. A carp banner is a koi fish-shaped cloth or paper banner (or wind sock) that is hung to celebrate Boys’ Day (now called Children’s Day) in May.
3. Ujō Nakano and Leatrice M. Willson Chan, Within the Barbed Wire Fence: a Japanese Man’s Account of his Internment in Canada (Toronto: James Lorimer & Company, 2012), 70.
4. Eiji Okawa, “Tashme Poetry Club,” Tashme 1942–1946 Historical Project,, assessed April 10, 2019. Quoted with permission.
5. Eiji Okawa, “Tashme Poetry Club”.

Jacqueline Pearce is an award-winning haiku poet and children’s book author based in Burnaby. Jacquie has degrees in English Literature and Environmental Studies and an interest in local history. Her first novel for children focused on the friendship between two girls of Sikh and Japanese heritage in the Vancouver Island community of Paldi during the Second World War.

Born in Jamaica, Jean-Pierre Antonio came to BC as a child. He grew up in Duncan and graduated from Cowichan Senior High School. He graduated from UBC with a BFA before taking an MFA at York and a BEd at the University of Toronto. He is currently teaching English at Suzuka University in Japan.