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WWII Internment of Japanese Canadians: a lesson forgotten

Kim Koyama

April 13, 2015

Following Japan’s December 7, 1941 attack on the American naval base at Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, racism and paranoia toward the Japanese were at an all-time high. The fear in North America was that, should Japan attack, the invaders might be assisted by acts of treason and espionage coming from within the Japanese Canadian or American communities. In both countries, the decision was made to round up all residents of Japanese descent on the west coast and forcibly relocate the entire populations to internment camps located away from the coast.
Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzie King’s decision to intern more than 20,000 Japanese Canadians was not without controversy, but wartime hysteria was high and there was much popular support. It is important to note that the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and the Department of National Defence advised that the interment was unwarranted, but racism and economics took precedence.
Japanese Canadians were competitive in the fishing industry and this was an opportunity for non-Japanese to steal their business and profit. All fishing boats belonging to Japanese Canadians were seized.
Japanese newspapers were shut down—except for the New Canadian, which was allowed to operate in order to disseminate government edicts and other information to the Japanese Canadian community. Cameras and radios were confiscated and cars had to be surrendered. The entire community was put under curfew. Once the population was evacuated, homes, businesses, property, cars, and all possessions left behind were sold at bargain prices. (Some Japanese Canadians gave cameras and cars to non-Japanese friends, rather than turn them in.)
Adult males were the first to be moved. They were sent to road camps where they did manual labour. Shortly after, the women and children were sent to the prison camps.  This separation of families made the ordeal especially traumatic. (Many passed through Hastings Park in Vancouver before being sent to labour or prison camps. In 2015, this fact is being acknowledged through informational signage at the park.)
The government of Canada declared all Japanese Canadians to be “enemy aliens”—this despite the fact that the majority of the population were of the second-generation:  they had been born in Canada and were thus Canadian citizens.
Families had little time to prepare for relocation. They were allowed to take only what they could carry; most of their remaining possessions would never be seen again. My mother’s family was allowed to store a few belongings in the basement of the Kitsilano Japanese Language School, but the school was later broken into and vandalized;  anything of value was stolen.
Both the Canadian and American governments had to move quickly to find sites for the prison camps; preferred locations would be far from the Pacific coast, isolated, and able to accommodate entire communities. Some of the communities were initially housed at racetracks in former stables—each family assigned a horse stall to live in, with little privacy. Others were moved to ghost towns or purpose-built camps, to live in tents or hastily built wooden shacks.
History records of the relocation and internment are sparse. Canadian governments would rather not dwell on—or publicize—what was soon after to be regarded as a mistake.  School children studying Canadian history may be taught about the WWII internment, but the decision to teach such material rests with individual teachers, and material/resources may vary from province to provice. Most of the material is comprised of written accounts by those who lived in the camps. Experiences differed widely from one internment camp to another, but memoirs tell of a bleak and harsh existence; some have written that those who didn’t experience life in the camps cannot imagine it. As the internment had no proposed time limit, provisions had to be made for an indefinite stay, and this included makeshift facilities for education and medicine. The government had no intention of making life comfortable for people regarded as the enemy.
In the BC interior, winters were cold. Some inhabitants described awakening to frost on the walls and wind blowing through cracks. At the camp where my mother lived, there were water pumps outside, which were shared for cooking and washing.  Families had to remember to save some water at the end of every day;  the following morning it would be needed for heating and pouring over the water pumps to thaw them, as they would freeze overnight. My mother and her two sisters shared a bed and would huddle together with a hot-water bottle for warmth. Bathing had to be done in communal baths;  although segregated by sex, it was a humiliating routine for many.
Despite being treated as the enemy, many Japanese Canadians wanted to show their loyalty to Canada during wartime. Many young men felt the best way to prove their loyalty would be to enlist in the war effort. Although the Canadian authorities refused to allow this, it was through a request from the British army to the Canadian government that Japanese Canadian men were allowed to enlist. Britain was hoping to use the men as interpreters, and yet—in one of the greatest ironies of WWII—many of these men (like my father) did not speak Japanese very well at all.
Despite the wartime racism, there was a growing sentiment from the general population as the war progressed that the internment was wrong, and should be ended. In 1944, with increasing pressure from the media, the Canadian government began to move Japanese Canadians out of the camps. There were two choices offered by the government (aside from remaining in the camps, which some chose over the alternatives): be deported, i.e., move “back” to Japan—a place three quarters of the population had never been—or move further east across Canada, away from the coast. For most, the move east was the preferred choice, as they felt leaving the only country they knew was not an option.
Japanese Canadians were still required to register with the RCMP at age 16. When my mother turned 16, her family had re-settled in Ontario. She had to travel alone by train to the nearest RCMP office. She was fingerprinted, and then the RCMP officer grabbed her face and brusquely turned her head from side to side to look for any identifying marks. One of her worst memories was of the school day shortly afterward when her class was interrupted by an RCMP officer who came into the room and walked to her desk to hand-deliver the identification card. She was dismayed to see that along with her photo and fingerprints was the term “enemy alien.” (This intentional humiliation is a tactic which is still used today by Canadian authorities. Muslims report CSIS officers coming into their workplaces to question them, although there is no necessity to do so. The result of this tactic is heightened anxiety and suspicion from employers and coworkers, and increased racism which benefits a government trying to justify military spending and campaigns in the Middle-East.)
Release from the camps brought relief, but wartime racism was still at a high, and with all of their property and possessions gone, there was the challenge of finding homes, jobs, and trying to re-establish a normalcy in their lives. And despite the release from the camps and the offer to move east across Canada, the Canadian government would not trust or allow Japanese Canadians to return to the west coast until 1949. (Also in 1949, Japanese Canadians would finally be given the right to vote.)
There is little that annoys racists more than seeing people of a different culture clustered in groups, speaking a different language. Those in the Japanese Canadian and American communities felt that this was a key factor in the racism which had led to the internment. They now made conscious decisions not to congregate; they urged each other to assimilate into the white majority: work hard and excel in every way, avoid speaking Japanese in public, never draw criticism. The impact of the racism of this period had lasting effects on the community. Aside from the large west coast cities of North America where Japanese immigrants had initially settled, there are no visible communities of Japanese—no Japantown or Little Tokyo—not even in the largest cities. (Some Japanese Canadians reject the label “Japantown”, as it was commonly distorted to “Japtown” as a racial slur.) Japanese Canadians and Americans for decades have also had the highest rate (by far) of intermarriage.
In 1977, Japanese Canadians celebrated the centennial anniversary of Manzo Nagano’s entry into Canada as the first Japanese immigrant. The year was marked by special events, including a national youth conference held in Toronto which drew participants from across the country.  These young, mostly 3rd generation (“sansei”) Japanese Canadians were growing up in communities widely dispersed and assimilated into the white majority, and many had experienced a common struggle to gain a sense of identity.  The conference and other events through the year helped to start conversations about the internment—conversations many sansei had never had with their own parents or grandparents. Some asked why their elders were silent about their wartime experiences for so long; for many of those who had been through the war and internment, the simple answer was that the experiences had been so painful that they had just wanted to forget everything. 
It had taken this long before the older generations started to talk, but once they did, there was a growing call for justice and redress. Those who had been interned—both in Canada and the US—demanded an apology and monetary compensation from the government. It would take 11 years before the fight was resolved. In 1988, Conservative Prime Minister Brian Mulroney offered a formal apology to Japanese Canadians and a settlement of $21,000 per person; this came one month after US president Ronald Reagan had offered a similar deal to Japanese American internees. The monetary compensation was understood to be a symbolic amount, as it could not come close to replacing all that was lost. Many of the recipients stated that they felt the Prime Minister’s apology was actually more important.
Also in 1988 was the repealing of the War Measures Act—the statute which suspended civil liberties, allowing anyone to be detained indefinitely without charges or due process.  It was this statute which had made the internment possible. Seeing the War Measures Act repealed was satisfying for many Japanese Canadians, but all Canadians should remain wary. In situations likes these, those in authority tend to look for ways to regain their power, and indeed, the War Measures Act has simply been replaced by other, similar regulatory tools which go under different titles.
The last decade saw a prolonged battle over “Security Certificates”, which have mainly been used to victimize Muslims who were accused of plotting terrorist acts, but could not be charged let alone convicted due to lack of evidence. And the Harper government’s Bill C-51 is similarly designed to give broad powers to the police at the expense of civil liberties.
The prevailing sentiment among the general public always seems to be that an injustice on the scale of the Japanese Canadian internment could never be repeated. Many of us like to think that Canada is a “kinder and gentler” nation in which we now know better — better than other countries, and better than Canadians of an earlier, darker era. Yet these sentiments and assumptions have been and continue to be disproven by successive governments which display racist policies, aided by a population which is easily swayed by whichever racism is being currently promoted by the authorities and mass media. 
While we would think ludicrous the notion that a current-day Canadian government could even consider imprisoning an entire community, there are incidents which closely parallel the details of the Japanese Canadian internment. The only lesson learned from history seems to be that current governments understand that today’s public would not accept mass imprisonment of an entire race or community; instead, we are witnessing the same phenomenon of government-sanctioned racism in the discrimination against and imprisonment of small groups of individuals.
The current atmosphere of Islamophobia—especially since 9/11—has resulted in heightened discrimination against and victimization of Muslims, Arabs, and generally anyone with brown skin or a Middle-Eastern appearance. In Canada, there have been a number of major incidents in which groups of Muslims have been accused of terrorism and arrested. One of the most important has been that of the “Secret Trial 5”, five Muslim men who endured years of imprisonment and extreme hardship under “Security Certificates,” which, like the War Measures Act, allowed for indefinite detention without charges or trial. The accusations alone stirred up fears and racist sentiment; more than a decade later, the effects are still being felt.
Suspiciously, these cases—on the front pages of mass media for days—often coincide with government campaigns to gain public support for Canadian military interventions in the Middle-East, or for increased security measures which are purportedly for everyone’s benefit. These discussions fan the flames of racism by pitting us against each other—with one particular ethnic group used as the target of fearmongering.
Not a single Japanese Canadian (or Japanese American) was ever found to be responsible for any acts of sabotage or espionage. Sadly, there are those on the political right who will ignore history and maintain that the internment was a reasonable and justified course of action. In 2004, American blogger and author Michelle Malkin released In Defense of Internment: The Case for 'Racial Profiling' in World War II and the War on Terror, arguing that the internment was justified and further that the same actions should be used against Muslims. Although the book was the subject of much criticism, its mere publicity may leave those who are unfamiliar with details of the internment (likely the majority of the population, 70 years after the fact) with the mistaken notion that the innocence of thousands of internees of Japanese descent is still subject to suspicion.
More recently, following Israel’s March 2015 election, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu scared voters into supporting him again by claiming that Arab voters were going to the polls in droves. In an analysis of the remark, American television personality Bill Maher seemed to condone Netanyahu’s tactic by mentioning that “When we were attacked by the Japanese, we didn’t just not let them vote—we rounded them up and put them in camps.” Never mind the contrast that might make Netanyahu’s comment seem tame by comparison; Maher ignores that the WWII internment was decades ago declared a mistake that never should have happened by the governments of both countries in which the injustices took place.
And despite successive governments’ condemnation of the wartime internment of the Japanese in Canada, the same actions continue. People in Canada—particularly Muslims—are being taken into custody and held indefinitely without charge or trial, and these actions are overwhelmingly condoned by the Canadian government. Parliament continues to see new bills put forth which will curtail civil liberties, supposedly to protect us from a foreign (read: non-white) threat. These actions are presented as a concern and benefit to all, but in reality they harm everyone.
Join the week of education to stop Bill C-51, April 13-20.
If you like this article register for Rage Against the System, a weekend conference of ideas to change the world, April 24-26 in Toronto. Sessions include “Stopping Harper’s agenda,” “Secularism, Islamophobia and the new racism,” and the Toronto premiere film screening of “Fennario: The Good Fight.”

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