In a year in which Canada is celebrating its 150th anniversary, the book Witness to Loss: Race, Culpability, and Memory in the Dispossession of Japanese Canadians sets a sobering contrast to the otherwise upbeat reflections on the past.
The events it portrays read like a nightmare vision: war has broken out in far away lands; the enemy is the country where you were born, or where your parents were born; you are dubbed an “enemy alien”; and your government has changed your legal status. Families involved in the coastal fisheries were forced to give up their boats, then their property, including real estate, homes and cars.
At first, the government promised it would shelter and return the property when the war came to an end. But warehousing and managing the property proved challenging. Forced sales becomes the status quo. Committees were set up, which were overseen by naval personnel, provincial and municipal officials and the RCMP, with only token representation from the community of the dispossessed. When the “removal” order came through, all Japanese-Canadians were forced to leave the coast – those born abroad and those born in Canada. People were at first housed in a barn-like building, then loaded onto trains heading east.
This is what happened to Japanese-Canadians in British Columbia, beginning in the spring of 1941 with colour-coded “registration” cards to distinguish Canadian-born or naturalized Japanese-Canadians from Japanese immigrants. Boat impoundment followed the outbreak of war in the Pacific at the end of the year. A sunset curfew was next, then the confiscation of cars, hunting rifles, radios and cameras. By the fall of 1942, authorities had successfully evacuated virtually every Japanese-Canadian from the coast.
In Witness to Loss, one finds a full portrait of the events of the war years, alongside commentaries from the children of those who were dispossessed and historians.
The core of Witness to Loss is the newly translated diary of Kishizo Kimura, who represented his community on a committee that included a city alderman and a provincial justice. A manager of fish export co-operatives, he was recruited early on to help round up Japanese-owned fishing boats. As the process of dispossession moved toward evacuation, Kimura found himself engulfed in plans he had not foreseen when he agreed to join the advisory committee on Nikkei properties in Greater Vancouver.
Kimura’s diary offers a play-by-play account of events, as they unfolded. His closeness to authorities gave him a unique view, while he dealt directly with his fellow community members.
KIMURA’S DIARY OFFERS A PLAY-BY-PLAY ACCOUNT OF EVENTS, AS THEY UNFOLDED.
The record he left has a measured tone and includes a pair of pleas for understanding toward the end. One is aimed at Canadians, while the other is a “Message to Younger Japanese Canadians,” or, as Kimura calls them, the “second and third generations.” His message carries with it the urgency of ethical wills left by elderly eastern European Jews of an earlier time. “When you criticize,” Kimura writes, “I would like you to investigate, face squarely and consider the time period, the circumstances, situation and environment.… I would like you to recognize that Nikkei People were rewarded for their struggle and finally reached the dawn of a new era after the war.”
This position – that Japanese-Canadian responses to dispossession, including his own, represented an honourable stand that led to respect and rights – points to Kimura’s view of the Canadian government’s decrees during the war. With a history of anti-Japanese actions in Vancouver reaching back to a 1907 riot that damaged many businesses, Kimura offers a surprising interpretation of the government’s dispossession of Japanese-Canadians. He quotes at length from Prime Minister McKenzie King’s 1941 call to “protect Nikkei People,” which suggested it was only after “consulting with Nikkei community leaders” that a committee was struck to issue registration cards to citizens who King described as “completely loyal to Canada.”
Kimura was not aware of the Orders in Council around the same time as King’s conciliatory statement, which provided a “legal” infrastructure for dispossession. In December 1941, the Privy Council mandated that, “No person of the Japanese race shall use or operate any vessel within waters adjacent to the West Coast of Canada.” The “loyal Canadians” who were in possession of such vessels were ordered to “bring their vessels to impoundment areas.”
The historians and memoirists who comment on Kimura’s diary in Witness to Loss echo the post-Second World War arguments regarding the Jews who were involved in the German-ordered Judenrats, or Jewish councils, that were set up throughout Nazi-occupied Europe. No consensus was reached regarding the forced involvement of Jews in German-ordered dispossession and death. In a similar way, the commentators included in Witness to Loss muse about the range of possibilities found in the grey zone, where resistance and collaboration overlap.
Witness to Loss leaves one with the urge to walk the streets of pre-Second World War Vancouver where the Japanese-Canadian community was well established: Powell Street, East Cordova Street, Alexander Street and Hastings Street. All of these were shared in the 1930s with Jewish businesses. One wonders if a diary exists that would supply a Jewish Vancouverite’s view of the destruction of the neighbourhood.