The Japanese Internment: Banished and Beyond Tears

Shikata-ga-nai. You say it fast. It means ‘It can’t be helped.’ That’s why most of us didn’t put up a fuss. It is part of our upbringing.”

Police banging on doors at all hours of the day or night, ordering frightened occupants to gather up only what they could carry. Parents and children innocent of any crime ushered from their homes, herded in a central depot and freighted out by train to remote camps. A scene from Nazi Germany? No, it was the internment of the Japanese in British Columbia, 1942.

The Japanese had suffered the sting of racism ever since the first Japanese, a sailor named Manzo Nagano, stepped ashore in 1877 at New Westminster.

The early BC settlers were highly conscious of their British origins and, deeply concerned over the racial origins of the new immigrants, became obsessed with excluding “undesirables.” Laws were passed to keep the Japanese from working in the mines, to prevent them from voting and to prohibit them from working on any project funded by the province.

Then came the stunning news of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on December 7, 1941. On December 25 the Japanese forced the surrender of the British garrison at Hong Kong, including two battalions of Canadians. With these shocking events, the fears of a Japanese invasion, fanned by sensationalist press, spread along the Pacific Coast. The RCMP arrested suspected Japanese operatives, impounded 1200 fishing boats and shut down Japanese newspapers and schools.

Japanese Canadians struggle off an open truck at the camp in Slocan. Thye were allowed to bring only what they could carry (NAC C-45350).

“From the army point of view, I cannot see that Japanese Canadians constitute the slightest menace to national security” declared Major General Ken Stuart. Nevertheless, BC politicians were in a constant rage, speaking of the Japanese, as Canadian diplomat Escott Reid said, “in the way that the Nazis would have spoken about Jewish Germans. When they spoke I felt in that room the physical presence of evil.”

On February 24, 1942 Prime Minister King issued a series of orders in council to evacuate all persons of Japanese origin to “protective areas.” All property that could not be carried would be taken “into custody.” Ten days later, the British Columbia Security Commission removed the first 2500 Japanese to Hastings Park. “It was terrible, unbelievable” one woman remembered, “They kept us in the stalls where they put the cattle and horses.”

Special trains carried the Japanese from Hastings Park to Slocan, New Denver, and other ghost towns in the interior of BC. The camps were in a spectacular setting but the conditions for the evacuees were primitive. They were not “concentration camps” or even surrounded with barbed wire as were the camps in the US, but conditions were primitive and crowded at first, with no electricity or running water.

On January 19, 1943, in a further betrayal, an order in council liquidated all the Japanese property which had been under “protective custody.”

Some Japanese might have cherished the idea that racism was confined to BC but they found that it was spread across Canada. Though acutely in need of labour, Albertans did not want the Japanese in their midst. Alberta farmers crowded the laborers into tiny shacks, and cheated them of their wages. For the Japanese, sugar beet labour was “hell on earth.”

Some 20,881 were uprooted, of whom 13,309 were Canadian citizens by birth. Most of the older nationals had lived in Canada for 25-40 years.

The Japanese did not resist the internment. Their culture emphasized duty and obligations as part of gaman (forebearance). As Kaoru Ikeda wrote: “Shikata-ga-nai. You say it fast. It means ‘It can’t be helped.’ That’s why most of us didn’t put up a fuss. It is part of our upbringing.”

Even at the end of the war King continued to bow to the most strident demands. He offered the Japanese two choices: go back to Japan or disperse “east of the Rockies.” Unlike his counterparts in the United States, he never expressed any regrets and even declared that he had dealt with the problem “with loving mercy.”

On May 2, 1947, SS Marine Angel slipped its moorings in Vancouver carrying a vanguard of 3964 who sailed for war-devastated Japan. With these deportations, the Japanese finally gained some friends among Canadians. Still, the last controls on the Japanese were not lifted until March 31, 1949, when the Japanese were free to vote. Finally Canadian society began to open to the Japanese.

The military threat cited to justify the evacuation of the Japanese never existed outside the overheated imaginations of some British Columbians. Still, many people are uncomfortable with the current enthusiasm for judging the acts of our predecessors from the exalted perspective of hindsight. When the Japanese campaigned for compensation, Pierre Trudeau asked, where would compensation end? History leaves many victims.

“An injustice once performed is fatally easy to repeat,” wrote B.K. Sandwell of Saturday Night. The most enduring accomplishments of the Japanese campaign for recompense were the abolition of the War Measures Act, which had provided the legal basis for the removal of the Japanese from their homes, and the reminder of the poisonous effects of racism in any society.

James H. Marsh is editor in chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia. 

First published in the National Post and CanWest newspaper chain, now featured on The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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