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Journal of Canadian Studies Revue d'tudes canadiennes

"Life is Sweet":
Vulnerability and Composure in the Wartime
Narratives of Japanese Canadians
Pamela Sugiman
Witb Japan's bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, 22,000 Canadians of Japanese descent were
dispossessed of tbeir property and belongings, and uprooted from their British Columbia
homes to various sites of internment. Some stayed in these sites for four years or longer. Utilizing the concepts of vulnerability and composure, this essay examines Japanese-Canadian
Nisei (second-generation) women's and men's mixed narratives of these wartime events. At
the same time tbat narrators describe tbese years as filled witb bardsbip, turmoil, and racial
injustice, they also speak of happy times, kindness, and the sweetness of life. Tbe essay
points to ways in which the researcher and narrator work towards a "sbared authority" in
tbe presentation and interpretation of these complex memories.
Avec le bombardement japonais de Pearl Harbor, en 1941, 22,000 Canadiens de descendance
japonaise furent expropris de leurs proprits et de leurs biens puis dracins de leurs domiciles
en Colombie-Britannique vers divers centres d'internement. Certains sont rests dans ces centres
pendant quatre ans ou plus. En utilisant les concepts de vulnrabilit et de sang-froid, cet essai
examine les divers rcits de femmes et d'bommes canado-japonais Nisei (deuxime gnration)
de ces vnements en temps de guerre. En mme temps que les narrateurs dcrivent ces annes
comme une f)riode remplie de souffrances, de tumulte et d'injustice raciale, us voquent aussi
les moments heureux, la bont et la douceur de la vie. Cet essai indique les faons par lesquelles
le cbercbeur et le narrateur travaillent vers le partage de l'autorit dans l'expression et
l'interprtation de ces souvenirs complexes.

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Voiume 43 No. 1 (Hiver 2009 Winter)

Journal of Canadian Studies Revue d'tudes canadiennes

but don't cry,

know the tears'll do no good
so dry your eyes
they told you life is hard
it's misery from the start
it's dull and slow and painful
I tell you life is sweet
in spite of the misery
there's so much more
be grateful
who do you believe?
who will you listen to
who will it be?
it's high time you decide
in your own mind
- Excerpt from "Life Is Sweet" (Merchant 1998).

The words of American songwriter Natalie Merchant conjure up within me a memory of the women and men that form my study of the Second World War internment of Japanese Canadians. For me, the lyrics from Merchant's song "Life Is Sweet"
summon in thought and feeling the deep, nuanced, and enduring moral message
that has been imparted by the Nisei (second-generation Japanese Canadians) who
shared with me their stories of internment and, in so doing, narrated their life
histories. During the war years, the Nisei and their Issei (first-generation) parents
were displaced from their homes in British Columbia (BC), dispossessed of property, housed temporarily in former horse stables, interned in remote ghost towns,
incarcerated in prisoner-of-war camps, and forced to work as low-wage agricultural labour. They were subsequently either deported to Japan or dispersed across
Canada, east of the Rocky Mountains.
These actions were legalized by a series of orders-in-council made under the
War Measures Act. ' On 14 January 1942, the federal government of Canada passed
Order-in-Council PC 365, calling for the removal of male Japanese nationals 18 to
45 years of age from a designated "protected area" 100 miles from the BC coast.
These men were then deposited in road camps in the Jasper area of the province
of Alberta. Three weeks later, Order-in-Council PC 1486 was passed, expanding


Pamela Sugiman

the power of the minister of Justice to remove "all persons of Japanese origin."
In so far as military officers responsible for defense of the Pacific coast did not
regard this group as a security threat, the government subsequently established
the British Columbia Security Commission, a civilian body that was responsible
for carrying out the expulsion. In addition, a custodian of enemy property was
given authority to administer and hold "in trust" the property and belongings of
the Japanese-Canadian community (Miki and Kobayashi 1991, 23-24).
Before their uprooting, over 95 per cent of Japanese Canadians (and Japanese
nationals) had settled in BC, concentrating in areas such as Vancouver's "Japan
Town," the fishing community of Steveston (situated at the mouth of the Fraser
River), other coastal towns, Vancouver Island, or the berry farms in the Fraser
Valley. With the expulsion, these communities were shattered. The government
dispersed Japanese Canadians to various sites of internment, with each person's
specific destination determined in part by sex, age, family status, religion, and
socio-economic position. Most women, teens, children, and some men were
deposited in ghost towns in the interior of BC, euphemistically referred to by
authorities and the public as "camps": Greenwood, Slocan City, Bay Farm, Popoff,
Lemon Creek, Sandon, Kaslo, Tashme, Rosebery, and New Denver. Families that
wished to stay together and were deemed desirable as labouring units were put to
work on sugar-beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba. Those men whom the Royal
Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) perceived as showing even the slightest form
of resistance were incarcerated in prisoner-of-war camps, first in Petawawa and
later in Angler, Ontario. In addition, many men were put to work on road and
lumber projects. A limited number of families that possessed sufficient economic
resources were placed in so-called "self-supporting camps" (Christina Lake, Bridge
River, Minto City, Lillooet, and McGillivray Falls). Many people stayed in these
sites for four years or more, and a number of the men who had been incarcerated
in POW camps remained there for the duration of the war.^
The federal government's merciless treatment of roughly 22,000 persons of
Japanese ancestry (75 per cent of whom were naturalized or Canadian-born citizens) was without doubt rooted in racist sentiment and motivated by economic
concerns about the growing competition posed by prospering Japanese-Canadian
fishermen on the country's west coast. While politicians attempted to justify their
actions in the interest of national security, as noted, neither the military nor the
RCMP, nor any political leader, ever produced evidence that Japanese Canadians
posed a threat to the nation. Indeed, in a speech to the House of Commons on 4
August 1944, Prime Minister Mackenzie King stated, "'It is a fact that no person of
Japanese race born in Canada has been charged with any act of sabotage or disloyalty during the years of war'" (cited in Miki 2005, 41). Nevertheless with Japan's


Journal of Canadian Studies Revue d'tudes canadiennes

bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, Canadians of Japanese origin were treated as

"enemy aliens," a designation that was clearly rooted in a longer history of racial
exclusion and generalized fears of the "Yellow Peril" (Anderson 1991; Goutor
2007; Lowe 1996; Roy 2008, 1989). As Roy Miki writes in his book about claims
for redress and calls for justice, people of Japanese descent living in Canada were
"framed by race" (2005, 13-37).3
Since I began my interviewing, I have listened to the narratives of approximately 75 Nisei women and men who were framed during the war." In this essay,
I present the words of only a handful. Although this select group of individuals
does not statistically represent the Japanese-Canadian community as a whole, and
while each offers a unique life experience, all of the narrators in this essay articulated themes and conveyed emotions that had been communicated by many other
participants in this study. As Ronald Grele has written, "interviewees are selected,
not because they present some abstract statistical norm, but because they typify
historical processes" (1998, 41). In listening to these narratives, I was struck by the
candour and humility of each, and by the complex ways in which the women and
men structured their life stories, constructed a coherent identity, expressed agency
and powerlessness, and inserted themselves into the collective history of Japanese Canadians.^ Thus, it is not the life story that explains my choice of narrators;
rather, it is the construction of the narrative and the emotions that it expresses.
The narratives of these women and men are poignant. At times, they are
inconsistent. They converge into a collective account and break off into intensely
intimate ones. They are layered and complex and communicated with both feeling and detachment. There is one dominant public narrative of the internment,
yet there is a multiplicity of personal stories, many of which remain untold. In
listening to these stories, I have been moved to tears and, as the song says, I have
dried my eyes. I have been perplexed by some, affirmed by others, and outraged
by many.
Conscious of the importance of self-reflexivity in the research process, as I
read the interview transcripts and listened to the tapes, I tried not only to gather
information but also to situate myself in the "conversational narrative." As Grele
explains, the oral history narrative is "conversational because of the relationship
of interviewer and interviewee, and [a] narrative because of the form of expositionthe telling of a tale" (1998, 44). One of my objectives was to understand the
creation of such narratives, my relationship to the people in this study, and my
interventions as a researcherspecifically, the powers that I exercise in the act of
interpretation and the presentation of the spoken in the form of my own written


Pamela Sugiman

For many decades, feminist researchers and oral historians have heen grappling with these methodological, analytical, and ethical issues.*- A hurgeoning
literature has called attention to important questions about the oral history
interview and, to borrow Michael Frisch's popular term, the "shared authority"
between researcher and narrator (1990). This work is multi-faceted, and from it
has emerged many rich and provocative studies of empathy, solidarity, subjectivity, emotion, mood, trust and mistrust, agency, and reminiscence (Behar 1996;
Blee 1998; Bornt 1998; Blackburn 2005; Field 2006; Hamilton 2008).
At the most general level, what we learn from these writings is that when
we as interviewers undertake an oral history project, "we must consider our own
motivations and needs, as well as those of the narrator" (Sitzia 2003, 96). Oral
history is, after all, by nature a "collaborative project in which both parties share
authority over content and tone" (Corbett and Miller 2006, 16). As Lorraine Sitzia
states, "while there is a danger that we will over-analyze our own involvement,
even to the extent of including our own life story, it is clear that this relationship
has an effect on what is remembered and the way in which our stories are told"
(2003, 96),
With this understanding, I thought about the narrators' words in light of my
own location and perspective, that of a Sansei (third-generation Japanese Canadian), of working-class parents, both of whom were internedmy mother in a
ghost town in a remote area of British Columbia and my father as a prisoner of
war in his own country. Initially, I sensed a disjunction between what some said
and what I had expected (and perhaps wanted) to hear. My interview questions
prompted life histories, not detached or neatly packaged descriptions of what happened during the war years. My original intent was to personalize and enrich history by mining the interviews for details about the personal experience of war, in
linear sequence and according to an historical logic. Like many oral historians,
however, I soon came to see that narrators would take me out of sequence and
interweave their wartime stories with the brittleness of aging hones, descriptions
of last year's vacation, an outing to the casino, and a granddaughter's birthday.
In addition, I began to see the narratives as multi-layered. I heard moving descriptions of suffering and injustice: vivid memories of forced relocation,
restricted mobility, finger-printing, registration and curfews, the loss of privacy,
maggots, ticks, bedbugs, the stench of horse manure, separation of families,
so-called "repatriation" to a completely foreign and war-ravaged country, and
compulsory assimilation and continued search for home and belonging within
postwar Canada. Moments later, these same people often recounted happy stories and even suggested that internment offered Japanese Canadians acceptance
into the dominant society, the promise of upward economic mobility, movement


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from one part of the country to another, and a better life for the third- and later
Moreover, those intervievkfed described just as many acts of generosity and
kindness on the part of Hakujin (a Japanese term meaning "White") neighbours,
friends, missionaries, and even the RCMP officers who guarded them, as accounts
of bigotry and discrimination. Many individuals shared stories of triumph alongside recollections of suffering. At times, they made assertions of survival with
greater ease and conviction than accounts of oppression. Indeed, an overriding
sentiment, conveyed in retrospect, was that of contentment and gratitude. In
spite of the hardship and injustices, if not atrocities of war, people delivered the
message that life is sweet.
The oral history approach has helped me to see the nuance in personal testimonies and to recognize their larger meaning, by situating the narrator in her or
his cultural and historical context. The Nisei's reflections tell us about the enduring impact of war and the many ways in which racist treatment continues to
touch people's lives and subjectivities, long after they have achieved legal and
political reforms and formal government apologies.' Oral history accounts are, to
draw on the insights of Alessandro Porteili (1981, 1991, 2006), memory stories,
and as such they bridge past events and present lives. As historical and cultural
products, moreover, personal memories are limited by the dialogues and ideologies to which people have access and to which they have become accustomed in
their present situations (Grele 1998). Furthermore, such narratives tell us about
the act of storytelling itself; in recounting the stories of their lives, people make
decisions. They cannot, after all, in the course of a two- or three-hour interview,
recount all of the details of a lifetime.
In oral history accounts, people make sense of their lives. As Frisch writes,
"by seeing people turn history into biographical memory, general into particular,
we see how they tried to retain deeper validation of their life and society" (1990,
11). Self-selected stories then often contain a message that the narrator wishes to
communicate to a wider audiencea message that is moral rather than empirical.
Why, I ask myself, did so many Nisei choose to punctuate accounts of hardship
and unfairness with the conclusion that life is sweet? Out of their memory cache,
why did some narrators highlight the benevolence and humanity of Hakujin
friends and strangers? What are the implications of these questions for the sharing of authority between myself and the narrators who inform this study?


Pamela Sugiman

Enduring Vulnerability
In search of a deeper analysis of narratives that are complex and wide-ranging, I
turn to the concepts of vulnerability and composure. These concepts have guided
me through the memories of the Nisei, their interlacing of empirical and moral
messages. Moreover, they help us to understand the dialogue between researcher
and narrator, and highlight efforts on the part of each to share authority within
the research process.
A feeling of vulnerability is a remnant of traumatic events in one's own past
or in the personal history of members of one's family. Like the event itself, "the
recounting of a trauma narrative," writes Mark Klempner, "can be a physically
charged event entailing great vulnerability" (2006, 199-200). As stated, prior to
the war, Japanese Canadians encountered racism in many realms of life. With
the bombing of Pearl Harbor, however, anti-Japanese sentiment became even
more damning and destructive. With an abruptness that generated deep emotions
that have become etched in the memories of some Nisei, the federal government,
BC politicians, municipal leaders, employers, trade unionists, and neighbours
engaged in face-to-face prejudice and institutional discrimination with a severity
that stunned the community.
At the beginning of the war, Issei Kotoma Kitagawa worked as a seamstress
while her husband ran a small taxi business in Duncan, BC. Mrs. Kitagawa
describes their existence just before she and her husband received the government
order to leave home within 24 hours:
We spent four months, many days without knowing anything about tomorrow. We secluded ourselves in the darkened house with the windows closed.
Since there were not too many Japanese around, we felt surrounded by
white people and, in fact, they did watch us carefully. They informed on
us to the police, saying for instance, that "Kitagawa left home in the early
evening," and so on. They would watch from behind curtains, (cited in
Oiwa 1991, 95)
Unlike Japanese Americans, Canadians of Japanese ancestry were forbidden from
returning to the BC coast until 1949." As well, at the war's end, the government
explicitly stated that Japanese Canadians should be "scattered" across the country
"far and wide," in a deliberate effort to avoid the rebirth of communities similar
to Vancouver's pre-war "Japan Town." In the postwar period, moreover, many
cities and towns passed bylaws that set limits on the entry of people of Japanese
origin and ensured against their congregation in any one neighborhood or vicinity. About people of Japanese background, Mackenzie King stated, "It is the fact of
concentration that has given rise to the problem" (cited in Miki 2005, 43).

Journal of Canadian Studies Revue d'tudes canadiennes

Although public history has highlighted the human rights violations and the

financial losses suffered by the community, many individuals convey with equally
strong emotion the stunted aspirations, denial of opportunity, uncertainty of fate,
emptiness of life, and perhaps most significantly, dislocation from home that
they experienced. About this displacement, Mona Oikawa writes movingly, "each
departure, including the one from 'home,' to unknown spaces of confinement
and destruction, from familiar geography to changing landscapes and climates,
was a leaving of cherished people and all the people who had surrounded them, a
weeding through again of ever-diminishing possessions, and was replete with the
accumulation of loss" (1999).
These wartime experiences are not easily forgotten. Decades later, many Japanese Canadians reveal a persisting vulnerability, one of many psychic scars left by
a history of racial persecution. A significant body of research, largely based on Japanese Americans, documents the long-term psychological impact, if not trauma,
suffered by former internees and their offspring (Fujii, Fukyshima, and Yamamoto
1993; Loo 1993; Marsella 1993; Nagata et al. 1999). These scars have withstood
the passing of time, and they remain in spite of the acquisition of formal legal and
political rights. They have been impervious even to the protective shield offered
by relative financial comfort in the present period, upward class mobility, and a
high level of educational attainment among Sansei offspring.
Narrators express vulnerability in different ways, sometimes subtle and indirect, at other times with a deliberate intent. Many Nisei relate a lingering awareness of their physical presence, a consciousness of how they look in the eyes of
the Hakujin. The readiness with which they speak about their physical difference
suggests that these feelings are close to the surface and thereby meaningful in the
construction of identity in the current period. Aki Takahashi warned me that she
had been having trouble remembering of late, yet the unfolding of her narrative
proved to be highly instructive. Aki is not someone who has rehearsed her memories for public consumption. Personal memory is meaningful to her, however, as
evidenced by the volumes of family photo albums that she has compiled and to
which she often turned as we spoke. One of the most poignant stories Aki told
was that of being physically marked as different, an oddity in the eyes of Hakujin
strangers in towns far away from home. Aki described her family's arduous train
trip from BC to work on a sugar-beet farm in Alberta:
It was midnight when the train arrived to where we had to get off. And it
waswe got there at midnight. And the whole, little kids, and the whole
town were out meeting us as if we were, you know, a circus animal! They
were all looking at us. And they said for us to get off. Well this is midnight.


Pamela Suginnan

Particularly compelling is the spontaneity and depth of emotion with which Aki
shared this specific memory, in addition to the graphic imagery that it conjures
up. Time is important in the construction of many women's memories of the
war. Like Aki, many Nisei observe that the impact of the violations of internment
were heightened because of the time that they occurredin the early hours of the
morning or late at night in complete darkness. They also remember having had
little time to prepare to leave home, having to meet an evening curfew, and not
having enough time to finish high school. The immediacy of their confinement
and the rigid time discipline that was imposed upon them by Canadian authorities made the acts of internment especially brutal.
Similar to Aki, Jean Goto described a lingering sense of inferiority and difference. She inferred that these feelings have come to shape her identity in the present period. In addition to a sustained consciousness of her Japanese looks (being
short and having black hair), Jean spoke of the need to talk softly, always politely,

and the long-standing rule of never speaking Japanese loudly in public. In short,
she described an attempt to be invisible. Jean (whose given name is Yoshiko) was
born and raised in Canada. Like most Nisei, her identity is Canadian, yet she drew
on her externally imposed racial assignment and occasionally referred to herself
as Japanese. As a statement of her Canadianness, during her school years, Jean
adopted a Western name that would be more familiar to her Hakujin friends and
teachers. She was therefore known as Yoshiko at home and Jean in the rest of her
world. In reflecting on her girlhood, Jean described the physical qualities that
marked her as racially different. She explained, "When you go to high school and
the majority of people are non-Japanese, because even then, all of the children
didn't go to high school. And they're taller than you and you're the shrimp." She
added, "Well, we knew that the Japanese were just like, there was discrimination
and prejudice and even 'til now, I feel that going into a strange place and.... I'm
Japanese and they're looking at me. And I have that feeling, where my kids don't
have that. But I do."
Later in her narrative, Jean echoed this sentiment as she described life in
Toronto after the war:
Jean: I think one thing about the )apanese, when we came out here, we tried
not to stay together and ...
Pam: Were you conscious of that, then, trying not to draw attention to yourself?
lean: Oh yes. Definitely. Definitely. Even now. And I'm not a shy person....


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Pam: Four years, that must have been very difficult....

jean: Yes. We have an inferiority complex.

The vulnerability that many Japanese Canadians express is a comment on the

precariousness of their place in the nation; even now they make a strong effort to
constitute themselves as true Canadians. Whereas "Canadian" and "American"
are indications of nationality rather than "race" or ethnicity, Canadianness and
Americanness assumed strongly racialized overtones during the war (Lee 2007,
279). Commenting on the experiences of Japanese Americans, Ezra Yoo-Hyeok
Lee notes that although the United States was at war with Germany and Italy,
Americans were more likely to distinguish Americans of German and Italian background from the "German enemy" and "Italian enemy" than those of Japanese
background from the "Japanese enemy." Lee argues that "Japanese Americans
could not belong to the nation as an imagined communitythat is, white Americansince during the war racism occurred in the form of nationalism" (2007,
279-80). About Asian Americans' relationship to the nation. Lisa Lowe likewise
A national memory haunts the conception of the Asian American, persisting beyond the repeal of actual laws prohibiting Asians from citizenship and
sustained by the wars in Asia, in which the Asian is always seen as an immigrant, as the "foreigner-within," even when born in the United States and the
descendant of generations born here before. (1996, 5-6)

As racialized subjects, though born and raised in Canada, the M5ei, like their
American counterparts, were not recognized as true citizens. Therefore, over
time, they tried to prove their Canadian identity through symbolic assertions of
national loyalty, serving up evidence of assimilation, offering proof that they were
culturally and subjectively distinct from the "Japanese" Japanese.'
Such acts of nationalism are typically shaped by both gendered and racialized
processes. For Nisei men, a symbolic demonstration of both loyalty to the nation
and confirmation of manhood was enlistment in the armed forces. Initially, upon
the declaration of war with Japan in December 1941, Japanese Canadians in BC
were denied the right to enlist. In fact. Premier T.D. Patullo had vehemently
opposed the enlistment of Canadians of Asian descent. In a letter to Prime Minister
Mackenzie King dated 23 September 1940, the premier wrote that if Asians were
allowed in the Canadian army, they would demand the franchise, something
that he believed BC could (should) not tolerate (Miki and Kobayashi 1991, 45).
Similarly, in a statement to army intelligence in 1944, Lieutenant Colonel A.W.


Pameia Sugiman

Sparling of the Department of National Defence expressed a belief that Japanese

Canadians were disloyal and the enlistment of Asians would lead to "racial incidents" in the military (Sunahara 1981, 15-16). It was not until January 1945 that
the Canadian government permitted Nisei men to enlist, after the British government requested that Japanese Canadians join the British army as interpreters for
service in southeast Asia (Miki and Kobayashi 1991, 45)."*
Akio Sato was one of 150 Ms men to join the forces." A modest and genuine
man, Akio recalls with strong emotion the day that he arrived at this decision:
They were recruiting Japanese Canadians to ... the Canadian Army, so that
they could serve in the Far East.... So I went to that meeting, and I listened
and listened and I got so excited. And then it was after I came home, my dad
came up to me and says, I guess he saw me, he says... "it's okay with him if
you join." So I said, "Thanks, Dad." I almost cried. So, the next day I showed
up.... I joined up and then so I was a member of the Canadian Army.
Further in his narrative, Akio reintroduced this memory, thereby hinting at its
profound significance to his life history:
My dad always told me, you know, he always told me, even before, that I was
born in Canada, and "You're Canadian, and there's no use going to japan
because I'll be a foreigner in Japan." So you know, that had something to do
with it too because he wanted me to be Canadian and one of those things that
I failed to accomplish washe wanted me to go to university and become a
graduate. But I never went. I went to university but I never finish, eh.
In almost every reference to his decision to join the army, Akio introduced two
related themes: his father's support of this decision, and his belonging in Canada
as opposed to Japan. Furthermore, Akio punctuated these thoughts by mentioning that circumstances prevented him from realizing his father's desire for his
son to graduate from university. In volunteering this information, in explaining
to me, a university-educated Sansei, the reasons that he did not meet these goals,
Akio displayed vulnerability. The sequence of his memories is telling. He mentioned that he never finished university (a source of disappointment) immediately after he talked about joining the military (a source of pride). One statement
was linked in memory to the other. The connection between the two had perhaps
been developed over the course of many years.
Feelings of vulnerability have prompted some Nisei to protect their memories from those whom they regard as indifferent or untrustworthy, and with
whom their place in Canada may still be precarious. Connie Matsuo was a young
woman with a three-month-old baby when she was ordered to leave her home


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in Vancouver. Along with her husband and in-laws, during the war she was sent
to work on a sugar-beet farm in Manitoba. Life on the beet farm was harsh, and
Connie's memories of this time therefore remain palpable. During the JapaneseCanadian campaign for redress in the 1980s, a community leader asked Connie to
describe these hard times to a public audience. This act of disclosure was meaningful to Connie and inspired her to record her experiences in writing later:
Connie: My daughter is already sixty-one. And about three or four years ago,
she told me, "Mom, you never told me anything that you went through
during the war. You know, I heard this from somebody and whatever."
And I said, "Well, it's such a sad thing. I don't want to repeat this anymore." She said, "Why? I want to know." So I said, "Okay then, I'll write
it." So I been writing different things in my notebook so that when they,
our children, have the time, they can look through it and find out what I
went through.
Pam: So have they read it, what's written in them?
Connie: No.
Pam: Not yet.
Connie: After I've died, they can read it.
Pam: What about your grandchildren? Have they inquired about it? The internment?
Connie: No. No. No. No.
Pam: And you feel that you'd rather have them read about it.
Connie: Rather than say it, I'd rather have them read it.
Pam: What kinds of things would you share with them?
Connie: I don't know. As long as they have a good life and they're normal
[emphasis mine] people, I don't mind it at all.


Pamela Sugiman

Pam: If you were to, you actually have done this, address an audience of
Hakujin people, maybe who didn't know anything about the internment, the whole experience of "evacuation" and move to the beet
farms, what would you choose to tell them? How would you describe
what happened?
Connie: You know, now I'm forgetting lots of things and I don't want them to
know anything about us.
Pam: That's interesting.
Connie: Yeah. 'Cause lot of even the Hakujin people, they're not inquisitive
anymore, like, what we went through and why are we here. But if they
ask us we say, "Oh don't you remember the Pacific War? We were sent
here because of the war." They say, "Oh, I didn't know that." You know,
a lot of Hakujin don't know. But now they treat us like a normal Canadian
[emphasis mine]. So we don't think about it too much.
Pam: You don't want them to know anything about you because, because ...
Connie: Because I'm a Canadian and they're a Canadian. And I'm sure that
[with laughter] if they don't ask me, I don't let anybody know what I
went through. No.
Connie's logic represents a deliberate use of memory and "voice" in the selective
telling of her life story. Her decision is not one of silence over speech. Rather, it is
a statement against indifference, one that informs us of the ways in which social
and political realities have a bearing on the articulation of personal memories. It
is a combination of agency (choosing her own audience) and vulnerability (not
being regarded as a "normal Canadian") that has shaped Connie's decision. The
generation of memory stories for Connie is, in this sense, a micropolitical act.
Writing about Frisch's concept of "shared authority," Katherine T. Corbett
and Howard S. Miller note that there is always interplay between agency and
reflection (2006, 20). Interviewer and interviewee share ownership of the oral history narrative in so far as they have shared agency in its creation; yet, as Connie's remarks indicate, narrators can decide how much authority they are willing
to share in the use of their life stories for a public audience. After my interview
with Connie, I was sobered to learn that she had made a deliberate decision to
withhold some memories not only from the eyes and ears of the Hakujin but also


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from me. At the end of our interview, Connie kindly invited me to join a group
of Nisei for an informal lunch at the Cultural Centre. As we sat down to eat, one
elderly man candidly asked her if she had told me about a particular wartime
story, one that was obviously known to everyone at the table. Connie adamantly
replied, "Of course not!" This incident forced me to realize that no matter how
sympathetic and trustworthy the interviewer, the narrator may still choose to
select her memories, keep secrets, and in doing so, retain authorial control. Sensitive to Connie's vulnerability, I decided not to probe for more information and to
stay within the limits of our dialogue.
Composing our Memories, Composing Ourselves

Closely tied to the theme of vulnerability is that of composure. Composure is a

term that was introduced by the Popular Memory Group at the Centre for Contemporary Cultural Studies in Birmingham, England, in their analysis of the process of memory making: "We compose our memories to make sense of our past
and present lives," writes Alistair Thomson (2006, 300):'^
In one sense we "compose" or construct memories using the public language and meanings of our culture. In another sense we "compose" memories which help us to feel relatively comfortable with our lives, which gives
us a feeling of composure. We remake or repress memories of experiences
which are still painful and "unsafe" because they do not easily accord with
our present identity, or because their inherent traumas or tensions have never
been resolved." (Thomson 2006, 301)

In this essay, I wish to address the latter meaning of composure. The vulnerability
of Japanese Canadians in both memory and current experience forces a need for
composure, and the sweetness of life todaythe authority with which they can
reflect on the past, express agency, and find comfort in the presenthelps many
Nisei women and men to regain composure and bring coherence to their lives."
Narrators' attempts to compose themselves are in part a response to the discomposure that I have brought about in asking them to remember what for some
were cruel and unjust times. A small number of people simply did not relate any
"bad" memories of days gone by; yet in others the interview produced painful
recollections. Often, after describing unsafe memories, a narrator would attempt
to compose her or himself by highlighting the positive, thereby restoring dignity
and reinforcing the conclusion of ultimate integration into Canadian society."
At times, initial discomposure followed by an attempt at recomposure resulted in
a mixed or fragmented narrative. Michiko Koyama's'^ description of her family's


Pameia Sugiman

hardships during the war contained mixed messages. At the same time that she
described years of insecurity, she would minimize and on occasion even negate
her family's suffering and underline the brighter side of things:
The trouble was Dad being blind,... At the time it said physically handicapped
families will not be evacuated. So, Dad helped everybody else and then all
of a sudden we get two weeks' notice.... We sold everything with a loss and
everything. But still all the family was together, not separated. So, we were
lucky you know. And during the war, even with the ration, we never suffered
because of the fact we had those great moving van. One van was full of rice
and the other van was full of sugar.,.. It's the point where, what shall I say.
Mom always says if you go somewhere, make sure you make friends. Don't
ignore your neighbours.

Within Michiko's narrative, there were further shifts of meaning. In the next
breath, immediately after highlighting the value of "Japanese" friends and neighbours, and without any apparent point of transition, she proceeded to describe a
process of racialization by Hakujin strangers; yet she ended this memory too on
the theme of friendship:
[The Hakujin] never seen a )apanese. Never seen a black head. So they
wanted to know what we looked like. They used to line the street to watch
us. So after a while when they got used to us, they said, "You know, I don't
know how you guys felt, but we sure feel foolish thinking that you guys were
somebody from out of the world, you know." So it was kind of a mixed feeling ... the only thing that I didn't like was that I was in grade eight when I
got evacuated ... they tried to drop me down to grade six. So I quit school
[with laughter]. Well, in a way, I never even graduate grade eight because it
was April that we moved. But we didn't suffer too much.

Connie similarly concluded a story of hardship on a positive note and, like

Michiko, remembered her story in relation to the experiences of others. Mona
Oikawa (1999) argues that relational memory is a gendered response, shaped by
dominant prescriptions of femininity but also encouraged by the government's
policy of separating women and children from a great many men who were sent
to prisoner-of-war camps and/or forced to labour on road or lumber camps in
Ontario and BC (see also Sugiman 2004). Like many Nisei women, Connie minimized her own suffering in comparison to that of others in the community:
And that train was awfulbut I was breastfeeding and with all the worries my
breast [milk] stopped. And on the train, you had to buy milk. And you can't
buy milk on the train 'cause it was nothing. Not nice train like we have now. It


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was just a cow, whatever the cows can get in there. Anyway, he [my husband]
used to drop off on the store when the train stopped and the Mountie [RCMP
officer] will follow him. We used to buy milk and come back and like to warm
the milk on the train but there was nothing to warm it with. No electricity.
And they had a little fireplace but the log was all wet and it won't even burn.
I don't know how I went through it some time. I wonder.
Upon ending her life story, she added,
A lot of people went through more than I did, I'm sure. But my story is just
like, my personal story, and that's it. I don't think not many people would
know about lot of things like me, anyway. But here now, in the last 20 years
we been here, they, even the Hakujin people, they know me as Connie and
they phone me or whatever. And I think we have a real nice community.
In returning to the present time shortly after describing harsh experiences
of over 60 years ago, some Nisei juxtaposed past and present in a way that seems
causal and redemptive.'* Some narrators reasoned that because their life conditions have improved markedly since the pre-war days, and because Japanese
Canadians have since become assimilated, the indignities of war were for the better, a "blessing in disguise." Michiko commented.
Well, in a way, we didn't talk too much about it because of the fact it brings
bad memories. You know, you're thinking we're Canadians, why should we
get evacuated. When I was sixteen, I got fingerprinted and everything. You
have to register, eh? And the travel restriction was thirty-five miles. Otherwise
you got to get an RCMP permit to go wherever you want to go, eh. So in a
way ... we don't want to bring bad memory up so we just kind of let it go
and go on with your living style, eh. So, personally, myself, I think it was a
good thing that we gotI shouldn't say it's a good thing, but more or less a
blessing in disguise that we got moved out of British Columbia.
The power of linear thinking in our culture, as well as the linearity of the narrative form itself, make tempting such causal reasoning. Importantly, the linear
sequence facilitates attempts on the part of some narrators to regain composure
and return to their present lives and current identities. As Michiko's words indicate, however, the blessing-in-disguise metaphor is voiced by the very same individuals who passionately and critically describe the cruelty of the war years. It
does not, then, reflect forgiveness and forgetting. Rather, it constitutes an attempt
to bridge the past and present in a way that conveys recovery and survival rather
than victimization and defeat.


Pamela Sugiman

The blessing-in-disguise narrative may also be linked to what Mark Klempner

has described as an attempt on the part of the interviewee to come to terms finally
with the past. Writing about Holocaust survivors, Klempner notes that unlike
ordinary narratives, trauma narratives typically engage the teller in an effort to
find closure: "Closure," he states, "is signaled by a sense of completion, the feeling that one does not have to dwell on the distressing event from the past. It is
experienced as a resolution which allows the event to become integrated into the
psyche" (2006, 199-200). The idea that the past is the past serves a therapeutic
purpose; and one way to demonstrate that the past has indeed passed is to highlight the goodness of people and friendships with even those individuals who
were bystanders and witnesses to the atrocities and indignities of the war years.
Like Michiko and Connie, Aki Tamoto, a personable man and avid storyteller,
resourceful and creative in his origami and woodworking, presented mixed memories, discomposure, and recomposure, though in a less obvious manner. After
relating a familiar memory of being constructed as a racialized other, Aki stated
that everyone got along well. Indeed, anecdotes of camaraderie and reciprocity
between himself and Hakujin people dotted Aki's narrative. He explained,
I don't think anybody in Greenwood [BC] ever saw Japanese people in those
days.... And they were so scared of Japanese. So they were saying that "Okay,
put up a eight foot, and put the Japanese in there, in the fence." But apparently, that didn't go. And of course, there was lots of [Japanese] trades people
from Steveston. So when one house, we heard one house [owned by a Hakujin family] was leaking when it rained ... Japanese people went and re-roofed
it, re-roofed the house and fixed that and fixed this for them. So, we got
friendly so fast with the people that was living there. So we got along very
At different points in his life story, Aki conveyed ambivalent messages about his
cultural identity, thereby revealing the complexity of the process by which (racialized) identities are formed and disrupted. Indeed, throughout his narrative, he
negotiated his relationship to the nation, just as he did when he was a young
man during the war. Like all Japanese Canadians, in 1945, Aki was presented with
the government's "repatriation" survey Beginning on 13 April in Tashme, BC,
under the authority of T.B. Pickersgill, commissioner of Japanese placement, an
RCMP detachment administered this survey along with the general dispersal of
Japanese Canadians. The RCMP canvassed all Japanese and Japanese Canadians
over the age of 16. Prior to asking people to sign the repatriation forms, RCMP
officers posted two notices in each site of internment. The first notice stated that


Journal of Canadian Studies Revue d'tudes canadiennes

anyone who sought repatriation would receive free passage to Japan. In addition, the notice explained that upon signing, Canadian citizens were expected to
declare a desire to relinquish their "British nationality and to assume the status of
a national of Japan." The second notice offered (limited) financial support to people who agreed to move east of the Rocky Mountains. This support, however, was
contingent on one's willingness to accept whatever employment the Canadian
government deemed appropriate. Failure to do so would be regarded as evidence
of disloyalty to the nation (Adachi 1976, 298).
Aki explained that when faced with the "repatriation" order, he and his
mother immediately decided to leave Canada for Japan:
My dad passed away right after the war started. And my mother, after the
war ended, my mother wanted to go to Japan. All her families were in japan.
She was the only person who came across the ocean. She wanted to go back.
So I said, "Well, okay. Let's go." I never seen the country before but, you
know, went back after the war, and 1946, June.
Aki's choice of words is meaningful. Just after stating that he had never before
seen the country, he said that he "went back" (to Japan). Many Nisei utter the
same contradictory statement. Some catch the slip of tongue, and abruptly and
emphatically correct themselves. So powerful is the dominant construction of
Japanese Canadians as essentially "Japanese," that it has partially saturated some
Nisei's self-definition.
Later in the interview, after I asked if he had ever thought of returning to
Canada when in Japan, Aki introduced yet another layer to his narrative.
Aki: And when we left Canada, we were, you know, called "Japs" [sic]. And I
said, "I got proud of being called a Japs".... My wife's [Japanese] father
asked me. He said, "Well, you're not a Japanese." I said, "Well, I am a
Japanese." But he said, "Well, you said you're a Canadian." So he said,
"Have you ever thought of going back to Canada?" I said, "My mother's
here ... I'm gonna stay in Japan ... All my buddies are Japanese born."
Pam: Who in Canada was calling you Jap?
Aki: Well, Hakujin people, eh, used to call us Japs. So it wasn't, it wasn't close
up, really. But meantime, good thing I was just a kid. If I was grown up,
I would have done something about it, eh.
Aki composed himself at various points in his narrative. He remembered that
in the face of racist insult, he openly declared his identification with Japan. In


Pameia Sugiman

addition, he added that such racist comments were not "close up" and that had
he not been young (and powerless), he would have "done something about it."''
In these ways, Aki was able to distance himself somewhat from the assault and its
psychic scars. As Terrence Des Prs states in his essay "Holocaust and Laughter,"
"the testimony of trauma survivors often requires a detachment that keeps them
at a distance ftom self-pity" (cited in Klempner 2006, 202). Such sentiments are
at the heart of many personal accounts not only of trauma survivors, but also of
people who have been exposed to racist degradation, generally. The claims that
Aki makes are not defensive. They are explanatory, and at the same time, they
help him to repair himself and restore dignity.
For the interviewer, however, adds Des Prs, the pathos of the stories, "sometimes the mere telling of such stories, is nearly overwhelming" (cited in Klempner
2007, 202). If not overwhelmed, I was moved by the memories of Aki and other
Nisei, and the (fresh) emotions that they generated in me prompted me to ask the
narrator if he felt anger:
Pam: Were you angry?
Aki: Oh yeah. That's why my mother said, "I want to go back to japan." And
I didn't ask any question. I said, "Let's go." I never thought about what's
gonna happen.
Pam: And then you were saying that once your mother died, something
changed in you?
Aki: Yeah. I don't know what made me change but all of a sudden I just didn't
want to stay in japan. So, she died in February and I was back here in

Composing himself, Aki redirected the narrative. In moving his life story to its
next sequence (his return to Canada), he highlighted for the interviewer and a
wider audience the choices he had made, his exercise of agency. Aki took some
authority, if not over historical circumstance, then over the lessons learned and
over his national and ethnic identity and emotional attachment to two nations:
both Canada and Japan.
Because racist assault strips the individual of dignity, the subjective experience
of racism has been one of the most difficult themes to interrogate and interpret
in the gathering and analysis of oral history accounts. The personal experience of
racist oppression is a subject with which I have therefore grappled and ultimately
approached with a stronger than usual authorial voice. In reflecting on the narratives, I wondered if my personal affront at blatantly racist government measures

lournai of Canadian Studies Revue d'tudes canadiennes

had prompted me to introduce the theme of racism deliberately into some life
stories. If not for my direct questions, would some people have made any reference to the subject (in a language and manner that correspond to my own critical
In pondering these narratives, however, I concluded that at issue was not
a denial of racism on the part of most Nisei. Rather, their narratives reflected a
normalization of the racism that had shaped their past lives, and I was struck by
the seeming emotional distance with which some (though not all) described it;
but as Klempner notes, we have to be aware that these stories are ones that the
interviewee has lived with for a long time (2006, 203). As a result, narrators have
put in place "self-defence mechanisms" that the researcher may not immediately
understand (Klempner 2006, 203). Given this, it is no surprise that the interviewees' discussions of racism would be different than my own.
The Nisei's language when discussing racism and their interpretation of the
concept must he understood as a product of both their wartime experience and
their reconstructed postwar lives. In presenting their life stories, moreover, some
Nisei set personal memories apart from the history of their community.'* Although
they certainly recognize that their lives are situated in a larger history, in the present, the individual experience of racism can be more indefinite and disruptive
than the collective experience of internment. Moreover, given that the internment of Japanese Canadians is now part of the official, public record (in museums,
textbooks, and documentary films), it has become an "objective reality" and is
therefore less negotiable. In comparison, on both an experiential and analytical
level, the impact of the war years on the individual subject is more difficult to
ascertain. In so far as it produces unsettling memories, some people minimize or
temper the experience of racism in an effort to balance their life stories, resist the
label of victim, and acknowledge all the (happy) years that have followed the war
and the many (kind) people who have since filled their lives.
Akio's narrative also illustrates the complex process of remembering racism as
subjectively experienced. At the heginning of our interview, Akio claimed to have
personally encountered little to no racist treatment; yet many of the memories
that he went on to describe underscored the racism in everyday life. As he dug
deeper and deeper into his vault of memories, he produced more and more "evidence" of it. I prompted Akio to comment directly about racism roughly a third
of the way through our interview. As he began to describe his one-room school,
I asked if he could recall any racist incidents during the early years of his life. His
reply was fragmented:
Pam: Was there much racism at times?
Akio: Not, not in. I can't recall. Not ever. Not ever. Anyway ...
Pam: In Winnipeg?


Pameia Sugiman

Akio: Well. I don't know but I know a few times during rush hour when I
was getting on the bus, someone, maybe one person or two person
would say, "jap, stay ouUide" or something like that [with laughter]. But
I didn't experience too much outside of that. Nothing.
Yet significantly Akio did not abandon my question. Reading his narrative in its
entirety rather than mining it for supportive "evidence," I could see that he continued to remember incidents of racism and he often presented these memories
alongside stories of life in the army. As well, each time he remembered a racist
assault, just as Aki Tamoto did, Akio would take himself out of the memory snapshot. Akio spoke willingly of racial injustice towards other men but not himself.
Both his identity as a war veteran (and the legitimacy that this conferred) and his
strategy of personal distancing helped Akio to compose himself. In addition, he
frequently interspersed these memories with laughter.
Akio: And a couple of the Japanese, like our Nisei soldiers, they went to a
movie and they got turned down, eh? They say, "We can't, you're Japanese, we can't have you." But when the Pacific Command, they heard
about it, they were going to, I don't know what they were going to do
... but anyway, apparently, the sergeant major told us that the manager
of the theatre sent us all free passes. And the sergeant said, "Oh no. We
don't accept free passes" [with laughter].
Pam: Did that sort of thing ever happen to you when you were in Vancouver?
Akio: No. Nothing. No. Because I never went to, well, it just happened. I never
went to that movie.... It's just a walk away from the barracks.
Pam: Would that happen in other places, stores, or restaurants?
Akio: No. I can't remember anything like that happening, just that one
In concluding my interview with Akio, I posed another general question to
which he offered his summary message. Significantly, this message was about racism in Canada:
Pam: Is there anything you'd like to add? Is there anything I haven't asked,
that we should talk about?


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Akio: Gee, I don't know, [pause] Well, some instances happened when I was
in the Service, because I was never involved in this stuff. But after we
enlisted, three of those fellas... three of them went to a Chinese restaurant, eh, downtown ... for supper and the waitress told them, "We won't
serve you. You have to get out" [with laughter]. And two of the other
young ones got so upset, you know, like incensed, angry. And Harold
said, "Calm down. Calm down." So he saw an officer sitting a few tables
away. So, he went to this officer and told him what happened. He said,
"We're Canadian soldiers and they refused to serve us because of our
Japanese origin." So, this officer got up and went to the back and I guess
they talked to them and somehow they were served.
Pam: That's interesting.
Akio: And then the other incident I remember was, there's this theatre in West
Vancouver that you know, refused to serve Japanese Canadians, Nisei
soldiers, eh?
In almost every memory story, Akio juxtaposed the harshness of such discriminatory acts with the loyalty and support of Hakujin men in the army. Akio believes
that his military status in some ways shielded him from the impact of the racism
that Japanese Canadians encountered in daily life. In drawing on memories of the
solidarity of Hakujin military men, Akio balanced his narrative and was able to
regain composure:
Pam: And you yourself didn't have any kind of....
Akio: No. I didn't. No.
Pam: Even after the war?
Akio: No. I can't recall. Well, you know, one thing, another thing. This is
during the Services. In Brantford, they had this boxing tournament ...
Louie Suzuki and David Watanabe. Watanabe was a wrestler. And they
put on a show... and in the middle of the fight. Somebody ... [a] guy in
the back says, shouted, "Remember Pearl Harbor?" And you know what
happened, eh? Not us, but the people, the soldiers around him, eh, put
him down.
Pam: Oh, really.


Pamela Sugiman

Akio: Oh yeah. The people around him, they were all Hakujins, eh?
Pam: What did they do?
Akio: Well, I can't remember. They said to "shut up" or something. I could
hear them, you know, a couple of them, swearing at this guy.... Oh,
and another one I remember was ... a padre. Army padre. He came
from japan. He spent time and came back and ... our Japanese group
and there was Hakujin and everybody there, eh? And he kept on saying,
"Now, when you go back to Japan. When you go back to Japan"... And
this upset every one of us! And this one {Nisei) fellow named Joe (?) I
remember him. He just went and he went on the floor, eh? And all the
Hakujin soldiers felt the same way. Like, you know, when you go back to
Japan. Because we've never been, well, most of them had never been to
Japan. We're not going to go back there to live or anything.... He's not
giving us credit as being Canadians, I'd say. I can remember that one....
You're sitting there squirming.

In listening to my interview with Akio several months after it had taken place,
I became increasingly conscious of my interventions as a researcher. In repeatedly
asking Akio about his personal conftontations with racist treatment, I seemed to
be probing for evidence of vulnerability on his part. In retrospect, however, in
a manner that he was most comfortable with, Akio had been telling me a great
deal about his exposure to racism and its impact on him. He described many
instances of racist assault on his close friends, and positioned himself as an immediate bystander. Even though he described himself as a witness to such events,
they were subjectively experienced ("You're sitting there squirming").
As Akio began to talk about his life story, memories were unleashed. One
memory flowed after another almost in a stream of consciousness. He concluded
his narrative with the memory that touched him most deeply, for which he wants
to be rememberedthat of being recognized as a "good Canadian":
Akio: And then another thing was, the first day, after we enlisted, we get
sworn in. And there's a picture of that.... I think there were about six of
us in the picture. And this padre says, "You're a Canadian. A good Canadian" [with laughter]. The first time we're called, anybody addressed us
as Canadian, eh? And every one of us had tears coming down our eyes.
Because if ever I had to say something, I could never speak, you know?
Oh Cod. Just choked up.


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Pam: And that was the first time.

Akio: Yeah. Anybody said you're a Canadian. You're a good Canadian.
Like many Nisei, this is the defining message that Akio wished to convey.
In his last memoir. Touch and Co, Studs Terkel wrote, "What I bring to the interview is respect. The person recognises that you respect them because you're listening. Because you're listening, they feel good about talking to you" (2007, 176).
Ultimately, the oral historian must respect what the narrator says. The oral historian must listen. As researcher and author, I have final authority over the presentation and interpretation of the personal memories of the Nisei, and this power,
this interpretive authority, raises sensitive questions. As Katherine Borland states,
"Presumably, the patterns upon which we base our interpretations can be shown
to inhere in the 'original' narrative, but our aims in pointing out certain features,
or in making connections between the narrative and larger cultural formations,
may at times differ from the original narrator's intentions. This is where issues of
our responsibility to our living sources become most acute" (1998, 321). Similarly,
Carrie Hamilton notes that despite the precautions we may take in granting our
narrators anonymity and in guaranteeing that we will not quote their words out
of context, narrators may disagree with our interpretation of their words, and this
can amount to a "metaphorical stabbing" (2008, 37)."
The oral history interview raises strong ethical concerns, perhaps more than
the standard fact-finding interview. In light of these concerns, one must ask if
the researcher and interviewee can share authority? I believe that there are ways
in which we can work towards this goal. I have tried to share authority with
the Nisei women and menby listening closely to their words, by attempting to
understand the nuance in their narratives, and by making connections between
personal biography and historical context. I have, moreover, learned the importance of viewing the interview itself as a subjective experience that has as much to
do with who we are, as it does with what we went through.
The concepts of vulnerability and composure have helped me to interpret
the narratives, with an understanding of the dynamics of the interview, the relationship between interviewer and interviewee, and the subjective needs of the
interviewee. These concepts are central to an understanding of how we shared
authority. The women and men of this study struggled with discomfort and
composure as they narrated their life histories and negotiated past and present


Pamela Sugiman

identities. Embraced in the concept of composure are assertions of agency, dignity, and self-respect, but these are also mixed with insecurity and vulnerability.
The narratives of Nisei are, as a result, shifting and seemingly ambivalent. Narrators shared tales of injustice alongside descriptions of the long-term benefits of
internment. The documented collective experience of institutional racism during
the war was the framework for symbolically significant and evocative personal
memories of kind and generous "White" Canadian friends and strangers, and the
downplaying of racist oppression in one's direct experience. Descriptions of displacement from home were interspersed with statements of loyalty to Canada, a
country that treated Japanese Canadians shamefully. These fragmented narratives
must be understood not as unreliable, confused, or misguided on the part of the
narrators, or as evidence of the uncritical, stoic, and complacent Asian Canadian.
Rather, they are declarations of national identity and belonging by people who
have experienced a history of racial exclusion and persecution. The narratives,
moreover, are made up of memories that people have lived with for over 60 years.
While we ask people to remember painful times and to articulate them to an
unknown audience, it is important for oral historians to consider that the narrator
wants also to move on and enjoy the sweetness of life. For the Nisei women and
men in this study, the pleasures have been manyand they too are memorable.
Oral historians tell us that in a life history interview, the individual does
not simply impart information. People do much more than this. They tell the
stories of their lives, and they send enduring messages to audiences that they
may have never before reached. This is why some Nisei highlight the good times
and the goodness of people at the same time that they describe cruelty, hostility,
and oppression. It is why they tell of their successes in the same breath as they
powerfully describe the "accumulation of loss" (Oikawa 1999). Some move from
misfortune to "blessings" in an attempt to bring coherence to their life stories,
to help the past meet the present, and to tell their audience that they are much
more than their wartime experienceshowever profound the past has been and
however strong it may live in memory. In short, people try to bring the empirical
content of their narratives in line with the moral message that defines their life
experience. The narratives of which I share authorship highlight the remarkable
resolve and tenacity of the Nisei. They are personal statements, but they are also
a comment on the precariousness of racialized groups in this country, in both
the past and present, and the agency that people exercise in the face of profound
structural inequalities and social injustice.


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Earlier versions of this essay were presented at the "East Meets West" Gender Conference,
University of York, UK, 3-5 July 2007 and the Researchers and Academics of Colour for Equality (RACE) conference, Ontario Institute for Studies in Education / University of Toronto,
ON, 3-5 May 2007. The larger project on which this essay is based received funding from
the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the National Association
of Japanese Canadians, and the Hannah Grants-in-Aid Fund, Associated Medical Services. 1
thank Tomiko Robson and John Adams for their reliable research assistance. Henry Kojima
and Keiko Miki kindly introduced me to many Nisei in Winnipeg. Steven High, Lisa Nderjuru, and Kristen O'Hare, guest editors of the Journal of Canadian Studies Special Issue on
Sharing Authority and the anonymous reviewers provided valuable and constructive comments on an earlier draft. I thank Robert Storey for supporting all of my endeavours. Tamura
Sugiman-Storey remains my inspiration for this exploration into Japanese-Canadian history
and memory.



For a comprehensive documentation of these events, see Ken Adachi, The Enemy That
Never Was: A History ofJapanese Canadians (1991) and Ann Gomer Sunahara, The Politics
of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War (1980).
I use the term "internment" loosely to refer to a wide range of violations, including relocation to ghost towns of the interior of British Columbia, "self-supporting'" projects,
sugar-beet farms, incarceration in prisoner-of-war camps, "repatriation" to Japan, and
government-regulated movement east of the Rocky Mountains. The federal government preferred to employ the euphemistic term "evacuation," restricting the use of the
word "internment" to describe only the incarceration of men in prisoner-of-war sites.
A large body of writing about the internment of Japanese Canadians has been produced
by academics, journalists, community activists, and survivors. Early, groundbreaking
works were for the most part either first-person accounts or based on documentary
evidence (Adachi 1976; Broadfoot 1977; La Violette 1948; Sunahara 1981; Takashima
1971; Takata 1983). The work of Ken Adachi and Ann Sunahara in particular served
as important resources in the Japanese-Canadian community's stmggle for redress in
the 1980s. In 1988, as part of the Redress Settlement, the prime minister apologized to
the Japanese-Canadian community for the violations of internment during the Second World War. This symbolic gesture unleashed personal memories on the part of
survivors of the internment. Through the 1980s up to the present time, a number of
biographical and semi-biographical accounts have been published (Ito 1984; Kitagawa
1985; Kobayashi 1998; Manitoba Japanese Canadian Citizens' Association 1996; Okazai
1996). At around the same time, several Nisei, Sansei, and Yonsei (fourth-generation)
writers in the fields of geography, history, sociology, cultural studies, and literature contributed to the growing body of writings on Japanese Canadians (Enomoto, Kage, and
Ujimoto 1993; Kobayashi 1992, 1989; Kogawa 1983; Oikawa 1999; McAllister 1999;
Omatsu 1992; Sugiman 2008, 2007, 2006, 2004a, 2004b).


Pamela Sugiman


This essay is based on the findings of a larger project that involved oral history interviews with 75 women and men who currently reside in Ontario, Quebec, Manitoba,
and British Columbia. Interviews with a small number of Alberta residents are to be
completed. Most interviewees were selected through the method of snowball sampling. Many of the interviews with individuals from Manitoba and British Columbia,
however, were facilitated by representatives of the National Association of Japanese
Canadians. (The interviewees from these provinces were not all actively involved in
community associations.) The 75 Nisei had varying levels of education ranging from
grade school to a post-university degree. The majority did not complete high school.
Given this, it is notable that many of the interviewees from Ontario spoke of children
who held post-graduate degrees and professional diplomas. Most appeared to live in
relative financial comfort as evidenced by lifestyle and physical surroundings. Most
grew up in working-class families. They ranged in age from their early seventies to late
eighties, with the majority in their early eighties at the time of the interview.


I personally interviewed all of the narrators mentioned in this paper with the exception of Michiko Koyama, who was interviewed by a Yonsei research assistant, Tomiko
Robson. Aki Takahashi and Jean Goto live in Ontario. Connie Matsuo, Aki Tomato, and
Akio Sato currently reside in Manitoba, and Michiko is a resident of British Columbia.
The following is by no means an exhaustive list of the important contributions to the
study of "shared authority": Anderson and Jack (1998); Borland (1998); Bornt (2001);
Corbett and Miller (2006); Errante (2004); Finch (1984); Geiger (1990); Grele (1998,
1985); Jones (2004); Gluck and Patai (1991); Kerr (2003); K'Meyer and Crothers (2007);
Passerini (1979); Portelli (1991, 1981); Sangster (1998); Sitzia (2003); Yow (1997).
On 22 September 1988, then-Prime Minister Brian Mulroney stated in the House of
Commons, "Mr. Speaker, I know I speak for members of all sides of the House of Commons in offering to Japanese Canadians the formal and sincere apology of this Parliament for those past injustices against them, their families, and their heritage, and our
solemn commitment to Canadians of every origin that they will never again be countenanced or repeated" (quoted in Miki and Kobayashi 1991, 9).
The properties and belongings of Japanese Americans were not liquidated without the
owners' consent; those of Japanese origin in tbe US did not bave to pay for their own
incarceration; they were permitted to return to the coast in January 1945 and were not
subject to deportation and dispersal; they were not subject to tbe threat of a loyalty
commission; the tJS Constitution protected them from tbe abuses that were legalized
in Canada under the War Measures Act (Miki 2005, 42).
In his study of the Ukrainian diaspora, Victor Satzewich (2000) demonstrates bow
sucb assertions of national identity are sometimes a consequence of racist treatment.
Though for different reasons than the Ukrainians in Satzewich's study, the Nisei too
were unable to achieve a complete "Whiteness" and consequently they heightened
their search for belonging in a display of national identity.






lournal of Canadian Studies Revue d'tudes canadiennes

10. The community held mixed views on the enlistment of Nisei. While some upheld the
volunteers' belief that enlisting would prove their loyalty to Canada, others looked on
this act more critically in light of the injustices inflicted upon Japanese Canadians by the
federal government. The families of those who enlisted faced the same status as other
Japanese Canadians and upon their retum, veterans faced the very same restrictions as
other Japanese Canadians (Miki and Kobayashi 1991, 45; Sunahara 1981, 15-16).
11. Akio prefers to be called "Aki." In this essay, I refer to him as Akio in order to avoid
confusion with another narrator, Aki Tamoto.
12. In addition to Alistair Thomson's valuable contributions (2006), see interesting uses of
the concept of composure in Hilary Young's study of the construction of masculinity
in industrial Glasgow (2007), Penny Summerfield's discussion of composure and the
"gendered self" (2004), Summerfield and Peniston-Bird's study of men, women, and
the Home Guard during the Second World War (2007), and John Kirk's work-life histories and "structures of feeling" (2008).
13. Charlotte Linde introduces the concept of coherence in her book. Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence. Linde argues that individuals need to have a "coherent, acceptable,
and constantly revised life story" (1993, 3). Life stories, she says, are a significant means
by which we communicate our sense of self and negotiate it with others. We use such
stories to claim or negotiate group membership and to prove that we are worthy members of these groups.
14. Hilary Young (2007, 73) explains that a memory, question, or unsympathetic audience
may bring about discomposure. Discomposure may be expressed through tears, anger,
or contradictory stories, as well as a fragmented narrative.
15. Michiko Koyama is a pseudonym, at the request of the narrator.
16. Mona Oikawa discusses a past/present binary in popular discourse through such "redemptive narratives emphasizing that Japanese Ganadians benefited from the multiple exclusions and incarceration during the 1940s" (1999,19). Oikawa refers to the often-repeated
phrase used by Nisei in describing their wartime experiences, a "blessing in disguise." She
writes, "The temporal limitations imposed by the historical narrative relegate the violence
of the Internment to the past. If we view history as a linear march of progress through
time, we may faii to see the long-term effects of national violence and the multiple ways
in which violence is continually being perpetrated against various subordinated communities. In this way, the temporal focus of historical narrative may serve to obscure
our understanding of this multiply constituted violence and hinder our abilities to see
its processes and effects" (2000, 42-43). For a discussion of the concept shikata ga nai,
translated as "what can be done" see Miki (2005).
17. I have not yet analyzed the interviews of all of the men who participated in this study.
Therefore, it would be premature to comment on this type of response as gendered. I
note, however, that many of the women served up similar memories. On the whole,
the Nisei offered mixed narratives of racism, with some individuals declaring that they
had never experienced any form of racist discrimination and others presenting vehement critiques of racist treatment before, during, and after the war.


Pamela Sugiman

18. I wish to thank Kathryn McPherson for bringing to my attention the ways in which a
group's collective history can in a sense inhibit the articulation of some types of personal memories, especially those that do not cohere with often-heard public accounts.
McPherson notes that this is one reason that memories of gender inequality tend not
to be highlighted in the memory stories of people who, for example, survived the Holocaust. I believe that we may make the same argument about accounts of the internment
of Japanese Canadians.
19. Some Nisei interviewees' style of expression, the content of their memories, and connections based on kinship and friendship brought forth memories of my own parents
and grandparents. Some told me previously unheard tales about my father and his
family. In light of these connections, I felt a sense of responsibility to them and a need
to protect some narrators. I also felt an obligation to get their stories right, and I hesitated to ask some difficult questions fearing that, in doing so, I would risk violating our
relationship of shared authority.


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