Witness to Loss: Race, Culpability, and Memory in the Dispossession of Japanese Canadians

Witness to Loss: Race, Culpability, and Memory in the Dispossession of Japanese Canadians

Edited by: Jordan Stanger-Ross and Pamela Sugiman

Reviewed by Christian Roy

Witness to Loss is a multi-authored study of wartime Japanese Canadian confinement that draws from the memoirs of Kishizo Kimura, a Japanese-born man who immigrated to Canada in 1911. Kimura had an important impact on the wartime fate of the Nikkei community of Canada, as he participated in the work of two committees that took up the task of depriving Japanese-Canadians of theirs rights and possessions (the Japanese Fishing Vessels Disposal Committee and the Advisory Committee). 

In his introduction, co-editor Jordan Stanger-Ross puts into context the life and memoirs of Kishizo Kimura. There is also a note from the English translator of Kimura’s memoirs.  The second part of the book serves to put Kimura’s memoirs into larger context through individually authored chapters. These include commentaries about the impact of racist policies on the Japanese community (Masako Fukawa) and colonial domination based on racialization (Timothy J. Stanley), a larger reflection on resistance against racism, mainly from the Chinese community (Vic Satzewich), and an analysis of the concept of Canadian citizenship based on one author’s family experience (Laura Madokoro). Witness to Loss concludes with co-editor Pamela Sugiman’s afterword, which summarizes the conclusions of the book and speaks about the impact of dispossession and internment on her family.

Kimura’s memoirs offer a precious source for better understanding the history of Nikkei in Canada and the impact of discriminatory policies on their community. They demonstrate that certain persons of Japanese ancestry collaborated in designing policies that had a negative impact on their own community. In addition, the memoirs show us the importance of the Issei in the Japanese community and remind us of the importance of studying Japanese-language sources. As a result, the book describes the mechanisms of two controversial policies of the federal government that were based on racism against Nikkei.

My main criticism of Witness to Loss relates to its second part. The commentaries are in theory based on Kimura’s writings, but in fact they go on quickly to a broader analysis. This precious source could have been better used to detail the history of the community leaders who served as intermediaries between the Nikkei and the authorities. Such a field of study is interesting and helps us to understand the lives of members of ethnic/racial groups (See for example Lisa Rose Mar, Brokering Belonging: Chinese in Exclusion Era, 1885-1945, Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2010, 240 pages; or Aya Fujiwara, Ethnic Elites and Canadian Identity: Japanese, Ukrainians and Scots, 1919-1971, Winnipeg, University of Manitoba Press, 2012, 256 pages). Kimura’s memoirs raise the problem of the proper attitude that Nikkei should have taken with regard to the federal government. While Kimura collaborated, he also expressed some reservations about the politics, tried to help his fellow Nikkei, and was pressured to resign. This demonstrates the complexities inherent in the concept of collaboration with the authorities.

Similarly, there is a lack of critical engagement with the source material. In his writings relating his work in the two committees, Kimura tried to be impartial. Yet at the same time, he clearly wrote to justify his controversial participation in them and to send a message to future generations. A detailed critique of the source could have provided common ground for the authors, who all analyse the memoirs differently. Regarding Kimura’s message to the younger generation, for example, one author considers it to be a message to the Issei(115), while another author analyzes it as an appeal to Niseiand Sansei(138).

Despite these weaknesses, Witness to Loss is an interesting addition to the historiography and helps the reader better understand the workings of two committees that deprived Canadian citizens of their rights and possessions, as well as the involvement of a man who came from that disenfranchised community.

Witness to Loss: Race, Culpability, and Memory in the Dispossession of Japanese Canadians
Jordan Stanger-Ross and Pamela Sugiman, editors. 
Montreal: McGill University, 2017. 254 pp. $29.95 cloth.