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Uprooted Again: Japanese Canadians Move to Japan After World War II

By Tatsuo Kage, translated by Kathleen Chisato Merken

Ethnic Elites and Canadian Identity: Japanese, Ukrainians, and Scots, 1919-1971

By Aya Fujiwara

Trouble of Main Street: Mackenzie King, Reason, Race and the 1907 Vancouver Riots

By Julie F. Gilmour

Review By Jordan Stanger-Ross

November 12, 2015

BC Studies no. 190 Summer 2016  | p. 158-161

The history of Japanese Canadians has been told in rich and impactful ways. The events of the 1940s, when Canadians of Japanese ancestry were uprooted, interned, and dispossessed by the federal government, have received particular attention in a scholarship that has conveyed the era as an outcome of longstanding and structural racism, an exemplar of the unjust exercise of state power, a catalyst to postwar reconsiderations of Canadian pluralism and civil rights, and a key chapter in the memories, gendered and family histories, and political consciousness of Japanese Canadians. The strength of this scholarship has sometimes also been its weakness: the importance of these events in the history of Canadian racism seems to compel what Kirsten McAllister (2001) describes as the “paradox of repetition” (99), wherein the repeated narrative of the 1940s obscures the heterogeneity and complexity of the Japanese-Canadian past. The three titles considered in the present review converge with one another as each of them touches, in its own way, upon the history of Japanese Canadians. They share an orientation to international contexts, but each situates itself in a distinctive fashion. Only one (Fujiwara’s) is a conventional scholarly history, with the other two intended for popular audiences. Taken together, they point toward a historiography that escapes the “paradox of repetition” and moves toward a more varied and eclectic telling of the past.

Of the three books, Kage’s Uprooted Again is the most closely tied to the existing historiography on Japanese Canadians. A translation of his 1998 work in Japanese, the book tells the stories of some of the almost 4,000 Japanese Canadians who were exiled to Japan in 1946. While aspects of this history — including the failure of the legal challenge to the policy and the eventual success of the political campaign to halt further deportations — are well known, too little work has been done to tell the stories of the exiles themselves, who represented almost 20 percent of the pre-war coastal Japanese-Canadian population. Supplementing oral history interviews with selective archival research, Kage tells this history in the voices of the exiles. For example, the coercion involved in the supposedly voluntary choice of “repatriation” by many Japanese Canadians is revealed in the specifics of individual lives: a father of three children and his ailing wife accepted exile to Japan as a means of keeping the family together; a mother of a newborn child still recovering from the birth and unable to undertake a journey to eastern Canada chose instead government-sponsored exile; a fisherman “ridiculed [by officials] for expressing the ludicrous idea of returning to the west coast” acquiesced to deportation with disgust (18-19, 53). The injustice of exile, told at the level of the individuals who experienced it, flows into a similar narrative of the particular challenges faced by Japanese Canadians as they sought to establish themselves in a devastated postwar Japan. Many sought to return to Canada in the 1950s. Others succeeded in Japan but still bore the legacies of their double uprooting. As one man poignantly remarked, since his exile “I’ve always thought that wherever I live, its just temporary” (56). Kage’s book, in many respects, is about this loss of place.

If Kage pushes the historiography to extend beyond national boundaries by following the paths of exiles, Fujiwara’s comparative analysis focuses on transnational concepts and myths. Drawing Japanese Canadians into historical comparison with Canadians of Ukrainian and Scottish heritage, the book spans the years 1919 to 1971, exploring how leaders in each community helped to steer Canada “from unofficial ‘Anglo-conformity’ to official multiculturalism”(3). Although, by admission of the author (18), Scots sometimes fade into the background, the comparison is novel and illuminating. Fujiwara argues that leaders of all three groups (often riven by internal differences) worked separately, but in ways that ultimately converged, to redefine “ethnicity, race, democracy, and citizenship” (13), eventually contributing to Canada’s reimagining as a multicultural society. This framing of the trajectory of Canadian pluralism tends sometimes to flatten an uneven past, as, for example, Fujiwara underplays the enduring importance of race in Canadian public life and policy in the post-WWII period (119, 122) and acknowledges but underestimates the controversy surrounding the Royal Commission that examined the property losses of Japanese Canadians (120-124). However, her analysis also uncovers new complexities.

Particularly revealing is a strain of analysis that runs through the book detailing the different fates of “homeland myths” in the construction of community by the Ukrainian and Japanese Canadian ethnic elite. In the prewar period, leaders in both groups drew mythologies of “home” and traditional sources of identity together with articulations of where immigrants fit into Canadian society. Fujiwara argues that prewar Japanese-Canadian issei leaders found ways of merging their own feelings of common lineage and racial superiority with a commitment to Canadian pluralism (67). For example, in 1934, the Tairiku nippô newspaper argued that “maintaining racial pride and strengths would never prevent [Japanese immigrants and their children] from becoming good Canadian citizens” (57), a sentiment echoed, as previous scholars have noted, in the interwar Ukrainian press. However, this commonality of the prewar period was lost during the Second World War. During the wartime years, nationalist Ukrainian Canadians “could renew their ethnic consciousness around their long-term goal of Ukrainian independence,” (102) while seeing their Communist rivals marginalized. By contrast, Japanese Canadians were forced to abandon celebration of Japan and racial constructions of their identities, replacing these with anti-racist and assimilationist perspectives in a process that accelerated a shift in communal leadership toward the Canadian-born nesei (chapter 3). These changes, wrought during the 1940s, had enduring legacies as each group contributed very differently to the postwar emergence of multiculturalism.

The Trouble on Main Street is by no means conceived by its author as a work of Japanese-Canadian history. Nonetheless, the book connects with the previous two because it pivots on the “series of unplanned opportunities” (204) that presented themselves to a young William Lyon Mackenzie King after he was dispatched to oversee the federal inquiry into a landmark event in Japanese-Canadian history: the 1907 rioting in Vancouver that targeted Chinese-Canadian and Japanese-Canadian neighbourhoods. A work of biography that draws primarily upon King’s own private writings, the book proposes that his experiences as a young civil servant and then politician open “a fascinating window into Edwardian Canada and its place in the world” (3). King’s role in the inquests that followed after the riots — offering compensation to Japanese-Canadian and later Chinese-Canadian property-owners — established him as a leading voice in discussions of Asian migrants in Canada, a role that, in turn, afforded him a place in sensitive and complex international negotiations, for which he travelled to England and the United States, and subsequently to India, China, and Japan. For Gilmour, this is the story of the education of an influential Canadian who learned, in the course of these travels, how to operate at the highest level of international politics and who came to believe “that a time was coming” (202) when Canada would require its own international presence. Within this framing, King’s early career is a context for understanding the subsequent evolution, under King the Prime Minister, of Canada’s role on the world stage and his responses to, among other matters, the question of Europe’s displaced persons after the Second World War (205).

King was also the Prime Minister who presided over the uprooting, internment, and dispossession of Japanese Canadians. For readers with a focus on this aspect of his legacy, the book offers glimpses of another area of education: in his early career King was also absorbing and refining a racialized perspective on the world. In these years, King observed intense hostility within “white Canada” (54) to Asian migrants. He acquired skills of misdirection and euphemism in matters of racial discrimination against, for example, migrants supposed (falsely, 113) to be “accustomed to the conditions of a tropical climate” and hence “wholly unsuited to this country” (98). In February 1909, travelling from India to China, King boarded a German ocean liner and reflected in his diary, “It is impossible to describe how refreshing it is to be again with people of one’s own colour. One becomes very tired of the black races after living among them” (168). Almost forty years later, King would teach Canadians about the “extreme difficulty of assimilating Japanese persons in Canada” (House of Commons Debates 1944). Gilmour’s book hints at the international stage upon which race ideology was learned by key figures of the mid-century.

Scholars will find that each of these works leaves room for significant further research and writing. Kage and Gilmour, as might be expected given their intended audiences, offer little analysis, and Kage’s book, in particular, is somewhat anecdotal. Fujiwara’s mishandling of some key issues — for instance in presenting Lord Tweedsmuir as a “strong advocate of ethnic pluralism” (58) and William Lyon Mackenzie King as a “sympathetic” and “moderate” voice on Japanese-Canadian matters (80-81) — and questionable terminological choices (including her consistent use of “Japanese” instead of Japanese Canadian) somewhat undermine the care that she exhibits elsewhere. Nonetheless, all three books contribute to pushing the historiography that they share in new and promising directions.

House of Commons Debates, 1944, 19th Parliament, 5th Session, Volume 6, 5916.

McAllister, Kirsten Emiko. 2001. “Captivating Debris: Unearthing a World War Two Internment Camp.” Cultural Values 5:1 (January): 97-114.

Uprooted Again: Japanese Canadians Move to Japan After World War II
Tatsuo Kage, translated by Kathleen Chisato Merken
Victoria: Ti-Jean Press, 2012. 180 pp. $19.95 paper

Ethnic Elites and Canadian Identity: Japanese, Ukrainians, and Scots, 1919­-1971
Aya Fujiwara
Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2012. 288 pp. $27.95 paper

Trouble on Main Street: Mackenzie King, Reason, Race and the 1907 Vancouver Riots
Julie F. Gilmour
Toronto: Allen Lane Canada, 2014.  $34.00 cloth