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A Book Review: Forgiveness: A Gift From My Grandparents

Forgiveness by Toronto Yonsei Mark Sakamoto is a timely book for our community. 

Now, almost 70 years after World War Two, this will be an important anniversary for all Canadians to reflect on what happened at that terrible time in history. For us, of course, it was more than 70 years ago when being Japanese Canadian was crime enough to have us forcefully herded into interior British Columbia internment prison camps for the duration of World War Two, and, well, you know the rest of the story

Forgiveness is Mark Sakamoto’s own intergenerational family story. Like most younger Nikkei, he is of mixed ethnic heritage: his father is Nisei, originally from Medicine Hat, Alberta, and his mom’s dad on whom much of the story is focussed, Ralph MacLean, is from the Magdalene Islands in eastern Canada. As a young man, Ralph enlisted in the Canadian Army in Halifax, headed to Hong Kong where he was captured by the invading Japanese forces and spent the rest of the war years in an inhumane POW camp.

Here in Canada, there was a parallel of experiences of sorts. Even though Canada’s national security (army, navy, and RCMP) were all on record stating that Japanese Canadians posed no national security threat, the Canadian government pressured by, among others, politicians like BC Minister of Labour George Pearson and Ian Mackenzie who used all means of histrionics, propaganda, and other political influence to target its own population of “Enemy Aliens,” leading to the confiscation of their property and subsequent imprisonment of innocent women and children into “internment camps.”

Grandmother Ozeki’s family was torn asunder from their hardworking, quiet life in the Celtic Cannery close to Vancouver where there was a small village of JC workers. Great grandmother Mitsue “Nenny” Ozeki was born in 1920 in Eburne, BC. His grandfather Hideo Sakamoto was born in BC but educated in Kumamoto-ken. His parents, Hanpei and Wari operated a rooming house on Powell Street in Vancouver.

Mitsue and Hideo were married shortly before February 26, 1942, when Justice Minister Louis St. Laurent gave the BC Security Commission absolute power to implement the Mass Evacuation of 22,000 people of Japanese ancestry.

Like many other Nikkei families (including my own father’s that went to Manitoba to do the same backbreaking work) the Sakamotos “chose” the option to work on a sugar beet farm in Alberta where they lived in the punishing cold and heat. This was the only way for his great-grandparents, Hanpei and Wari, to keep the family unit together. They moved to Coaldale, Alberta, with the newlywed couple.

The story of his grandfather, Ralph MacLean, was especially heartwrenching as it told of another savage underside of war: being a Canadian prisoner of war in Hong Kong.

During the war we were all “the enemy.”

Their stories literally became wedded when the Sakamotos and MacLeans come together in marriage in Medicine Hat, Saskatchewan. Both sides of the family gave their blessings. Their union was remarkable in a way given their family histories that might have given them cause to have an “us and them” mentality, but this was not so. Both families were Canadian.

There is deep wisdom in the practice of forgiveness.

The third dimension to this story is the generational tale of Mark’s own parents, Stan and Diane: the initial bliss, breakup, then hell that they went through. Following his parents divorce, his mom, Diane, descended into a spiral of alcoholism, abuse, and poverty and succumbed at 51, when Mark was still a law student at Dalhousie in Halifax.

It took a lot of courage for the Toronto writer to share this kind of private pain. There are no sentimental flashbacks to the past. The narrative forges fearlessly ahead and despite the overwhelming darkness of many chapters of their lives, the story is ultimately a triumphant one where the strength of family bonds, hope, and love are what ultimately holds them together.

Throughout this compelling work, Sakamoto maintains a calm, even emotional keel. He writes with a Yonsei’s (fourth generation) keen sense and appreciation for certain things Japanese (e.g., sembei, onigiri, ocha, tsukemono) that he grew up with and even an understanding of deeply connected Japanese concepts like “shikataganai” (it cannot be helped) and what it meant to the generations that were affected by the internment experience.

One of the most powerful moments in the book comes after Mark has graduated from Dalhousie, has become a lawyer and is at a meeting on Parliament Hill in Ottawa with Liberal Opposition leader Michael Ignatieff. He is sitting in Prime Minister Mackenzie King’s War Room where every major decision about the Second World War took place:

“…I don’t recall a single word spoken. I was thinking about the men who had once met around this very table, review reports, sipping water, writing notes, making decisions. Decisions like sending Ralph Augustus MacLean to war. Decisions like interning Mitsue and Hideo Sakamoto. The decisions made within this room had sealed my grandparents’ fate. They were condemned here. They were apprehended here. They were abandoned here. They were left for dead here.” The story culminates in this breathless moment.

The exhale comes with some pause to reflect upon the value of this incredible story for the Nikkei community, especially younger generations who have only known lives of privilege and entitlement. How then is it possible to impress upon them what happened to their families just 70 years ago?

Inasmuch as Forgiveness is about our collective World War Two experience, its greater importance is in the enduring message about letting go of the past, balancing perspectives, putting history into its proper place, hopefully learning from it, moving on with our lives, and understanding that the choices that we make as individuals and even as a community make us who we are and what we will become.

Sakamoto’s story has a uniquely Canadian flavour to it, artfully melding powerful narratives from two parts of the world at a most terrible time and across four generations, to create a magnificently humane story of overwhelming hope and, yes, forgiveness.

 

Forgiveness: A Gift From My Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto
ISBN: 9781443417983
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd., 2014
272 pages, $29.99 (CDN)
HARPERCOLLINS.CA

 

© 2014 Norm Ibuki

book review Canada family forgiveness hapa interracial Japanese Canadian nikkei POW racism shikataganai sugar beet farm World War II