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A Place to Remember: The Japanese Canadian War Memorial

Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park, Vancouver BC, 1920. CVA 99-240 Stuart Thomson Fonds.

“We come to mourn the dead. Their souls speak to us, they ask us to look inward, take stock of who we are.”

- Barack Obama, May 27, 2016 at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park

While the history of the Japanese-Canadian War Memorial is marred with the struggle for the rights of Japanese-Canadians, the space has come to symbolize justice, equality, and peace. It is ironic and tragic as these things often are that those who fought for our rights and freedoms are the ones that don’t get to see or enjoy the fruit of their labour. Such is the fight for future generations, the struggle to be the catalyst for change. Such is the sacrifice to create peace.

Now we get to look back over the 100 year history of this space and think about what that means for our future. How can we remember those who gave so much? And what does this space, the Japanese-Canadian War Memorial, mean for us now? How does the design and the symbolism of a space affect how we perceive it over time? The meaning of a place transforms over time, and when I consider how the identity of being Japanese-Canadian has changed over time, and the significance of the community within Vancouver, I think that the memorial is culturally significant to understanding the lived experience of Japanese-Canadians.

Two boys in front of the Japanese Canadian War Memorial, Vancouver BC, 1920. NNM 2014.

The memorial was built and dedicated three years after the Battle of Vimy Ridge, dedicated to the soldiers who lost their lives over the whole of World War I, and to also celebrate those who were able to come home. This was in 1920, a hundred years ago, but a time that has many similarities to today. It was the decade before the Great Depression, the end of a massive epidemic; sometimes, history has the tendency to repeat itself.

And in much the same way that the alt-right sentiment against coloured minorities has seen a surge, when the memorial was dedicated at a time when anti-Asian sentiment ran high. Though many Japanese-Canadians were citizens, they had few political rights and no right to vote. In large areas of Vancouver, Asians were not allowed to buy land. Any success attained in the community scared Euro-Canadians; only 13 years prior, an anti-Asian riot damaged businesses and attacked individuals in the Chinese and Japanese corridors. These feelings against the community did not abate for many decades after.

It feels like it took until the lantern atop of the memorial being relit in 1985 for this sentiment to begin to change. In the collective memory of Japanese-Canadians in Vancouver, the injustices against the community are many, and the timeline of these events seems to surround the memorial.

Before going much further, I have to write a disclaimer. I am issei, a first generation Japanese-Canadian. I am also haffu - or as I prefer daburu - and am very white presenting. My experience of being Japanese-Canadian is very different from the san-, yon- and gosei Japanese-Canadians whom I’ve gotten to know through the Nikkei community. It is their story I am trying to tell as it surrounds the memorial. My introductions, through the Kikiai Collaborative, to people who have inherited the traumas of internment through their ancestors and elders have given me some insight to this lived experience, though I will never fully understand it; I will only ever be able to empathize.

My own inherited trauma is that of being both victor and loser in the World Wars; my family from Canada were Norwegian immigrants that logged and farmed in the Kootenays and did not have many sons and fathers that fought in the war. They also lived not far from the internment camps of BC’s interior. I imagine that my grandmother and grandfather, who were raised in Creston, heard rumours of the Japanese-Canadians that were moved en masse nearby, which influenced their opinions of Asians over their whole lives. My family from Japan must have fought and worked in the war and had to rebuild and leave eastern Tokyo when it was destroyed after the war. I imagine - though no one talks about it - that some of my Japanese ancestors died during the war, either fighting to take over the Pacific or in the bombings of the major cities of Japan. I have shame about the way the Japanese military treated prisoners of war, that they strove for Asian-Pacific dominance, that my family may have been involved in that somehow.

To come to terms with some of those feelings, in the summer of 2018 I had the chance to walk through the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. For the whole four hours I walked through the park, I cried. I cried for grief, for shame, for the loss that the whole of the world felt through the war. Then and now, I think about how war brings out the worst in humanity. But the space, what it was dedicated to, also reminds me how it can bring out the best in humanity. I walked through the museum and read stories of how people helped strangers as best as they could through the worst possible circumstances imaginable. I walked and wondered how in this day and age we could deal with such tragedy again, and then thought about the places in the world that are still dealing with such horrible circumstances. And then I thought about home, and, despite the juxtaposed halves of my identity, how grateful I am that I live with the privilege that I do in this beautiful place. When I was done in the park, I sat down with the owner of the hostel I stayed at, and she told me her grandparents owned an inn before her, and they took in refugees from the city that escaped the A-Bomb. It was the most open I had ever seen a Japanese person talk about the war.

This is what the Japanese-Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park seems to be; it is a place where people, especially from our community, can go and work through the conflict that I think many of us feel. It gives us a place to appreciate and remember the past, while looking to a future that we dream of and that so many have fought for. The privilege that we have now is thanks to the people before us. These people built, maintained and continue to bring significance to the memorial. I don’t want to give a full breakdown of all the historical context, but it’s also a pretty amazing story that spans decades that deserves telling.

The president of the Canadian Japanese Association, Yasushi Yamazaki, organized a battalion of about 200 volunteers and began to train them to fight in WWI. While unsuccessful at first at convincing the federal government to allow them to go and fight, another gentleman, Sainosuke Kubota, discovered that Alberta recruitment teams were having difficulty meeting enlistment targets. Small groups of Japanese Canadian men traveled across the Rockies to enlist one-by-one through Alberta. Soon, 222 men in over ten battalions were fighting in Europe, and while they were fighting were also temporarily granted the right to vote in the federal election. And when they returned, they used their service as a means to prove their dedication to Canada and therefore as proof that they deserved the right to vote permanently.

Sergeant Masumi Mitsui at the relighting ceremony of the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park, 1985. NNM 1992-23.

In the same year that the memorial was dedicated, the veterans were denied that right however, and only attained it again for veterans in 1936 when a delegation went to lobby. It took them 11 years after the first attempt, as anti-Asian sentiment continued to rise, especially given the beginnings of Japanese militaristic aggression before WWII, such as with the invasion of Manchuria. Of course, all of these rights were reversed during WWII, and conditions for all Japanese-Canadians became something out of a nightmare. The impoundment of property which funded the internment of the whole Japanese-Canadian community is cruel in a way that I can’t even begin to put into words. There is an accounting of Sergeant Masumi Matsui who threw his medals at the officers that were taking him away, asking “what good” the medals were when confronted by such dishonour. The light in the lantern in the memorial was extinguished at this time, a physical symbol of how Canada turned its backs on this community.

Despite the injustice of internment, veterans who ended up across Canada, many east of the Rockies, witness Remembrance Day. In Vancouver, the community remembers at the Japanese-Canadian War Memorial. It was 1948 when Japanese-Canadians secured full federal franchise, and provincially in 1949. This set the precedent for all Asian-Canadians; they are entitled to the same rights and liberties as every other Canadians In 1985, Mitsui was the honoured guest in the lantern relighting ceremony, one of the few to bear witness to the way the community healed from the injustices against them. He was 98. He died two years later.

The lantern is, in my opinion, the most symbolically significant part of the memorial. It stands atop the column, a form that looks like an Japanese lantern pagoda. Its extinguishing and relighting demonstrably shows how the Japanese-Canadian community is accepted and welcomed in Vancouver. It has remained lit for almost forty years, a true testament of the enduring change we’ve seen in Vancouver and across Canada. In my mind, the lantern is now a beacon - a symbol of a place that Japanese-Canadians can continue to return to.

The rest of the design of the space works symbiotically with the lantern. For instance, the base is an abstracted flower; each of the petals has the names of the battles that the veterans fought in. However, the symbol of the flower is just as potent. While some believe that it is supposed to represent the chrysanthemum of the Japanese imperial crest, others have also seen it as a lotus. In Buddhism, the lotus resembles enlightenment and purity. It rises out of the muddy waters to bloom. In much the same way, the community has come out of the darkness of years of disenfranchisement to find a true place to belong.

Buck Suzuki & Tony Kato in front of the cenotaph on November 11, 1949.

What I find the most potent however is the mixing of styles; the memorial combines European and Asian architectural traditions. In art history, they called this chinoiserie, which is a term I’ve always disliked because it doesn’t differentiate between the many Asian races that have distinct architectural styles. This style has also traditionally tried to reinterpret Asian styles through a European lens to make it more “refined” and “architectural.” In the case of the Japanese-Canadian War Memorial however, the architect James A. Benzie took these distinctive Asian elements and added them to a pretty typical form of European monument design. It provides representation for the duality of Japanese-Canadian identity; separate, distinct but complementing and balancing one another. Neither one nor the other, but a fusion and redefinition of what this memorial should be in the face of the duality of Japanese-Canadian identity. And, most importantly, the significant pieces of the monument are the Asian parts. The European styled column does not overshadow the rest of the space.

Several years after the dedication, the cherry blossom trees were added to the site, and I believe that this finished the space in the best way possible. The blossoms remind of the transience of life, that nothing is permanent. We have to remind ourselves of how far we’ve come as a community, but how that fight hasn’t ended. The peace that we have found for ourselves hasn’t extended to others yet, and by remembering the veterans that worked hard for us, we need to pass the torch forward. Or, in the case of the memorial, to light the lantern for others.


* This article was originally published in Nikkei Images Volume 25, No. 1.


© 2020 Mika Ishizaki

Canada Japanese Canadian War Memorial japanese canadians World Wars