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Japan Journal

Talking With A “Returnee” - Part 1 of 2

One of the most interesting and obscure chapters of Canadian Nikkei history is the one of the “returnees” to Japan, prior to, during and, mostly, after World War Two.

I have no idea of actual numbers of these so-called returnees. Regretfully, I haven’t had the chance to hear many of their stories. From those that I have heard, Nikkei with well-positioned families here had a much easier time of fitting in than those who had to start from scratch with no strong family connections. They weren’t always welcomed with open arms.

Having lived in Japan for a few years now, I can empathize with the young kids and teenagers who were forced to become something culturally that was as foreign to them as the “hakujin” ideals thrust upon their Nkkei friends and relatives, back home in post-WWII Canada. The cultural balancing act had to be taken to a different, more complex level, in respect to fitting into conformist Japan, which was undergoing a cultural overhaul itself, amidst post WWII reconstruction.

I met Ai “Nelly” Kamata, 80, through Lloyd Kumagai, a Canadian Nisei and relative of her’s (her uncle married his aunt), and I had met Mr. Kumagai through my Nikkei Voice writings. He lives in Tokyo. Mrs. Kamata lives in the suburban outskirts of Sendai, connected by the Senseki-sen train line, in a city called Tagajo. Nelly and her husband, Enakichi, 90, live in a modern two-story western style house in a well-to-do neighborhood. She is cordial and warm, familiar in a Nisei-kind-of-way that made me feel at home.

She showed me into a sunny western style sitting room—sofas, arm chairs, and a coffee table. The room was filled with paraphernalia from travels to Canada, some Ainu carvings from Hokkaido, knick-knacks from Los Angeles, all of which tied together somehow the story of a life that began in Canada more than 80 years ago.

I sat with Mrs. Kamata in her living room. She has photo albums ready to show me. There were many of her husband’s old judo photos when he competed regularly in Vancouver as a strapping young man. Others show pretty 18-year old Ai Onodera wearing a white kimono, taken shortly before coming to Japan.

Here is Mrs. Kamata, in her own words:

My father Tamotsu Onodera went to Canada in 1907 and my mother Tsuruyo followed in 1915. We lived in Sunbury, British Columbia (6 miles from New Westminister), near the mouth of the Fraser River. The two eldest boys (Tatsuo, sent to a road camp and Hideo, interned in Kaslo) remained in Canada. The three youngest children returned to Japan a year before the outbreak of World War Two.

In Sunbury, my father and two older brothers fished. My mother with a helper had a big garden where she grew strawberries, currants, asparagus for sale, also raising chickens, on ten acres of land. My mother was a modest and patient woman. She would never talk back to Dad. I don’t ever remember my parents quarreling. Father returned to Japan 6 months before we did because he knew war was going to start and didn’t want to lose his savings in Canada. He was right.

There were three passenger ships sailing between Japan and Canada at the time: Hikawa Maru, Hie Maru, and Hein Maru.

Father lived until 70; mother until 93. They both lived with me in Tagajo. My husband, an Issei, myself and our three-year-old daughter returned to Japan in January, 1941. Because his brothers had been drafted into the army to fight the war in China, his mother, Tsume, wanted him to help on the family farm on the outskirts of Fukudamachi-tago.

The Kamatas have a high family background. Both his brothers enlisted as guards at the castle. The eldest brother died in Manchuria. Their family home was very modern for the time. It had a tiled roof and was built on an acre of land with lots of land for growing rice.

Although everyone took good care of us, I felt as though I had come back to a country that was years behind. Most homes had straw (kaya) roofing and no curtains on the windows. The homes looked vacant to me. I wondered if people really lived in them.

We cooked rice and other food over a kudo (a fireplace for cooking). The heating system was an open fire (robata) and a kotatsu (foot warmer) in a very large, open room. The robata was also used for cooking meals. There was a hook that hung from the roof which was used for cooking and we baked fish on bamboo sticks placed close to the fire. I remember that Indians used to do the same thing when they camped along the Fraser River.

In fact, everything was new for me. Sleeping on futon on the floor, no running water, an outdoor toilet, and just a small light bulb in the middle of a large open tatami room.

Due to the war, food was very scarce… Of course, farmers had their own rice and vegetables but there was very little meat and fish available.

When we left Canada, I remember that we brought long rubber boots for all our relatives, two big boxes of salted salmon and four boxes of salmon roe (my husband was working as a foreman for a salmon salting company), four boxes of navel oranges, and a hundred pound sack of sugar for omiyage (presents) for neighbors and relatives. The men and women at the time worked barefooted making rice straw sacks, straw ropes, and farm clothing made of straw.

Before the war there were a number of Nisei living in and around Sendai. At the time, I didn’t join the Canadian Nisei club there.

A year later we bought a big house in Sendai, beside the Hirose River, below Shokei Girls College, so things weren’t that difficult.

But with the war coming, we sold the place and went to live in Tome-gun, way out in the country, in northern Miyagi-ken.

We didn’t see the Sendai bombing directly, of course, but we could see the smoke from the fires. It was terrible.

After the U.S. forces came into Miyagi Prefecture, they had officers in Tome-gun to check up on people who had swords, guns, and other weapons. They were at Chanuma police station. My husband, sister, and myself helped in interpreting. The officers were very nice. There were rumors that when the U.S. Army would come the women would be treated this way and that. That sort of scared me, too; people around me would be talking like that. It scared me to meet them at first. That’s how I felt.

Part 2 >>


*This article was originally published in the Nikkei Voice in April 1999.


© 1999 Norm Ibuki

Canada Japan nikkei postwar returnee sendai World War II

Sobre esta serie

A collection of Norm Ibuki's writings from 1995 to 2004 about his experiences while living in Sendai, Japan. Originally published in the Nikkei Voice (Toronto) newspaper.