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A Book Review - The Emperor's Orphans by Winnipeg's Sally Ito

“Going from being the ‘Jap’ in one country (Canada) to the ‘Yankee’ in another (Japan) must not have been pleasant. No matter where they went the Ito family felt like perpetual outsiders,” Winnipeg author Sally Ito, describing the experience of her ‘repat’ uncle to Japan where he faced discrimination of a different sort.

Let’s face it, the effort to ‘discover oneself’ is complicated even at the best of times. Truly, the untangling of DNA strands don’t begin to tell the story of who we are. The actual factors that go into this process are abundantly more complex than any mail order DNA test kit can begin to speak to. It’s a lot of blood, sweat, and tears. There are no shortcuts.

So, where does one begin? Certainly, do your best to make sure that your family stories are recorded, interview relatives, preserve pictures and documents, go to archives, preserve family heirlooms. Pester the living for answers. Educate yourself.

If you are Japanese Canadian (JC), chances are that your family story begins before World War Two in British Columbia. Your family immigrated from Japan to escape a country that was very different from what it is today. Chances are too that in 2019, racism hasn’t been as problematic for you as it was for your ancestors. And, chances are too that if you are of mixed racial heritage, you might not even identify yourself as “JC”, never mind ‘happa’ or Asian.

The Emperor’s Orphans by Winnipeg teacher/poet/translator Sally Ito tells her own compelling story of journeying between cultures, generations, and communities. So what is the value of this in 2019, you might ask? It pays homage to who we are and where we have come from. In multicultural Canada, it is also an important reminder to younger Canadians who identify as JC that our remarkable stories and accomplishments are worth celebrating too. Our heroes deserve the same applause as those from other ethnic groups, especially in our schools.

Born in Taber, Alberta, Ito’s Sansei story begins in the mid-1960s, growing up in the weirdly white suburbs of Edmonton, where she was the odd one out. Like my own upbringing in suburban Toronto, my Nisei parents made damn sure that Japanese culture and food were a part of our upbringing. They passed on that love and appreciation to us kids.

So, in fact, Ito’s The Emperor’s Orphans parallels my own ongoing journey in many ways. I’ve asked many of the same questions, travelled many of those same roads, back roads, and highways from Ontario to Vancouver, into the Kootenay area, lived there, flew to Japan several times, lived there for nine years, each foray having a seismic impact on my self-understanding.

Growing up in suburban Canada

In lieu of her grandfather’s 80-acre farm in the Surrey/Delta, BC area which was ‘appropriated’ by the government, Ito, like many of us, grew up on the outskirts of urban centres across Canada. Instead of our culturally vibrant Japantowns that were destroyed during World War II, Ito grew up as somewhat of a cultural anomaly, a province away in Sherwood Park, Alberta. Her mother a post-World War II immigrant from Osaka; her dad a Nisei who experienced the internment.

Like Ito, I too grew up feeling like there was something freakishly wrong about growing up in mostly white Ontario communities. ‘Where are my own people?’ I wondered as a teenager, walking the sidewalks of my own living dead suburbia, as I often imagined it. It wasn’t until much later that I understood it was the rub of colonialism, tossing us all into a white batter of Euro-centricity that was designed to beat the ‘otherness’ out of us. So, in the meantime, we became those suburban curiosities that our white neighbours couldn’t quite label: usually Chinese, sometimes Japanese, and even First Nations.... You know how it goes. These days, whenever I spot a lonely-looking Asian senior who might be JC sitting in a food court mall, fingering another refill of fast food coffee, killing time, I wonder if they can even imagine coming from a better time and place?

Racist British Columbia

If you were born and raised after World War II “East of the Rockies” as the BC political vitriol demanded as part of the master race plan to keep BC white, you may not even be aware of how hated a people we once were? (I liken BC to Alabama and Mississippi for African Americans. Like them, I still feel a certain tenseness and trepidation whenever I visit BC, especially Vancouver and areas where my family lived.) Those restless ghosts were never really given safe passage to leave Powell Street. They are still there.

As a Sansei, third generation Canadian, we have to go back to our Nisei parents or grandparents whose numbers and memories still contain stories of the pre-World War II days, internment, and post-World War II resettlement days, to begin this mapping of self.

As JCs, each one of us carries our own story. Nowadays these tend to be sketchy, more convoluted as we’ve grown up, caught in a tsunami sweep of Asian cultures that includes JCs. Regardless now of where your story might intersect with Ito’s, her journey is sure to engage and ignite your own passion to begin a similar quest.

In the tradition of any good road story then, her lively travelogue slides effortlessly betwixt and between cultures, locales, generations, and family members and, in the process, peels back layers of self in a story that deepens as layers are stripped away, confronting family truths. Ito courageously faces truths about herself and family that are important stepping stones.

The highlight chapter for me is about the Ito family road trip through BC. I’ve driven that stretch of Highway 3 through Nelson to Vancouver several times. (You’ll have to drive north of Nelson on Highway 31 to cross paths with Kaslo, New Denver, or north on Highway 6 to take you up to Slocan, Sandon, and Lemon Creek. Two hours west of Nelson you’ll run into Greenwood then another four hours west, Tashme. It’s another two hours west from there to Vancouver.)

This book is unique in that it bears witness to a Sansei’s often soul-wrenching search for herself. Ito’s journey provides a guide of sorts for those of us who are on similar paths. (It’s timely as discussions in the JC community start to heat up about whether there is a case for JCs to make claims for the property that the BC government took from us during World War II on the promise that it would be returned? Our JC property was sold to pay for the costs to build and incarcerate us in BC internment camps [sic].)

Like the three generations of Itos and Ibukis and your family too, we’ve all moved on from 1942. No matter how you might define yourself generationally, ethnically, historically, culturally or genetically, wherever you might be from, blurring and dissolving borders is the healthy way forward. I am proud to know that Canada’s failures never stopped us JCs from becoming proud Canadians. Ito’s remarkable story is a reminder of all this. As sure as we will continue to take punches to the jaw, like our foremothers and fathers before us, even during the darkest of times, no matter what, we’ve always chosen hope over despair.


By Sally Ito
(300 pp. Turnstone Press (2018). $21,


© 2019 Norm Ibuki

family identity Japanese Canadian sansei WWII