plant2 Documenting the west coast Nikkei experience [and beyond] from the viewpoint of a hapa Nikkei graphic designer, editor, photographer, taiko player & teacher.


Honouring Our People: sansei perspectives

Greg&DerekA conference, Honouring Our People: Stories of the Internment, takes place this weekend (September 25-27) at the Nikkei Centre in Burnaby. The following two pieces were printed in the September Bulletin and I thought I’d run them here in advance of the conference.

Greg Miyanaga

When I think of the internment and relocation, I have mixed feelings.

My grandparents on my father’s side were relocated from Mission, BC, to the sugar beet fields of Taber, Alberta. My family did not talk about what happened to them, and it was much later that I found out what they went through. I was angry that my grandparents and so many others had to endure such hatred, loss, and injustice.

Now, I have slightly different feelings. When I think of Japanese Canadians who went through internment and relocation, I don’t just think of them as victims, I think of them as survivors, as heroes. I am so proud of my grandparents and all the Japanese Canadians who were interned and relocated. For them to come through the war years, and the ensuing aftermath, is a triumph of the human spirit.

My grandfather embodied that spirit. He was always a man with a smile on his face and a twinkle in his eye. Grandpa Miyanaga rarely spoke of when he was relocated, but when he did, you saw a glimmer of sadness pass over his usually happy demeanour. But despite what he felt about losing his property and his logging company, and having to move his family to an unknown place, he never seemed bitter. He lived the belief that you worked hard and then you moved forward. I don’t think I would have been that gracious had the same thing happened to me, so I am proud that in people like my grandparents, I have excellent role models for facing adversity.

I teach elementary school, and sometimes I get the opportunity to teach a series of lessons of what happened to Japanese Canadians during World War II. Through simulations and role-playing, the grade 5 students get an interesting insight about the value of human rights, and what happens when those rights are taken away. Interestingly, the students feel the same rage and sadness that I felt when I first learned of the injustices to Japanese Canadians. Children at that age have a very strong sense of fair and unfair. When they learn about Redress, most of the students have a sense of closure and their negative feelings dissipate somewhat. When I teach these lessons, I try to model the same graciousness that my grandparents modeled for me.

The students learn modern-day life skills in the context of the experience of Japanese Canadians. I try to pass on the three big ideas that I learned from internment and relocation:
1. People (even adults, parents, and governments) will make mistakes. This is why we have rules, laws, and the Charter of Rights and Freedoms to help guide us from making mistakes or being unfair.
2. It is important that we atone for our mistakes and learn from them. This is why we make apologies, and why we need to learn to solve problems. Hopefully, the lessons we learned from past will keep us from treating people unfairly in the future.
3. Though it is important to acknowledge our failures, it is also important to recognize how far we have come. We learn from our history and will continue to improve. I think Grandpa Miyanaga would have approved: appreciate what you have and move forward. You get a better sense of how far you have made it when you see where you started.
I think this is part of the legacy that survivors of internment offer to our children and our future citizens. This is why I think the internment conference (Honouring Our People: Stories of the Internment) is so important. We need to hear firsthand accounts of surviving internees, so that future generations can learn from them. I would love to be able to use their stories in my classroom.

So how do I feel about internment? The bitterness gives way to pride, pride that my ancestors battled tremendous hardship and came through with heroic dignity. The other feeling that emerges is gratitude. I am grateful that we learned from what Japanese Canadians endured and that I know that my life is better because of their triumph over great adversity.

Greg Miyanaga is a third generation Japanese Canadian.  He helped develop an educational resource package for elementary teachers about the internment and redress called Internment and Redress: The Story of Japanese Canadians. [] He lives with his wife, Brenda, and daughter, Beth, in Coquitlam.

Derek Iwanaka

Prior to last year’s 20th Redress Anniversary Conference, I knew so little about the interment of my parents and the dispersal of approximately 22,000 other Japanese Canadians during WWII. That conference featured some very well-spoken academic speakers but I particularly enjoyed the selection of panelists who shared their firsthand recollections of their internments. Although I only heard a few stories, I was struck by the incredible hardship they endured and their resolve to get through those arduous years. Those individuals’ stories inspired me to learn more and I have since read more stories online but I am especially looking forward to the upcoming “Honouring Our People: Stories of Internment Conference” which will be held September 25-27. This special conference will provide all attendees the chance to share their collective stories and it could be one of the last opportunities for descendants like myself to learn first-hand from the issei and nisei who lived through that historic time.

As a sansei who is involved in the Nikkei community, I was asked by the organizing committee to write some thoughts on my parents’ story of internment. Both my parents were interned during the War yet surprisingly, neither of them actually perceived those years negatively until their adolescence.

My mother, Kumiko Iwanaka (nee Tabata), was only two-years-old and living in Steveston when she was shipped to Kaslo with her family in early 1942. My father, Don Iwanaka, was barely four-years-old and living on Vancouver Island when he was sent with parents and one younger brother to Hastings Park for collection before being shipped by train to the Tashme internment camp around the same time as my mother.

The Tabata family included 11 brothers and sisters and being the 9th child of 11, she was too young to have recollected much of her internment. When the war ended in 1945, she moved with her family to Midway because Japanese Canadians weren’t permitted to return to the west coast. During her early years, she avoided encounters of racism or prejudice in Kaslo and Midway because each town was predominantly populated by Nikkei. She also found that the other Nikkei families supported one another and she felt quite comfortable growing up with others of her kind. It wasn’t until the early 1950’s that she returned to Lower Mainland, where she finally faced some minor incidents of racism like name calling, but even those moments were rare. Throughout my mother’s childhood and into adolescence I believe it was her steadfast positive outlook on everything that kept her out of trouble and I am happy to report that she remembers those years as any other fun loving child.

My father is two years older than my mother but only one significant hardship lingers in his mind. He will never forget the cold winter nights living in interior of BC. He especially recalls my grandmother warming up the iron at night, wrapping it in a wool cloth and then stuffing it into their beds so they wouldn’t freeze at night. By 5 o’clock in the morning my grandfather would have to wake up to light the wood furnace so it was warm enough for the rest of the family to get out of bed.  Despite being more conscious of his internment situation, even my father doesn’t dwell on the difficult times and summarized his experience by stating, “Nobody really felt that under privileged at that time because we were in the same boat,” and “there was no reason to be envious of others because we were all poor.” It wasn’t until after he was in high school in Vancouver that he looked back with some distain on his family’s mistreatment during that time, but according to him, he doesn’t harbour ill feelings for his experiences during the internment and both he and my mother look forward to the upcoming conference.

Derek Iwanaka, a sansei, is currently Chair of Tonari Gumi and of the Legacy Sakura Coalition. He attends Japanese School and his wife is Japanese-born. After becoming involved in the JC community back in 1999, he met people like Tatsuo Kage and Takeo Yamashiro who knew and respected his grandfather, Motoi Iwanaka, and this encouraged him to further connect with and help the Japanese Canadian community. His grandfather was the first elected President of Tonari Gumi back in 1976.

Derek went to University of Northern BC where there were few Asians, yet he spent most of this time with mostly Asians, especially with the Japanese students. He recalled that during his childhood in Coquitlam he was almost always one of the smallest players on any team and in school and was often picked on for his small size. This usually meant he had to try harder than others in sports such as hockey, baseball, soccer and karate. Growing up in the suburbs, he had issues with his Japanese Canadian identity and found that he escaped much of the teasing by trying to blend in with his Caucasian-dominated peer group and trying to be as white or non-Japanese as possible. Today he is aggressively pursuing his cultural roots.

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