Review by Theresa Wolfwood Author photo by Betty Andrews
With the passing of the author in October, BC lost a historian and community leader. After her retirement from her career as a scientist and teacher, Ayukawa returned to university to study Japanese history and language; this book is the result of her PhD work. I had the good fortune to attend her thesis defence at UVIC and to meet her external examiner, Thomas Shoyama, the architect of Saskatchewan’s and Canada’s health care acts, another prominent person of the Japanese Canadian community.
Ayukawa was also active in the Nikkei National Museum and Cultural Centre in Burnaby and in the Taoist Tai Chi Centre in Victoria. She was also the author of many articles on Japanese Canadian culture and history.
In this book she gives the historical background of the conditions in Japan that led to waves of Japanese immigrants, from the Hiroshima region, coming to Canada, settling mainly in the BC lower mainland. We remember the Japanese fishermen around Steveston, but many Japanese were recruited to work in the notorious Dunsmuir coal mines in Cumberland without security or training. A separate cemetery there bears witness to the lives Japanese miners suffered at these mines (the cemetery was vandalized during WW2 and redesigned later. Cemetery photo by reviewer) Racism was more open and blatant in those times; already newspapers in 1891 were warning about Asian labourer stealing work from Anglo-Saxons and that they would “revel in luxury wages that a white man would barely escape starvation”. About 1$/day when they did get paid.
Base on many interviews with immigrants and their descendants a picture emerges in this book of an industrious and proud people, well aware of their precarious position in a dominant white society. The elders tried to “enculturate the Nisei with pride in their heritage so that their offspring would not cower before the Anglo society.” They also urged their children to work hard and excel at school. Ayukawa writes that many children did not fit in either society, not an uncommon situation in immigrant families.
Changes would have come gradually and possibly more easily as later Canada-born descendants adapted to Canadian life but “…on 7 December1941, the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor. Soon afterwards, the Japanese Canadians were expelled from the west coast, an act that destroyed this society by scattering its members across Canada and back to Japan.” Midge ends the book there; she was interned at Lemon Creek in the Kootenays and after the war lived in Ontario. It was decades before Canadians and their governments recognized our mistreatment of these Canadians and outright theft of their property. Others have written of this dark part of Canadian history, Ayukawa has given us an excellent context for our belated understanding of Japanese Canadians.