War and Japanese Internment

On December 8, 1941 the Dominion of Canada declared war on Imperial Japan. The initiation of war brought in a culture of fear amongst Canadians. This fear was primarily aimed at Japanese Canadian citizens, who already carried an extensive burden of hatred from White British Columbians. One of the main fears White Canadians had with Japanese Canadians was that their true loyalty resided with the Japanese Empire, and not with Canada. According to a National Association of Japanese Canadians pamphlet Democracy Betrayed, Japanese Canadians were imprisoned as they presented a security risk to the Canadian and allied war effort.1 On February 25, 1942, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, speaking in the House of Commons, stated that the compulsory removal of all Japanese Canadians was necessary “to safeguard the defences of the Pacific coast of Canada.”2 This speech contributed to the so-called “security myth” as a justification of for imprisoning Japanese Canadians. However, evidence suggests that the government had already been advised about Japanese Canadian loyalties. In 1940, Frederick John Mead, RCMP West Coast security, stated that the Japanese Canadians posed no threat to national security.3 Rather, the attitude of those against Japanese Canadians was a bigger issue. Maj. Gen. H.G.D. Crerar and Maj. Gen. Ken Stuart agreed with this statement.4 At the “Conference on the Japanese Problem in B.C.” in Ottawa, January 1942, (1) Japanese Canadian incarceration was opposed, (2) current measures dealing with Asians on the West Coast are satisfactory, and (3) a majority endorsed the opinion that the law must protect Japanese Canadians from any discrimination against them.5 In fact, the Department of Labour stated that Japanese Canadians would be beneficial to the war effort, in that they could help solve the impending problem of labour shortage.6 In The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War, Ann Gomer Sunahara writes about the Japanese reaction to the attack on Pearl Harbor: “Some were proud that Japan had shown such strength and ingenuity, and thought it meant that Japan might emerge victorious. Most were appalled.7 The main opposition at this Conference came from British Columbia’s delegates.8 One diplomat from the Department of External Affairs remarked that the delegates from B.C. “spoke of the Japanese Canadians in a way that Nazis would have spoken about Jewish-Germans. When they spoke, I felt in that room the physical presence of evil.”9

On February 24, 1942, Order-in-Council P.C. 1486 ordered the compulsory removal of all Japanese Canadians from the Pacific Coast.10 However, the military refused to proceed with this policy because they concluded that this decision was entirely political and had nothing to do with national security.11 Instead, the British Columbia Security Commission, a civilian body, was created in order to uproot the Japanese.12 Their internment saw the loss of all of their property. The newspaper The Sun from September 23, 1983 states that “the lands, houses, fishing boats, even radios of Japanese-Canadians were seized and disposed of, at questionable prices, by a custodian of ‘enemy’ property.”13 This property was sold in order to fund the Japanese internment.In other words, Japanese Canadians were forced to pay for their own internment.14 Living conditions in the camps were terrible. Yukiharu Misuyabu, an interned teenager, recounts the new standard of living she was forced to adopt: “Hundreds of women and children were squeezed into the livestock building […] Each family separated from the next by a flimsy piece of cloth hung from the upper deck of double-decked steel bunks. The walls between the rows of steel bunks were only five feet high, their normal use being to tether animals.”15With terrible living conditions came terrible treatment. At a Prisoner of War camp in Northern Ontario, a funeral is held for a Japanese man who was imprisoned because he protested against the breakup of his family. The mourners wore standard prison clothing, each with a bullseye on their backs, providing a target for sharpshooters in case one of them attempted to escape.16

 

[1] Democracy Betrayed, 21 November 1984, File: 9, Box 4, NAJC Archive, McGill University Archives.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Ann Gomer Sunahara, The Politics of Racism: The Uprooting of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War (Lorimier, 1981), 60.

[8] Democracy Betrayed.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ibid.

[13] The Sun, 23 September 1983, File: 42, Box: 4, NAJC Archive, McGill University Archives.

[14] Democracy Betrayed.

[15] “Japanese Internment: British Columbia wages war against Japanese Canadians,” CBC.ca, 2001, http://www.cbc.ca/history/EPISCONTENTSE1EP14CH3PA3LE.html.

[16] Jeanette Lerman, Enemy Alien, film, (1975, National Film Board of Canada).