Lessons Unlearned

cherry blossom.jpg

by Emily Witherow

I don’t know what they teach you here in the in U.S., but Canada, just like America, had Japanese internment camps during the Second World War. Before 1945, about 22,000 Japanese Canadians lived in the westernmost province of British Columbia, most of them Canadian citizens. During the war, 21,000 people were removed from their homes and “relocated” to internment camps further inland. In Canada, they were treated more harshly than in the U.S., as Canada separated families, seized personal property, and auctioned it off without civilian consent or knowledge. This is part of my family’s history.

I am Japanese. But I may not look like it. Some days—most days—I do not feel like it. But this cultural estrangement is not my choice. I have looked for my inheritance among Hollywood movies and history books; lingered over silk kimonos hoping that one of the threads would lead me back to Kyoto; joined martial arts because I thought that being able to count to ten in Japanese might bring me a little closer to my nana. My family’s history was taken from me in 1942.  

You see, my nana lives in a country that abandoned her. Worse, she lives in a province that was frightened of her. She knows this, feels the sting of rejection across her cheek as surely as she feels Vancouver’s sea breeze in her hair and hears the shouts of her grandchildren playing outside. She remembers her mother’s tearful breakdown in the middle of Hastings Park racetrack just as she remembers sitting on her father’s shoulders at night while he sang about the otsukisama, the majesty of the moon. She felt the hostility spit from the downturned petal mouths of her neighbors, as venomous and virulent as the oil-spill hatred flowing across cobblestone streets on the other side of the world. In Poland, Austria, Germany… and Canada. My country hung signs addressed “to all persons of Japanese ancestry…” condemning them because their homes were too close to their homeland, because an ocean was not enough, because the enemy lurked behind frosted waves and flowered curtains. Housewife, fisherman, boy scout—they were all complicit by no fault except for their skin, their eyes, their tongue.

First, it was Hastings Park. Drive past it today and you might see an amusement park called “Playland” with multi-colored flags waving at you. In 1942, though, over 8,000 Japanese Canadians knew it as a home of wooden slats, straw-covered stalls, and the stench of animals. Once the fairgrounds filled, they were sent to Tashme Internment Camp and other work camps where imposing mountains stood as their guards. The cold, the heat, my nana remembers—everything hurt. The sound of airplanes filled the spaces between trees, drawing eyes up and away from bare wood and dirt. Fathers and sons were sent to work in fields and orchards. But as Nana told me about the road camp her father was sent to, when they were told “No work, no pay”, the men answered, “No pay, no work.” She told me that we will honor them by remembering them as they were.

My nana only recently returned to Japan. She did not become a fisherman’s wife, she became a teacher. She changed her name from Sachiko to Shirley, married a hakujin ,white person, and her stories were diluted even as she tried to pass them onto my father. I feel this loss in my bones. I am part of the Sansei, third-generation Japanese, and I am lost in so many ways. I live inland, far from the roiling ocean that once hid innocuous fishing boats and imperial Japanese submarines. I eat more poutine than I do rice. But when I went to Japan, I found that my freckles formed the same constellations as the schoolgirls’ beside me, and saw reflections of my skin, my eyes, in the pool of Tokyo subway-goers.

This story might not be mine, any more than it is yours, but it changes those who hear it. Ever since my nana sang me this lullaby, I have tried to keep my eyes open. Because when they close, all I can see are empty homes with idle swing sets and cherry tree stumps, their front lawns skewered with “FOR SALE” signs. I can hear the echoes of children crying, swaddled by rings of sharpened metal and snow drifts piled to the heavens. When I raise my hand and ask my teacher why we don’t spend time remembering, he says that we are remembering, in our way. I say that our way is not always the right way, and that our history class should be evidence of that. He shrugs, and continues teaching about the Holocaust, about pogroms, about Indigenous residential schools, about the subservience and oppression that we package into neat boxes, tie ribbons of faded apologies onto and call history. But history exists so we can learn from it. And we should be alarmed when human beings are herded far from their homes, dehumanized, separated from their families, relegated to stalls and cabins and tents. Nationalism is wrong when it is used as a shield against dissidence and as a justification for discrimination. Governments  are wrong when they target their citizens and build fear-wrought fences between their people.

We have seen this before. We know how this ends.