Several Japanese Canadians who were forced out of their homes into internment camps by the Canadian government in the Second World War are now living in Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care in northeastern Toronto.
Leaning forward in her wheelchair to look over a massive photo album, Sue Kai delves into memories from decades ago. Kai, 96, and her son, Brian, pore over snapshots of her past, some dating back to the moment her life was irrevocably changed.
Kai was 16 years old, and living with her family in the downtown Vancouver home her father built with his own two hands, when it happened.
“One Sunday everybody is going crazy: ‘Bomb bomb bomb bomb,'” said Kai. “I said, what’s a ‘bomb bomb bomb bomb?’ Then they said ‘Pearl Harbor.'”
From the name, Kai thought it was a fancy beach, not the American naval base in Hawaii that had just been bombed in a surprise attack by Japan on Dec. 7, 1941. But warnings from the people around her quickly told her that wasn’t the case.
“Then I heard, ‘Now, you better go inside because they’re going to shoot you.'”
WATCH | These Japanese Canadians who were forced into WWII internment camps now live in the same long-term care home:
Japanese Canadian seniors reflect on being forced into WWII internment camps
[Warning: video contains offensive language] Several Japanese Canadians living in the same Toronto long-term care home reflect on having their lives upended when they were forced into internment camps during the Second World War. 4:08
Shortly after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Prime Minister William Lyon Mackenzine King ordered the internment of Japanese Canadians living in coastal B.C., citing fears of sabotage or co-ordination with Japan. Many of them had been born and raised in Canada.
Nearly 21,000 Japanese Canadians and their families were forced to leave their homes and livelihoods, and in many cases their, families. They lost most of their belongings and any sense of life they had known.
Kai is among several of the last generation of internment camp survivors who now, decades later, find themselves reunited at Yee Hong Centre for Geriatric Care in northeastern Toronto. After the Second World War, the federal government forced the interned Japanese Canadians to leave the country or re-settle further east in Canada. Many chose to move to Toronto, where they rebuilt their lives from scratch.
Some, like Kai, never spoke much with their children about what happened back then.
“There were times when my parents didn’t want to talk about it and when that happened they spoke Japanese. Since I couldn’t understand it, that was sort of hidden to me,” Kai’s son, Brian, explained.
A thwarted life
Brian started interviewing his mother over the last few years to create a record of her past. But only recently has she revealed the depths of her anger and the degree to which the internment thwarted her life.
“I was mad. I was mad,” she admitted. “I planned to go to university.”
“I didn’t realize that university was a possibility for her,” Brian said, in surprise. “I guess because of the war I just knew she couldn’t go, but the fact that she actually entertained thoughts of going is news to me.”
“That’s the first time I actually heard her say the word ‘mad’ to the fact that she had to be moved into internment camps, so I think I’ve learned a few things already,” he said.
Separated from her family
After the attack on Pearl Harbor, Sue Kai, her mother, and her younger brother were shipped to Kaslo, B.C., roughly 200 kilometres east of Kelowna and 450 kilometres from their home in Vancouver. They were separated from the rest of their family and cut off from the outside world.
“No newspaper, no radio, no nothing. We were completely … we didn’t even know what was going on with the war. It’s terrible to be cut out,” Kai said, “And then all the mail, if you got it, was censored. C-E-N-S-O-R … it’s all black. So if I got a letter from my brother, half of it was all cut out, because my brother complained.”
Because Kai was a high school graduate, she was recruited to become a teacher in the community. One of her former students, Yoshiye Suyama, 90, now lives in the same Scarborough long-term care home, and wasn’t shy telling her former teacher what she thought of her.
“Oh, you used to be such a strict teacher,” Kai recalled being told. “Well, I didn’t realize it. But, I think it’s better to be strict, and we always have a good laugh.”
“I was a little brat,” Suyama said.
Suyama was 11 when she was forced to move to Kaslo. While she said she has some happy memories of living in the town and playing in the woods, she remembers not wanting to leave her New Westminster home.
“We left everything,” she said. “All I remember is ‘I don’t want to go.'”
“We only moved because they kicked us out. ‘J**s out!’ when the war started,” she said, using a racist term that was commonly used against Japanese people at the time. “We had to leave. We couldn’t say ‘yes’ or ‘no.'”
Suyama’s daughter, Debbie Katsumi, says her mother didn’t speak much about that time. But now she is learning more about the experiences from other families at her mom’s long-term care home.
“I like to learn as part of the chit chat,” Katsumi said. “It’s enriching.”
Too painful to relive
Herb Sakaguchi, 97, also didn’t discuss his internment with his children. He was 17 when he was sent to Slocan, B.C., an hour east of Kaslo.
Sakaguchi lost more than his freedom — he lost his family home in Kitsilano. The Canadian government sold the homes and businesses of interned Japanese Canadians, including the contents of their houses.
“What can you do? One guy against a whole government,” Sakaguchi said, slumped in his wheelchair. “It’s just done. They did it. We got evacuated. I’m still around. Mad as hell, but what can I do? It’s finished now.”
“It was not something that we talked about,” said his daughter, Jane Zielinski. “I just think that it was maybe too painful for them to relive those memories.”
“It’s painful for me to think about what they must have gone through. If I put myself in that position and think, ‘how would I have felt?’ Just being told to leave, pack a bag, leave everything behind and relocate with a lot of other people,” she said.
In 1988, Canada officially apologized and compensated internment camp survivors $21,000 each.
“It was really just a token because they lost cars, everything they owned, because they could only carry so much,” Brian Kai said.
“The family received a very small amount for owning a piece of property in downtown Vancouver, which probably is worth millions of dollars now. It’s very hard to put a price on it because it was a house that my grandfather built with his own hands.”
Despite all the loss they experienced, Sue Kai, Sakaguchi and Suyama spoke extensively about how happy they are with how the lives they had to rebuild turned out after the internment ended. All three are proud of the families they raised.
While Kai laments not going to university because of the internment, she is proud that both her sons and all her grandchildren have university degrees and were able to achieve what she could not.
And, Sakaguchi believes had it not been for the internment and his forced migration to Toronto, he might never had met his wife.
“It’s the best thing that happened,” he joked. “Some guys would say, ‘you nut!'”