Last year, on Remembrance Day, instead of heading to Victory Square, I went to the quieter, but equally heartfelt ceremony at the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park.
For those unfamiliar with the memorial, whose jaws may have even dropped at learning of its existence, I hasten to point out that it pre-dates internment and World War Two. The imposing pillar was erected to commemorate Japanese Canadians who volunteered for the Great War of 1914-18. Fifty-four of them died, fighting for a country that denied them the right to vote and was rife with anti-Japanese sentiment. http://jccabulletin-geppo.ca/featured/the-japanese-canadian-soldiers-of-the-first-world-war-and-the-fight-to-win-the-vote/
There, I met the remarkable Minoru Yatabe, who had journeyed all the way from his home in Toronto, at the age of 90, to lay a wreath on behalf of Canada’s dwindling number of Nisei veterans.
Yes, you heard that right. There were Japanese Canadians who enlisted during World War Two, even after they and their families were branded “enemy aliens”, stripped of their property and possessions, forced into labour camps or interned, and of course, still denied all the rights of citizenship.
Mr. Yatabe was one of those who signed up. Although the Vancouver-born youth managed to escape the worst of internment by working on a farm in Ontario, his dream of graduating from UBC with an engineering degree was dashed, and the hardships and injustice suffered by Japanese Canadian internees were no secret.
Why on earth would he want to risk his life for a land that treated his people so shamefully? Well, he said, with a smile that cut through the late morning chill, “I had faith in my country. I knew that sooner or later, saner voices would prevail over the rantings of a few, misbegotten politicians.”
Not many Japanese Canadians shared his willingness to volunteer, the old vet admitted. “Those of us who did join up were a minority,” he told me. “We were subjected to a lot of abuse from some of the others, who had been treated very badly, who had lost their homes and businesses.”
Even then, Canada refused to allow Japanese Canadians into the armed forces. Only prolonged pressure from British authorities, who wanted to use them for intelligence work in Asia, finally lowered the country’s racist military barriers in early 1945. Minoru Yatabe signed up on Jan. 17.
The dropping of atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki ended the conflict against Japan before Mr. Yatabe saw action. But he and a few other Canadian Nisei were nevertheless involved in a fascinating but little-known chapter of the war’s aftermath.
Because of their language skills, British officers charged them with “clearing” huge numbers of Japanese troops in northern Thailand, before they were shipped back to Japan.
“It was our job to check out the entire 15th Area Japanese Army,” Mr. Yatabe recalled. “We had to clear every single one of them, to make sure they were not guilty of any wartime atrocities, since they were very close to the Burma-Siam Railway construction.”
While that was going on, another Japanese company suddenly arrived. He was ordered to process them all by himself. “You have your sidearm and a Sten gun. Take the jeep and off you go,” instructed his commanding officer.
Mr. Yatabe still relishes the memory of what happened next.
“I took the jeep and drove out there. They were waiting for me. All the troops were lined up. The major saluted me. He said, ‘My men are waiting to be reviewed.’ I certainly wasn’t expecting anything like that. I stood up on my jeep. The men paraded past, and I had to return his salute. Then, I went through them, one by one.”
Such a delicious and satisfying sight. A high-ranking, Japanese officer surrendering his troops to one young Japanese Canadian from Kitsilano.
I asked Minoru Yatabe whether he felt any emotion at being in such close contact with defeated soldiers from the land of his ancestors. He shook his head. “To me, they were Japanese, and I was Canadian.”