Masumi Mitsui wearing a Canadian Legion-branded Blazer with his four military medals including his Canadian Military Medal for bravery. Photo credit: Nikkei National Museum 2014.10.1.7
As Remembrance Day approaches each year, Canadians are called to consider our shared military history. But for some Canadian families, like the Mitsuis, Remembrance Day can be a complicated symbol of identity politics and racial tensions that remain all too close to the surface in Canadian society. Recently, in Edmonton, Alberta, Landscapes of Injustice researcher Josh Labove spoke with Dave Mitsui, about the legacy of his grandfather Sgt. Masumi Mitsui, WWI veteran and recipient of the Canadian Military Medal for bravery, who was interned following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941.
Masumi Mitsui immigrated to Vancouver, British Columbia from Japan in 1908. In the face of rampant anti-Asian discrimination, he nevertheless enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces during WWI. After the war, Masumi and other Japanese Canadian veterans finally secured provincial voting rights in 1931. Japanese Canadians as a whole were restricted from voting in federal elections until 1949. As Dave notes, the franchise was important for the veterans: “If you’re able to vote in a democracy, you’re part of that democracy. They wanted to demonstrate that they were truly deserving to be part of Canada. They had they put their lives on the line for Canada.”
Following Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, the Canadian Government forced 22,000 persons of Japanese descent to leave their homes and sent 100 miles inland from coastal BC. Masumi and roughly 200 other Japanese Canadian WWI veteran soldiers were among the uprooted.
Masumi’s voting rights were stripped, and the Government confiscated his 17-acre poultry farm in Port Coquitlam, BC. Dave remembers “the family was told to put all their valuables in the basement and they would be there when they got back.” Tragically, this was poor advice. Shortly after arriving in Greenwood, one of several internment sites in BC’s interior, the Mitsuis learned their house had been broken into and all of its contents stolen. Eventually, Government agents sold the acreage with negligible compensation to the family.
Today in Port Coquitlam, suburban residences are scattered across the former Mitsui farmland. A province away, in Edmonton, Masumi’s medals are all that remain that connect Dave to his grandfather’s past. Masumi, Dave recalls, was “so bitter about what happened to him that he never went to a public Remembrance Day Ceremony after WWII. He was always very supportive of the military, but he never forgave the government. On Remembrance Day, he would be at home in his uniform with his Royal Legion beret, and his medals.”
Dave, formerly a practicum adviser in the Faculty of Physical Education and Recreation of the University of Alberta, is an active supporter of Japanese Canadian history, and often speaks publicly about his grandfather’s experiences. “It’s a big responsibility,” he reflects. Dave often questions who will be the family’s storyteller in subsequent generations. “I’ve spoken with my daughter a few times, and she doesn’t seem to have the interest, but neither did I at that age. Maybe I just need to be patient.”
“This is a story of a family that, each year, has to reconcile what is commemorated in Remembrance Day ceremonies and their own hard experience,” says Labove. “Today, Dave is active in sharing Mitsui’s military service and eventual internment as a reminder of histories that are often omitted from Remembrance Day ceremonies.”
Labove is part of a team of oral history graduate student researchers under the leadership of Dr. Pamela Sugiman, Chair of the Department of Sociology at Ryerson University, who are traveling across Canada recording Canadian memories of one of the most brutally racist events in our nation’s history. The Landscapes of Injustice is a project funded under the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada Partnership Grant Program; multiple partners across Canada are studying the dispossession of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. For Dr. Sugiman, “acts of remembrance must pay homage to the experiences of all Canadians, regardless of race, gender or cultural background.” Commemorative events need not privilege the suffering of one group of people over another. “Loss is subjectively experienced and collectively shared.”
As for Dave Mitsui, he cannot think about his grandfather’s story without a sense of regret for missed opportunities: “I wish I had the knowledge that I have now, when my grandfather was still alive, to spend time asking questions and talking to him. When you’re growing up, though, he’s just Grandpa.”