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Japanese Internment: Alienation and Removal from the West Coast

2021-05-20 11:57 | Deleted user
 (Nikkei National Museum, A Street View of Tashme, BC, 1942, Alex Eastwood collection, 1994.69.4.27)

Canada has a historical legacy in anti-Asian sentiment and is especially prevalent on the West Coast in British Columbia. Before 1942 about 95 percent of the Japanese population in Canada lived in British Columbia, and more than 75 percent were citizens. However, by the end of 1942, there were no Japanese Canadians within a 100-mile radius of the west coastal line. What changed? Under the Wars Measures Act, the Canadian government forcibly uprooted Japanese Canadians from their homes, families, and communities. In 1942, Japanese Canadians were considered enemy aliens when they were required to register with the government.

There was little evidence actually to suggest these Japanese Canadians were enemy aliens. White British Columbian’s fear drove their hate, which triggered the governments’ reaction displacing 21,000 Japanese Canadians in the Second World War. The government chose to remove Japanese Canadians from the West Coast and forcibly put them in internment camps, separating families. 

Imagine being told you have 24 hours to pack your life into 150 pounds per adult, and your children could only pack 75 pounds each. You do not know where you are going, how long you will be gone for, what will happen to the things you leave behind. You do not even have a grasp on the essentials you need to bring. Imagine having to explain what was happening to your children even though you were just as confused as them. Many Japanese women and men in 1942 did not have to imagine this scenario because they lived it. 


(Nikkei National Museum, Building K, Men’s Dormitory – (Formerly Forum); Hastings Park, Vancouver, BC, Alex Eastwood collection, 1942, 1994.69.3.18)

Japanese families were sent to Hasting Park Manning Pool, a fairground for agricultural exhibitions, and converted from animal use to human use in 7 days. The women and children were separated from the men and boys over the age of 12. Families were separated from one another, with no idea what was going on and what would happen to them. All this is going on, and the smell of livestock overwhelming. 

(Nikkei National Museum, Mrs Murako Yoshida and children family portrait in April; Vancouver, BC, 1942, Marina Yoshida collection, 2020.

On March 25, 1942, the first round of men received orders to leave their families and start working on road camps, and about 100 men refused and instead were sent to Prisoner of war camp. Japanese women were not told about the whereabouts of their husbands. Despite it being illegal for Japanese people to own cameras, the chaos of the mass removal of Japanese people meant that officials did not thoroughly investigate their belongings. Mothers would sit with their children for portraits. They would send a copy to their absent husbands and other family members, knowing there was the possibility they would never see their family again. 

The majority of Japanese Canadians, about 12,000, would be sent to “interior housing centers” where these families wintered in simple un-insulated stud walls built out of greenwood and a single sheet of tar paper to protect from the elements. The cabins had greenwood to construct beds and tables and one stove. Once in the Camos nothing was provided for, prisoners had to provide themselves with food, clothing and education.

On January 19, 1943, all Japanese property was liquidated, and these funds would go towards Japanese inmates to pay their way in their interment. The government would force the sale of 950 fishing boats several months after Ottawa gave the orders to remove Japanese Canadians from the West Coast. Under the Veterans Land Act, the Director of Soldiers Settlement had the right to purchase or lease Japanese farms without consulting the owners and did so at rock bottom prices. 

(Nikkei National Museum, A Portrait of Women and Children in an Internment Camp Home; Tashme, BC, 1942, Canadian Centennial Project fonds, 2010.

Japanese Canadians did not just take the abuse from the government and passively stand by. But the government separated families, which made it hard for families to organize against the government for the human rights that were being violated. However, Japanese inmates found other ways like forming committees. These committees petitioned for materials to winterize the cabins, install running water and electricity, release the interned men, improve recreational facilities, and provide education to their children. Religious groups stepped in to help support these communities imprisoned in internment camps and aid in various ways, most importantly, education. 

 (Nikkei National Museum, Outdoor Portrait of a Group of People in a Field of Sugar Beets with Farming Tools at Tully’s Farm, Manitoba, 1944, Canadian Centennial Project founds, 2010.

Around 3,500 Japanese Canadians signed contracts to work on sugar beet farms. They avoided Hasting Park and were separated from their husbands, sons, and brothers by doing hard labour on sugar beet farms in Alberta and Manitoba. Reality quickly put the promise of decent housing and a minimal amount of freedom to bed. The families were expected to live in chicken coops or uninsulated granaries. They washed and drank from alkaline water and arrogation ditches and perform labour far more strenuous than they were used to on their fruit farms. To make matters worse, some of the farmers, because of Japanese Canadian’s status as enemy aliens, treated them as slave labour and exploited them.  

After the war the Government of Canada pursued an aggressive deportation policy, which would exile 4,000 internees to Japan, the vast majority against their wishes. Most people who were forced to return to Japan were born in Canada and had never even been to Japan. In 1945, there were orders from Ottawa to deport 10,00 Japanese Canadians who refused to move. The matter would go to the Supreme Court of Canada, and five of the nine justices on the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that the government of Canada could not legally deport the unwilling.

 (Nikkei National Museum, Signing of the Redress; Parliament Hill, Ottawa, ON, 1988, Gordon Jing collection, 2010.32.56)

The history of the Internment of Japanese Canadians has left a legacy of trauma in Japanese Canadian communities still felt today. Not a single Japanese Canadian was ever charged with an act of disloyalty. In 1988, the Prime minister Brian Mulroney delivered an apology on behalf of the Canadian Government for the internment of Japanese Canadians during the Second World War. Along with the apology the government announced a compensation package for those 13,000 survivors as well as a Japanese community fund and a Canadian race relations foundation to make sure that discrimination such as the Japanese Internment never happens again.  


Day, Iyko. “Alien Inmates: The Coloniality of Japanese Internment in Australia, Canada, and the U.S.” American Journal 36, no. 2. (2010) 107-124.

Kunimoto, Namiko. “Intimate Archives: Japanese-Canadian Family Photography, 1939-1949.” Blackwell Publishing 27, no. 1. (2004) 129-155.

Robinson, Greg. “Internment of Japanese Canadians.” The Canadian Encyclopedia. Last modified September 17, 2020.

Sunahara, Ann. “Surviving the Politics of Racism: A Photo Essay.” Nikkei National Museum & Cultural Centre. Last modified 2020.

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