A brief history of the CenotaphThe early history of the Japanese in Canada is defined by the battle for the franchise. The attitude of the general public towards Japanese Canadians was summoned up by one writer to the Victoria Columnist, who wrote, “We recognize the deadly menace that confronts us for eternity if we open our doors to any alien people with whom we can never assimilate, and whose unlimited presence among us can only mean our final disintegration. Therefore, we have stated emphatically our unshakable opposition to the granting of the franchise to any Japanese for any cause whatsoever.” More than one politician came to power on a platform that promised, “No Japs west of the Rockies.” When World War One broke out, many Japanese Canadians saw enlisting as a means of proving once and for all their loyalty to their country. The government, fearing that accepting the Japanese into the armed forces would force them to give the Japanese the vote, initially refused repeated offers of young men, eager to go overseas to fight for the Allies. Determined, members of the community went so far as to gather together a unit of volunteers—renting a hall and putting them through basic training under the guidance of a couple of sympathetic army officers, all to no avail. Some men began heading for Alberta where several battalions were accepting willing and able bodies. Once the news got out, the floodgates were open. The Japanese volunteers went on to acquit themselves with honour and bravery, playing important roles in a number of important battles, including the Battle at Vimy Ridge. By the end of the war, 54 Japanese Canadians had died in battle, with most of the rest suffering injuries of one sort or another. 14 Japanese volunteers were decorated. On April 9, 1920—the third anniversary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge—the Japanese Canadian War Memorial was unveiled in Stanley Park. Built under the auspices of the Canadian Japanese Association with the approval of the Vancouver Parks Board, the cenotaph, which cost $15,000, was funded through donations by the Japanese Canadian community.
Sgt. Masumi MitsuiWhen Sgt. Masumi Mitsui passed away on April 22, 1987 at the age of 100 years he was one of the last surviving Japanese Canadian volunteers of World War I. Having emigrated to Canada in 1908 from Fukuoka-ken, Sgt. Mitsui had a distinguished service record that began in 1916 when he travelled to Calgary to enlist with the 192nd Overseas Battalion. He embarked for Europe in late 1916 and in January of the following year was ordered to France where he joined the 10th Battalion, 2nd Infantry Brigade, 1st Canadian Division. He fought at Vimy Ridge, and four months later at nearby Hill 70, he led 35 men into battle. Only five survived and for his own ‘conspicuous bravery and distinguished conduct,’ Mr. Mitsui was awarded the Military Medal for Bravery. He was wounded in action but was able to return to the front, where his heroism led to further honours—the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. Honourably discharged in 1919 with the rank of Sergeant, Mr. Mitsui returned to BC, settling on a farm near Vancouver. He was president of the all Japanese Canadian Legion Branch No. 9 when the BC government finally voted to grant the franchise to the issei veterans of WWI. Mr. Mitsui was an honoured guest at the re-lighting of the lantern atop the Japanese Canadian War Memorial in Stanley Park on August 2, 1985. The light, that had been extinguished sometime during the Japanese Canadian internment, was re-lit at a ceremony attended by many dignitaries and representatives from the various Japanese Canadian organizations.
George Shintani, the son of Tazo Shintani (Miyazaki) and Sueno (nee Ayabe, Fukuoka), was born in Vancouver on December 8, 1925. Interned with his family in Sandon, he left the Kootenay internment camp on his 18th birthday and headed to Toronto. While working at a Canadian Tire Store he was approached by an Army Captain and urged to enlist in the Canadian Army. As George told the Nikkei Voice in a 2005 interview, “One of the questions the Recruiting Officer asked me was what my religion was, and I replied ‘Buddhist.’ He said ‘We can’t have Buddhists in our army; would you mind if I put you down as United?’ and I said ‘OK.’ I didn’t enlist in the army to fight for my religious rights.” Following Japan’s surrender, George was sent to Southeast Asia. He served in parts of Malaysia and Siam but spent most of his time in Singapore where he was assigned to a War Crimes unit with Sgt. Frank Haley, interrogating prisoners accused of war crimes. Some of the notable cases involved the atrocities committed on the Burma-Siam railway. On returning to Canada he was discharged on July 16, 1947. On joining the army In 1944 I was working at Canadian Tire in Toronto and my manager said there was an army officer who wanted to speak to me. The officer asked if I would be willing to join the Canadian army because they needed soldiers who could speak Japanese. I said yes right away. My friend had already left for the army. At that time, my father and mom were still in the evacuation centre in Sandon, BC. I had left because I felt I could get a job in Toronto. I told my family that I had already enlisted and my dad was supportive of this decision. He said, “I am Japanese but you are Canadian and I understand.” I joined because I felt it was a good way to prove I was loyal and a Canadian. I wanted to be accepted as a Canadian citizen. Stories In Singapore, when I was working in the war crimes unit, a Japanese prisoner who was a high ranking officer was allowed to go before a firing squad instead of going to the gallows, because it was considered to be more honourable for a soldier to die by firing squad. The prisoner was lined up against the prison wall and there were ten guys in the firing squad. For some reason, they all missed killing him, shooting him in the arm instead. The officer in charge was then supposed to shoot him. The officer pulled the trigger but nothing happened. He must have pulled the trigger about six times before it finally went off. After we finished basic training in Brantford Ontario, they sent us to the Japanese Language School to improve our language skills. We were in school along with Caucasian people who also were also recruited to work in Intelligence. At the school, Judy LaMarsh was sitting in front of me. She had pigtails and I dipped one in the inkwell. She was very mad and chased me to the living quarters and I ran in the men’s shower room where she followed me right in. She shouted, “Shintani, I will get you!” Later on we became good friends and after the war we had her over for dinner at our home in Ottawa. (Judy LaMarsh, was a Canadian politician, lawyer, author and broadcaster. In 1963, she was only the second woman to ever serve as a federal Cabinet Minister and she was awarded the Order of Canada.) On facing racism in the army The Singapore swimming club was very posh and the British soldiers got to use it one day a week. One day I was sitting around the pool when I got a message that the hotel manager wanted to speak with me. He said that I could not use the pool because I was coloured and that set a bad example to the natives because they were not allowed to use the pool. I said, “Why not?” I was in the Canadian army attached to the British Army and defending them. He said I could stay for the day but I said no way and left. I went back on the city bus and reported this incident to my commanding officer and he was really upset but said there was not much he could do about it. On serving in the Army I enjoyed the Army because it proved I was a Canadian. I did not see active service but worked in intelligence as an interrogator. On the importance of the cenotaph It is very important to fix the cenotaph because it shows we fought in the Canadian army and it displays our loyalty to Canada.