Friday, 22 July 2011

Our Japanese Neighbors

It was a warm afternoon in late August, 1942. I was six years old and I was bored so I walked along the path that went through the thick grove of evergreen trees in front of our house to the road.

The only people whom I saw were two Japanese matrons who, in passing each other, had stopped to chat. They were too far away for me to hear what they were saying and, if they  were speaking Japanese, I would not have been able to understand anyway.

However, I did not have to understand to guess what the topic would have been. They and their families were only days away from having to board special trains which would take them to internment camps in the Kootenai Region - hundreds of miles from the Coast.

The Japanese were good neighbors who worked in nearby saw mills, fished for salmon on the Fraser River and worked small market gardens growing vegetables, strawberries, raspberries and like food crops.

The community was Ruskin in the Fraser Valley of British Columbia midway between the larger communities of Haney and Mission. The community was bounded to the west by Whonnock Creek and, to the east, by the Stave River. A mile up that river was the newly completed Ruskin Dam and power generating plant. Two or three miles up river from the Ruskin Dam was Stave Falls and another power dam. Ten to fifteen miles west northwest of there was the Allouette River Power Dam. The authorities believed that, as these dams provided the bulk of the electricity for Vancouver and suburbs, they would be prime targets for any bombing raids from Japan.

My Dad and maternal Granddad were dismayed by the forced evacuation of our Japanese neighbors as they were good and industrious settlers. That sentiment was not shared by Grandma who, as British born, did not trust anybody who was not British.

About eighteen months before the evacuation of the Japanese, Granddad was working at the dam site on the graveyard shift as a security guard. Grandma was at home alone when she was awakened by smoke and the crackling of flames. She gathered up the dog and ran outside. Soon the house was completely gutted and her beloved cat had perished.

Down at the dam someone alerted Granddad to the red glow above the tree tops high up on the plateau. He knew instantly that, in all probability, the glow was from his burning house.

The route home for him was up a path that was so steep that a staircase had been cut into the clay and dirt face so that climbers could have traction. The foreman at the dam regretted not having sent another workman with him but realized that no one could have kept pace!

From the top of the climb the trail wound through the forest and around a cranberry bog. Soon, though, he came out of the forest, saw the glowing embers of his house and, with his heart in his mouth, saw Grandma sitting beneath a Douglas fir that stood beside the lane that led from the house to the barn. Grandma was hugging the dog - a Jack Russell Terrier - and crying.

As Grandad had been approached by the authorities to listen for any subversive talk among the Japanese,  Grandma was convinced that the loss of the house was the result of arson. A cursory examination of the ruins showed another cause - an over heated pipe from the living room space heater (a wood burning stove) to the chimney.

There were very few telephones in that community in early 1941 so we were unaware of the fire until later in the morning. In the meantime, Dad had gone to work in a saw mill on the Stave River. Upon arriving at work one of the Japanese men approached him to express his regret at the loss of our house in a fire. As Dad knew that our house was still standing when he left for work, he was nonplussed. Then he remembered a cultural error. As Mom was an only child, in Japanese culture, Dad would have assumed her surname upon their marriage. It wasn't his house that had burned but his in-law's.

At some time in the afternoon Grandma was brought to our house where she remained until Granddad was able to build another house. This was not up on the mountain - he sold that land - but in a lovely little valley which was just behind the community built for the power dam employees and their families to live in.

Mom belonged to the Ladies Auxiliary of the local Red Cross chapter. I remember being with her at a gathering of these women and watching them knit squares for afghans that were to be sent overseas to the troops fighting in Europe. These women were dismayed by the loss through the fire - and especially all of Grandma's possessions - so they organized a shower. What amazed Mom was that I - aged 5 - and my sister - aged 3 - breathed not a word about this to Grandma!

The shower was camouflaged as a Red Cross meeting at the Community Hall. Grandma was completely surprised  - especially when a few of the Japanese ladies came forward with gifts of linen. I have not forgotten the sight of Grandma leaning against the upright piano and sobbing into her folded arms.

Around the time of the fire and the shower there was fear of a possible air raid by Japanese planes so there was a black out. At that time we lived  a few houses further to the west and next door to an elderly English couple who boarded one of the school teachers. It was dark out and the teacher dropped by for a visit with her flashlight covered except for a tiny pinpoint of light to show her the way. That house was not in the woods but out in the open so our windows were covered by heavy material blocking all the light from being seen on the outside.

I remember, too, a Monday morning when kids were walking by our place on their way to school. The day before the entire world had heard of the bombing of Pearl Harbor. I had a difficult time in getting my mind around the idea that all of these Japanese children were now our "enemies".

There was a Japanese Community Hall nearby and a Japanese-Canadian woman operated a kindergarten there. She and Mom were good friends and I was supposed to be one - if not the only - Caucasian child to attend. Unfortunately, the outbreak of the hostilities put an end to that idea. Always I have regretted that.

A few months after Pearl Harbor we moved to the property which I mentioned in my opening paragraph.  This was immediately across the road from the Public School. Our driveway connected with a path that led to a farm high on the hill behind our place - the farmer had a Japanese tenant family. The two kids from this family would stop to play with my sister and I while on their way home from school. They were fun - except that there isn't an "R" sound in the Japanese language so the boy would address me as "Oinie" which I hated!

As Dad was beyond the age of those who were conscripted for the armed forces, he joined a local militia group who were to be some sort of 'Home Guard'. The plan was that, if the Japanese army invaded, the women and children were to be loaded into boats and ferried across the Fraser River to the south shore from where we were to walk the ten miles or so to the American border. I am grateful that that never happened!

As well as the farmer who lived on top of the hill above our house, another family who lived just outside of Mission also had Japanese tenants. On visits to both of these properties we were shown the Japanese houses and their bathing facilities as if they were curiosities. These people were our neighbors and, therefore, NOT curiosities!

I did not meet anybody of Japanese heritage until 1951 and in Grade 9. A new student in the class was Toby Nakamura whose brother-in-law had graduated in dentistry and was opening a practice in our community. By that time we had moved from Ruskin to Coquitlam.

In the latter 1970s Mom received an invitation to the 80th birthday party for an old friend in Ruskin. The party was held in the Community Hall. In attendance were two Japanese women who were among Mom's best friends when she was a teenager. These women had "come home".  .


  1. I didn't know that Canada moved Japanese people away from the Coast! So I've already learned something.

  2. A powerful start to your storytelling. It was a shameful, but for its time, understandable initiative to set up camps and for those people to lose their living and their homes. Your having lived through it so closely would account for your inclusive nature.

    And I love the look of this blog. I've had trouble with differnt templates and now I just use a standard blogger one.