There’s only a mere glimpse at the personal rupture that makes Mark Sakamoto’s Forgiveness: A Gift From My Grandparents a memoir, before the book sinks into a historical account of the Second World War. Pieced together through Sakamoto’s interviews with his maternal grandmother, Mitsue Sakamoto, and paternal grandfather, Ralph MacLean, these wartime recollections from contrasting sides of a human tragedy offer a unique perspective on the idea of a Canadian family. It also links two families together through compassion and understanding, which is the stimulus for Sakamoto’s own process of recovery.
In the years leading up to war, Canada-born Mitsue Sakamoto was living with her family in a Vancouver that was both experiencing economic growth and was fraught with racial tension due to an influx of Asian immigrants. On the opposite side of the country, on “that lifeboat of land” the Magdalen Islands in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, a teenaged Ralph Augustus MacLean was hoping for a life away from the domestic tensions and provincialism of the isles. These are Sakamoto’s grandparents, young Canadian citizens with a fervent belief in the future of their country, both still untouched by history.
During the Second World War, Canada’s 10th prime minister, William Lyon Mackenzie King, made decisions from room 409-S in Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings, known as “King’s War Room.” At that time Canada was eager to prove itself, writes Sakamoto, and so in 1941 the government sent 2,000 Canadian soldiers to Hong Kong, straight into the line of fire as “passing political opportunism swept military logic out the door.” Two years later, though Japan’s naval threat had waned, anti-Japanese vitriol reached its apex in Canada, and on the west coast in particular. In 1943, tens of thousands of Japanese-Canadians were forced to carry identification cards and were eventually sent to internment camps in the prairies to await evacuation.
Mitsue, her new husband Hideo, and their families were forced from their homes, stripped of growing businesses and carted off to live in squalor as indentured servants on a sugar beet farms in Alberta. Ralph was captured in Hong Kong and spent five years living under brutal, near-death conditions as a POW in Japan. Through stories of starvation and suffering, outright racism and imprisonment, Sakamoto offers a distinct and dark vantage point to Canadian history – one that does away with any geopolitical binaries of good and evil. Spoiler alert: in spite of the hardship that Sakamoto writes of in vivid detail – deferring, generously, to lived memory over history books – his grandparents pull through. They emerge from the war, not necessarily unscathed, and raise families in Calgary and Medicine Hat, where Mark’s parents would eventually meet.
This quiet convergence comes almost three-quarters of the way through the book, and is where Sakamoto’s own memories and lived history begins. The saga of a mixed race Japanese-Canadian family living in Medicine Hat is two things: weighty, emotional context to Canada’s antiseptic and utopian ethos of multiculturalism, and a munificent, honest account of growing up under the care of an alcoholic. The demise of his parent’s marriage and his mother’s slow descent into disease is offset by the details of a vibrant childhood and suburban idyll, summer holidays and sick days home from school spent at Grandma Sakamoto’s, watching ninja movies and eating hamburgers and boiled Ichiban, and monthly visits up the Trans-Canada Highway to Calgary for day-long chess matches at Grandpa MacLean’s And after charting the ugly history of Canada and the narrow fates of his grandparents, the book finally brightens up in Sakamoto’s loving description of his eccentric, fanny pack-wearing, hockey-playing restaurateur father, Stan.
Despite its benevolent title, Forgiveness incites a discomfort that lingers well past the narrative resolution that comes in the memoir’s last few pages. Whilst working as an aide to former opposition leader Michael Ignatieff (who offers effusive praise on the book’s sleeve) Sakamoto comes upon King’s War Room at Parliament Hill, which pushes him to ruminate on his family’s shared histories and brings about the understanding he needs to reconcile the pain of his childhood. But It’s difficult to read through the fascinating personal histories of Mitsue Sakamoto and Ralph MacLean – who share “a deep and unrelenting respect and love for each other” – without confronting the national rhetoric of this country as a peaceful, liberal, multicultural enclave of the world.
In this war story, Canada isn’t an innocent bystander or righteous do-gooder but actively complicit in the death and oppression of its own citizens, both white and Japanese. Sakamoto writes about forgiveness through the lens of Canada’s political foibles, a noble sentiment coming from someone with close ties to a partisan agenda. But in doing so he resurrects the troubled past of this country at a time when the government (national, and municipal, in the case of Toronto) is being accused of being more brutal, restrictive and intolerant than any other point in recent memory. Forgiveness is a personal journey but it also reminds us not to forget.
Anupa Mistry lives in Toronto and writes about the arts.
Editor's note: William Lyon Mackenzie King was Canada's 10th prime minister. He made decisions from room 409-S in Ottawa’s Parliament Buildings, known as “King’s War Room.” Incorrect information appeared in the original print version of this article and in an earlier online version. This version has been corrected.Report Typo/Error