Much has been made of the Japanese government’s recent apology to Canadian prisoners of war. The apology was welcome and long overdue. Our government’s gracious acceptance was also a dignified gesture.
But while this meaningful exchange between two great nations is symbolically important, true forgiveness can only come from those who suffered, who bled, who lost all dignity during those dark days.
Without such forgiveness, we would never have been born.
On Christmas Day, 1941, our maternal grandfather, Ralph MacLean, was captured by Japanese forces during the fall of Hong Kong. He was an 18-year-old kid from the Magdalen Islands. He spent the rest of the war in a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. Released in 1945, he moved to Alberta the following year.
Like many vets of his generation, our grandfather spent much of his adult life saying very little about his experience during the war years.
He proudly put on his medals and marched with his fellow comrades in every Remembrance Day parade, but was largely silent around the details of his horrific journey as a prisoner of war.
Thankfully, later in life, Grandpa started to speak openly about what he saw, in an effort to share his experiences with family and younger generations and ensure they don’t forget the sacrifices made. It was not easy to hear. He lived through hell. He saw his buddies die. He ate little.
At 89 and living in Calgary, he is one of the remaining PoW vets. Many did not come close to the average life expectancy because of the treatment they endured while incarcerated. There, ruthlessness reigned.
In April, 1942, our grandfather, Hideo, and grandmother, Mitsue Sakamoto, both Canadian-born citizens, were stripped of their possessions and interned in southern Alberta.
Prior to the outbreak of hostilities, their lives were not all that different from ours today. They both grew up in Vancouver. Our grandmother went to high school during the day and Japanese class in the evening. Our great-grandfather was a successful fisherman and owned several vessels.
Hideo and Mitsue met in 1939 and married in January, 1942. They led happy, productive lives. They had running water, enjoyed family outings and were deeply rooted in their community. But the evacuation notice ended this life as they knew it.
Their government turned on them. Their friends outside the Japanese-Canadian community turned on them. They were outcasts in their own land. Families were torn apart and many were never reunited. As our grandparents boarded the train east to the cold Alberta prairie, they did not know what their fate held.
Here, too, ruthlessness reigned. They made their first home in a modified chicken coop. They worked day and night on a sugar-beet farm for subsistence wages. Their only crime was their ethnicity.
Two of their three children were born during the internment. They were allowed to leave at the end of the war, and by 1948, had saved enough money to move to Medicine Hat, Alta. At 91, Grandma Sakamoto is still alive and well.
Dignity was stolen, burdens shouldered and lives lost, on the battlefield and on the home front during the Second World War. Despite suffering such cruelties on both sides of the Pacific Ocean, our family instilled in us a deep sense of respect and understanding for ourselves and for others – not by preaching, but by living these values.
Our grandparents refused to pass on to their children resentment over the wrongs that had been committed against them. This is, above all, the legacy they bequeathed to their children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
It is one of hope, of strength. This is what real forgiveness looks like.
In refusing to chain their children to the transgressions committed against them, they allowed our parents the freedom and privilege of an ordinary life. Our parents who, when they met in a high-school gymnasium in Medicine Hat, were not thinking about the fall of Hong Kong, or about evacuation orders and work camps.
They were simply two kids dancing to the Beatles and falling in love in 1967. They married in 1972.
That kind of forgiveness – the kind that makes life and love possible, even after the scars of war – is something no apology can guarantee, however sincere or hard-fought-for and won. This personal forgiveness is what allows the next generations to move on and live fulfilling and enriched lives. We are unspeakably grateful to our grandparents for this gift.
We have also come to believe that this personal forgiveness is the only light in an all-too-often dark world. It is the only way forward.
Mark and Daniel Sakamoto are brothers born and raised in Medicine Hat, Alta. Mark lives in Toronto and Daniel lives in Calgary.