Cherry trees on Trutch Street. A furniture shop in Chinatown. A decrepit apartment block on Fisgard Street.
You go looking for a community sent into exile and all you find are hints and ghosts.
Seventy years ago, some 300 Japanese Canadians – men, women, and children – were forced to leave Victoria, as they were in communities all along the British Columbia coast.
They left behind land and homes, chattels and dreams.
They were sent into internal exile, kept in internment camps, made to labour in farmers’ fields. Even after the war ended, and with it any excuse to believe they posed a threat to national security, they were banned from the coast for another four years.
In the Legislature on Monday, politicians spoke fine words of remorse. Naomi Yamamoto rose to share the heartbreaking story of her father, then a boy of 14, being told by his school principal that he was the enemy.
The Legislature voted unanimously to offer an apology. Speaker Bill Barisoff expressed deep regret for the discrimination endured by Canadians of Japanese descent.
Those words were an improvement on the hateful lies politicians and others told more than a half-century ago.
Gordon and Ann-Lee Switzer recently completed the first history of the Japanese-Canadian community in Victoria, a project commissioned by the Victoria Nikkei Cultural Society. The interviews and archival sleuthing lasted five years, resulting in the recent publication of Gateway to Promise (Ti-Jean Press), a 396-page book with more than 200 historic photographs.
The day of the wartime evacuation so many years ago was both sad and confusing.
“The newspapers at the time report that their Caucasian friends came down [to the dock]to say goodbye to them,” Gordon Switzer said.
“People thought this was going to be for a short time,” Ann-Lee Switzer added. “They said their goodbyes, put stuff in storage, and thought they’d be coming back.”
They never returned, even after the last of the wartime restrictions was lifted, in March, 1949, four years after the end of hostilities.
“None of them chose to come back to Victoria,” Mr. Switzer said. “They were already settled in Alberta, or back east. They had made new lives elsewhere. After being uprooted once from their homes here, none of them had the energy to come back. The business climate here after the war was poor, too.”
You can barely trace evidence of a once-thriving community of farmers, fishermen, domestics, carpenters and boat builders.
Several operated dry cleaners. Toyo and Kosaburo Takahashi owned Togo Cleaners on Yates Street and lived in a fine brick home at 42 Gorge Rd. E. with a magnificent garden on an expansive front lawn. A house has since been built atop what was once their garden.
At 820 Fisgard St., a small sign indicates the Victoria Apartments, a down-at-the-heels block with an unwelcoming door. Once, a large vertical sign decorated an exterior metal fire escape on what at the time was a handsome brick building. It was listed in contemporary city directories as “Osawa Hotel (Japanese).” It has seen better days.
At 1625 Store St., the former home to the Shimizu rice mill is now occupied by a furniture store. The family lived upstairs. Of a large brood, only Yoshio (Yon) Shimizu, 87, survives. He settled after the war in Ontario.
The Silver City theatres and the adjacent Tillicum Mall rest on land that once was a large dairy farm belonging to a Japanese-Canadian family.
In 1937, the city held a parade to celebrate the 75th anniversary of its incorporation. A float sponsored by the community won two awards, donating the prize money to the city for the purchase of more than 1,000 Japanese cherry trees to be planted along boulevards. Some of the originals still survive along Trutch and Moss streets in the Fairfield neighbourhood.
The community’s best-known enterprise was the Japanese Tea Garden in Esquimalt’s Gorge Park. It opened in 1907, thrilling residents with electric lights strung through the trees and with the continent’s first Japanese garden of exotic plants. The designer, Isaburo Kishida, from Yokohama, later created a Japanese garden for the wealthy Dunsmuirs at Hatley Park and yet another Oriental eden at Butchart Gardens.
“It was called the Japanese Tea Garden, but they served only Western food,” Mr. Switzer said. “And no Japanese tea.”
It closed when the Takata family, who had operated the facility for 35 years, had to leave. It was then torn down.
In recent years, a new garden with a traditional gate and bridges has been developed as part of a long-time project to revive what is remembered as the Takata Gardens.
It can take time to correct an error. It also is never too late to make amends.
Special to The Globe and Mail
The Switzers will conduct a paid tour of Japanese-Canadian graves in the Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria beginning at 2 p.m. on Sunday at Fairfield Plaza. The cost is $5, or $2 for members of the Old Cemeteries Society.
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