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Hayao (Art) Komori: Grandfather. Autodidact. Carpenter. Gardener. Born June 7, 1924, in Vancouver; died Dec. 12, 2021, in Kamloops, B.C., of kidney failure; aged 97.

Hayao (Art) Komori.Courtesy of family

When Art was just six years old, he travelled with his parents and brother from their home in Eburne, B.C., to Japan to attend school. Art told vivid stories about the difficult passage when stormwater poured into the cabin. He also reminisced about the peacefulness of the final leg of the journey when he sneaked up to the main deck to observe a marvellous blanket of stars over the water.

When he was in fifth grade, Art’s father directed him to become a Buddhist priest. But Art was a rebellious and heterodox thinker. “I didn’t want to be a priest! I hate that kind of stuff!” he would tell his granddaughters years later. While he maintained a strong interest in Buddhism throughout his life, Art was fascinated by telegraphs and radios and wanted to become an engineer. He began cutting class, spending his days picking berries, fishing and riding his bicycle. When Art’s report card was sent to his parents, who had returned to Canada years prior, they were infuriated by his low scores, and they sent for him and his brother in 1937. By flunking out, Art escaped being drafted into the Japanese Imperial Army, where all of his school friends perished.

Art could not avoid the hardships of the Second World War, however. In 1942 his family, along with more than 21,000 other Japanese Canadians, was incarcerated until 1945. They lost everything, save what they could carry with them to the incarceration camp at Taylor Lake in B.C.’s Cariboo region.

As the war was ending, Art moved to Ontario. He worked a series of jobs, including at a pig farm, where he said that they treated Japanese Canadians “worse than monkeys,” and at a body shop, where his supervisor called him racist names. After a short spell of homelessness in Hamilton, he worked as a dishwasher in the McMaster University kitchen and later as a short-order cook in Toronto.

In the early 1950s, Art returned to B.C. and settled in Kamloops. In 1954 he met Kanako (Connie) Koyanagi while working as the photographer for a Japanese Canadian bowling tournament. Later that year, they met again at a dance at the Kelowna Buddhist Church. Connie’s family disapproved of Art’s eccentricities but in 1955 they married. Teresa, their first child, was born in 1957, followed by three sons: Steven, Don and Wesley.

Art became a journeyman carpenter and established a vegetable farm to “keep the kids out of trouble.” Art ran the farm with his boys and his forbidding German shepherds. He recalled those days with pride, when the house was busy with customers and he would order pizza every night to the farm.

Tragedy struck in 1983, when Steven and Wesley, aged 24 and 17, died in an ice fishing accident. Art’s grief was overwhelming and family members recall this period of his life as one defined by bitterness.

In his later years, Art was a tender and doting grandfather. He took his granddaughters, Jane and Rachel, on tractor rides and provided an endless supply of Japanese snacks and candies. He was happy and busy in his workshop and garden, or at his desk, where he studied Japanese etymology and philosophy late into the night. Art also built a colossal rock garden in his front yard. When it was featured on the TV series Weird Homes, he presented it with humour and joy. There was no embarrassment: Art told the interviewer, “I don’t care what people think!”

Art was a fierce autodidact with an intense curiosity about philosophy, religion, technology and politics. He spoke with fresh anger about everything Japanese Canadians lost, but even more often he shared his outrage about contemporary racial injustices. Yet Art stubbornly retained an excitement for the future. In spite of everything he lived through, he was optimistic about the world he left behind and the possibility of change.

Jane Komori is one of Art’s two granddaughters.

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Lives Lived celebrates the everyday, extraordinary, unheralded lives of Canadians who have recently passed. To learn how to share the story of a family member or friend, go to tgam.ca/livesguide