Wife, sister, aunt, friend. Born on Oct. 19, 1919, in Vancouver; died on May 18, 2016, in Toronto, of natural causes, aged 96.
Tomi was a woman of gentle humour and quiet grace. She also embodied the Japanese saying, Shikata ganai (“It cannot be helped”), particularly when facing many challenges in her long life.
Born in Vancouver, she was only about 8 when her mother died. With an older brother and two younger sisters, Tomi became the life-long big sister to another brother and two more sisters after her father remarried. Tomi’s youthful years were happy in spite of the Depression, but her optimism would be tested during the Second World War. Though she graduated from high school, work options were limited for people of Japanese heritage, and she worked as a domestic servant in a wealthy home.
In 1942, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, more than 20,000 Japanese-Canadians in British Columbia were forcibly uprooted from their homes. Tomi’s father and his wife had been running a Japanese-Canadian newspaper, which was ordered shut. The whole Iwasaki family was sent to internment camps in the remote B.C. Interior. The crude shacks they had to live in were a shock to Tomi, as was the lack of running water and electricity. But that did not deter her or her sisters, Amy and Molly, from becoming volunteer teachers for the camp children, who were not allowed to enroll in nearby schools.
After the war, when the federal government ordered former internees to move east of the Rockies, Tomi travelled by train to Toronto. Thanks to the kindness of Jewish employers in the dressmaking trade, she found work in a shop on Spadina Avenue. Before long the entire Iwasaki clan had settled in Toronto. In 1948, Tomi married George Kadota, a woodworker who later ran his own carpentry business.
No one seemed more glamorous than my aunt Tomi when I was growing up in the 1960s. This was particularly true when she arrived at her parents’ west-end home the evening of one memorable New Year’s Day. Accompanied by George and their lodger, my putative “uncle” Butch Watanabe, they brought along a special guest – his good friend, Oscar Peterson. Butch, a jazz trombonist, had worked with Oscar when he lived in Montreal. Tomi often reminisced about the time she and George travelled to Paris on one of Oscar’s performance tours, with Butch as his road manager.
In their retirement, Tomi and George travelled extensively, including a noteworthy trip to Australia and New Zealand. They both also loved gardening and making multiple jars of jams and pickled beets.
Tomi and George had no children, but were beloved by their nieces and nephews. As children, my brother and I and our cousins spent many happy hours visiting them. As adults, we would bring our spouses, always enjoying our aunt and uncle’s hospitality, along with meeting their many friends from all walks of life.
After George died in 2004, Tomi continued to welcome us to her home, until age and frailty required that she move to Lakeshore Lodge, a long-term care facility. She never failed to greet family and friends with her characteristic phrase: “I can’t complain!” I miss her always positive outlook very much.
Susan Aihoshi is Tomi’s niece.
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